REVIEW September 25, 2000 Issue
Buds for Life
A man and his beer.
By Jonah Goldberg, NRO editor--------------------JonahEmail@aol.com
ussell Kirk, the last great metaphysician of America's Old Testament Right, was fond of repeating H. Stuart Hughes's observation that conservatism is the "negation of ideology." After all, it is the Jacobins and their modern-day heirs who are responsible for the exhausting notion that every act, every purchase, every syllable should carry the full weight of "the cause." So many Leftists, and too many conservatives, believe that the kind of music you listen to or even the kind of pizza you eat must carry the full intellectual freight of your ideology. I disagree. I'm proud to say that I dislike Wal-Mart even though the Left does also. I enjoy Ben & Jerry's ice cream, even though Ben and Jerry are little better than hypocritical tie-dyed Stalinists.
And I love Budweiser, the King of Beers. I admit it without shame or reservation. I love how it tastes. I love it ice-cold, not petri-dish warm like some foreign swill. I prefer it in a bottle. But a can or draught will do just fine if the alternative is some wheaty garbage that tastes like a bran muffin drenched in old tea. Budweiser tastes clean, pure, and crisp. Budweiser is the best conductor of that electrical charge to your brain that comes with that first swallow of beer after a long day. Budweiser does not vary in quality from coast to coast or pole to pole and is available everywhere in between. Yes, Budweiser just call him "Bud" is your loyal friend in any port, at any time. Indeed, Bud's standards are so exacting and its convenience so universal that it's the most reliable beverage in the world soft drinks and water included (cola changes with the culture, and fish still copulate in water, as W. C. Fields pointed out long ago). To paraphrase Homer Simpson after his wife blew his chance at a million bucks "Ah, good ol' trustworthy Budweiser. My love for you will never die."
Perhaps because my love of Budweiser is so genuine, I am often forced to defend it along ideological lines. I admit I do enjoy going to ludicrous establishments like the Peculiar Pub in New York or the Brickskeller in Washington and asking for a Bud. "A Budweiser?" they will ask, as if I had requested a soiled diaper. These places make a killing by selling you some ten-ounce bottle of Bolivian donkey urine for $17, and they are shocked I want a beer I can choke down.
But the disdain for Budweiser is so great throughout the culture that everyone just assumes I am rebelling against some trend or fad (and there are many in the world of beer) by staying loyal to the King. Waiters think I won't notice a burnt steak if I order a Bud, and my more mature confreres assume I have not outgrown the frat-house aesthetic. When my own significant other learned I was writing an appreciation of America's most popular beer, she said ruefully, "I don't agree with what you're doing" as if I were defending the porn industry or writing speeches for Al Gore. Still, by far the most common reaction from non-Bud loyalists is, "What are you trying to prove?"
This is a microcosmic example of why Kirk's conservatism fell out of favor in the first place. During the Cold War, conservatives could no longer rely on sentiment or Lincoln's formulation of conservatism as a preference for the "old and tried" over the "new and untried." Conservatives had instead to prove the merits of democracy and Western civilization against ideologues of all stripes. This task required an ideology of our own.
So, as much as it pains me to be forced to make this case in ideological terms, here goes: Budweiser is, to me, the synthesis of all that is great about America. There is no product Coca-Cola and the Mustang included that better tells the story of America. First, there is the packaging: unapologetic red, white, and blue, with a bald eagle. There is a distinct 19th-century patriotism about a Bud. Today's cans look like they would have gone unnoticed on the shelf 100 years ago (though beer wasn't available in cans until the mid 1930s). Even the forthright promise, made on every container, encourages nostalgia: "This is the famous Budweiser beer. We know of no brand produced by any other brewer which costs so much to brew and age. . . ." How fitting that in this nation, which reveres texts above all other things, our most popular beer boasts a 46-word declaration (not a slogan or motto) for the world to see. Certainly, this archaic form of advertising has been supplemented by "Bud Bowls" and "Whazzup?!" commercials, and yet the company is proud to maintain this link with the past.
And what a past. For all the hoopla about other great dynasties, there is no family that more precisely incarnates the American dream. Consider the symbolism of the Busch saga: In 1857, 18-year-old Adolphus Busch, the second youngest of 22 children, left Germany to seek his fortune in America. He wooed the daughter of Eberhard Anheuser, another immigrant who owned a small brewery that produced an awful beer Busch referred to as dot schlop; customers often spat it back over the bar. After taking over the operation, Busch secured the name and quality of "Budweiser" a beer made in the town of Budweis (in what is now the Czech Republic; the town is today called Ceske Budejovice). Budweiser was trademarked in 1876, America's centennial.
When the Volstead Act banned booze, the country had over 1,500 breweries. When Prohibition was repealed, barely half remained. Anheuser-Busch survived the folly of the progressives by selling off the real estate on which its many saloons had once thrived, and by serving a nonalcoholic bile called Bevo. Under the leadership of Adolphus's grandson, Augustus, the company led the way in popularizing bottled beer. When Augustus's own son was born, the father made sure that August III was given an eyedropper of lager before he was allowed to nurse at the breast, to ensure that beer would continue to be the family's mother's milk. The Busches are similar to other American aristocrats, having their share of suicides, kidnappings, feuds, affairs, "disappearances," and lavish excesses. But what is remarkable about the Busch dynasty is that unlike almost all other American royalty the Busches still dance with the lady that brung them. There are no more Vanderbilts in shipping; and when was the last time a Mellon or a Getty breathed soot, or so much as visited a factory?
The Busches, meanwhile, still make beer almost half of all the beer that America consumes. They are still despite whatever personal failings they might have committed to excellence in their work. Further, this icon of multinational capitalism is still revered at home, and thus represents a moral triumph of the free market. In 1953, when August "Gussie" Busch bought the St. Louis Cardinals, he was angry that the Brooklyn Dodgers, equipped with Jackie Robinson, were beating the tar out of everybody else. When he asked his own organization how many blacks the Cardinals were bringing along, he was horrified to hear that the answer was none. "But," he stammered, "we sell beer to everyone!" In 1954, the Cardinals had a black first baseman.
To this day, during the seventh-inning stretch at Busch Stadium, they don't play "Take Me out to the Ball Game," but instead the old Bud jingle, "Here Comes the King." The song goes, "When you say Bud, you've said it all"; and while Bud might not literally say it all, it certainly says many things about our country things for which conservatives, especially, should be grateful.