C. Boyden Gray, An American Conservative who was not like the rest

Gray’s breaks with the Republican establishment were as significant as his points of support for it. The post C. Boyden Gray: The Passing of An Uncommon American Conservative appeared first on The American Conservative.

The New York Times titled C. Boyden Gray’s obituary “Lawyer of the Republican Establishment.” This title, in one sense is apt. Gray’s credentials were impeccable for those who remember the Northeast Republican Establishment. In another sense, Gray was out of touch with the Republican Party, just as the Gray Lady (no relationship to Boyden) is. It was this that made him a perfect colleague for those of use who were associated with The American Conservative. The Island of Misfit toys is a place for conservatives such as Gray, who are no more able to be cowed by the Republican establishment.

Gray was placed in the Republican Establishment by the Times, but this is not entirely accurate. He was born in Massachusetts, the son of Gordon Gray who served as President Dwight Eisenhower’s advisor on national security. Gray attended St. Mark’s School, then Harvard University, before settling down to become a WASP. He was close to George H.W. Gray was the Counsel for the Vice President in both Ronald Reagan’s and 41’s administrations. Gray served as an ambassador for two terms, the first in the European Union. The second was as Special Envoy of the George W. Bush Administration to Eurasian Energy. Boyden, when not serving his country or in government, was a partner at one of the most prestigious establishment law firms within the Beltway: Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, now WilmerHale.


The Times obituary of Boyden also revealed, but did acknowledge, elements in his background that did not fit into the Republican establishment mold. He was raised in North Carolina and the South. He earned his law degree at the University of North Carolina despite having a Northeastern education. He became a Democrat and clerked for a liberal icon in Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Boyden, unlike many Dixiecrats that switched to the GOP in 1968 when Richard Nixon was elected president, only left his party during the Carter Administration.

Boyden’s agenda was in many ways in line with the Reagan Revolution. This revolution was and remains the core of Republican politics during the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. He was one of the most influential strategists during the conservative consolidation of Supreme Court. He was instrumental in helping Clarence Thomas navigate a turbulent confirmation process. He also guided Justice David Souter’s nomination through calmer political waters.

The Times insinuation, that Boyden was always in tune with the Republican Party’s changing winds, misses some important moments in which Boyden tacked away from them. I’d like to point out two: Boyden, despite the growing dominance of neoconservatives in mainstream Republican circles in foreign policy, seemed to be deaf to its siren song of post-Cold War, with its bipartisan refrains that America was an “indispensable country” and, after 9/11, it had a mandate to “seek to support the growth and development of democratic movements in every nation and cultural with the ultimate aim of ending tyranny.” He kept the lines of communication with mainstream foreign policy groups such as the Atlantic Council open, but he also was a founder member of the Committee of the Republic which holds regular salons devoted to the proposition that the United States of America is a republic and not an empire.

Boyden’s most subtle departure from the Republican mainstream was his principled criticism of “crony capitalism,” which was one of the main issues that attracted him to TAC. Boyden was a long-time critic of what he perceived as the American government’s inexorable trend to over-regulate private businesses. He not only emphasized the problems on the government side as did many mainstream Republicans, but also highlighted how individual companies took advantage of this meddling to advance their interests, sometimes to the detriment economic efficiency, and that threatened the workings what should be a market. Boyden, I think, was less an establishment Republican than he had been in the past, especially when he fought against crony capitalism. He seemed to be more of a classic liberal, who understood how wars would always lead to the expansion and centralization of government power, as well as the fact that over-regulation of the market could also encourage some economic actors into gaming the system.

I had the pleasure of serving alongside Boyden for many years on the Board at the American Ideas Institute. This non-profit supports the American Conservative. Boyden did not just contribute his wealth to TAC, he also contributed a great deal of talent to help the magazine create a distinct intellectual niche and political niche, which sometimes appeared to be in lock-step to the mainstream of Republican Party, but took a principled and important stance against it.

He was a founding member of the “tennis cabinets” of Bush 41, an institution of the Bush family that Gordon Bush joined at Prescott Bush’s request. In fact, I still have fond memories from playing doubles at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport with Boyden. I didn’t play well, but we won anyway because Boyden was a master of serve-and volley. His 6’6″ frame allowed him to dominate the court. He appeared awkward and bent in between points, but he became straight and energetic during the matches. Tennis is not as metaphorical as we weekend warriors believe, but in Boyden’s performance on the windy court I was tempted to see Boyden’s unique political approach: principles that were well-established coming at unexpected angles and delivered without any hesitation.

More Stories

Stay informed by joining TruthRow

24/7 coverage from 1000+ journalists. Subscriber-exclusive events. Unmatched political and international news.

You can cancel anytime