When I started to read for the sake of enjoying good writing, my father gave me a book, an anthology of essays, and said, “I’d give my right arm to write like him.” I’ll never forget that, because I’ll never forget enjoying for the first time the perfectly brilliant word-joinery of a literary master. The book was titled Single Issues—two hundred pages of social commentary—and it’s a real rarity to find these days, even on Amazon. My copy, the one dad gave me, is worn and tattered, but most of all it is treasured. I got to get it signed by the author, a man whom, I’m proud to say, became my friend. His name was Joe Sobran.
When Robert Taft died in 1953, his death seemed to mark the end of a political opinion, one which his allies dated back to Jefferson. The fact that that opinion had come to be called “conservatism” is enough to let one know it was considered a dying idea anyways. Taft had called The New Deal, “a revolution within the form”—and that seemed to encapsulate the program’s stability. No one was asked to do more than pay a little more in taxes, and the ones who didn’t even have to do that were just given jobs doing what Roosevelt thought ought to be done. And yet, suddenly the State had transmogrified, and no one in Congress shouted louder about it than Robert Taft. With him gone, America seemed to have simply moved on.
Then, an urbane firebrand, unlike anything America had ever quite had before, appeared on the scene, just as television was changing the media landscape. When William F. Buckley Jr founded National Review in 1955, a conformism of political opinion in style as much as substance in that middle decade was given a jolt, rather electrified. As George Will said, “For conservatives, happy days were here again.” Suddenly, the Right had a voice that could not be called dumb or styled retrograde. Around National Review, Buckley formed a phalanx of intellectuals that grew into a movement, which began setting the agenda for the Republican Party when it gave Barry Goldwater the momentum he needed to win the nomination in 1964. Aside from making a guy named Reagan relevant, Buckley introduced Kissinger to Nixon, hosted the longest running public affairs show in TV history, wrote a thrice weekly syndicated column and over fifty books, all the while editing National Review for forty years. He is arguably the most consequential opinion journalist in American history. And in 1972, he discovered Joe Sobran.
Joe was an old friend of my father’s when I met him in 2006, and for about the next three years I hung pretty close to his side. It was an incredibly lucky relationship, more than a privilege really; and that isn’t modest speaking—it’s conscience: I owe a debt to the man.
There is no evidence that he ever wrote an inelegant sentence in his life, and the first thing a person would say about Joe after meeting him was that he never spoke one either. In an era when our discourse is mostly sound bytes of stuttering platitudes, Joe’s spoken eloquence may have been his most impressive quality. A man who worked next to the likes of Bill Buckley and James Burnham wrote in a history of the modern conservative movement that the finest conversationalist he had ever known was Joe Sobran. When Joe died, all who wrote personal remembrances of him basically restated that point. The National Review editorial on Joe’s death aptly compared his talent in this regard to Milton’s, whose blindness made writing a matter of dictating.
Most of us hope to speak half as well as we write, and when you’re nineteen sitting next to an idol, well, I could only hope to speak in complete sentences at all. To say the least, I was shaky the first time I met Joe. So mostly I just listened. And that night Joe wanted to talk about baseball. His favorite player was Sandy Koufax: “Short, but peerless. He had to quit pitching at age 30 in 1966, his arm destroyed by its own cruel power, and I never really followed major-league baseball after that.” And Ted Williams? “He began his autobiography by saying that when he was a kid, his only ambition was to have people say, as he walked down the street, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” My own autobiography could start the same way. It would end a little differently, though.”
Soon after that first evening, we took Joe to a Nationals game, the first time he’d been to a baseball stadium in years. We also took along a friend of my father’s from England, to whom Joe jested, “You should stay long enough to learn our language—it’s often mistaken for English.” The Englishman’s estimation of Joe was this: “I’ve never met someone who speaks in sentences you would only expect to read.” He brought to the game some fancy camera you can’t buy in England, and snapped a picture of Joe sitting in the stands, and he looks so perfectly himself in it that it’s hard to describe. Others have called his an “impish grin,” but in this picture it is softer than that, and endearing to the point of being poignant. I look at it and see an innocent old man with secret wisdom, but I suppose I’m biased.
Bill Buckley recalled detecting “singular powers” the first time he read something by Joe, and Pat Buchanan called him “the greatest columnist of our generation.” Hugh Kenner, the preeminent critic of literary modernism, was a contributing editor at National Review when Joe came aboard, and they became fast friends. I’ve always liked Kenner’s compliment of Joe’s writing the best: “The product of a mind in exemplary action.” It makes sense that a surveyor of literature should peg Joe so perfectly, because Joe was only accidentally a political commentator; his true passion, from start to finish, was Shakespeare.
He liked to quote Kenner’s maxim that we are always blind to the styles of our time, but because his mind was most alive when he was thrilling to Shakespeare, you might say that Joe’s mind belonged more to Shakespeare’s age than our own, and it was this that gave his writing on other topics its unique tone: bemused where others were angry; intimate yet detached and never self-righteous. Like a time-traveler who finds the future a bizarre tragic-comedy, Joe could see the styles of our time.
To know Joe was to love him, partly because to know him was to entirely understand him, which is to say, if you ever made it into his house, you immediately understood him—and felt for him. There was always, according to my dad, a touch of dysfunction in his psyche, which was only amplified with age. Not too long after I met Joe, he was evicted from the townhouse he’d been living in for a decade, as it had come to resemble the home of a hoarder who lives on books, and who never bothered to clean up the milk he spilled a decade ago. Of course, he was not insane, not even a real hoarder. His life, like his writing, contained no a hint of artifice. He was an exemplar of the dysfunctional genius: Beethoven’s home looked the same.
Anyways, that’s how Joe came to live with me and my family. He had no place else to go at that point, and I lobbied my mom hard. Up until then, Joe had been my dad’s friend whom I tried to tag along with; living with him made him my friend. He would sit on the front porch pretty much all day—the sedentary sage—accumulating a mess of newspapers and magazines and books around him. He would chain smoke cheap cigars. And I would sit with him, and we would talk about everything under the sun. Dad always said that Joe needed a Boswell, and I regret that I lacked the confidence at the time to make a project out of our relationship. I should have been writing his talk down, because when the rivers of his mind were really flowing, Joe was just peerless.
At that time, he was writing a commentary on some of Shakespeare for a publisher who, for reasons I’ll get to, didn’t want Joe’s name attached to it. While he was writing them, my father and I attended with Joe a Kennedy Center production of Titus Andronicus, and this story is worth telling: I was in line with Joe at the gift shop before the show behind a man buying a book of the play. Joe was never more comfortable than amidst the company perfect strangers, and he said to the man ahead of us that he would have recited the play to him for free. Now, you have to understand what a eulogizer of Joe’s called the “childlike innocence” in his desire to please other people to see that he was not in such instances being an annoying braggart. The stranger shrugged with an incredulous smile and said something polite to Joe that I can’t now remember.
Another point to bear in mind about Joe, and which will help you appreciate the strangeness of the situation from the stranger’s perspective, is that he usually wore pieces of a sort of otherworldly wardrobe out in public. He had this bright purple pair of glasses—the color helped him keep track of them—that he would wear, say, to the drugstore or out to the theater. His shirt and pants were primarily something comfortable and sometimes colorful. His beard was spotty and his shoes were usually slippers.
To look at him you might find such exquisite uniqueness off-putting, until, of course, Joe spoke to you. Then you would recognize that the man matched the clothes in a profound way; that his mind was as otherworldly as his wardrobe. So imagine what the stranger of this story thought when this odd-looking and oddly personable man wound up sitting behind him, where Joe softly recited the entire play.
By the mid 80s, with conservatism officially ascendant under Reagan, Joe had become the most popular writer for National Review, and had one of the most widely syndicated columns in the country, as well as a weekly program on CBS radio. And he wasn’t typically popular either, as he had engendered an incredibly loyal, even tribal I would say, base of conservative Catholic readers. All this is just to say that in the world of opinion journalism, Joe Sobran was a force to be reckoned with. So, in 1986, when Joe began criticizing Israel and America’s relationship with the Jewish State, his stature was such that he couldn’t just be shoved down the memory-hole or simply ignored.
What ensued was a particularly nasty campaign of character assassination against Joe carried out by Jewish intellectuals who had lately become an influential faction in the conservative movement. The controversy intermittently persisted for five years, then reached a boiling point in the run-up to the first Gulf War, which Joe said he hated with a “murderous fury,” and spared no expense in attacking Israel’s role in bringing it about. The debate was so pivotal that Bill Buckley felt the need to write an entire book about it, In Search of Anti-Semitism, where he examined at painstaking lengths the opinions of Joe and Pat Buchanan, with less sympathy than either probably deserved.
Suffice to say, all the while Joe refused to lie down, and eventually had a very public falling out with Buckley. He was fired from National Review, lost his syndicated column and his radio show, and became a pariah.
I knew all about Joe’s troubles before I met him, and because I agreed with his opinions and disagreed with the way his career was devastated due to them, I admired him even more. He had the courage of his convictions. Losing your job is one thing, being blackballed from that industry another, but losing your friends is the worst thing of all. Given his functional limitations, Joe’s life was kind of in shambles when I met him. I couldn’t help but profoundly feel that I needed to do whatever I could to help him. So after he lived with us for a time, I moved him into another place, and then another, and then another, and I think there was one more after that.
For almost three years I was his chauffeur, his assistant, his at-large caregiver. His health was failing and he needed the help. My efforts were supplemented by donations from magnanimous men you can read around the web, like Pat Buchanan, Taki Theodorocopulous, and Lew Rockwell. Still, his income was precarious. Even then, long after he’d been beaten, he remained at the mercy of Jewish activists hell-bent on preventing him from speaking in public for a fee, hounding any one who dared invite him to do so with determined threats. The only thing worse in journalism than being associated with an anti-Semite is being labeled one yourself. As Joe said, “These days an anti-Semite is less likely to be someone who hates Jews than someone who is hated by Jews.”
More than once, he said to me that he had no regrets, and even though the sentiment came from the wilderness while living in poverty, I actually had to believe him. He never lost his sense of humor: “Being a full-time Jew-hater is hard work, much too hard for me”; “I’m not anti-Semitic, but I admit that I’m anti-semantic”; “I said when Barry Bonds breaks the home-run record I was going to send him a racist letter even worse than the one I sent Aaron forty years ago.” That last one was pure Joe, but you had to really know him to appreciate how funny it was: “The idea of someone sitting down and writing such a letter, and then actually walking it to the mailbox…”—and the notion then drowned in his own deep laughter.
But truth be told, by the time I had to go away to college in Williamsburg, I wasn’t entirely unhappy to leave Joe behind. It had become obvious that his troubles were worse than they needed to be, due to bad habits aside from a dysfunction. Looking after him had taken a toll on me. We talked over the phone, and slowly lost touch. I heard toward the end that he finally wound up exactly where he belonged, teaching Shakespeare at a tiny, uniquely conservative Catholic school called Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.
Then, in late September, 2010, I got a call from dad: “You need to come home, Joe is dying.” He was laid up in a hospice—complications from diabetes—and when I entered the place I was shocked and appalled to see nodding seniors literally lining the walls of the hallway in wheelchairs. This is how poor people die, I thought to myself. My father and I met Joe’s dogged long-time publisher Fran Griffin in Joe’s room, clutching a rosary. Joe was conscious but could neither open his eyes nor speak. The greatest conversationalist in the country had lost his voice. And I was back where I was the first time we met, unable to summon the right words. My tears were too heavy. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was for losing touch, for not being able to do more. Most of all I wanted to thank him for being my friend. Fran sat bedside with me and we prayed the rosary. Afterward, I just squeezed Joe’s hand for what must have been an hour, crying. He passed the next day.
The great political philosopher Paul Gottfried wrote a remembrance of Joe, in which he called him a hero. The much-lauded Presidential speech writer Matthew Scully called him our era’s master of plain-English prose. The always eloquent Jared Taylor doubted he would ever meet a man of such gifts again. And National Review compared him to Milton. And to think I knew this man as my friend…what can I say? Only that I’ll never forget him.
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