After Bill Buckley died, people who knew I’d once worked at National Review asked about him, and I always told them that nothing about the man was overrated. When you grow up admiring a lofty public figure and then find on direct acquaintance that he’s even better than the image, when you remember his personal goodness more than his greatness, that’s something.
My experience with Buckley’s greatest literary protégé, Joseph Sobran, was happy in a different way. To see all of that talent up close, as a colleague and friend, was a privilege. But, of course, by the time of Joe’s death on September 30, he was at no risk of an inflated reputation. And when people ask me if all they’ve heard and read about the man is true, the answer is no.
Explaining our sense of loss to those who didn’t know Joe Sobran, or perhaps have only heard the name, is complicated, in large part because of Joe’s falling-out with Bill and the magazine some 20 years ago, and the lonely career path he followed from there. Dust off your copy of Bill’s In Search of Anti-Semitism for all the details; it was an awful, entirely avoidable departure from the place where Joe had thrived since 1972 as a contributor and senior editor. National Review might well have been the only place where he could have thrived, and in any case, he never did find a way back from “deadly banishment” (to borrow a phrase from Joe’s favorite author), or even think to try.
He lost his syndicated column, lost the CBS radio slot he’d had from 1979 to 1991 (“my three decades in radio”), wrote a newsletter, and, working out of his home in Northern Virginia, commanded the attention of subscribers to The Wanderer, a venerable little Catholic weekly that carried Joe’s “Washington Watch” column. To read his commentaries in recent years, you had to look for them, and lately they were reprints. When the website featured “another classic from Joseph Sobran,” it signaled declining health and fading powers, and though he was just 64, you knew there would never be another classic.
He did, in 1997, finally publish his masterwork on the Shakespeare authorship question, resolving the case in favor of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. He loved Shakespeare, who “seems to know us better than we know him,” and if the author was actually someone else, then it seemed to Joe worth ten years of his life to prove. It didn’t really matter to him that even the small group immersed in this 400-year-old controversy refused to give him much of a hearing, dismissing Alias Shakespeare with condescending lectures on “serious scholarship.” He was glad to explain it all to them once more, and did so in the kind of long, lovely letters and essays Joe could produce straight through in one sitting — and at NR, on an electric typewriter. His Shakespeare “obsession” gave critics one more pretext to write him off as a crank, and that didn’t trouble Joe either. He was just happy in the knowledge that the case had been made and the work completed — as he told me at the time, “It exists.”
When his name came up at all in Washington journalism circles, it was in sympathy over Joe’s travails, or as a supposed case study in why the Right needs a good purge now and then, or else as a horror story in career management. Even fellow conservatives, at least the younger ones, tend to remember Joe’s troubles more than his writings. You know you’ve been around awhile when a rising conservative columnist presumes, as happened once in my company, to denigrate Joseph Sobran as if he were some old nobody — that bum who got run off for being a hatemonger. And lest we allow any tender feelings to slip in now that Joe has been buried, his critics are still at it — one fellow making the late-breaking announcement that along with everything else, Joe was “a Nazi fellow-traveler.” The People’s Meeting isn’t over yet; those who haven’t finished can still denounce this enemy who “spent much of his life articulating evil ideas, which deserve to be exposed and opposed as much now as when he was alive.”
As a generation of NR readers will attest, along with friends who knew Joe Sobran longer and better than I did, such talk does a grave injustice to a good man, to his work, and to those final years when even his judgment deserted him. And it’s certainly no way to speak of the finest writer ever to pass through National Review. To paraphrase Joe in his defense of Laurence Olivier (another Sobran hobbyhorse) against the disparagements of fellow actors, the critics might as well belittle him; there is no hope at all of rivaling him.