Conor Cruise O’Brien, R.I.P.

by Richard Brookhiser

I met Conor after he wrote for NR about Burke, thanks to John O’Sullivan, and I came to know him better in connection with his Jefferson book, The Long Affair. The Long Affair goes too far, and it was wrongly harsh on Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone, but it is a useful corrective to Jefferson myth-making on an important point, often slighted by American biographers–Jefferson’s Jane Fonda-ish attitude toward the French Revolution. Only Tom Paine and the now-forgotten poet Joel Barlow of adoptive or born Americans went further: At least Jefferson bailed out with the advent of Napoleon; Paine sent the Corsican suggestions for how to invade England, and Barlow died on the Moscow campaign.

I remember one editorial dinner at Van Galbraith’s (WFB must have been out of town). Much wine had been served, and Conor was declaiming against the third president. He banged his fist on the table and cried, “Jefferson was a sh*t! Jefferson was a sh*t!” I told this some time later to Dorothy Twohig, a wonderful historian and a gracious lady, who was working on the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia. She laughed, and then added sweetly, “Well, sometimes he was.”

Since then I have divided latter-day Federalists into two categories: the he-was, and the sometimes-he-was.

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