Kate & Me

by John J. Miller

She was strikingly tall, her laugh was a delightful cackle, and she was one of the wisest people I’ve ever met. I was blessed to work beside Kate O’Beirne and even more blessed to know her.

I’ve benefitted from a few excellent mentors. Linda Chavez tops the list: She taught me the way Washington works, showed me how ideas shape policy, and helped me break in as a writer. Next is Kate O’Beirne. She took over in 1998, when I left Linda’s employment to join National Review. Kate was the magazine’s Washington editor and under her guidance I really started to learn about politics. I knew a few things—in D.C., it comes like osmosis—but Kate schooled me on the workings of Congress, campaigns, and elections.

Our bureau was on the third floor of an old row building, above a now-closed bookstore on Pennsylvania Ave., a couple of blocks to the southeast of the Capitol. I liked it, though we always worried that guests would think it dumpy. So let’s settle on a euphemism: It had character. To get to my office, I had to walk through Kate’s. There was no other way. This quirk turned into a great opportunity, as I fell into conversation after conversation with her. Lots of my articles emerged from these talks, as Kate was generous with her time, opinions, and sources. I discovered that a good way to get an assignment I wanted was to have Kate buy into it. Then I’d ask her to mention it to Rich Lowry, our editor in New York. She was more successful at pitching my ideas than I was, in large part because Rich, like so many people, held her views in such high regard.

Kate once made an observation about the Reagan administration that I’ve never forgotten—a line that taught me a fundamental thing about not only Reagan but all successful mission-driven organizations. She had worked at the Department of Health and Human Services in the 1980s, and we were grumbling about a bureaucratic snafu during the presidency of George W. Bush. “When you worked for Reagan, you just knew what to do,” she said. “Nobody had to tell you what to do. You didn’t wait for orders. You got up in the morning, went to your job, and did what you knew Reagan wanted done because you were a conservative.” It occurred to me that National Review operates in a similar way.

Kate was Catholic on an almost tribal level, but more notably on a spiritual one. When I joined National Review, I had been a Catholic convert for less than a year—and Kate modeled the way writers can allow faith to inform but not overwhelm their journalism. She understood and demonstrated the importance of religion in both private and public life.

I was thinking about her faith just recently. We had fallen out of touch. Six years ago, I moved to Michigan to run the journalism program at Hillsdale College. Sometime after that, she left National Review. The Millers kept mailing Christmas cards to the O’Beirnes, but Kate and I hadn’t spoken in a long time. Last month, at the urging of a mutual friend, I sent Kate a note. In reply, she revealed her poor health. It wasn’t a lengthy exchange, but it was just enough. Now that she’s gone, it feels like we had a final chat. Not having had it would have bothered me for the rest of my life. Kate would have offered a simple explanation: It was the Holy Spirit.

God’s grace works in many ways, of course—and Kate played a unique role in my family. She threw lots of parties at her home in Virginia and my wife and I enjoyed going to them. In the spring of 2001, Kate held one for St. Patrick’s Day. Nine months later, Amy gave birth to our youngest child. We named him Patrick.

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