Joe Rago

by Yuval Levin

The news today of Joe Rago’s death is just a horrible shock.

He was brilliant. A thoughtful, lucid, careful mind. And his writing — for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page — was so often proof that the best opinion writing is unswervingly analytical: a function of the careful application of principle to fact. Joe’s editorials would make for a textbook of opinion writing. 

But he was most extraordinary for his decency. Joe was utterly unpretentious, and instinctively considerate. He was allergic to talking about himself. The unsigned editorial was the perfect form for him, where his brilliance could reflect on his beloved Journal. He never seemed to think of himself as the immensely influential writer he was, and would never have brought up the fact that he’d won a Pulitzer Prize before he was 30. 

I last saw him in person a few months ago. He had come to Washington for a briefing on Capitol Hill, which I attended too. He wasn’t satisfied with what we were told by the member of Congress who had called us together. He asked question after question — nicely, calmly, but persistently, and helped the rest of us see that we shouldn’t be happy either. In retrospect, his questions were a kind of preview of the problems Republicans went on to encounter on health care. 

We chatted a little afterward, and planned to get together when he was next in town. After I’d left, I thought I should have said how much I appreciated the care he had been taking to get into the details of health policy in his editorials this year — the enormous, patient service he was doing for all of his readers, and especially those in Congress, who passed his editorials around among themselves like canteens in the desert. He deserved to hear it. Next time, I thought. 

But no. Sometimes we don’t get a next time. And you should never wait to offer a good word to a friend who deserves to hear it. 

He will be sorely missed. 

RIP

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