Politics & Policy

My Friend Is Gone, and I Miss Him

A Washington great remembered.

I never thought that I would miss him so.

I had counted on him to remember our good times together, long after I was gone.

I don’t remember ever leaving his presence without us having had at least one good loud laugh together.

Yet now, this week, it has been two full months since he disappeared while on a solo boating trip out on his beloved Chesapeake Bay, not far from his splendid sylvan home.

Phil Merrill was such an extraordinary man. The builder of a small publishing empire, including a great city magazine, The Washingtonian, and the major newspaper in the capital of Maryland, the Annapolis Capital, Phil began his working life as a fairly low-level government employee.

One of my all-time favorite conversations with him concerned his fateful decision to quit his job and make an offer to buy the Annapolis paper. He was talking about it eagerly (and loudly) as we chugged up the mountains to Durango in an old 19th-century train, tooting around sweeping curves and through small tunnels.

I asked him how he ever got into business — I knew nothing about it, but half of me wanted to start one up (a wine and liquor store, say), and I had not the faintest idea how to begin (never mind what to do once I had).

Did Phil ever like that topic! And so we talked about business. I don’t remember how long the train ride lasted, and as far as I was concerned, it could have gone on all through that day and into the night. We never did finish the whole story; regardless, Phil ended up mortgaging his house and borrowing something like $10,000 from each of two good (not wealthy) friends. Though I may have the details wrong, you get the idea (to use a Merrillism). It was an all-or-nothing risk.

Meanwhile, having studied his new possession closely, Phil concluded that the previous owners were not taking all the advantage they could of the fascinating stories to be found in and around Annapolis — even humble things, such as which stores sold the best toll-house cookies. With great instincts for the press, Phil could dream up investigations of the most interesting, homey, helpful, and fascinating things, capturing the life special to one place.

He especially liked investigations that one could repeat in the following year — like who sells the best cookies this year? Which is the best pizza place? Who makes the best hamburgers? Who are the best dentists? Who do you call if you think your husband is experiencing early signs of what could turn into a stroke or a heart attack? Which are the best local clinics?

Phil Merrill’s publications, which for many years he managed with his great wife, Ellie, have won a reputation for honesty, and not in any small part due to the fact that their reports frequently gave low ranks to some of their best advertisers when evidence showed these rankings were deserved. Some advertisers appreciated this — such reports were more useful to the top brass than the sugar-coated reports of assistant managers down the line — and many didn’t. Nonetheless, however slowly, people learned to trust Phil’s and Ellie’s enterprises.

And besides the homey departments, Phil’s interests also included the professional stuff: What are the intricacies of lobbying in a state capital, and who are these guys? Which of the pols are on the ball, and which aren’t? Are any of them on the take?

In any case, I put some of Phil’s pointers on enterprise in my little handbook, Business as a Calling. Inadvertently, on one page where Phil is mentioned, I was also commenting on some things Pope John Paul II had said about enterprise, its virtues, its hardships, its risks. Phil got many a great laugh in retelling this story whenever he introduced me to someone new (which was pretty often). “Imagine that! First he quotes Phil Merrill, then the Pope.” “Not too bad for a little Jewish kid from Brooklyn,” he told me once. The other time I mentioned Phil, Andrew Carnegie — the greatest philanthropist ever was there on the same page.

Phil and Ellie once let me — practically forced me to — use their home for a week when they were gone. They knew I was trying desperately to get away to some place to work intensely on a book that was too near its deadline. On the Sunday after they had come back, Phil even drove me over to Mass at the neighborhood Catholic church, and stayed in attendance with me. Later he commented on how many Jewish passages there are in the Mass.

But what Phil really got a big kick out of that day was that the young preacher that Sunday delivered himself of some well-prepared remarks critical of the American nuclear build-up (this was at the time of the movement for a nuclear freeze). Some of the priest’s remarks were outrageously false, and so the duty fell on me to tell him about these points quietly after Mass.

Phil used to love to tell of his adventure at this Catholic Mass. “Poor priest,” he said. “He picked the one day that an outspoken theologian is in attendance, on which to give a serious talk on nuclear disarmament. I felt sorry for him.”

Of course, Phil would have told the priest the same thing — although I think he’d have spoken a little louder than I did.

Phil was in many ways my alter ego. In some matters, I wish I could have been more like him. His ebullience — for almost everything — was a force of nature, something to be seen and enjoyed. He had more passions for more things than almost anybody I have ever met. An owner of lively and inventive publications…well, did Providence ever put him in the right business, or what?

There is a story Phil once told me that captures well his patriotism. He served in government at several different times, and one of his later and highest posts was as assistant secretary general of NATO. At one point he was delegated to accompany a top general in the Soviet Air Force on a tour of US military airbases. At a Strategic Aircraft Base in North Dakota, as the Soviet general and he came down the steps of the plane, the general’s eye caught hold of a big, black woman with the insignia of master-sergeant on her arm, standing at attention, to the right of her squad. He wanted to be introduced. With the help of a translator, the general asked the master-sergeant to give her name and tell what her duties were. He had not expected to see a woman commanding a unit at a SAC base; and he had not expected a black woman. Saluting, the master-sergeant practically shouted her name, rank, and the designation of her unit, and then, snapping off the salute, said: “Best damn support unit in the whole United States Air Force, Sir!”

The Soviet general couldn’t get over it. He confided to Phil later that he had never seen such morale and spirit in all his years in the entire Soviet Air Force. He marveled as to how it was done.

Another story Phil always told when he caught sight of my wife, Karen, at a Washington reception or party: He was a great fan of Alexander Hamilton, and when he saw the bronze bust of Hamilton that Karen had just cast, he had to have it for his new executive office at the Export-Import Bank (another top appointment). He loved to greet Karen with open arms and a hug, and turn to everybody and say (to Karen’s and Ellie’s blushes), “You know, I have Karen’s bust in the office. You don’t believe it, but I do. And I love it.”

Well, stories that I remember about Phil go on and on.

What is heartbreaking is that his own life does not go on and on among us. I did not expect to miss him so.

And what makes it harder is that, apparently, although he tried to disguise his death as a boating accident, and tried to disappear gracefully, as if he had just slid beneath the waves of his beloved, blue-spangled Chesapeake Bay, Phil committed suicide.

Thinking about it, I can only imagine that health problems, curiously, untypically, depressed him (he had had bypass surgery the year before); or perhaps it was some feeling that he couldn’t expect in the future the same level of tests and obstacles, the same level of high-risk appointments which he had so much enjoyed; or perhaps he simply had the desire to take charge of his own death, as he took charge of practically everything else in his life. (“Take-charge kind of guy” doesn’t do justice to the gusher of energy he always was.)

Such questions are in the hands of God, and so I quietly commend Phil to his inspired Maker.

And I can’t shake a strange, odd feeling that Phil has already met Pope John Paul II, and has by now told him — maybe three times — about being quoted side by side with him, in a friend’s book.

I hope so, for then it means that Phil is, after all, going to remember me after I am gone. And that we will some time again continue that long, long conversation that we began long ago, chugging up the mountain to Durango.

– Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.

Michael Novak was a Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat.

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