When the late Robert Bork was received into the Catholic Church only a few years ago, his two godparents were Kate O’Beirne and me. He was amused enough by this to say to Kate that he felt that he was becoming an Irish Catholic rather than a Roman Catholic.
“Beware the sin of pride, Bob,” responded Kate.
Almost everyone who knew Kate from National Review, the Heritage Foundation, the Washington media world she all-too-briefly dazzled, or in her earlier life as an Army wife and lawyer, can tell some such story of her quick spontaneous wit and engaging laugh. If she had wished, she could have been a stand-up comedian — a kind of very cleaned-up conservative anti-feminist Amy or Samantha — but with substance, an intent to amuse and instruct rather than to wound and defeat, and enough talent to start a very different stand-up trend.
Kate’s wit and sharpness were an important part of her appeal to conservatives. We get so used to seeing our champions floored by non-sequiturs and platitudes that it’s an enormous relief when one comes along who can more than hold her own with the best of enemies. I never felt nervous on Kate’s behalf when she was on a platform or a television talk show defending some difficult point of conservative theory or Republican folly. I had seen her win too many arguments on NR cruise panels (against me on too many occasions) to doubt her ability to kill a fallacy with an epigram and to leave her defeated opponent laughing. I would sometimes watch her husband, Jim O’Beirne, when she was speaking to see how he was reacting. He always looked supremely relaxed.
Much of this ability was down to the fact that Kate was both highly intelligent and well-prepared. She had a deep hinterland of legal, historical, political, and religious knowledge. She thought hard about the topics of the day before appearing on TV to discuss them. And she never let her side down. But many people do as much and still flounder. Kate had that X-factor ability to make a complicated truth understandable and a stern test appealing. I think that’s God-given. And Kate didn’t let the gift go to waste.
Kate was a serious and devout Catholic, but she was also the kind of believer who shocks the puritan souls of non-believers by being able to joke about the faith and the faithful. I remember once that she mentioned that some NR cruisers in Rome were making a side-trip to see Padre Pio.
“He’s rumored to be able to see directly into your soul,” she said. “Are you going, John?”
Kate’s wit and sharpness were an important part of her appeal to conservatives.
“Er, well, I’ve got a very crowded program, Kate, and er . . . ”
“No, I’m not going either,” she said very firmly, before bursting out laughing.
For there were touches of bohemianism in Kate’s make-up. Her father had run one of the most famous jazz clubs in New York, and he brought some of the players, singers, and actors who played and gathered there home for Sunday lunch with the family. Late at night on NR cruises, Kate would tell some wonderful stories of these roistering players who, somehow in her home and company, behaved. So indeed did the bright young conservative journalists whom she foster-mothered in NR’s Washington office after arriving there in the mid Nineties as Washington editor. Among her many gifts was that of mentoring young people and pushing them to achieve more than they might have attempted for themselves.
Kate had the kind of death that every Christian should wish to have. She had ratified her peace with God through the sacraments. Jim, her sons Phil and John, her sisters, other family and friends were at her bedside. Her affairs, religious and secular, were in order. She left this world peacefully and entered the next one hopefully. Those of us who are left will feel grateful for someone who gave us laughter, instruction, and example and who showed that a good life can also be a great life.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.