The Corner

Berns and Jaffa

There’s a hint of Jefferson and Adams in the news that two learned titans, Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns passed away on the same day. Berns and Jaffa weren’t nearly the adversaries that Jefferson and Adams were, but they had their moments. I always loved this bit from a response from Berns to a letter from Jaffa in Commentary magazine:

Silence, Harry V. Jaffa once wrote, quoting Shakespeare, “is the perfectest herald of joy,” but he is not much given to practicing it, as I and many others who have been the targets of his numerous letters in this and other journals over the years have come to know.

In this latest of his effusions, after saying that my “story” of the second of Lincoln’s Freeport questions is apocryphal (which it might very well be), Mr. Jaffa goes on to say that “the third question was of far greater consequence.” I do not doubt that, but in his book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates (Crisis of the House Divided), Mr. Jaffa wrote that “Lincoln’s second question to Douglas at Freeport is rightly famous, for it was the immediate cause of the most significant political effects.” That, in a nutshell, is what I said, and since he taxes me for saying it, I must conclude that either he thinks I should be censured for not citing him as authority for it or that he has changed his mind.

This is the sort of thing Bill Buckley had in mind when he said of Jaffa: “If you think it’s hard to argue with Harry Jaffa, try agreeing with him.”

I did not know Jaffa, I shook his hand once I think. I know him mostly from his writings and his students. I didn’t always love his writings, but I always learned from them. I’ve learned even more from his devoted students. 

I did know Walter Berns fairly well. We weren’t friends, per se. But he loomed large at AEI when I first worked there over 20 years ago. He could be one of the most intimidating people you ever saw — until you worked up the courage to talk to him and then he couldn’t be more generous. He had the soul of a teacher. He was also very clearly in love with his wife, Irene. At AEI’s annual dinner we famously have ballroom dancing after the formal stuff is out of the way. That was, as lore has it, at the insistence of Walter, who wanted to be able to dance with his wife. Which he did, with style and passion. That’s how he conducted himself off the dance floor as well. 

R.I.P.

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