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National Review

Farewell, Mike Potemra

I was grieved to hear that Mike Potemra has passed away. He was a friend who succeeded me as National Review’s literary editor. Rich Lowry worked, of course, much more closely with Mike than I did and offers a lovely remembrance. When I saw the news, I remembered the long phone conversations Mike and I had — that unmistakable raspy voice! I wish now that we had had many more of them. Because our friendship was almost entirely over the phone, I associate him with the view from my office across Columbia Street in Seattle’s disorderly Pioneer Square, with its parade of restless, rumpled characters.

As I think back about previous holders of the job of literary editor, the role seems to have been specially designed for eccentrics. It would take a novelist to invent the line of succession linking Chilton Williamson, hunter of noble beasts haunting the plains of western Wyoming, to Matt Scully, conservative vegetarian and scourge of all who would dare to abuse the welfare of animals. Mike, who I’m not sure could be characterized accurately as a conservative, fit right in to this pattern that seems so characteristic of NR. I’ve long thought that certain institutions have not merely corporate identities, but souls. And National Review — a habitat for endangered species, as Linda Bridges, another great eccentric, put it — is one of them.

I was the back-of-the-book editor who became an Orthodox Jew, and Mike at one point surprised me with the news that he was considering converting to Judaism. This, had it come to pass, would have been almost too much even for the already idiosyncratic identity of literary editor to accommodate. Talking about his religious quest, Mike had challenges and observations to relate that I had never heard. The topic led to some very interesting conversations. In the end, as Rich points out, after spiritual searching on a heroic scale, Mike came to rest most comfortably with Evangelical Christian worship.

Apart from the loss it represents, his passing is a memento mori. My wife and I were talking about him just now. She recalls our lunch with Mike no fewer than 18 years ago, when she was my fiancée, at a kosher Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue. Apart from his extremely wide-ranging brilliance, she remembered, in particular, his gentleness and gallantry. He was a rare and a precious person, an absolute original. Farewell, friend.

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