The reminiscences about Conor Cruise O’Brien that have appeared on the Corner since his death last Thursday have been insightful, thoughtful — and also humorous. Having edited a Festschrift in his honor, I believe that he would have appreciated them, especially Rick Brookhiser’s anecdote about Thomas Jefferson. He warmly welcomed the relationship he developed with National Review and its readership (including his close friendship with John O’Sullivan), particularly their shared interest in Edmund Burke, which several of the Corner posts discuss. The NRO homepage now has a link to his 1990 classic essay on Burke in the magazine.
We can contrast this shared generosity of spirit with Tim Rutten’s article in the Los Angeles Times, in which he clumsily tries to use O’Brien’s career to criticize the achievements of Paul Weyrich, who, alas, also passed away last week. Had Conor read it, I can hear him saying, in that inimitable Irish accent of his, “Not so bloody fast!” He would have chafed at the attempt to hitch his name to such an ad hominem attack. Indeed, at the launch of his memoirs and the festschrift in Dublin in 1998, Roy Foster, Professor of Irish History at Oxford, made a telling comment: in Conor’s guise as an intellectual, there was nothing that made him more nervous than attracting a crowd! Surely he would not have sought the company of Tim Rutten.
Besides, Rutten fails to grasp O’Brien’s evolving views on American life. In his collection of essays On the Eve of the Millennium, published in 1994, he recalls his attendance at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. in the late 1980s, with President Reagan on the dais. Congressmen Ralph Regula, a Republican of Ohio, offered the opening invocation, which O’Brien wrote down: “Oh, Lord, help us, in the excitement of the presence here amongst us this morning of the president of the United States, to remember also the presence of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.” He notes that at the time, long being a student of the intersection of religion and politics, he was skeptical of this event, but his views soon changed, seeing “a serious aspect” in this annual ritual of our national life. “Turning these matters over in my mind in retrospect, I wondered what would happen if American institutions could be entirely divested of that numinous dimension which the American civil religion confers on them. The American Constitution is the greatest institutional repository and transmitter of Enlightenment values, not merely in America, but in the Western world. What if the nimbus of awe which has so long surrounded the Constitution should fade into the light of common day?” He did not welcome this scenario. In fact, he ended his discussion of the Prayer Breakfast with a reflection that Paul Weyrich would appreciate. “God moves in mysterious ways and so, it seems, does the Enlightenment. Old Voltairian though I am, I can almost murmur ‘Amen’ to Congressmen Regula’s opening prayer.” As his career progressed, Conor Cruise O’Brien felt more and more at home in the United States. Now we know part of the reason why.
– Joseph Morrison Skelly teaches history at the College of Mount Saint Vincent.