The Corner

National Review

Thanks, Man

Mike Potemra’s paternal grandfather was a pre-war Slovak politician who thought his countrymen should favor Britain. His main rival was a pro-German priest who went on to become a Nazi puppet and war criminal. Good call, Gramps.

Mike grew up in Montreal where he learned both French and joual, the Quebec dialect. Every year he read In Search of Lost Time in the original (which was not joual), which showed his sheer intellectual energy. I read it once, in translation, and net liked it, but really . . .

When he came to National Review he decided to bone up on his new colleagues, and so ordered Jeff Hart’s first book, Viscount Bolingbroke: Tory Humanist. Only the used book service listed it as Viscount Bolingbroke: Tory Humorist. Mike, nothing daunted, improvised this: “Sir Roger de Coverley: ‘How many wenches does it take to change a sconce?’ Lady de Coverley: ‘That’s not funny!'”

Mike was a contrarian, and a sniper; he liked to lie in wait at our editorial conferences and catch us in pomposities. Once I was going on about the o/u vowel shift in transliterating Arabic, which struck me as capricious and somehow political. Stinging like a bee, he said, “Muhammed Ali?”

The only time I ever matched him was when he was telling the junior members present that Richard Nixon was the worst man that had ever risen to the White House. I put on my Federalist face and said, “Thomas Jefferson.” But that was a singular stand off.

His noblest lines were in his “Greyhound Archipelago” articles, reprinted on the home page, recounting his cross-country odyssey by bus, when he went to Memphis and described what he found at both the Lorraine Motel and Graceland. Only Mike would have noticed, and seen the significance.

Mike was a pilgrim, the wandering Christian, the walking American. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light.

A la prochaine.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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