Magazine | July 9, 2018, Issue

Talk of Many Things

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Who were they?

Three men, friends for years.

Where did they meet?

In a restaurant, on a side street, behind the bar and down a curl of steps.

What sort of restaurant was it?

Italian of course. For intimate conversation nothing is better. Italians know that the art of living requires artfulness — good food and lots of it, wine ditto — but it requires even more than that, consideration. Hence all the studied acts of deference, those multiple mini-violations of the 13th Amendment (“Ciao, ciao” in Venetian dialect originally meant “[Your] slave, [your] slave”): the musical recitation of specials, the making sure that the wine glass is always filled, the flip twist of the bottle at the end of the pour lest an errant drop escape. A good Italian restaurant, and they are all good at this, is like a living jockey boy.

Who led the conversation?

George, master raconteur.

What was his subject?

Politics, secular and clerical.

What ethnicity is he?

Irish of course. Italians for all their artfulness do not trust the world, or politics. Family is all. Jews, being good modern philosophers, want to change the world, which makes them political, but, being Jews, want even more to understand it, which makes them intellectual. So many theories! Protestants, white and black, don’t even know what politics is and rely instead on rules, or on being cool. The Irish know that politics is made by men; they know that politics is all about whom you know.

Whom does George know?

In the capital of his church, and the capital of his state, everybody. Politicians of both parties; reporters of every ideology (from Javert the left-wing corpse-exhumer to Flying Monkeys the right-wing fantasist); cardinals, bishops, monsignors, priests; writers (he spoke of his correspondence with Beau Brummel, recently deceased); the living and the dead (especially the dead, there are so many more of them to know). Do you know someone who knew Al Smith? George does.

What does he know about the people he knows?

What they have done, what they have said, what they think, whom they know; whose side they are on.

Does everyone have a side?

Yes: your side, and not your side. The right side, and the wrong side. God’s side, and the other side. God willing, one is the same as two and three.

What does he not know about the people he knows?

What they dream, what they eat, what they hum under their breath: novelists’ details (that can be left for Beau Brummel).

Is George showing off when he displays his knowledge?

Does he show off when he puts one foot in front of the other as he walks, or when he breathes, or when he orders an after-dinner drink after dinner rather than during the salad course? Of course not: Knowing people and their politics is his vocation, his jazz solo, his Gallic Wars; it is what fascinates him, and what he lives for.

What things did he say?

Gossip. I told him I have given away my copy of Confessions of a Nun, I can get all the anti-clericalism I could ever need from him. I, lapsed Methodist, find it positively embarrassing. I have chucked Plunkitt of Tammany Hall too. Hey, it still goes on. But none of his gossip shall be recorded here.

Advice. As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear (Proverbs 25:12). But, things written remain (Aaron Burr, to his law clerks). None of his advice shall be recorded here.

Etiquette. This is recordable, and peak George. The pope coming to the city, there was to be a Mass at the cathedral. Security and protocol required worshipers to be in their places two hours in advance. George, knowing whom he knows, had a front-pew seat. In the old country the gentry, in their churches, bought pews. In the land of the free you get to the front pew thanks to whom you have helped and worked with, and for how long. Also in the front pew, ex officio, was a very important politician and his consort. There were several things about George’s pewmates, from the very important politician’s opinions to the nature of his relationship, which were not ideal from George’s point of view, but he knows the world, and of course he knew the politician. The lady was wearing a veil, a little uncomfortably, because it is certainly not current fashion; she had watched a YouTube video of a now-dead first lady greeting a now-dead pope and copied the look. Was she right? George assured her that she was perfectly right. With an hour still to go, a bishop arrived and took his seat before the altar; excellencies could arrive fashionably late. George knew him, and went to greet him. In an hour there would be Mass, but now was time to greet whom you knew. Behind George, in the second pew, was another very important politician, though more important in the nation’s capital than in the state’s. The second very important politician is 5′9″, George is 6′6″. Someone had to twist his neck to see what was going on, and it wasn’t George. I told him that he had been in one of the most dangerous places in America, between the second very important politician and the center of attention.

Papal politics, current vs. recent. Nothing of what George said about papal politics shall be recorded here.

The evening spun along. George is writing a book — not, I fear, a memoir in which to get everything down, but the latest in a row of Christmas trees on which he hangs what he knows like ornaments. Encouraged by his example, I took an after-dinner drink — a sambuca, the size of a wading pool.

The three of us were a little Italian — hopeless — and a little Jewish — writing. But also a little Irish, as we made plans to meet again.

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

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