Remembering Joe Sobran
After Bill Buckley died, people who knew I’d once worked at National Review asked about him, and I always told them that nothing about the man was overrated. When you grow up admiring a lofty public figure and then find on direct acquaintance that he’s even better than the image, when you remember his personal goodness more than his greatness, that’s something.
My experience with Buckley’s greatest literary protégé, Joseph Sobran, was happy in a different way. To see all of that talent up close, as a colleague and friend, was a privilege. But, of course, by the time of Joe’s death on September 30, he was at no risk of an inflated reputation. And when people ask me if all they’ve heard and read about the man is true, the answer is no.
Explaining our sense of loss to those who didn’t know Joe Sobran, or perhaps have only heard the name, is complicated, in large part because of Joe’s falling-out with Bill and the magazine some 20 years ago, and the lonely career path he followed from there. Dust off your copy of Bill’s In Search of Anti-Semitism for all the details; it was an awful, entirely avoidable departure from the place where Joe had thrived since 1972 as a contributor and senior editor. National Review might well have been the only place where he could have thrived, and in any case, he never did find a way back from “deadly banishment” (to borrow a phrase from Joe’s favorite author), or even think to try.
He lost his syndicated column, lost the CBS radio slot he’d had from 1979 to 1991 (“my three decades in radio”), wrote a newsletter, and, working out of his home in Northern Virginia, commanded the attention of subscribers to The Wanderer, a venerable little Catholic weekly that carried Joe’s “Washington Watch” column. To read his commentaries in recent years, you had to look for them, and lately they were reprints. When the website featured “another classic from Joseph Sobran,” it signaled declining health and fading powers, and though he was just 64, you knew there would never be another classic.
He did, in 1997, finally publish his masterwork on the Shakespeare authorship question, resolving the case in favor of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. He loved Shakespeare, who “seems to know us better than we know him,” and if the author was actually someone else, then it seemed to Joe worth ten years of his life to prove. It didn’t really matter to him that even the small group immersed in this 400-year-old controversy refused to give him much of a hearing, dismissing Alias Shakespeare with condescending lectures on “serious scholarship.” He was glad to explain it all to them once more, and did so in the kind of long, lovely letters and essays Joe could produce straight through in one sitting — and at NR, on an electric typewriter. His Shakespeare “obsession” gave critics one more pretext to write him off as a crank, and that didn’t trouble Joe either. He was just happy in the knowledge that the case had been made and the work completed — as he told me at the time, “It exists.”
When his name came up at all in Washington journalism circles, it was in sympathy over Joe’s travails, or as a supposed case study in why the Right needs a good purge now and then, or else as a horror story in career management. Even fellow conservatives, at least the younger ones, tend to remember Joe’s troubles more than his writings. You know you’ve been around awhile when a rising conservative columnist presumes, as happened once in my company, to denigrate Joseph Sobran as if he were some old nobody — that bum who got run off for being a hatemonger. And lest we allow any tender feelings to slip in now that Joe has been buried, his critics are still at it — one fellow making the late-breaking announcement that along with everything else, Joe was “a Nazi fellow-traveler.” The People’s Meeting isn’t over yet; those who haven’t finished can still denounce this enemy who “spent much of his life articulating evil ideas, which deserve to be exposed and opposed as much now as when he was alive.”
As a generation of NR readers will attest, along with friends who knew Joe Sobran longer and better than I did, such talk does a grave injustice to a good man, to his work, and to those final years when even his judgment deserted him. And it’s certainly no way to speak of the finest writer ever to pass through National Review. To paraphrase Joe in his defense of Laurence Olivier (another Sobran hobbyhorse) against the disparagements of fellow actors, the critics might as well belittle him; there is no hope at all of rivaling him.
His case for the Earl of Oxford rested in part on “voiceprints,” the signature patterns, technique, and tone that could be no one else’s. Joe left his own on 40 years’ worth of essays, columns, and reviews that someone needs to finally gather up into a published collection by our era’s master of plain-English prose. Don’t bother checking his house for the old clips, either, because Joe himself hardly thought to save his own writings, and this in a way was part of his secret: He wrote with so little self-regard. It was a style so natural, comfortable, and unpretentious that even praise like “graceful,” “elegant,” or “polished” — though it was all of those — doesn’t exactly fit Joe’s writing because it suggests intended effect, a desire to impress. And Joe was so convincing because he couldn’t have cared less about impressing — which might also help explain his troubles later on.
Whatever the controversy, he kept your attention on the matter at hand, applying his vast learning instead of displaying it, inviting agreement instead of demanding it. Hugh Kenner described Joe’s early work as “a mind in exemplary action.” Bill Buckley recalled the thrill of detecting “singular powers” that first time he read something by Joe. It was a style that looked easy, except no one else could duplicate it, making points that seemed obvious, except no one else had thought of them. The quality of Joe’s thinking was so evident that you could forget to compliment the quality of the writing.
There was actually going to be a collection of his best NR stuff in the early 1990s, but the idea was dropped when he was. Ed Capano, our publisher at the time, liked the title Sobran Thoughts, while I proposed Order Out of Chaos — with a picture of Joe’s smoky landfill of an office on the cover — to convey the mystery of how such clarity of analysis could be sustained in a life so cluttered. The book would have included classics like his 1985 meditation on the basic differences in outlook between conservatives and liberals (a piece given the title “Pensées” against Joe’s will — he disliked “out-of-town words”). An example, pulled almost at random from the essay, shows not how Joe wrote at his very best, but how he wrote consistently:
There are natural limits to our sympathies, limits liberalism can only condemn, never respect. And there is no reason to credit its attitude with “idealism.” A robin that took worms to every nest in the forest would not be an ideal robin; it would only be an odd bird.
Nothing is easier than to imagine some notionally “ideal” state. But we give too much credit to this debased kind of imagination, which is so ruthless when it takes itself seriously. To appreciate, on the other hand, is to imagine the real, to discover use, value, beauty, order, purpose in what already exists; and this is the kind of imagination most appropriate to creatures, who shouldn’t confuse themselves with the Creator.
The highest form of appreciation is worship. I don’t insist that there is a correlation between formal religion and conservatism. But there is an attitude prior to any creed, which may make a healthy-minded unbeliever regretful that he has nobody to thank for all the goodness and beauty in his life that he has done nothing to deserve. One might almost say that the crucial thing about a man is not whether he believes in God, but how he imagines God: as infinitely good and adorable, or merely as an authoritarian obstacle to human desire? The opposite of piety is not unbelief, but crassness.
So much of what he wrote in those days was appreciative, and in the way of “hatemongering,” what Joe seemed to despise most was a ruthless streak in his fellow man, bullying in any form, and the euphemisms that trait inspires. “Most of the world is a mystery,” he wrote in “Pensées.” “Consciousness is a little clearing in a vast forest; every individual has his own special relation to the area of mystery, his own little discoveries to impart.” In Joe’s little clearing, he kept coming upon crass and violent things done in the name of high-sounding causes, and he revealed them for what they are with reason and wit.
His 1983 book Single Issues, gathering his work for the Human Life Review, is as eloquent and persuasive a defense of the unborn as I know of, because even there, where Joe’s feelings ran deepest, he retained his sense of calm and courtesy. He wrote an open letter in the mid-1980s to Mario Cuomo, when the New York governor was being lionized in the media as the Catholic champion of the pro-choice position. Joe’s letter is unanswerable, and most of all the opening paragraphs where he describes the thing chosen, based on some pictures a doctor had given him showing a second-trimester baby boy who never reached the third:
I told you I’m no theologian. It didn’t take much theology to understand those pictures. I reacted about the same way I’d have reacted before I was a Catholic: I just stared at them. . . . Not that it was a highly emotional experience. Just the opposite. All my emotions were very still. It didn’t seem to make much difference what I felt, or whether I felt anything. Outrage would have seemed as hollow as nonchalance. I just kept staring until it sank in.
He didn’t like the word “issues” — it bought into the premise that everything in life is on the political agenda, awaiting government action — but whatever we call them, he covered a lot. He wrote in those days about abortion, Christianity, capitalism, socialism, class, race, the Constitution, the courts, pornography, the media, Shakespeare, baseball, movies, music, and all kinds of public figures, past and present, including favorites like Brando and Sinatra and the writers he most admired — Samuel Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis. You could toss Joe any book and he’d come back with some funny, judicious, and never quite predictable verdict, as in a 1989 review in which he described Paul Johnson’s method in Intellectuals as “Will Durant with a beadle’s whip.” The book is a tour of the flawed lives of leftist intellectuals, and Joe didn’t care for it:
There is something wrong with a writer who arouses in me an impulse to defend Lillian Hellman. Bitch, slut, liar, tyrant, crypto-Communist, self-deluded fool, yes. But is it fair to pile on the rumor that she once made herself the prize in a poker game? Does the inductive method require such detail? Doesn’t the beadle’s arm ever weary?
It all sounded awful, he added,
but such characters could probably be found among people whose politics Johnson shares. Noam Chomsky is dragged in solely for his detestable radical views, with no evidence — apart from the very fact that he appears in this book — that his personal life is in any way defective. Mentioning him in this context seems unfair. . . . [Johnson] should have complicated it with a few unpleasant “right-wingers.” If he couldn’t find them, he wasn’t really looking.
Editors sent Joe off to events and places more as an experiment than as an assignment, just to see what little details would catch his attention. He wasn’t much for on-the-scene reporting and rarely ventured far from home, but here’s a stretch from an account of his trip in late 1975 with Buckley, Kevin Lynch, and some other NR colleagues to Russia. It’s titled “Next Year, Tahiti!” and this is just one paragraph:
Twice I left the tour group and walked through Moscow alone or with a friend. Once you get away from the showcases, it seems a city of shabby old warehouses. The people are stolid and expressionless, though you see girls holding hands and young boys laughing together as if they have not yet learned the gloomy secret their elders share. One lovely girl — in Moscow that’s a mermaid in a swamp — smiled at me, and I didn’t know why until I got home and saw Kevin Lynch’s photo of me in my fur hat: I was the very image of heroic Russian youth. One day Rose Flynn (NR’s treasurer) and I went inside the shopping center we had been so proudly shown from our tour bus, and believe me, you never pity the Russians so much as when you inspect the things they vaunt. The queues were immense: women even waited in line to try dresses on, bad print dresses, overpriced. The groceries were worse: we saw identical jars of plum juice in three shades (no artificial coloring added), and the meat must have been DOA at the slaughterhouse. Rose and I got back to Red Square too late to go inside Lenin’s mausoleum, but when we saw a bridal party going to the head of the line to draw some sort of nuptial benison from association with that corpse, it came home to us that Lenin is simply not a national hero, like Washington. Not at all. He is a god. No Caesar was ever more truly deified than this little man whose cruel face is so monstrously ubiquitous. Marx, by comparison, is almost unseen. Marxism-Leninism is Leninism.
He knew how to keep you alert: “Anything called a program is unconstitutional.” “War is just another big government program.” “Freedom is coming to mean little more than the right to ask permission.” “Politics is the conspiracy of the unproductive but organized against the productive but unorganized.” When the escaped Nazi scientist Mengele was discovered to have lived on in South America, working as an abortionist, the next Sobran offering was titled “Josef Mengele, Angel of Choice.” After Ted Kennedy and his nephew ran into trouble on a Good Friday, and tried to cover up their cavortings before the nephew was charged with rape, Joe offered as the moral: “A family that preys together stays together.” After the Ayatollah Khomeini died, he asked: “Does this mean Rushdie’s off the hook?” How to sum up Joe’s case that Truman was wrong to order the second atomic bombing? “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of Nagasaki.”
I loved his way of starting things, often with some little gem worthy of Eric Hoffer, such as: “Abortion might be called the single issue about which you mustn’t be a single-issue voter.” Or: “In the Catholic Church it takes several centuries for a doctrine to become a dogma. In progressive circles the same process can be achieved within months.” A personal favorite of mine is the lead to a 1990 NR essay Joe wrote about baseball, recalling how much he had played and loved the game as a boy in Ypsilanti, Mich. It may strike others as unmemorable, if not pedestrian, but somehow it still works for me:
Ted Williams began his autobiography by saying that when he was a kid, his only ambition was to have people say, as he walked down the street, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” My own autobiography could start the same way. It would end a little differently, though.
I guess what I like about it is the simple charm and efficiency of starting that way, instead of reaching, as he easily could have, for some larger reflection on the “meaning” of our national pastime. He described a fellow commentator’s writing as too fine and showy (producing “the column as master’s thesis”), and resisted all temptations in that direction. Joe didn’t “craft,” he just wrote, turning out copy instead of performing for his public. For a good lead, he advised, you’ve got to “run on the pitch.”
Other times he’d start off with some thought, casually offered as usual, that would throw you back a bit, as in a 1989 review of a book about Orwell called The Politics of Literary Reputation. In a dozen or so words, Joe dispenses with all conventional opinion on the subject at hand: “I have always enjoyed reading George Orwell, except for his fiction, especially Nineteen Eighty-Four.” He summarizes the book’s thesis, about Orwell and literary politics, in a couple of sentences, and then informs the author that he “takes it all much too seriously”:
To make matters worse, he writes sentences that don’t suggest he’s alive to Orwell’s syntactical vigor: “We will return to these conceptual points as we relate the anomalies of Orwell’s present-day educational institutionalization and their implications for canon- and reputation-formation to the development of his curricular reputation.” I’m quoting out of context, but only because I would spare you reading the context too. Four hundred pages of this stuff is a lot of context.
When I asked Joe once if he’d read a particular book, he replied, “No, but I reviewed it,” and I have a feeling this Orwell study got the same treatment. Yet even when he was having fun, he wasn’t mean or condescending, though a man of his superior gifts could so easily have been both. He observed of another author and former NR contributor, in a 1974 piece, that “learned as he is, he writes as if he had graduated from erudition to omniscience, and as if the ignorance of his enemies (he seems to assume enmity between himself and his subjects) deprived them of any dignity.” Joe’s own writing assumed friendship with his reader, in a perfect mix of the formal and colloquial, always so pleasantly offhanded even when he was giving bad ideas and conduct their due. No one ever got the better of him in any rhetorical clash, because such debates are usually lost when a posture is revealed, and Joe assumed no posture, just an attitude of relaxed discourse that would gladly yield to a better argument if one were offered.
His favorite conservative was Samuel Johnson, because, explained Joe, Johnson knew his reader’s instincts and trusted his reader’s intelligence. He assumed no special wisdom of his own, but held truth as “a common possession.” Indeed, “he may fairly be called the great champion of the obvious. To Johnson, the great truths are above all public, available equally to all reflective men.” Joe himself wrote in this spirit, in a tone that won your trust even when you couldn’t quite agree, or, as in later years, when you thought he was carrying matters past the point of useful inquiry. You could doubt his judgment, if you heard him out, but never his integrity. And maybe the surest sign that his judgment and fine Johnsonian disposition were beginning to fail (doubtless along with his health and financial fortunes, which were both very bad in recent years) was that the sense of humor was fading too. He told me in his NR days that getting a funny line down on paper was one of the hardest things to do, but when Joe Sobran was in form, he was at least the equal of Johnson, Chesterton, or even Malcolm Muggeridge.
He called Hugh Hefner, before Playboy moved west, “the most pretentious meatpacker in all Chicago,” and began a 1974 essay — “The Sage and Serious Doctrine of Hugh Hefner” — with an observation about the captions under the pictures. I’m not sure Joe would count the passage among his “best of,” but there’s no doubting that only he would lay it out quite this way:
If the playmates have changed, the captions have changed more. They have always been aloof, but they used to be more humorous. Though Gloria, or whoever, might look ecstatic with desire for the reader, the caption would just ignore that, according her instead something of the detached admiration that is the meed of fine horseflesh — she was described in fancy phrases like “amply endowed,” “pulchritudinous,” “cantilevered,” and “39-21-35.” The jocose circumlocution was necessary, for Playboy’s specialty is not merely sex but attitudinizing about sex, putting it in the comforting setting of sophisticated camaraderie.
The difficulty of writing texts for such pictures is greater than one might assume. Try it. What can you say: “The reader will note that Gloria has huge knockers”? No. No! You have to be more elegant than that, or why say anything? And Playboy has this compulsion to say something. It has, easily, the largest words/knockers ratio in the history of girlie magazines, and that ratio helps account for its success.
He reviewed The Last Temptation of Christ, the 1988 film by Martin Scorsese, noting at the outset: “The movie begins with a disclaimer to the effect that any resemblance to real persons — living, dead, or resurrected — is purely coincidental.” The movie, of course, was notorious for a scene in which the Jesus character dreams of sleeping with Mary Magdalene, and the fantasy is played out on screen. Joe’s piece is entitled “Jesus, We Hardly Knew Ye,” and after a series of hilarious observations he concludes:
Whatever you think Jesus was, he wasn’t this fumbling pretty boy, torn between being a Messiah and settling down with a whore-turned-Hausfrau. The options are too opposite. They belong to different scales of personality. You might as well imagine Napoleon torn between conquering Europe and becoming a Parisian chef. That would be less bathetic than this Jesus who wouldn’t even rate a statue in the town square, let alone change the world forever. . . .
That’s why the alignment of attackers and defenders [in the controversy over the film] falls along such rigidly predictable lines. They’re all fighting for possession of the sacred name. It’s still the secret name of what we now call “Western” civilization.
If there is ever a Sobran authorship controversy, we will know just what to look for. All we have to do is search the text for a single false note, a self-consciously literary touch, a forced sentiment or piece of flattery, a loss of calm or fairness, an insult standing in place of wit, or an attitude in place of an argument, and finding any one of these, we could rule out Joe. If, on the other hand, we detect a lightness and charm in the tone, a modesty in literary manner, an original use of common words, arguments that are devastating but never aggressive, and a sense of fun that has us dissolving in laughter before we can even complete the analysis, that would be our man.
You can see these same qualities at work in Joe’s early commentaries addressing the anti-Semitism suspicions, back in the late 1980s, when all the trouble started. He had been in many controversies before, and seemed to assume this was just one more along the way. Freedom was more than the right to ask permission, and why should these new adversaries in debate command any more deference than all the others? Only now he had stumbled into a tough section of town, where his arguments invited more than counterarguments, his witty lines didn’t have their usual effect, and his doggedness in debate didn’t hold the audience. Joe either didn’t notice or refused to acknowledge the different circumstances. He just went right along, as in a 1987 NR column entitled “Le Nouveau Canard,” not only addressing his accusers but, to make matters worse, teasing them:
My putative bigotries include anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. I’ve been accused of others (hating Italians, for example), but these are the Big Four. I’ve also been diagnosed as “obsessive.” . . .
Last summer I discovered the utter futility of trying to defend my own motives against those who claim to be more authoritative and more honest about them than I am. Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, took up the theme that I was anti-Semitic. That was when Norman charged me with writing “obsessively” about Jews and Israel. Since then I’ve hardly mentioned these subjects, by the way, but Norman is still on the warpath. I guess he finds it hard to stop thinking about my obsession.
Wherever Joe stood with Norman Podhoretz, what mattered much more, as friends told him, was where he stood with Bill Buckley. Honorable retreat is available when a man who discovers you, hires you, and over many years protects you from personal troubles asks for your silence on the matter — in deference to his judgment, and never mind all the endless particulars of an argument already made many times over.
Whatever he believed about the first Gulf war, the Middle East in general, and American-Israeli relations, there were, moreover, ways to state the case without letting a principled difference devolve into literary warfare. It was Joe who reminded others that before you criticize people and causes, you have to first appreciate them. So why not a few words like those he had written earlier in his career, about the greatness and heroism of the people of Israel, if only to show himself a credible observer of their country’s conduct?
There was also an obligation to his own talent, not to squander it in pointless intellectual battles when there were so many good and worthy causes that needed him. The protection of life, the defense of freedom, the advancement of “Western” ideals, and hell, even the cause of Edward de Vere, were all more important than settling this one ultimately fruitless quarrel in which Joe had gotten himself trapped.
He had his own views on all of this, of course, and Buckley got it just right in noting Joe’s “obstinate tendentiousness” on the subject. Reading this further criticism in NR, he would doubtless run us through the entire matter again, point by point, fallacy by fallacy, just as rigorously and affably as he did in reply to Buckley’s painstaking, book-length essay, In Search of Anti-Semitism. Joe agreed with an observer’s description of Bill’s extended review of the anti-Semitism case against him as that of “an extremely scrupulous judge at a show trial,” and began his defense:
When a man shouts “Wolf!” it’s not really necessary to remind us that the wolf is a dangerous animal, or to inform us that its Latin name is Canis lupus, or to discourse on its breeding and migratory patterns. We just want to know if there’s really a wolf there. And if we find no trace of a wolf, it may be helpful to know whether the man doing all the yelling uses the word “wolf” to include, say, terriers and spaniels.
Had he only left it there — with this rebuttal that perhaps only Buckley, among magazine editors, would even have solicited for inclusion with his statement of the case — how much better off he would have been. “I learned a lot of things from Bill Buckley,” Joe said in one of his last writings, “but the best thing he taught me was how to be a Christian.” Yet for a time, happily ended before both were gone, Joe traded a friend and mentor who loved him for new company that was beneath him, National Review for the Institute for Historical Review. His appearance before that sorry outfit a few years ago (it’s the kind of group where they talk about “the Holocaust story”) remains impossible to explain, at least if you’re trying to absolve him. If, as I had always supposed, Joe was just one damn stubborn spaniel who didn’t know when to let the point go, then what was he doing with all those wolves? It calls to mind a Sobran line directed at Mario Cuomo, in that letter rebuking the governor’s way of sounding pro-life while encouraging exactly the opposite cause: “The worst thing I can say about you is a thing that is too obvious to deny: that these fanatics accept you as one of their own.”
He was, as another former colleague of Joe’s put it to me, “the co-author of his own misfortunes.” Yet we all hope to be remembered for our best moments, and pardoned for our worst ones, and those who knew Joe Sobran can still remember a person who seemed incapable of hateful or cruel thoughts of any kind, much less hatred for an entire people. If anti-Semitism were not beneath that man morally, it would surely have been beneath him intellectually. It’s a crass, wicked, and irrational view of the world that just can’t be squared with the wisdom and goodness of heart that shine through the rest of his work. You might say the ideas and the man belong to different scales of personality.
I spoke to him on the phone once around 1998, when Joe was really down, which he wasn’t often, and he mentioned some new benefactors who were trying to help him get his career back together. It was small money but needed, and he felt miserable at having to rely on the kindnesses of these few left who seemed to believe in his abilities and the works still in him. “They think I’m Chesterton,” he said, in a tone of bitter self-reproach, for where he had got himself, for all the books he wanted to write and now realized he never would. I just hope he knew, and I’m glad I told him, that those good people were right. The work completed was more than enough to earn the tribute, and nothing can take away what he achieved. It exists. And were Chesterton himself to read Joe’s work, he would be honored by the comparison.
What a wonderful thing that Bill Buckley and Joe spoke again as friends, and surely Bill would have been the first among us, now that Joe has gone to his rest, to recall what a brilliant man this was, and better still what an endearing fellow. There are bigger mistakes in life than subverting one’s career, and in an era when opinion journalists too carefully cultivate their “brand,” there’s something to be said for a guy like Joe, who had only pure talent to offer the world and no aptitude whatever for self-promotion, nor even survival. In the immortal words of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.” What Joseph Sobran deserves right now is to be remembered at his best, as a kind and gentle person, a noble soul, and among opinion journalists, the greatest of his time.
– Mr. Scully has served as National Review’s literary editor, as senior speechwriter to Pres. George W. Bush, and as a speechwriter to 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. He is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.