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November 8, 2010

Extraordinary Joe 
by Kevin Lynch
fitzgerald griffin foundation

Joseph Sobran had a golden pen and the common touch

ARLINGTON, VA -- The New York Times obituary of Joe Sobran described him as “one of the conservative whiz kids” who came to National Review (NR) at the invitation of William Buckley. And there were indeed others, with Garry Wills and David Brooks being perhaps the best known. But those whiz kids were different from Joe. For them, NR was a steppingstone to other things; for Joe, NR was home and he intended to stay.

He came to New York City and NR in 1972, by way of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the ever-loyal son of the Midwest never gave a sense of being awed by either one. Why should he be? He came armed. He knew his Burke, his Chesterton, and his Dr. Johnson, not to mention his beloved Shakespeare (whom he lectured on at Eastern Michigan University), and was always ready to fire off a quote from one of them (and many others). His timing was exquisite. He would, at the perfectly appropriate moment, offer the perfectly apt quote to illuminate the moral or political point under discussion.

I preceded Joe by three years at NR, and editorial sessions in the pre-Sobran years were far from somber affairs, especially when Bill Buckley was presiding. But with Joe on board they frequently became hilarious. Sometimes it would be a quote, but just as often he would come up with a quip that would cause the room to erupt (and Buckley’s laughter was invariably the heartiest). No one could have made a smoother transition to life at NR.

What was true in person was equally true in print. From the beginning, his writing adorned every part of the magazine. Those who laughed at one of the unsigned paragraphs in the editorial section were likely to be laughing at a Joe Sobran paragraph. (In the first issue of NR after Reagan’s victory in 1980, Joe proclaimed: “With the election of Ronald Reagan, National Review assumes a new importance in American life. We become, as it were, an establishment organ; and we feel it only appropriate to alter our demeanor accordingly. This is therefore the last issue in which we shall indulge in levity. Connoisseurs of humor will have to get their yuks elsewhere. We have a nation to run.”) Connoisseurs and yuks in the same sentence. Typical Sobran.

His first major article was a cover story on Garry Wills, one of the earlier whiz kids. But this kid had undergone a transformation — from right to left, actually to New Left — and that intrigued Joe, partly because Wills still described himself as a conservative even though he now was more kindly disposed to the Black Panthers than to the Republican Party. In six elegant and devastating pages, Joe analyzed Wills’ “elopement with the Zeitgeist”; by its end, when Will is pinned and wriggling on the wall, the reader almost feels pity for him, if he had not been shown to be so callous toward his victims.

I don’t know whether Wills, during his time with NR, had a following, but Joe surely had one, and quickly. He could write about anything — from the wrongs of abortion and the perfidies of liberalism to the joys of baseball — and everything he wrote about he did in a way that connected with NR’s readers. Brilliant as he was, and I think he was a genius, he somehow came across as an average Joe. The only difference was that, unlike every other average Joe, he had a gift for saying what the ordinary conservative was thinking — or, more exactly, a gift for saying what was just on the tip of his tongue — and he could say it as beautifully as Burke, Chesterton, and Johnson. Yet, in many ways he was very different from his admirers. He preferred, he said, “a literary, contemplative conservatism to the activist sort that was preoccupied with immediate political issues.” Still, he connected.

No wonder. Look how he led off one of my all-time Sobran favorites, “The Republic of Baseball,” which appeared in NR toward the end of his time there: “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 would start the same way. It would end differently, though.”

Anyone who reads that opening and doesn’t finish the article — a fine example on its own of literary, contemplative conservatism — deserves a reward. I used to think most NR covers were slightly amateurish, but the one for this issue was sublime. It featured a beaming Joe Sobran dressed in a genuine Yankee uniform and leaning on a baseball bat in the way that sluggers used to do. The smile on his face could have lit up Yankee Stadium (and his pot belly was definitely Ruthian).

After Bill Buckley, it was Joe who got most of the fan mail. And if you discount the NR readers who assumed, mistakenly, that anything without a byline was done by Bill Buckley, I bet the two would have been neck and neck. To me, what was most remarkable about Joe’s popularity was that it never got to his head. Though he had left the Midwest, he had retained a proper Midwestern modesty. Sure, he had his gifts, he seemed to think, but the people he met had theirs, too. No other NR staffer was on as good terms with the folks at the nearby delicatessen or newsstand. Of course, the proprietor — the newsstand had good reason to like Joe, as he usually purchased every newspaper and magazine — excluding the trash — he offered. (Much as he deplored the liberal media, Joe always bought the Times, New Yorker, New Republic, and New York Review of Books, as well as Sports Illustrated.)

NR cover

In the office, he was even more generous with his friendship. I wish I had kept count over the years of the people who told me they would be forever grateful to Joe for introducing them to C. S. Lewis or G. K. Chesterton. And he didn’t just recommend. He would give them a copy of the particular book that provided the perfect introduction to Lewis (The Abolition of Man) or Chesterton (it varied, sometimes Orthodoxy or Everlasting Man, other times The Well and the Shallows).

Wonderful writer, friend, and colleague that he was, Joe did have his faults. Neatness was not, to him, a virtue, as anyone who visited his office or his house would see right away. So deeply rooted was his conservatism that he never threw anything away, including newspapers and McDonald’s wrappers. He would lose checks and other unimportant things in the chaos, but he could always find the book he needed. I am not letting out a secret when I say Joe had his problems with the Internal Revenue Service. But he wasn’t making a political point by not paying his taxes. He just never got around to it. Besides, even if he wanted to pay them, he would never be able to find all the necessary paperwork. I have long thought that, since Joe’s lifestyle was completely tax deductible — practically all his money went to buy books and magazines — if he had kept his receipts (and filed his taxes), the IRS would have had to send him a big check every year.

Having left NR in 1985, I wasn’t around when the fireworks began that led to the end of his career with the magazine in 1993. Joe’s writings on Israel and the role of its U.S. supporters have been hashed over so many times that there is no need to go into great detail here. Throughout his career, Joe talked and wrote candidly about anything he wanted. But when it came to Israel and the extraordinary influence it has on American politics, he was told to change the subject. Someone who had roamed so freely couldn’t do that. He knew this wasn’t a good career move, but neither were the many pieces he wrote against abortion. Having said that, I think Joe and NR would have eventually parted ways, with or without Israel. The magazine was becoming neoconservative, heartily backing U.S. policies to spread democracy around the world, while Joe was vehemently against military interventionism. His hero Chesterton loved England but never supported the British Empire. Joe loved America; he just didn’t want to see its outposts everywhere.

But the end of his NR career was far from the end of his career. He continued his column and started, with the help of his good friend Fran Griffin, Sobran’s: The Real News of the Month, a monthly newsletter of his essays and columns. As was true of any Sobran production, it was rich in content and beautiful in style. It lasted until 2007, when his health began to fail. The final years were difficult, as his health steadily deteriorated and his money ran out. But some things never changed. He still had many, many friends and his four children. And he still loved to tell jokes, many of which came with him from Michigan. In addition, the young man who had read himself into the Catholic Church, converting in his late teens, was, after a period adrift, firmly back in its arms, and that gave him great joy.

According to Hillaire Belloc, another Sobran favorite, “There is nothing worth the wear of winning, but laughter and the love of friends.” By that standard, Joe was a big winner, easily as big as Ted Williams.

Copyright (c) Kevin Lynch. A version of this article was published in the December 1, 2010 edition of The American Conservative magazine.

© 2010 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation