Capitol Ideas

Interregnum — and a Transition

RIP, Joe Sobran, who died on September 30, age 64.

By From the December 2010 - January 2011 issue

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As this is written at the end of October you know more than I do -- about the elections, I mean. So I turn to my old friend Joe Sobran, who died on September 30, age 64. He was the best man at my wedding. He worked for 20 years for William F. Buckley at National Review, wrote a syndicated column for years, and authored a lesser known but sometimes outstanding column for the Wanderer, a Catholic weekly.

His death caused a stir in conservative circles because in 1993 he wrote a Wanderer column attacking Buckley and was fired. There has been a lot of comment on Sobran's hostility to Israel, discussions of his alleged anti-Semitism ("contextual" anti-Semitism, as Buckley put it), and Joe's countercharge that Buckley kowtowed to the "Israeli lobby." I don't want to enter that war zone right now, although I plan to write something about it later. Meanwhile I will confine myself to recommending Matthew Scully's article in National Review, "Bard of the Right." It is surely the best thing ever written about Joe. Among opinion journalists, Joe was "the greatest of his time," Scully wrote. I agree.

I first met Joe Sobran in 1980. For most of that decade his literary ability, his originality, his learning, eloquence, and the sheer speed with which he could produce articles reached the level of what I can only call genius. That was the way it struck me. I never saw anything like it. I once tested him on his claim to know the whole of Shakespeare by heart. He had a volume of the collected works in his junk-filled car, the backseat crammed full of newspapers and God knows what covering the rear window. I flipped through the volume, taking care not to let him see the particular play. I would read a line at random, and his task was to say the next line. I did it five or six times and he got it right every time.

Sometimes, in his rented house in Arlington, I would see him produce a newspaper column in half an hour on an electric typewriter perched on a wobbly Formica-topped table. The entire ground floor of the house would be ankle-deep in what an admirer once called "landfill." His column would materialize with no corrections needed. "Order from chaos," as Matthew Scully said.

He did learn to use a computer -- with Bill Buckley's encouragement and assistance -- and the new machine was helpful enough to give Joe the burst of energy he needed to complete Alias Shakespeare, his one book-length work. Otherwise I believe all his columns and articles were written in a single sitting. If he had to return to something, he would inevitably have lost the first draft somewhere in the landfill, so he would start over from the beginning.

I'm told he joined NR on 9/11/71. Some old hands at the magazine have good stories to tell about Joe in those years. I believe that in learning his Shakespeare he never had to work very hard at it. It just stayed with him once he read it. We tend to call such rare people geniuses. But the updated and more realistic definition of genius is "an infinite capacity to take pains." That was not Joe!

Well, we can see where this is going. His great gift began to fade. At that point he had to make big efforts to do what he once did effortlessly. He was the intellectual equivalent of a natural athlete who can reach Olympic standards with no training. Then later, as he puts on a few years and a few pounds, he loses it. Then he has no discipline or good habits to fall back on. And that is what happened to Joe, more or less.

I also think that more convincingly accounts for his sad decline than any explanation that invokes the withdrawal of Bill Buckley's support or the enmity of the neoconservatives.

Quite a number of people recognized Joe's exceptional talent. Instinctively, they also knew that rare people like that are incapable of prudence and even of self-preservation. So friends were happy to give Joe money and they did so. I believe Bill Buckley (even after the breakup) was among them. No one could accuse WFB of a lack of generosity. But Joe's financial irresponsibility beggared belief.

If you thought to yourself, "Poor Joe," and gave him a thousand dollars, the money would be gone in a couple of days. He would go straight to Borders or Barnes & Noble, buy great sacks of books and CDs, cart them home in plastic bags, throw them down in a corner of his house, and forget about them. He treated the dollar as though he lived in Weimar Germany. (I'm glad to say that most of his books, including an outstanding Shakespeare collection, ended up at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.)

It was the same with his health and personal welfare generally. He had diabetes (adult onset), a controllable condition. But as his son Kent told me: "He was the worst person in the world to have diabetes." He disregarded advice from doctors, no matter how often repeated, and over the last years of his life he was gradually defeated by inertia and depression. He became at first unwilling and then unable to do anything for himself.

In the end the medics told him that he needed kidney dialysis to survive. But he refused it, and meant it. His long-suffering helper Fran Griffin made persistent attempts to resist Joe's self-destructive impulses and to revive his own pro-life principles. Ann Coulter, a great admirer of Joe's writings, said she guessed Joe "never took to heart the admonition that your body is a temple." Howard Phillips, head of the Conservative Caucus, lived nearby and went to see Joe in Vienna, Virginia, two or three times in the last week of his life. Howie recommended to Joe that he take the dialysis. But he refused. "My time is past," he said.

In his last days Joe, by now on a diet of morphine, sank into unconsciousness. At the end his daughter Vanessa was at his bedside along with Fran Griffin's assistant. They noticed first that his color had changed, then that he had stopped breathing. Joe sometimes told me that the liberal goal in life is a painless death. And that is what the hospice people arranged for Joe -- with his cooperation.

IT'S NO MERE CLICHÉ to say that Joe was his own worst enemy. He was. When the Human Life Review's Jim McFadden reprinted Joe's essays as a book, Single Issues, Joe was furious. Jim was "exploiting" him, he decided. He had planned to "rewrite" those essays. Jim knew that would never happen. National Review was on the verge of reprinting Joe's best pieces as a book to entice new subscribers. Just before that happened, Joe wrote his column attacking Buckley. It really did seem that he wanted to prevent his own articles from appearing between hard covers. Sometimes he seemed to have little understanding of the quality of his writing at its best. It's as though he was a mere conduit through which it passed and he quickly forgot about it.

An old friend of Joe's, a sweet guy from Michigan called Bob Mayday, who since died, used to come to Washington and go book-hunting with Joe. He once said that Joe "won't be appreciated until he's been dead for a while." That was perceptive. At its best, Joe's writing was I think superior to G. K. Chesterton's because it was better organized. Meanwhile Fran Griffin has the rights to reprint those pieces by Joe. Let's encourage her to do so. I'm sure they won't seem out of date when they reappear. And the good news is that Joe won't be able to object to their publication.

R.I.P., Joe. We miss you. 

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).