Editor’s Note: Joseph Shattan, who died on Saturday, was a great friend to this magazine, writing for it since 1979. He also served his country as key speechwriter for everyone from Jeane Kirkpatrick at the UN, Elliott Abrams at the State Department, and Vice Presidents Quayle and Cheney, among others, including President George W. Bush. The kindest and most decent of men, he will be eternally missed.
Joe Shattan and I used to meet from time to time, chat, talk, finish each other’s sentences. It was like that; most lately, when he was at the Heritage Foundation, we usually met downstairs, went out to get a snack or two, went back into the building where he worked and took our snacks up to the roof and sat on deck chairs, ate, talked, drank coffee. A couple of aging Jewish guys eating and talking and enjoying each other’s thought, jokes, references. He had a lot of those; you learned a lot talking to Joe.
We were not great, intimate friends: that is to say, I have known Joe since the mid 1970s, when we both were beginning to write political journalism for the likes of Commentary and The American Spectator. That is a long time, but we usually lived in different cities, did not know each other’s wives and families, though I have met Jaine and admire her, we were not in this sense the kinds of friends who worry about each other’s kids and the rest.
Yet there was something about Joe which made me feel very close to him. When we met for our snacks and chats, we took up wherever we had left off. We needed no introductions to get to the matters we were concerned with. We knew each other that way, each other’s minds, and we liked them. We were comforted by them, I should say.
Because Joe’s mind was subtle and funny and wise and realistic, I knew that sharing his view on something, a public issue or an international problem or an individual we both knew or knew about, coming to the same conclusion as he, I knew why that was reassuring. If I was on his side and from approximately the same reasoning process, I could not be totally stupid, on the contrary, I was probably almost half smart. Joe and I shared, too, a certain awareness of the limitations of human understanding. Since he was by far the more intelligent and better informed of the two of us, it was good to be confirmed in my own conclusions, however tentative, by his.
There was nothing fundamental we disagreed on; on the dangers faced by our great country, we could finish each other’s thoughts, on the beauty of our country and the wonderful wisdom underlying its political institutions, we traded lyrical thoughts and laughed at how insufficient they were. In the end we usually came back to a basic problem we both grappled with all our lives, the failure of the intellectual classes to think true thoughts about the society they were blessed to live in and that they despised at their peril. Not all: Joe contributed hugely to the rehabilitation of an intellectual current in America that saw no contradiction between critical thinking and an affirmation of what America is. And, we both felt sure, will be, notwithstanding the confusion and even nihilism toward which modern democratic societies, including our own, are tempted.
Joe always had a kind of shyness about him, a certain Chaplinesque quality of bumbling along and getting a bit into awkward positions. But that was the symptom of a profoundly civilized man in a world gone horribly vulgar. He was a gentleman who could not for all his knowledge of the social wreckage around us ever get used to the notion that people were not as correct and polite and well meaning as he. Actually, I think that was why people liked him so well, they recognized someone who was what they vaguely knew was the way a man ought to be.