Regular readers of The American Spectator knew George Neumayr as a gifted writer, an incisive polemicist, and an astute observer of U.S. politics and the Catholic Church. He was also a first-rate media critic, a relentless investigative journalist, and an eloquent speaker.
He was curious, contrarian, and secure enough in his beliefs to listen and consider alternative viewpoints seriously, sometimes even adjusting his own. In short, he had all the traits that a journalist should possess, but that too few actually do.
But what I admired most about George was the vulnerability and courage he showed in his personal life.
George’s death, of malaria while reporting and traveling in Côte d’Ivoire, has been a shock to those of us who loved him.
I spent hundreds of hours in conversation with George during the last 17 years — over dinner or drinks, at parties, and on the phone. We talked about politics, journalism, religion, literature, family, dating.
Our conversations would often last many hours. He was simply a joy to listen to. He had an extensive vocabulary and something fresh and interesting to say about most things. When he didn’t, he would listen and ask thoughtful questions. If he complimented me, I knew it was sincere. When he disagreed with me, he usually told me.
A few years ago, an election reform group invited me and some other journalists to attend a small conference at a Mexican resort. I asked whether George could join us, and they agreed. The only expectation was that we would attend a seminar one morning in which our hosts would argue for the merits of their reform ideas.
Most of us weren’t terribly interested in the topic, but of course we showed up to the seminar and listened politely. A few people asked some deferential questions. But for the most part, we were thinking about what we’d do after the seminar finished — hit the beach or the golf course?
But not George. Throughout the presentation, he peppered our hosts with polite but insistent questions, poking holes in their arguments and never giving an inch. He asked the type of straightforward but penetrating questions very intelligent people ask — never afraid to look ignorant or foolish.
As George was in the middle of another probing question, I surveyed the room and saw everyone else sitting there stone-faced. I had to smile. There’s nothing George enjoyed more than an intellectual debate. And if he found your arguments wanting, he’d challenge you. To do otherwise would be to violate his deep sense of intellectual integrity.
George was known to give the same treatment to Catholic bishops and high government officials alike. He was one of the few journalists with the intellect, integrity, and courage to do so. Simply put, George was unafraid to speak truth to power, no matter the truth and no matter the power.
But while he could be combative with those who possessed great power, he could be just as compassionate toward those who had none — effortlessly striking up conversations with (and often giving money to) the homeless and random people he’d meet on the street or at the cigar lounges he enjoyed frequenting.
In 2015 and 2016, he wrote several columns recounting people’s reactions to his wearing a red MAGA hat on the streets of Manhattan. They were insightful and entertaining, and for years I had encouraged him to return to this sort of first-person, slice-of-life reporting. He would always demur. It was a young man’s game, he’d say.
But lately he had started to return to it, doing first-person reporting from Côte d’Ivoire and some initial reporting for a book project about the Catholic Church in Africa.
But the main reason for his trip to Côte d’Ivoire was to pursue a different sort of investigation — into a possible relationship with an Ivorian woman, a relationship that had blossomed in his first few weeks there and been a source of happiness to him.
George could be fiercely competitive. He was a talented basketball player in his youth and a fine golfer throughout his life. Last summer, we played 18 holes to celebrate his 50th birthday. He was having a bad round (for him; he was still beating me handily), frustrated with his play, and not very talkative. On some holes, he’d finish before me and begin walking to the cart or the next hole while I was still trying to find my way onto the green.
At one point, I said something like, “Hey, you should stick around the green until I’m done.”
“Oh, am I violating golfing etiquette?” he responded wryly.
“No,” I said, “You’re violating friend etiquette.”
I was kidding (mostly), and we both chuckled. But it never happened again. There was nothing worse to George than to suspect that he was being anything less than a devoted friend.
In his tribute to George, Wlady mentioned that George never missed a deadline and often delivered his columns well in advance. He was the same way in his personal life, never in my memory canceling an appointment or failing to show up to an event he’d committed to attending. And he was always right on time.
Most of the other tributes I’ve seen refer to George as a fearless and courageous journalist — and he certainly was. He was courageous in confronting what he considered to be the enemies of the church to which he had devoted his life and work. But he was also courageous in taking on his own inner demons, especially in the last few months of his life. Like many highly intelligent people, George suffered from depression. But he did so with courage, resiliency, and equanimity.
I am comforted to know that in recent months he’d had what he described as several mystical experiences. He said that although he had always understood Catholicism intellectually, he had never really felt God’s presence. But while living in Florida late last year, a good confession had made him feel like a new man — spiritually cleansed and equipped to handle anything.
Shortly thereafter, George described feeling the mystical presence of God while walking on a Florida beach. In that moment, he told me, he felt loved by God and totally at peace for the first time in a long time. Suddenly, his faith not only made sense to him; it felt right too. He had been deeply contemplative during this time. And now he was ready for anything, he said — even death.
I was privileged to have been George’s friend and to have had him as a dear friend. For those of us who loved him, he will be missed so much more than we could have imagined.
Daniel Allott is an opinion editor at the Hill and the author of On the Road in Trump’s America: A Journey Into the Heart of a Divided Nation.