December 8, 2010
Interregnum — and
Guest Editorial by Tom Bethell
fitzgerald griffin foundation
WASHINGTON, D.C. — My old friend Joe Sobran 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
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
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.
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.
This article is from the December
2010 – January 2011 issue of The
Tom Bethell, a friend of Joe Sobran's for 30 years, 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).