That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
October 9, 2010

Joe Sobran and National Review
— the story you don't know



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A wake for Joe Sobran was held the other night at a funeral home in Vienna, Virginia. If you could see who signed the guest register, you would see the names of stalwarts from several of the conservative sects. Pat Buchanan was there. So was Howard Phillips of the Constitution Party. I met M. Stanton Evans, a fellow Hoosier, for the first time. He was with Tom Bethell. Jared Taylor was there, too.

It wasn't surprising to see any of them. But one name in the guest register might have surprised you: Rich Lowry's. By the time I arrived, he had left, and only a few seemed to know he had been there.

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review, a publication that came under frequent criticism from Joe, mostly because of the wars in the Middle East, the U.S. alliance with Israel, and NR's coziness with neocons, though Joe had written for it for 21 years before 1994. I think if you will use the search engine at Joe's website and enter the term "National Review" you will not find a single sentence that says anything kind about that publication, except for its early years. So what was Rich Lowry doing there? Why would Rich Lowry make a special trip to Virginia from New York to spend just a few minutes at the wake of a man who had for years excoriated the publication he edited?

What I'm going to tell you may answer that question. It's a kind of Paul Harvey "rest of the story" story. But because no one else will tell you, it's also an "unsilent truth" story.

I met Joe Sobran one evening in December 1983 during an icy rain. I was managing a Christian bookstore then, and Joe and his daughter Vanessa stopped by just to get out of the weather after doing some shopping across the street. His name was completely unfamiliar to me; I didn't read National Review.

Pinebrook was not your usual Christian bookstore. We made a point of carrying something from every Christian viewpoint we could find. We carried Catholic literature and anti-Catholic screeds; Eastern Orthodox materials; charismatic and fundamentalist writings; dispensationalist end-times theology and refutations of it; Arminian and Calvinist theology. Mostly, though, we carried academic materials: language aids for Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, even a little Chaldean; histories; advanced theology; commentaries on every book of the Bible from nearly every publisher in the Christian Booksellers Association; geographies; apologetics; spiritual classics from Dionysius the Areopagite to William Law and Oswald Chambers; sermons from John Chrysostom and Charles Spurgeon; and every English translation of the Bible then in print (along with a few — the Knox and the American Standard Version, for instance — that were out of print). We special-ordered any book — Christian or not — that anyone was looking for, if we could find it. We had three used-book dealers working out of the store who specialized in out-of-print Christian books.

We also sold all the books by G.K. Chesterton that were in print, except the ones from the library-reprint houses (those, we'd special-order). And that was what caught Joe Sobran's eye. Not that he didn't already have them, but just that he hadn't seen them before in a Christian bookstore that wasn't Catholic.

As it happened, I was a Chesterton reader, recently re-introduced to him through the collection of stories The Club of Queer Trades. (If you have seen "The Game," starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, that movie is based on one of the stories in the collection: "The Tremendous Adventure of Major Brown." Chesterton is not mentioned in any of the credits.) We chatted about Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and a couple of other authors. We had similar interests, and Joe invited my wife and me to visit him at his home and continue the conversation. I learned that he was sort of famous after he left the store only because one of my employees had recognized him. When we visited him a couple days later, it was the beginning of a friendship that lasted — with ups and downs — until his death. I was the copy-editor/proofreader for his newsletter for all but a handful of issues, and I was the editor of his website. I did some of the preliminary work and proofing for his booklets and his book on Bill Clinton, Hustler.

In those days, my wife and I used to invite two or three bachelors from the church we attended to our house for Thanksgiving, and the following year, Joe joined us. At the same time, my stepson, Ric, was going to high school. He had made friends with an older boy who lived around the corner from us who had been reading Joe's columns and articles in National Review, and he thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world that Ric actually knew Joe Sobran. Was there any way he could come over during Thanksgiving and meet the great man? The boy, of course, was Rich Lowry.

Rich was already a fairly committed National Review-type conservative. He was a member of a local conservative group of teens, and a few weeks after meeting Joe he asked Ric to help him get Joe Sobran as a speaker at one of their events. (My memory is unclear at this point, but I think Joe did agree.)

Rich's first book, Legacy: Paying the Price of the Clinton Years, is dedicated to his parents and to "Robert, who laughs more than anyone I know." Brian Lamb, in his 2003 interview with Rich, wanted to know who Robert was. Rich answered, "Robert's my older brother; he is 40 years old; he is handicapped so he will never have a chance to do something like this. But he is the most joyous sort of jolly person I know, which is just a wonderful quality for anyone to have, and I wanted to acknowledge it in the book." I used to see Robert around the neighborhood, and I can tell you that he is exactly the sort of brother that most teenagers would be embarrassed by. I know I would have been. If he had been my brother, I would have preferred that my friends knew nothing about him.

As far as I know Rich was never that way. He was always very protective and solicitous of Robert. The sentiments he expressed as an adult he had been carrying with him and acting on as a teen. As a kid, Rich seemed to understand how to treat Robert with dignity and affection. It's a trait that I lacked when I was his age. In fact, I think most of my friends from those days lacked it, too. Moreover, many of Rich's friends — Ric included — acquired that same quality, learning it from Rich.

Ric and Rich remained friends after Rich left for the University of Virginia. They have remained friends to this day. And not just your now-and-then-hey-how-ya-doing friends. They go skeet-shooting and skydiving together. They go to baseball games and football games together (local and out of town). Rich often comes down when Ric is in a play. When Ric was in a stand-up comedy troupe, Rich would come down for opening nights. He made a point of seeking out Ric's mother to say hello to her.

When Ric's father died, Rich was one of the three or four friends Ric had made over the previous 15 years who went with him to Jacksonville, North Carolina, to help clean up the mess that a death in the family usually leaves. Ric was the best man at Rich's wedding; and if Ric ever gets married, Rich will probably be there even if it delays his getting an organ transplant.

So why did he come down to a wake? I can't say for sure, but my guess would be that it was to pay his respects to a man who had inspired an enthusiasm for what would become his life's work. If I know Joe, he probably gave Rich some little bit of encouragement back before Rich had ever published anything.

In other words, Rich Lowry seems to understand that there are just some things a man does. And if I am right about him, it means he carries in him a sense of decency, a gentlemanliness that used to be more common in the West than it is now. Rich, if I have embarrassed you, tough. You are wrong about an awful lot of things, but civilization made its mark on you. I'm sorry I missed you the other night.  Ω

October 9, 2010

Published in 2010 by WTM Enterprises.

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