Extraordinary Joe: Joseph Sobran Had a Golden Pen and the Common Touch

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THE NEW YORK TIMES obituary of Joe Sobran (1946-2010) described him as "one of the conservative whiz kids" who came to National Review at the invitation of William Buckley. There were indeed others, with Garry Wills and David Brooks being perhaps the best known. But those whiz kids were different from Joe. For them, NR was a stepping stone to other things. For Joe, NR was home, and he intended to stay.

He came to New York City and NR in 1972, by way of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and this ever loyal son of the Midwest never gave a sense of being awed by place or company. Why should he be? He came armed. He knew his Burke, his Chesterton, his Dr. Johnson, not to mention his beloved Shakespeare--on whom he had lectured at Eastern Michigan University--and was always ready to fire off a quote from any of them. His timing was exquisite. He would, at the perfectly appropriate moment, offer the perfectly apt quote to illuminate the moral or political point under discussion. I preceded Joe by three years at NR, and editorial sessions in the pre-Sobran days were far from somber affairs, especially when Bill Buckley was presiding. But with Joe on board they frequently became hilarious. He would come up with a quip or quote that would cause the room to erupt, and Buckley's laughter was invariably the heartiest. No one could have made a smoother transition to life at the magazine.

What was true in person was equally true in print. From the beginning, his writing adorned every part of the magazine. Those who laughed at one of the unsigned items in the editorial section were likely laughing at a Joe Sobran paragraph. In the first issue of after Reagan's victory in 1980, Joe proclaimed: "With the election of Ronald Reagan, National Review assumes a new importance in American life. We become, as it were, an establishment organ; and we feel it only appropriate to alter our demeanor accordingly. This is therefore the last issue in which we shall indulge in levity. Connoisseurs of humor will have to get their yuks elsewhere. We have a nation to run." Connoisseurs and yuks in the same sentence--that was typical Sobran.

His first major article was a cover story on Garry Wills, one of the earlier whiz kids. But this kid had undergone a transformation--from Right to Left, and indeed New Left--and that intrigued Joe, partly because Wills still described himself as a conservative even though he now was more kindly disposed to the Black Panthers than to the Republican Party. In six elegant and devastating pages, Joe analyzed Wills's "elopement with the Zeitgeist"; by the end of the piece, when Wills is pinned and wriggling on the wall, the reader almost feels pity for him.

I don't know whether Wills had a following during his time with NR, but Joe quickly earned one. He could write about anything--from the wrongs of abortion and the perfidies of liberalism to the joys of baseball--and everything he wrote connected with readers. Brilliant as he was, and I think he was a genius, he somehow came across as an average Joe. The only difference was that, unlike every other Joe, he had a gift for saying what the ordinary conservative was thinking--or, more exactly, a gift for saying what was just on the tip of his tongue--and could say it as beautifully as Burke, Chesterton, or Johnson. Yet in many ways he was very different from his admirers. He preferred, he said, "a literary, contemplative conservatism to the activist sort that was preoccupied with immediate political issues." Still, he connected.

No wonder. Look how he led off one of my all-time Sobran favorites, "The Republic of Baseball," which appeared in NR toward the end of his time there: "Ted Williams began his autobiography by saying that when he was a kid, his only ambition was to have people say, as he walked down the street, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' My own autobiography would start the same way. It would end differently, though. …