The Catholic Thing
Words of Gratitude Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 26 August 2013

I watched and heard history as I was coming of age, which was when Michael Novak was making history – a great coming-of-age story in its own way, that’s all in his elegant and entertaining new memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative. (It will be released a week from tomorrow and may be pre-ordered here.)

I heard the news of JFK’s assassination over a scratchy school intercom and watched Ruby shoot Oswald on a black-and-white TV. A friend called my dorm to tell me Dr. King had been gunned down and – just two months later – heard on my transistor radio the news of Bobby Kennedy’s death.

And there was that war we all watched on the nightly news, like we were picnickers at Bull Run.

But Mr. Novak’s life directly intersected with all this. He was covering Vatican II on November 22, 1963 and shared a mournful dinner with his beloved wife, Karen, and with John Cogley – writer of JFK’s famous “Houston Speech” – and socialist Michael Harrington, author of The Other America.

Michael Novak was then a man of the Left.

Among the stories he tells of the Sixties is calling his friend Eugene McCarthy to say he’d decided to support Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Mr. Novak was at Stanford University when Bobby called just before the California primary to ask him to fly to L.A. to be with the clan as returns came in. Novak declined; we all recall what happened that night.

Later he worked with Sargent Shriver to elect Democrats to Congress. Between campaign stops, the two shared many long conversations about Catholic authors and theology. Novak admired Shriver’s basic, Catholic decency.

George McGovern and Jimmy Carter sought his counsel, because Michael Novak was still a man of the left in the Seventies.


But then came Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II.

Michael, who is our colleague, a founder of The Catholic Thing, writes: “I witnessed with my own eyes the almost immediate results of the switch from Carter’s economic policies to Reaganomics.” Entrepreneurship boomed, Reagan’s “creative tax and regulatory regime” gave rise to small businesses, and employment soared. The favorable climate suddenly propelled the emergence of new technologies.

Michael’s visibility rose too, so much so that, although his prodigious writing continued, he took on a new career as a diplomat – for Reagan and for Bill Clinton.

Today our brief era of prosperity and peace has come to an end, marked symbolically, if not actually, by 9-11. “Shovel-ready” economic recovery plans and ditch-digging foreign policy remind us that if the hole keeps getting deeper, stop digging. As Michael sagely writes, the trouble with statists is that they keep digging “until the state runs out of other people’s money.”

The genesis of any political transformation is difficult to pinpoint exactly, but when Michael published The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in 1972, and when both political parties took note of its arguments, something happened that, frankly, wounded him. His “liberal” comrades shunned him:

I had never before understood how secular excommunication works – how effectively one can be banished from the innocent banter of old circles of trust, how even old friends change the flow of conversation as one approaches, signaling with a certain chill that one’s presence is no longer desired.
It’s good, he notes, that he was still young: “One needs the toughness later.”

In Unmeltable Ethnics, Michael, an “ethnic” himself (Slovak-American), had helped redefine, directly or indirectly, the political strategies of candidates from McGovern to Nixon by insisting that no single “homo Americanus” exists. But E Pluribus Unum is – must be – very real. How sad then for him to witness the downward spiral of multiculturalism, which “borrows the logic of relativism in order to assault the tradition of the Unum.”

Undercutting its pretense of relativism, multiculturalism is aggressively hostile to certain cultures, chiefly our own, with our Jewish and Christian vision of the one and the many, the different people of the one Creator held to the same transcendent standards. 

Culture, he writes, is more important than either politics or economics. Culture, more than the hot-button issues of the day, is what touches hearts and moves souls. And, especially in its moral and religious dimensions, culture is what animates the decisions of real people. What is the Creed but a profound cultural statement?

Creedal beliefs are what drove three people he came to know: Reagan, Thatcher, and Wojtyla – all of whom he portrays with remarkable insight: his and others’ – as in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s statement to him that Ronald Reagan was “the most secure man in the presence of a woman that she had ever met.”

Margaret Thatcher congratulated him on his book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. “You are doing,” she said warmly, “the most important work in the world.” The great Irving Kristol, already acquainted with Thatcher, stood nearby and theatrically cleared his throat. “You too, Irving,” she quipped.

A few years later, at 10 Downing Street, she would show him a dog-eared copy of the book, marked up with her notes.

John Paul II once told George Weigel: “Novak says he is Slovak, but he is actually Polish.” (Long story.)

Meeting the pope on one occasion, Michael brought Karen, a superb sculptor, who presented the Holy Father with a bronze crucifix. John Paul studied the figure of our Lord, His back arched. The Novaks were amazed to hear the pope say: “Exactly at the point of death” – exactly the artist’s intention.

Michael concludes the book by describing the role he played in helping clarify certain points in the pope’s great encyclical, Centesimus Annus.

“When it comes to life the critical thing,” G.K. Chesterton said, “is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” Michael Novak – scholar, diplomat, economist, sports fan, philosopher, Democrat, conservative, theologian, writer, husband, and father – has never taken anything for granted, for which his readers are most grateful.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National ReviewThe Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Stanley Anderson, August 26, 2013
Brad Miner quotes 'Jeane Kirkpatrick’s statement to [Michael Novak] that Ronald Reagan was “the most secure man in the presence of a woman that she had ever met”.'

Sounds like a wonderful state that any Christian can strive for by being in the presence of Our Lady!
written by Manfred, August 26, 2013
Thank you for a very well written review, Brad. I am happy to see that Mr. Novak has had an epiphany and has moved across the spectrum from left to right. I have written previously that this is the trend, that counterfeit "Catholics" become genuine Catholics when their child-bearing years are over and they sense their passing into reward or punishment is imminent. I write this as Mr. Novak was strongly opposed to Humanae Vitae and spoke and wrote about his opposition for years. He later recanted, but his arguments were of little succor to me and my wife (and many other struggling TRUE Catholics) as we birthed and raised our seven children from the mid-1960s to the late-70s, while following the teaching of Humanae Vitae, which even Fr. Hans Keung stated was Ex Cathedra teaching (but wrong).
written by Ken Tremendous, August 26, 2013
An hagiography like this confirms my fear that intellectually, politically, socially and in every other way, TCT and its editorial staff remain utterly stuck in 1985 and the afterglow of Ronald Reagan's 49 state landslide reelection.

Miner writes:

Today our brief era of prosperity and peace has come to an end, marked symbolically, if not actually, by 9-11.

A bit more introspection here is long overdue gentlemen. Reagan and Thatcher were great for the 1980's but let us please now look ourselves in the mirror and ask honestly the degree to which the rightward economic turn they ushered in has helped lead to the malaise in which we find ourselves.

I mean specifically stagnating and declining wages of the bottom 2/3 of the income scale and its consequences for family formation, successful marriages etc. etc.

It would be nice to see Novak apply his supposed analytical genius to this massive slow burning cultural/social/economic problem of our age rather than continuously reliving his odyssey (which many of us shared in fact, me included) to more a conservative politics 30 years ago.

I won't hold my breath. Public intellectuals have a definite shelf-life and Michael Novak is decades past his "sell-by" date.

written by Brad Miner, August 26, 2013
@ Manfred: First, congratulations on defying demographic trends. But it doesn't sound as though you and your wife were terribly dispirited. I understand your disappointment in much of what has "trended," as they now say, since Vatican II, but in all your comments you strike me as someone who has risen above it all. As to Mr. Novak's growth: as Cardinal Newman put it, "To live is to change; to become perfect is to have changed often."

@ Tremendous K: Your spirit of generosity is, as always, underwhelming. As for your neo-Marxist spin on current events . . . I cannot imagine why you do not see that the statism you advocate is the cause of the ongoing problems of poverty and dependence. The "liberal" solution has been what's mostly been applied to these problems, practically since the New Deal, and only an intellectual can be so clueless as to fail to see that's what's needed is more liberty and more responsibility. But face it, Ken: You think the people about whom you are hand-wringing aren't capable of managing their own lives. Conservatives believe they are.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 26, 2013
The outrageous political and economic statements made by liberals convey to the rational thinker just how bankrupt their ideas are. No one in their right mind takes these people seriously now (if they ever did).
written by Seanachie, August 26, 2013
Brad, in your last paragraph, you describe Michael as a "Democrat". Did you mean former-Democrat? The title of Michael's book and your commentary about his political transformation would seem to indicate that he would not be a "Democrat" today. I believe that many U.S. "ethnics" who were formerly staunch Democrats are today Republicans or Independents. They did not leave the Democrat party ...the Democrat party left them.
written by Brad Miner, August 26, 2013
@ Seanachie: Actually, I don't believe Michael indicates in the book if he ever changed his voter registration, which remained Democrat into the first decade of the 21st century.
written by Frank, August 26, 2013
Oh Ken T...perhaps you were not up close and personal enough. John Paul II, Thatcher and Reagan worked a three way tag team and the Soviet Union is no more. You may equivocate all you want but it quite possible you never had the chance to drive by a SAC alert pad where B-52's were "cocked" and KC-135 Tankers were fill to to the brim to refuel the bombers once the Emergency War Order was issued and the aircraft launched. Thanks to those three, we've reduced that threat greatly.
And OBTW, you can itch and moan all you want about Reaganomics but what business is it of your what wage I bring home? Why don't you just pay attention to your own bankbook. Liberals...just a bunch of unwelcome busy bodies who think their life's mission is to get the twig out of other people's eyes while ignoring the giant log blinding them.
written by Ken Tremendous, August 26, 2013
@ No I agree with you Frank that Reagan, Thatcher and JPII (and not in that order!) were instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And I agree that Reagan and Thatcher really helped the West emerge from the dreary and inflationary-sclerosis of the 1970's

But....I also think it is undeniable that the changes that they helped usher in have had longer term effects which have not been so salutary. One effect is the continuing weakness of labor. Yes labor was out of control especially in Britain in the 70's. But we gone from that world to one in which it is very difficult for large segments of the working population to earn a good living. Another effect was the metastasis of the financial sector which has both dramatically increased the gains at the top for people with lots of money to invest while at the same time promoting debt fueled consumption for almost everyone else--in which basically everything is purchased on time. Meanwhile those who work in finance bid up the price of everything from health care to college to housing in many markets.

In other words, what Reagan and Thatcher have done is usher in an economy that greatly increased the rewards of capital while greatly diminishing the rewards of labor. It has magnified the difference between the winners and losers to a point in which it is beginning to produce bad social outcomes. Divorce, illegitimacy, family breakdown drug use etc. are heavily concentrated among poor and lower middle class Americans. And we have to see that this can't continue forever.

And, I'm sorry, but people who are concerned about the growth of government programs should take heed...the increased demand for social spending is directly correlated to the stagnation and decline of wages for large numbers of Americans. If these people were capable of making the kind of livings that were available in, say, 1960 we would not be having this discussion. It's a little hard to raise two kids on a Walmart 30 hour a week wage with no health insurance. And all the paeans to Reagan and Thatcher in the world are not going to answer these problems of today. There is too much nostalgia on the right today coupled with a total unresponsiveness to contemporary challenges.

Frankly I don't think Michael Novak gets this. And I don't think Brad Miner does either. For a capitalist system to work well and survive long term it has to produce benefits that are more widely shared than what we are seeing now.
written by gabe, August 26, 2013
I have to agree with ken. The right has.boxed itself in. It opposes strengthening labor unions. It opposes the minimum wage itself let alone raising it. It supports or at least its big money donors support increases in all forms of immigration which depresses wages at the bottom but also.among computer programmers. And it is dead set against any attempt to help people at the bottom both because it hates spending money on the poor and disadvantagd and it wants to save room in the budget for more tax cuts for the wealthy. Its no surprise that the right is having trouble winning elections these days notwithstanding the fact that it still is right on abortion.

What is galling is that guys like novak have the chutzpa to pretend that these sorts of policies are consistent with Catholic teaching.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author