Michael J. Sobran, Jr., Joe to those of us who knew him, died last Thursday. He was by far the most eloquent, passionate, and witty pro-life writer in America over the last quarter century. And in spite of an intellectual’s eccentricities that could drive you crazy and his, at times, stubborn wrongheadedness, he was a rare soul who livened up any room he entered and remained, despite the trials of years, a friend.
His was one of the most naturally brilliant minds of anyone I’ve ever known. Though he went to Eastern Michigan University, under different family circumstances, he would have ended up in the Ivy League or someplace like the University of Chicago. Fortunately, he came to the attention of William F. Buckley, Jr., when the famous founder of National Review spoke at the university amidst protests and was ably defended by a young campus journalist named Sobran. Not long after, Buckley invited him to join the magazine staff in New York.
Joe began his ascent to prominence with a long article demolishing Garry Wills, another Wunderkind given a start by Buckley, who early in his public career presented himself as a Chestertonian, but turned rather sharply into a standard – if brilliant – pro-abortion Catholic. In compensation, Sobran himself became a kind of contemporary Chesterton on all the pressing social issues. His book of collected articles, Single Issues, which was published in 1983 by The Human Life Review, is still illuminating and entertaining on everything it touches: abortion and euthanasia, marriage, family, religion, homosexuality, and many other matters.
When I first came to know him, we were both living in Princeton. I was running a magazine and he was commuting to New York. He’d give me tips on public arguments: “When you see a double standard, look for the single standard behind it.” And on the way that government was evolving into a soft tyranny by clever evasions of constitutional limits: “Just think what Stalin could have done if he’d only had the Commerce Clause.” He meant that Congress now claims unconstitutional powers under the Constitutional principle that the Federal government can regulate interstate commerce. (Case in point: Obamacare wades into health insurance, which is not sold across state lines.) Some think he singlehandedly restored popular appreciation of the Tenth Amendment argument that anything beyond the enumerated powers remains in the hands of the states or the people. Joe came to regard Lincoln as one of the instigators of power grabs because he ran roughshod over the states in the Civil War – unfair to Lincoln, but indicative of Joe’s passion for liberty, and limited government.
Shakespeare was a lifelong passion; he knew the Bard so well that you could give him an obscure line and he could almost always go on a bit from there. Around 1990, he became obsessed with the authorship question. It made no sense to him, once he started to look into it, that a nobody from a small town could have written such convincing scenes about monarchs and nobles. He concluded, for this and other reasons, that Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford, wrote “Shakespeare,” the latter being a minor actor from Stratford-on-Avon used as a screen by various figures (playwriting and acting were disreputable activities in Elizabethan England). He also concluded from the Sonnets that de Vere was a homosexual, a hard truth about a beloved writer, which he put into an epigram: “He’s here, he’s queer, he’s de Vere.” Joe wrote a fall-over-dead-laughing novella in the form of a detective story about the clueless Shakespeare trying to figure out who was using him and why. Inexplicably, no publisher has picked it up.
Or perhaps not so inexplicably. Around 1990, he started to think that our alliance with Israel, which he had supported vigorously till then, and powerful Jewish lobbies in America were drawing us into decidedly non-conservative military adventures, as in the first Iraq War. When he started to get pushback from other conservatives, he resented it and dug in his heels. There’s plenty to debate about Israel and the Middle East, of course. But Joe started to throw hard punches in rebuttal and even began to flirt with some unsavory publications and organizations that were anti-Semitic in ways that he was not.
I say this as a person who had to stop talking with him for about a year because of his obsessions about the attacks he suffered and the unfair charges of anti-Semitism, a death sentence in respectable circles for any writer. William F. Buckley famously excoriated Joe and Pat Buchanan in an article, “In Search of Anti-Semitism.” Buckley concluded that neither man was a classic anti-Semite but that they were providing fuel for the old canard about Catholics and conservatives harboring anti-Semitic attitudes. Joe retaliated and they broke with each other, but reconciled a year before Buckley died. Still, the accusations damaged Joe’s reputation and some publishers were gun-shy about him.
This was unfortunate in several ways, not least because it hurt him financially. And as a man who was not married – two marriages had failed – and was a textbook-case impractical intellectual, his health declined. Fortunately for him, his business affairs were run by the saintly Fran Griffin and her Griffin Communications the last few years. Fran literally prolonged his life.
I saw him in a nursing home last Sunday. He perked up when my wife told him she was leaving this week for Egypt to study icons and he asked about the book I’m working on. But with diabetes and double renal failure, we all knew it was a matter of time. He died the day after the Feast of the Archangels. The lines from Hamlet come unbidden:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince.
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.