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 Review. The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.