My friend Joe Sobran died last Thursday, and the world lost its greatest writer.
To my delight, some obituaries noted that he had influenced my writing style. I only wish I had known he was so close to the end so I could have seen him again to let him influence me some more.
The G.K. Chesterton of our time, Joe could deliver a knockout punch with a single line. Many of his aphorisms were so catchy that everyone repeats them now without realizing their provenance.
It was Joe who came up with the apocryphal New York Times headline: “New York Destroyed by Earthquake; Women and Minorities Hit Hardest.”
Joe created the phrase “strange new respect” to describe the sudden warm admiration the media have for any conservative who becomes a liberal.
In the ‘80s, Bill Buckley suggested that AIDS sufferers be required to get tattoos on their buttocks to protect other gays. As all hell broke loose over his proposal, Sobran simply suggested that it might borrow from Dante: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
I’ve recently been telling a friend who talked me into agreeing to an interview with the Times that I wouldn’t be mad at him no matter what the Times does to me because “your enemies can never hurt you, only your friends can.” I remember now that it was Sobran who told me that, years ago, in reference to his treatment by Buckley.
Ironically perhaps, I’ve often used a Sobran observation to explain why I have a greater affinity to Israel than to the Muslim world after 9/11: Watching a death-match fight on Animal Planet once, Joe said he found himself instinctively rooting for the mammal over the reptile.
Joe was comically immune to group-think. Every Christian should be, but with Joe it was nearly pathological.
A Shakespeare expert, Joe became convinced that the real author was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Among his vast trove of evidence were the sonnets, some of which clearly expressed love for another man.
When Joe was writing what became “Alias Shakespeare,” he used to tell me he was going to title the book: “He’s Here, He’s Queer, He’s Edward de Vere!”
Reading through some of his columns after he died and being reminded of what an eloquent writer Joe was, I realized that the best tribute would be to quote him extensively.
As Joe himself said: “I note that my enemies have written a great deal about me, yet they rarely quote me directly. Why not? If I am so disreputable myself, I must at least occasionally say disreputable things. Is it possible that what I say is more cogent than they like to admit?”
Joe’s quotes are much better when you’re reading his columns and a beautifully turned phrase sneaks up on you, but here are a few good ones, even in isolation:
—On our democracy: “Your chances of meeting an IRS agent are far greater than your chances of meeting anyone you voted for.”
—On Clinton: “Once again, his defenders, furiously attacking the prosecution and equating opposition with ‘conspiracy,’ don’t dare mount the best defense: ‘He’s not that sort of man.’ It’s because Clinton is, supremely, ‘that sort of man’ that this whole thing has happened. He’s a lying lecher, a prevaricating pervert, an utterly slimy crook, without a trace of honor or loyalty, desperately trying to save his own skin one last time.”
—On big government: “Freedom has ceased to be a birthright; it has come to mean whatever we are still permitted to do.”
—On Obama: “Nor has he said anything memorable—not even a single aphorism over this long campaign. And the title of his book ‘The Audacity of Hope’—what on earth does that mean? He is always hinting at a substance that is never disclosed to us. He seems to live by raising vague aspirations he never fulfills.”
—On Buckley’s book “In Search of Anti-Semitism”: “Its real message is not that we should like or respect Jews; only that we should try not to hate them. But this implies that anti-Semitism is the natural reaction to them: If it’s a universal sin, after all, it must be a universal temptation. … When he defends Jews, I sometimes feel like saying: ‘Bill! Bill! It’s all right! They’re not that bad!’”
—On evolution: “If our furry and scaly friends were still evolving, none of them appeared to be gaining on us.”
—On Canada banning Dr. Laura: “Canada has to protect itself against such pernicious, hate-filled American notions as the Law of Moses. If Dr. Laura wants to spew the Ten Commandments, let her do it in her own country.”
After I made some point to Joe once, he paid me a compliment that describes exactly why it was so fun to be around him. He said, “Your mind is always going.”
His body is gone, but I’m sure his mind is still going like gangbusters. And I’m insanely jealous that he’s giving God all the good belly laughs now.