This was a hard year for conservatives. In 2022, we mourned the loss of a host of influential and important thinkers on the Right. The intellectual wing of the conservative movement has always been a vital force for inspiring, presenting, and driving home conservative ideas. The conservatives we lost in this past year all played a part in this dynamic exchange, in newspapers, at think tanks, in academia, on the judiciary, and in entertainment. The voices they provided helped conservative ideas get heard — and for that we can be grateful.
One of the primary ways to give voice to conservatism is through writing. This year got off to a rough start with the loss of the brilliant critic Terry Teachout in January. Teachout was the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal and a critic at large for Commentary. Clay Risen described Teachout well in a New York Times obituary, calling him "omnivorous, humane, worldly without being pretentious." Risen added that Teachout "wore his erudition lightly, enjoying it, and hoping that, through his prose, others might as well." Teachout got his start in a traditionally conservative writer sort of way: William F. Buckley took one of his pieces for National Review, and then Norman Podhoretz let him write for Commentary. From there, he became unstoppable. No one who followed cultural commentary on the Right could possibly miss his analysis. He was also a polymath. As the Washington Post theater critic Peter Marx wrote of him, Teachout was "as conversant with Chopin and Satchmo as he was with Shakespeare." Conservatives received another grievous blow only one month later when the political satirist P.J. O'Rourke died at 74. O'Rourke started on the Left but migrated rightward over time, noting, "I couldn't stay a Maoist forever. I got too fat to wear bell-bottoms. And I realized that communism meant giving my golf clubs to a family in Zaire."
These kinds of laugh-out-loud insights were typical of O'Rourke. He also had an enormous generosity of spirit. One of the funniest lines in any of his books came not from himself but from his close friend, Andrew Ferguson, in Parliament of Whores — a well-deserved No. 1 New York Times bestseller. O'Rourke recalled seeing a big left-wing protest and wondering why when liberals are upset, they all take to the streets, while conservatives only have a few with a small flag show up when they are equally perturbed. Ferguson's deadpan explanation: "We have jobs." It takes a big man to give the funniest lines to his friends, and O'Rourke was that kind of guy.
John Leo was another great writer for the popular press, serving as a columnist for U.S. News & World Report during the heyday of the weekly news magazines. As Risen wrote, Leo "used his acerbic wit to slaughter herds of liberal sacred cows." Leo had a long career in journalism before coming to U.S. News & World Report, including a stint at the New York Times in the late 1960s. Leo might have objected to having himself listed in a column about conservatives because he saw himself more as a Democrat who was willing to take a skeptical eye to pieties of any kind. But he merits inclusion here because, as Lance Morrow wrote, "Leo's was a valiant voice for many years against the encroaching — and too often victorious — idiocies of what would become known as the Woke, and their confederates." And he did it in a venue that broke free from the conservative ghetto: His U.S. News & World Report column ran for 17 years and in 140 newspapers.
David McCullough was another difficult loss in 2022. He, too, was not a self-avowed conservative. But his passion and dedication to American history resulted in books that conveyed conservative messages. McCullough had a gift for helping readers reexamine historical figures in a new light, which he did with both John Adams and Harry Truman. He also was closely tied to the presidency: He wrote about multiple presidents, was read by multiple presidents, and even consulted and met with multiple presidents. He did all of this from outside academia, which probably allowed his books to be more read, more readable, and more entertaining than much of what issues forth from universities these days.
Paul Cantor was an exception when it comes to the modern academy, though. He spent decades as a professor at the University of Virginia. Cantor was trained as a Shakespeare scholar, but he was also, as Adam Keiper wrote, "a pioneer in treating pop culture as worthy of serious philosophical attention." These two concepts were complementary rather than contradictory. As Cantor's student Peter Hufnagel wrote, Cantor "realized that what is regarded as high culture today (Shakespeare's plays, Dickens' novels, Verdi's operas) was the popular culture of its day." According to his colleague Mark Edmundson, Cantor "saw how true art forms began as merely popular and sometimes shoddy forms of entertainment, but then grew to real magnificence." This understanding led him to write smart essays on popular modern shows such as Star Trek, The Simpsons, and even South Park, of which he wrote "does not simply defend the free market in its episodes, it is itself living proof of how the markets can work to create something of artistic value and, in the process, benefit producers and consumers alike."
In my own writing on popular culture, I often quoted Cantor's insights. While The Simpsons, for example, is not a conservative show, Cantor showed how it could convey conservative messages. As he explained, Mayor "Diamond Joe" Quimby, the philandering politician on The Simpsons, "speaks with a heavy Kennedy accent, and generally acts like a Democratic urban machine politician." And Cantor changed the way I looked at Star Trek, explaining that it was modeled on a celebration of 1960s liberalism. As Cantor wrote, "Mr. Spock seems to stand for all of JFK's brainy advisers from Harvard — a sort of McGeorge Bundy with pointy ears."
In addition to all this, and in contrast to many conservative-minded intellectuals these days, Cantor was also a popular professor and made sure that students got a different perspective from the regnant progressivism on today's campuses. Over a 45-year career at UVA, he taught an estimated 10,000 students.
Two women who happen to be mothers of friends of mine also died this year. Both were writers and political provocateurs. Midge Decter, mother of John Podhoretz, was a brilliant writer and editor who wrote more than 60 pieces for Commentary. She also got involved in politics, creating the Coalition for a Democratic Majority in the 1970s to help reform the Democratic Party and the Committee for the Free World in the 1980s to help with the fight against Soviet aggression. She didn't succeed in making the Democratic Party more to her liking, although she did succeed in taking many of her like-minded friends and colleagues with her to the Republicans. The free world effort was more successful as the Soviet Union collapsed approximately a decade after she started her organization. Even the New York Times gave her some grudging credit for this, writing, "Midge Decter, one of the frostiest sentinels on the ramparts of the cold war, apparently is satisfied that a stake has been driven squarely through the heart of communism."
Lucianne Goldberg, mother of the writer and now media magnate Jonah Goldberg, always saw the humorous side of things. Podhoretz even called her "maybe the most sheerly fun person I've ever known." She was involved in politics for decades, working in the Johnson White House and as a spy for the Nixon campaign and then famously being the one who told Linda Tripp to record Monica Lewinsky. If she hadn't done that, there would still be people who insisted that Bill Clinton never had an affair with Lewinsky. She was also an important literary agent, representing conservatives at a time when they had little representation, and she wrote a fair bit as well, including ghostwriting Maureen Dean's novel Washington Wives and writing some racy novels of her own.
Michael Gerson, who died this year at the too-young age of 58, also bridged the worlds of writing and politics. He first gained fame as a speechwriter for George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. He worked with Bush on defining the concept of "compassionate conservatism," which allowed Bush to separate himself from the less popular conservatism of the 1990s Republican House majority. He became a speechwriter to Bush as president, becoming perhaps the most acclaimed White House speechwriter since Ted Sorensen. He helped Bush craft important remarks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in conjunction with a great speechwriting team that also included John McConnell and Matt Scully. After the Bush administration, Gerson became a columnist for the Washington Post. He separated himself from the conservative movement in recent years but must be remembered as an important voice in serving and helping to define the only two-term Republican administration of the past 30 years.
Ken Duberstein served as the last chief of staff in the two-term Republican administration that preceded Bush, that of Ronald Reagan. Duberstein had also been a legislative aide to Reagan and in that capacity helped advance Reagan's ambitious legislative agenda. Later, he became the first Jewish White House chief of staff in history. He brought humor and tactical savvy to everything he did. Mike Long was another skilled political operative. He was long-term head of the New York State Conservative Party, which is a little bit like being a member of the Washington Generals, which served as the doormat for the Harlem Globetrotters. Yet Long, in contrast to the Generals, did have a few key victories, including helping George Pataki unseat three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-NY) in 1994. As Pataki remembered, "Without his support, I would never have been elected governor." Another big Long win was James Buckley, brother of Bill, who became a New York senator for one term on the Conservative Party ticket in 1970. Long knew that running a Conservative Party in New York was not a winning hand, but he also understood the importance of playing that hand in one of the nation's most important states, saying, "We've always understood that the Conservative Party is a philosophical movement more than a political party."
The late, great Orrin Hatch hailed from a much more conservative-friendly state, but he took a different approach. He ran as a Reagan Republican and was a conservative throughout his career, but he also understood that it took bipartisan compromise to get things done in the Senate. He built a close relationship with Ted Kennedy. He took some slings and arrows from his own side in the process, but he also did good work in pushing Reagan's tax cuts and also helping to reform the Food and Drug Administration.
The judiciary is another institution where courageous conservatives have articulated conservative ideas over the past few decades. Perhaps no judge did so more ably and with more influence than District of Columbia Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman, who died in October at age 86. Silberman never made the Supreme Court despite being considered at least three times, but he influenced the justices and many a clerk during his long career. He also wrote important decisions in favor of gun rights and against the independent counsel statute. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush and, as deputy attorney general, reviewed the record of the excesses of the FBI in the J. Edgar Hoover years, calling it the "single worst experience of my long governmental service." Silberman, always concerned about government overreach, was shaken by what he learned, saying, "As bad as the dirt collection business was, perhaps even worse was the evidence that [Hoover] had allowed, even offered, the bureau to be used by presidents for nakedly political purposes. I have always thought that the most heinous act in which a democratic government can engage is to use its law enforcement machinery for political ends."
Another legal giant, Ken Starr, died at 76 from complications following surgery. Best known for his investigation into Whitewater that, with help from Lucianne Goldberg, uncovered Clinton's affair with Lewinsky, he was also an important figure in the conservative legal establishment. A former judge and solicitor general of the United States, Starr was often on the short list for the Supreme Court until the investigation into Lewinsky made him what he himself recognized as "the most criticized man in America." Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was one of Starr's top aides during the investigation into Clinton, summed him up in a statement upon Starr's passing: "Fiercely devoted to the Constitution and to the United States, Judge Starr was a great lawyer, judge, scholar, and teacher." Clinton, however, despite usually being skilled at reconciling with his opponents, including Goldberg, could not find it in his heart to forgive Starr. The most he could muster was, "I read the obituary and I realized that his family loved him, and I think that's something to be grateful for."
A key way that conservatives get their ideas heard is via the think tank world. Wally Stern was a New York financier who helped fund the Hudson Institute. After attending a lecture by legendary Hudson founder Herman Kahn, Stern joined Hudson's board, where he remained for decades, long after Kahn's passing. He helped manage Hudson through many tumultuous periods including three moves and a financial disaster stemming from the Bernie Madoff scandal. Another important think tank figure was Phil Truluck. He served at the Heritage Foundation for four decades and helped make it one of the most important conservative institutions in Washington and an instrumental player in getting conservative messages to policymakers.
Finally, allow me to end with Marvin Lee Aday, better known as the singer Meat Loaf. He was certainly not a movement conservative, but he had conservative views on many things, and his career even suffered because of it. He once complained about losing multiple jobs because he was rumored to be a Republican. As he told Esquire, "I've been banned from two TV shows because USA Today has me listed as a Republican." The allegation, he said, was not quite true: "I'm neither Right nor Left, and I'm not sure I'm even in the middle. I have a lot of views to the left, and I have a lot of views to the right, and that really doesn't put me in the middle. I don't know what that makes me. It makes me weird."
As Meat Loaf said of his job snubs due to being a Republican, "I've heard those stories, but I didn't really believe they'd do that." In this sense, his was a voice representing millions of people who feel like they can't express their opinions for fear of negative implications on their careers. Fortunately, his fantastic voice and songwriting allowed him to thrive despite the political prejudices predominant in Hollywood.
The other people on this list may not have had Meat Loaf's singing voice, but their voices, and the actions they inspired, were a crucial part of the conservative movement for decades, and it's worth taking time at the end of 2022 to appreciate their contributions to us all.