There was far too much death in 2023. Vladimir Putin's continuing war on Ukraine. More senseless mass shootings, including those in Maine and Tennessee. The savagery of Hamas in Israel. For all of these reasons, I will be glad to see 2023 in the rearview mirror. In addition, among those we lost in 2023 have been some remarkable conservatives. They were thinkers and leaders who helped shape the movement that promotes and defends liberty, the rule of law, and Western civilization — all of which are increasingly under pressure these days.
Two of the most consequential voices lost in 2023 were Paul Johnson and Fred Siegel. Both were talented writers. And both started on the Left, migrating rightward in reaction to progressive excesses and their own intellectual learning. Johnson wrote more than 50 books of history — on intellectuals, Christianity, America, Judaism (he could not abide antisemitism), and many other subjects. His powerful writing was widely read and admired. Vice President Dan Quayle read Johnson's great work Modern Times while in office, infamously describing it "as a very good historical work about history," and George W. Bush gave Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Johnson also helped promote Margaret Thatcher's Conservative resurgence in England but refused a peerage because he felt journalists should retain a measure of remove from the politicians they covered.
My favorite story regarding Johnson is about his hyper-efficient work methods in the days before personal computers. He was incredibly prolific and would type his books on two typewriters. The first one would have the text, and the second one, to which he would turn periodically, contained the footnotes for his well-researched works. We shall not see his like again.
Siegel also went from writing to political advising, helping Rudy Giuliani chart the course to rescue New York from chaos in the 1990s. Although he started out on the Left, Siegel had little patience for political figures such as New York Mayor John Lindsay, whom he described as "a classic liberal in that intentions counted for more than outcomes, and the trade-offs that we always have to make in order to make policy work, were alien to him." Born in the Bronx, Siegel spent most of his adult life in his beloved Brooklyn, moving there long before the hipsters did. He edited and wrote for City Journal, which became the bible of the Giuliani administration — copies were hand-delivered to City Hall straight from the presses.
Siegel also authored multiple books, including the 1997 book The Future Once Happened Here, which denounced what he called "riot ideology" long before the summer of 2020. He was a fan of Irving Kristol, who famously described a neoconservative as a "liberal mugged by reality." But even though Siegel had his encounters with crime, he was less concerned about himself than about New York itself, particularly after the destructive looting during the 1977 New York City blackout. As he described it, "The city itself had been mugged, I realized. I'm still haunted by that moment from 40 years ago, when my political reeducation began."
Siegel and Johnson advised and influenced from the outside, but several important figures who died this year chose to serve inside government. Most prominent among them were Henry Kissinger and Sandra Day O'Connor. Conservatives had their problems with both of them. Kissinger promoted detente with the Soviet Union, opposed neoconservative efforts to push human rights, and had to be cajoled by Richard Nixon to rush armed services to Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. On the plus side, he always had American interests at heart and was perhaps the greatest geopolitical strategist of the 20th century. He helped push the Soviet Union out of the Middle East, a maneuver that stayed in effect until Russia, no longer the USSR, returned there due to former President Barack Obama's strategic missteps, mistakes unlikely to have happened had Kissinger been advising him.
O'Connor was Ronald Reagan's first Supreme Court appointment and the first woman to join the Supreme Court. While certainly not as conservative as her eventual replacement, Samuel Alito, she was an improvement over most of the justices who had been getting onto the court at the time. She was a supporter of state rights and a skeptic of unfettered federal power.
A more traditionally conservative public servant was James Buckley, the older brother of National Review founder and editor William F. Buckley. Buckley, who died this year at 100, served this nation in the Navy in World War II and later in all three branches of government. He was a United States senator from New York for only one term, but it was an eventful one. Buckley defended the right of politicians to raise money under the First Amendment, a right that was ratified by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo. He also had a legendarily great staff, which included future conservative stars such as Kate O'Beirne, Tony Dolan, Karlyn Bowman, Bill Gribbin, Dan Oliver, and many others. Buckley lost his Senate seat to Daniel Patrick Moynihan but returned to serve in the executive branch as undersecretary of state for international security affairs in the Reagan administration. Reagan then appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where he was a staunch protector of the Constitution, about which he wrote that "the most important thing in social and political life is freedom, and I believe that it is because of the safeguards written into the Constitution, and the character of the American people, that we have enjoyed it in so great a measure."
Another great lover of the Constitution was former Reagan-Bush White House aide C. Boyden Gray. Heir to a tobacco fortune, Gray was wealthy enough that he did not need to work but, inspired by his father, chose to serve his country in the Marines and later as a Supreme Court clerk, White House official, and U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Gray was close to Bush, with whom he played tennis, and Bush made him chief counsel of his regulatory task force in the Reagan administration and then White House counsel during Bush's presidency. From his White House posts, Gray helped promote the career of many conservative lawyers along the way, including Alito, John Roberts, and Clarence Thomas. Gray, to his regret, did allow the Supreme Court appointment of David Souter to go forward, even though he knew quickly from the internal mock Senate hearings to prepare Souter that the pick would be a disaster. After leaving office, Gray helped to establish the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University, which continues to do terrific work in his name on regulatory and administrative policy.
Also involved in the legal policy world was Terry Eastland. Eastland was not a lawyer but served as a Justice Department speechwriter and spokesman during the Reagan administration for Attorneys General William French Smith and Edwin Meese. After leaving government, Eastland applied his communications skills to writing and to the world of conservative magazines, serving as publisher for both the American Spectator and the Weekly Standard. Through it all, he was known universally as a gentleman.
Like Eastland, John Raisian also went into the world of ideas from the Reagan administration, where he had served in the Department of Labor. Trained as an economist, Raisian joined Stanford University's Hoover Institution, which became a bastion for many Reagan alumni. A few years after joining, Raisian became head of Hoover, coining its slogan, "Ideas Defining a Free Society." Raisian's increased Hoover's size and reach by letting its scholars be scholars while he and his administrative team handled the rest. He once posed the rhetorical question, "What is the Hoover Institution's directive to Robert Conquest?" referring to Hoover's great scholar of communism and its excesses. His answer showed that he understood that a think tank head existed to enable its scholars: "It is to continue to be Robert Conquest."
Ann McLaughlin Korologos was also in Reagan's Labor Department, where she served as secretary of labor. She was only the second woman to have the job, after Frances Perkins, who had been America's first female Cabinet secretary under Franklin Roosevelt. At the time, McLaughlin was married to John McLaughlin, host of The McLaughlin Show, which was must-see TV for politicos in Reagan's Washington. This, along with her quick wit, made the couple quite the trendy party guests. When asked about her decision not to have children, she replied, "I'm raising John McLaughlin." Reagan himself got in on the fun, recognizing that the self-important McLaughlin was an easy target. When asked if the then Ann McLaughlin was up for the challenging job of Labor Secretary, Reagan quipped, "If she's handled John McLaughlin this long, she can handle anybody." She ended up divorcing John McLaughlin but then married another Washington fixture, ambassador, lobbyist, and uber-fixer, Tom Korologos.
Speaking of ambassadors, strip mall pioneer Mel Sembler befriended George H.W. Bush when Bush's campaign set up shop in a Sembler shopping center. Sembler became a financial supporter of both Bush and his son George W., serving as an ambassador in both administrations, to Australia and Italy, respectively. When Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau mocked Sembler for seemingly getting an ambassadorship by being a campaign contributor, Sembler was unbothered, saying, "You really need a good sense of humor when you get into politics."
North Carolina Republican Lauch Faircloth served only one term in the Senate but became known for two things. The first was his feud with Washington, D.C., "Mayor for Life" Marion Barry. Faircloth worked to set up a financial control board to help manage the district, as Barry himself had characterized the Washington government as "unworkable." The second was his legendary quip to famed Senate conservative and fellow North Carolinian Jesse Helms on Faircloth's arrival in the Senate: "Sen. Helms, you are now the liberal senator from North Carolina."
In addition to the political people, we also lost some conservative entertainers in 2023. Suzanne Somers became famous for playing the ditzy blond Chrissy on ABC's weekly suggestive "misunderstanding that needs to get resolved" sitcom Three's Company. Somers was indeed blond, but she was no ditz, authoring 24 books and creating a successful line of beauty products. During the debate over Obamacare, she wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece, "First of all, let's call affordable health care what it really is: It's socialized medicine. I've had an opportunity to watch the Canadian version of affordable health care in action with all its limitations with my Canadian husband's family." Upon her death, Joe diGenova summed her up, saying, "She was a fabulous human being, and she had the equally great benefit of being a great conservative."
Another entertainer we lost was Gary Rossington, Lynyrd Skynyrd's last surviving original member. Rossington's claim to conservative fame was co-writing the song "Sweet Home Alabama" with Ronnie Van Zant and Ed King. They wrote the song specifically as a rebuke to leftist singer Neil Young and his anti-Southern songs "Southern Man" and "Alabama." Young himself later acknowledged that he had gone too far with his Dixie bashing, writing in 2012 that "'Alabama' richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. ... I don't like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue." Rossington and his band, however, did not wait four decades to make that judgment. They pushed back in something close to real time, writing a durable hit that forever put Young in his place:
Well, I heard Mr. Young sing about her. Well, I heard ol' Neil put her down. Well, I hope Neil Young will remember. A Southern man don't need him around, anyhow.
A more conservative entertainer was "Diamond" of the Diamond and Silk duo. Born Lynette Hardaway, she and her sister Rochelle Richardson saw their funny political videos start to catch on in 2015. Their videos got the attention of Fox News before they moved over to Newsmax. They were far too susceptible to conspiracy theories, but they did serve as a harbinger of the way young people increasingly get their information, not from traditional media or news anchors but from infotainment videos that speak to them in their own styles.
Our increasingly dangerous world is teaching us that we need allies outside the U.S. Unfortunately, we lost some valuable ones in 2023. First was Nigel Lawson, who served as Margaret Thatcher's chancellor of the exchequer, equivalent to our treasury secretary. He served six years in the post, helping Thatcher rescue England from its Labour-dominated 1970s doldrums. Lawson's efforts to turn around the British economy were instrumental in showing the power of free markets and the importance of growth and opportunity in defeating communism. Also important to the Cold War victory was Czech novelist Milan Kundera. While technically not a conservative, his widely distributed writings, most prominently The Unbearable Lightness of Being, helped keep the flame of freedom alive behind the Iron Curtain and contributed to the cultural push that helped bring down the "evil empire."
Another important ally of ours is Israel, and all true conservatives stand with that country during this difficult period. Two great American friends of Israel died in 2023. Yale Law School graduate Pat Robertson was one of the driving forces of evangelical Christians' involvement in American politics. Robertson ran for president in 1988 and even finished second in the Iowa caucuses, the high point of his campaign. While being president was not to be, he was always a staunch backer of Israel. In November, Regent University, the school he founded, sent 1,000 students to join the 300,000-strong rally in support of Israel in Washington, D.C.
While Robertson was instrumental in building support for Israel from within the evangelical movement, Morrie Amitay did so from within the Jewish community. His immigrant parents sent him to Columbia and then Harvard, where he learned about foreign policy from Kissinger, even keeping his notes from Kissinger's seminar into adulthood. Amitay led AIPAC for six years and helped turn it into the lobbying powerhouse that it became, but he never liked the word "lobbyist." His preferred term for what he did: "corridorist."
Less well known in the U.S. were the Israelis Jacob Turkel and Ra'anana Meridor. Turkel was a legal scholar and judge who described himself as "a Jewish Zionist. I always saw it as an honor and duty to serve the country." Meridor was a matriarch of one of Israel's great revisionist families, revisionism being somewhat akin to Israel's version of conservatism. Two of her sons, Dan and Sallai Meridor, were important Likud officials, and her family exemplifies the consensus-building constructive conservatism that will be essential for Israel to move forward after the current crisis is over.
In addition to the people named above, we should not lose sight of the hundreds of Israelis and dozens of Americans slaughtered on Oct. 7. We can never know what the young people murdered that day might have become. They could have written books, run for office, served in the army, or done any of the many things the conservatives named above did to build a movement that values freedom, democracy, and Western civilization. Those values are despised by the enemy that killed them and seeks to destroy all of the things to which the conservatives listed above dedicated their lives.