Early morning on February 17, word was getting around that Michael Novak had passed away in his sleep, and email klatsches were forming. In mine, one of his close friends wrote that “the generosity of Michael’s friendship allowed him to obscure the fact that he was among the few truly great men that any of us have known.” We all piled on with fervent assents. That a man of such towering achievements should also be a down-home, kindly friend (even “cuddly,” discerning women would attest) was so unusual that we had pretended he was just one of the guys.
Which is not to say that Michael was modest. He wrote more than 40 books and countless essays on everything under the sun and many things beyond the sun. He promoted his ideas assiduously, through 50 years of nonstop lecturing, debating, and classroom teaching and in everyday small-talk that never stayed small when he was around. He was driven by a firm conviction that he was in possession of singular talents for educating and improving mankind. Early in my time as president of the American Enterprise Institute, I told Michael that he had exactly 12 minutes, not a minute more, to summarize his current work for a gathering of trustees and donors. He cheerfully agreed and then, as he warmed up at the podium, spoke for 50 minutes (on baseball and American democracy) to a rapt and appreciative audience.
And Michael was ardent for recognition and honors—which, among friends, he never bothered to conceal, treating praise simply as evidence that his labors were indeed moving the world. As he lay dying, a visitor noticed that his daughter, Jana, was reading him the numerous emails she was receiving attesting to his great works and influence. Enough testimonials, the visitor interjected, it is time to turn to larger matters. Michael mustered a smile and said: No, no, read them all! Which was his way of telling everyone assembled that the Novakian spirit they knew and loved was still burning strong.
Michael’s combination of ambition and friendliness was more than personal disposition. His thinking and writing, too, were at once aggressive and gentle, tough-minded and irenic. This was an expression of his intellectual position and Catholic faith—as I tried to explain in remarks at a dinner in honor of Michael on his retirement from AEI in 2010, printed below. Here let me elaborate with words of his own.
Michael was a Reagan Democrat, proud of his ethnic (Slovak-American) roots and upbringing in working-class Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In the 1970s, his intellectual migration from left to right was inspired by the left’s (and the Democratic party’s) abandonment of working-class sentiments and aspirations for a new-age progressivism that he regarded as utopian and effete. Accordingly, his conservatism was sinewy, and distinctly non-libertarian. Human freedom, for Michael, was not an abstract good but rather a social artifact—the fruit of lived experience, grounded in family and community, and demanding continuous struggle against the forces of moral entropy. Democratic capitalism is the preferred political system for more than its palpable material benefits: It is the most auspicious arena for the incarnate struggles among groups and nations and within the human heart. Economic prosperity is evidence that the struggles are going well for the time being. “Free to choose,” when we gain it, is an obligation.
I thought of Novak the Reagan Democrat last election night, November 8, 2016, when the early returns from western Pennsylvania were beginning to upset expectations of a Hillary Clinton triumph. (Johnstown’s Cambria County, heavily Democratic in party registration, went 66 percent for Donald Trump.) In my political set, sharply divided between Trump supporters and opponents, we had learned to be circumspect about election preferences—but when I reached Michael he was bluntly at the barricades. “If America is going to come apart into those who went to college and those who did not,” he said, “I want to be with the folks who did not go to college.”
I did not question Michael in any detail, but am certain that he was not rooting for the Trumpsters as if they were the Steelers. I think he regarded the Trump revolt as the rough-hewn, extravagantly flawed, internally conflicted agency of freedom in its latest struggle. But in Michael’s conception the struggle is a noble one, because freedom is at once contingent and divine, and it can succeed only by attaching itself to human goodness. That is the teaching of the stem-winding conclusion of his address at Westminster Abbey on receiving the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994:
No one ever promised us that free societies will endure forever. Indeed, a cold view of history shows that submission to tyranny is the more frequent condition of the human race, and that free societies have been few in number and not often long-lived. Free societies such as our own, which have arisen rather late in the long evolution of the human race, may pass across the darkness of time like splendid little comets, burn into ashes, disappear.
Yet nothing in the entire universe, vast as it is, is as beautiful as the human person. The human person alone is shaped to the image of God. This God loves humans with a love most powerful. It is this God who draws us, erect and free, toward Himself, this God Who, in Dante's words, is the Love that moves the sun / and all the stars.
Michael was one of the last remaining (a few are still with us) of those giants who collaborated directly with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II on the great liberal achievements of the 1980s—the defeat of Soviet communism and the expansion of economic freedom and prosperity in much of the West and beyond. Today we are once again beset by violent totalitarianism, economic stagnation, angry social divisions, and an abundance of unpleasant options. Many conservatives, and many young people, seem to think we have lost our grip and fallen away from a halcyon past. In the face of such despair, Michael Novak’s legacy is that the struggle for freedom is ever present, ever changing, and ever in need of active, tough-minded idealism.