John Leo died on May 10 at the age of eighty-six. The headline for the New York Times obituary described him as “Columnist Who Took Aim at Liberal Pieties.” That he was. For several decades, John did a kind of sentry duty in national publications like Time and U.S. News & World Report against the cultural encroachments of dogmatic liberalism.
But before that, from 1963 to 1967, he was an associate editor at Commonweal, part of a squad of younger editors—Daniel Callahan, Wilfrid Sheed, and myself—who inhabited a small boiler room of ugly cubicles furnished with desks and bookshelves likely salvaged from bankrupt private eyes in the 1930s. Editor James O’Gara and publisher Edward Skillin toiled in equally Spartan offices off a larger room with filing cabinets and desks for our bookkeeper, receptionist, and subscription overseer. Anne Robertson, our essential production manager, laid out the pages and pasted up the galleys on top of a row of gunmetal-gray supply cabinets. Anne, if I recall, had the office’s only electric typewriter. Like Ishmael, I alone survive to tell the tale.
Those were pivotal years—the close and fallout of Vatican II, the passage of the civil-rights struggle from the March on Washington to Black Power and urban violence, the ramping up of the Vietnam War from Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination to a full-scale U.S. invasion. Three days a week we would crowd into Jim’s office to evaluate manuscripts, propose new articles, and on Friday discuss the editorials that we would research over the weekend and submit to one another for critique and revision by Monday afternoon. I remember, in particular, our intense efforts at surveying, comparing, and parsing contending reports on the war in Vietnam and its masterminds in Hanoi and Washington.
Yet if the times often seemed grim, the staff was not. John was the liveliest among us, which is to say a lot. Bill Sheed might turn quiet in staff meetings but otherwise matched John quip for quip. The baby of the group, I mostly kept my head down. Not a small amount of talk in these august precincts of liberal Catholic (but uniformly male) intellectualism actually turned around sports. Dan may have just earned a national reputation for his prizewinning book, The Mind of the Catholic Layman, but to us that only disguised the fact that he had gone to Yale on a swimming scholarship. John and Wilfrid’s knowledge of baseball statistics and history was encyclopedic. In a remembrance of John, his colleague at Time, Lance Morrow, recalls how John constructed a fantasy team with real players all bearing the names of vegetables (perhaps, Morrow guesses, Matthew Brucolli, the editor of Ring Lardner’s baseball stories; Billy Beane; Dustin Pease; etc.) and another team whose players had fruit names (Bob Lemon, Ray Apple, and so on.) That came long after his Commonweal years, but John’s sense of the absurd was already abundant when I worked with him.