Wilson Carey McWilliams, R.I.P.

As Commonweal was absorbing the fact of John Paul II’s passing, we received the sad news of the sudden death, at seventy-one, of our long-time contributor and good friend Wilson Carey McWilliams. Carey, professor of political science at Rutgers, has anchored much of our coverage of electoral politics for a decade or more. His writing was often brilliant, always lucid, and infused with a fair-mindedness and intellectual generosity that reflected his deep, abiding commitment to the commonweal. He was, after all, the much-admired author of The Idea of Fraternity in America.

Carey made his first appearance in these pages on November 8, 1963, in an essay (“A Non-Aggression Pact?”) defending the usefulness of treaties and exposing the “fallacy of cynicism” in political affairs. In an effort to persuade skeptics, he slyly noted that the effects of any nonaggression treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union “would be minimal and hence almost without risk for either side.” He went on, however, to use the objections of critics to buttress his own, more hopeful position. “The legacy of suspicion and distrust is too great to be bridged except by the slowest means,” he wrote. “But if it can be bridged it will be by a succession of small agreements, a tradition and pattern of cooperation.”

In the dozens of essays and book reviews Carey wrote for Commonweal over four decades, the strength of his unwavering convictions was unmistakable. His shrewd assessment of political reality was wedded to a belief in the necessity of moral idealism in human affairs. In “Politics after September 11” (December 7, 2001), he brought his singular sensibility to bear in trying to make sense of a new threat to the nation’s security and the new political situation it had created. “The American wave of patriotism is also a desire to share in public service, to make one’s appropriate contribution to the republic,” he wrote of the righteous anger and solidarity Americans showed in response to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. “Democracy cherishes the ability of all to share, as equally as may be, in the burdens of rule as well as the rights of subjects. What Americans have sensed, in this moment of crisis, is the possibility that they may matter.”

Wilson Carey McWilliams was a tireless and eloquent advocate for what is best in the American democratic spirit and tradition. He will be sorely missed. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his wife Nancy and to his daughters, Susan and Helen.

Published in the 2005-04-22 issue: 
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