M. Stanton Evans, one of a handful of key figures who shaped the modern Conservative movement, and a tireless champion of religious liberty, passed away in the early morning hours of March 3, from pancreatic cancer.
His contributions to American politics are well-captured in his New York Times obituary and in several lovely reflections from people he mentored or worked with over the years. Among my favorites are those by John O’Sullivan, Steven Hayward and Daniel J. Flynn.
To review his achievements briefly: he graduated summa cum laude from Yale; at 26, he was the youngest person ever to become editor of a major daily newspaper, The Indianapolis News; he was the author in 1960 of “The Sharon Statement,” a succinct and elegant statement of Conservative principles which became a unifying force for different brands of conservatism; it is safe to say that without Evans’ American Conservative Union, Ronald Reagan’s political career would have died early in 1976; he was a syndicated columnist and the author or co-author of ten books; as founder of the National Journalism Center and adjunct professor at Troy State University, he was a teacher and mentor for literally thousands of aspiring journalists.
He was also possessed of a delicious mordant wit that made him a much-in-demand MC for conservative events and made you never want to leave his side at a party. His eulogies have contained some of his enduring lines:
“The Republican Party ought to be a pro-life party. Its leaders spend so much time in the fetal position.”
“I start every day with black coffee and a cigarette. Because breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
“That government is best which McGoverns least.”
I knew him in two capacities: first as a good friend of my parents, and later as shepherd of the National Journalism Center. As a child I loved Stan because he was one of those adults who didn’t condescend to kids, but spoke to us as if we could understand things. Also because he often brought his three-legged dog, Zip, along to my parents’ parties. I don’t think we ever got a straight answer from him about how Zip lost his leg. It took me years to figure out that Stan had been putting me on — that Zip had not actually been a circus dog whose career was ended in an unfortunate trapeze accident.
The summer after I graduated High School I attended his National Journalism Center’s summer program, an experience for which I’m supremely grateful, because of what I learned: to think critically about politics and economics; how to dig for facts; how to file a FOIA request; reverse pyramid structure; always going to pick up information in person if possible, because you never know what you’ll discover in conversation with the person who hands you the file.
There was also Stan’s gracious mentoring. I was the youngest person in the program the summer I attended, and he had little reason to pay me much mind, but he took my work as seriously as those of the interns six to eight years older than I, asking questions I couldn’t answer and making me go back for answers to help me shape my “issue brief.” He was a great teacher: a stickler for accuracy, but kind and encouraging, with seemingly boundless belief in young people. (And faithful Zip was always there in the corner of Stan’s office, patient witness to the red-ink proceedings.)
I have one regret from that summer, which is that I never saw Stan dance. He was a marvelous dancer by all accounts, but I skipped out of the parties NJC used to throw for its interns, feeling conspicuous about my youth compared with everyone else.
What does an 80-year-old Conservative, cigarette-smoking, wise-cracking, semi-observant Methodist have to teach Catholics?
Here are five things Stan taught by word and example with broad application to anyone trying to shape culture. Really you should let him tell you himself by watching some of his lectures on YouTube (some of them are like stand-up routines)—but I’ll lay it out.
1. God created man free and just government is ordered towards and limited by this liberty. Religious – particularly Christian – faith is not only not a threat to human liberty, but essential to it. From the Sharon Statement in 1960 to his 1996 book The Theme is Freedom, Stan Evans was a tireless defender of Christianity in the public square.
2. Principle is more important than party. Evans had no scruple about criticizing Republican office-holders (see the pro-life remark above), often complaining that too many GOP candidates come to Washington intending to “drain the swamp,” only to decide they “enjoy the hot tub.” Scorning the GOP would be a cheap lesson to learn from Stan, though – both the Catholic Left and Right already do this readily. What Evans modeled all his life was holding fast to the truth even when it’s out of fashion — and the ability to think critically about your own and your friends’ positions.
3. You have nothing to fear from the truth. I think about Stan almost every time I see one of those click-bait political headlines – the deliberately contentious ones that promise an “EPIC” smackdown or purport to catch an opponent saying something humiliatingly stupid. I suspect such pieces serve only to make us cynical. I don’t think I’ve ever read one in which the story actually delivered on the headline’s promise, or in which I felt the opponent was treated fairly. I end up mistrusting the source, not persuaded of anything. In a lecture at the Heritage Foundation, Stan once taught, “I don’t think that the way to correct a spin from the left is to try to impart a spin from the right. … information flow distorted from the right would be just as much a disservice as distortion from the left. What we really should be after … is accurate information. And I don’t see what any conservative or anybody else for that matter has to fear from accurate information.” If you want to change the story, tell the truth, simply.
4. Don’t be intimidated by long odds, just get to work. In his last appearance at the CPAC conference he helped found, Stan absolutely skewered the kind of conservative who thinks the culture has been lost. After the Kennedy trouncing of Goldwater, he recalled, the GOP had won only six states in the presidential election, was outnumbered 2-1 in Congress, and had something like 16 governorships. “We were squashed flat. Stomped on. Buried.” “And we had no grief counselors,” he recalled wryly. “We were a tough people, not crushed by our defeat.” The way he said it was hilarious, but the point was serious: there is a lot more to build on today than there was in 1964. Granted, Catholicism and political conservatism are not simply commensurate, but the point remains. What’s called for if you want to affect culture is not nostalgia for the good old days or whining about the ways the deck is stacked, but courage and hard work.
5. Don’t lose your heart or your joy. Dance, enjoy a drink, laugh with your friends. Stan wasn’t just great with a quip, he also had terrific in-the-moment comic sense that reminded everyone not to take themselves too seriously.
I love the way Max Shulz put it in his tribute:
“What could not be taught, but could always be felt in his life and influence, was that a sense of heart and humor in the realm of ideas gives a conservative endurance and perspective—and provides his friends and allies with a lift to continue the fight for freedom, no matter what the odds.”
His was such a heart. He will be much missed.