The Magazine

Michael Joyce, 1942-2006

The godfather of conservative philanthropy.

Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By JAMES PIERESON
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IT IS GRATIFYING TO SEE in the obituaries and tributes published since the recent death of Mike Joyce that his contribution to conservative philanthropy and conservative thought is widely recognized. He was director of the John M. Olin Foundation and president of the Bradley Foundation during the rise of conservatism, from the late 1970s through the turn of the millennium. His energetic efforts on behalf of conservative ideas brought him into close contact with the Reagan, Bush (41), and Bush (43) administrations. He was a man whose considerable gifts were instrumental to the achievements of the conservative movement.

Mike began his career as a teacher (and football coach), and a teacher he remained at heart. He had an advantage in the classical education he received at the hands of the Jesuit fathers; and through that education, the concepts of Catholic culture and thought were inscribed on his soul. A subsequent job writing history textbooks drew him to study historical debates from ancient times to the present. Mike particularly revered Sir Thomas More, because he gave up his life rather than sign an oath in which he did not believe. Next to The Godfather, A Man for All Seasons was his favorite film.

Yet Mike presided over the most unusual of classrooms and employed the most unorthodox of methods. He often hid his designs in a maze of contradiction and camouflage, so that one had to watch closely to grasp his lessons. It seemed that he rarely did anything directly if he had the option of taking a circuitous route.

Mike was unorthodox, too, in his conservatism. He respected, and wished to conserve, the traditions of the American nation embodied in our basic institutions. He was, in this, a patriot. He respected as well the traditions of family, neighborhood, community, and church that seemed to him to be under assault by modern liberalism. And yet in many ways he was a radical, pressing for change through new and bold ideas.

Certain words ill suited Mike--words like pleasant, easygoing, cool. More apt were these: tough, shrewd, restless. He waged a full-throated war against ideas that he believed destructive to our inherited culture and to the institutions that guaranteed our liberty and security. His combativeness, like his indirection, contributed to misunderstandings.

In New York, three decades ago, Mike saw that a charitable foundation could engage national controversies at the highest level by forming alliances with leading thinkers, journals, and academic institutions. He saw that conservatism, with the help of such a foundation, might challenge liberalism on the field of ideas, a highly original conception. Few besides Mike saw that this was even possible; yet in a few years he had turned the Olin Foundation into an important broker of ideas.

In Milwaukee, from 1985 to 2001, he did something equally visionary at the Bradley Foundation. The "Wisconsin idea" was developed a century ago at the University of Wisconsin to bring progressive ideas into the arena of government and politics. It was, in its way, the gold standard for the influence of ideas in politics. Soon Mike, with singular vision, began to deploy the resources of the Bradley Foundation for the countervailing purpose of bringing conservative ideas into the political marketplace, using the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin as laboratories for experiments in policy.

These experiments--especially in welfare reform, faith-based programs, and parental choice in education--are widely known around the nation. The welfare reform bill signed by a Democratic president in 1996 was tested in Wisconsin. Parental choice in education, pioneered in Milwaukee, is today a national movement. Mike brought together an odd coalition of blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. He would have been pleased to know that within days of his death the governor signed legislation to expand parental choice in Milwaukee.

Not always the most efficient administrator, Mike operated from an office piled high with books, journals, newspapers, letters, and proposals. He loved to work the halls, from office to office, trying to find out something new, asking if colleagues had read this book or that article. For Mike, the workplace was essentially a locker room, where the team was prepared for combat, the strategy and key plays drawn up for execution on the field. And when the time came, he would lead the team through the tunnel and onto the field, then play quarterback for good measure. Above all, he wanted to win--and many times he did.

This made Mike much more than an executive. Irving Kristol once called him "the godfather of modern philanthropy" because he presided over the birth of so many important magazines, institutions, and programs, and nurtured so many talented scholars. Indeed, his partnership with Irving Kristol catalyzed many of these very achievements. The Irish son of Cleveland's working class and the Jewish intellectual by way of Brooklyn and the City College of New York admired one another precisely for their differences. Irving was the thinker, Mike the man of action. Yet both had a knack for judging talent, for bringing ideas into the world of politics, for selling them to allies and the public. And both relished intellectual combat. Through Irving, Mike entered the orbit of neoconservatism, which he thought of not as a doctrine but as a skeptical disposition toward life, one that expressed the basic assumptions of the Catholic culture in which he had been raised.

Mike lived to create, to invent, to shape the world according to his dreams; and once he had created something, he often moved on quickly to newer challenges. In recent years, as his creative powers waned, he started to resemble a mythic hero in want of some life-sustaining nourishment. Mike's fire had burned bright, but longevity was not in his make-up.

As his health was failing, and along with it his will, friends did not know how to help. Stories circulated of erratic and self-destructive behavior. He suffered quietly and privately, in tune with his nature. He must have borne some internal wound that could not be salved by mortal touch. We did not understand that a man who had won debates all over the world and had helped to change the thinking of a nation might in the end lose an argument with himself.

Mike died beloved of his wife of 17 years, three children, two brothers, and a sister. Some still misunderstood him. Yet those who knew him best will always think of him as his nation's faithful and fruitful servant, but God's first.

James Piereson was executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation from 1985 to 2005. He is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This tribute is adapted from a eulogy he delivered at funeral services for Michael Joyce on March 4 in Port Washington, Wisconsin.