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Joseph Shattan, 1950-2014

3:45 PM, Jun 8, 2014 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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I'm sorry to report that Joe Shattan—talented writer, dedicated anti-Communist, and above all a truly fine and decent man—has died after a courageous struggle with cancer at the age of 63.

Joseph Shattan

Joe came to Washington to serve as a foot-soldier in the Reagan Revolution. His unusual skill as a wordsmith and thinker meant that he was always in demand as a speechwriter, and he wrote in the 1980s and early 1990s for figures ranging from Jeane Kirkpatrick to Elliott Abrams to Bill Bennett to Dan Quayle to Phil Gramm. He ultimately returned to the White House in the George W. Bush administration to pitch in once again in the struggle against the new threats that had emerged to the liberty he cherished and the country he loved.

Joe and I worked closely together at the Education Department and Office of the Vice President. Everyone realized that as a speechwriter he was a rare talent. They also came to see quickly that Joe was a rare human being—combining kindness and decency with a dry wit and a wry outlook on life. I've been struck, ever since word got around earlier this week that Joe was very ill, by the number of emails and phone calls from people, some of whom had moved away and hadn't seen him for years, who went out of their way to recall Joe's splendid character. 

One problem with being a speechwriter is you don't get credit for your work—and of course your work is also subject to revisions by other hands, so it's hard for later observers to know exactly what your contribution was. Fortunately, Joe left writings in his own name that we can appreciate—a fine book published in 1999, Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War, and articles in various journals, especially in recent years in the American Spectator, where many are available online.

One article that seems to me to capture Joe's wit and self-deprecating personality appeared in the American Spectator in April 2009, on the occasion of Joe's retirement from the federal government at the end of the Bush administration.

The notice from Uncle Sam arrived the other day: “Welcome to the Federal Employees Retirement System. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management thanks you for your years of public service and the contributions you have made to America.…We are here to serve you and wish you a long and fulfilling retirement.”

“Retirement”—that’s for old people, isn’t it? How strange that it should now apply to me, a man in the prime of life, hardly into middle age—with just a hint of gray here and there, a barely noticeable bald spot, and an appealingly cherubic-looking double chin! Still, I suppose retirement is one of those milestones on life’s rocky road that call for a bit of reflection, so here goes: 

For most of my government career, I was a political speechwriter. This meant that the most important people in my professional life were librarians— men and women (mainly the latter) who could help me acquire the information I needed in the briefest possible time. The finest librarians I ever worked with plied their trade in the Old Executive Office Building (now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) of the White House, when I served as Vice President Quayle’s principal speechwriter. How I loved going to that library on the third floor of OEOB! The room itself, with its tiled floors, wooden panels, winding staircases, large airy spaces, and rows upon rows of books, delighted both the eye and the spirit. And the librarians themselves were so graciously cheerful, so unfailingly helpful, and so incredibly busy! Today, when I think back on those years with Vice President Quayle, one of my warmest recollections is of librarians.

But my second tour of duty in the White House— as a speechwriter for President Bush and Vice President Cheney—was a different experience entirely. There now was hardly any need for me to visit the library—a team of extremely bright young college computer whizzes was always at my beck and call, and they would invariably supply me with more information than I could possibly absorb about the most abstruse and varied subjects. Still, for old time’s sake, I’d sometimes visit the White House library. For the most part, the same librarians were still there, and to my considerable satisfaction, they actually remembered me—I guess I was one of their best customers in the old days. But now the library, though still breathtakingly beautiful, appeared to have fallen on hard times. Gone was the hustle and bustle, the air of excitement, that I recalled so well. Even the librarians themselves, though friendly and helpful as always, seemed curiously listless. It was as though some of the air had gone out of the balloon. Who needs librarians, after all, when you’ve got the boundless riches of the Internet at your disposal?

Have America’s librarians become a vanishing species? My wife received her master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Library Science, yet today that school no longer exists—it expired around the same time that the Soviet Union did. Apparently, the demand for librarians has declined drastically in recent years. And even in my own home, the library that my wife and I lovingly assembled over the years is subject to scorn and ridicule. “If your library had existed in the days before computers,” my younger son recently informed me, “it might have been worth something. Now, it’s worthless.” Nice child.

Well, I intend to prove the little wise guy wrong. All these past years, when equipping my personal library with such weighty tomes as Disraeli by Robert Blake, The Experience of Literatureby Lionel Trilling, and Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah by Gershom S. Scholem, I’d say, “This is my retirement reading.” Now, all of a sudden, my retirement is upon me. It’s time I got to work.

Joe didn't stay retired long—he took a job at the Heritage Foundation, which he enjoyed, and whose tribute to Joe is here. I don't know how much of his library he had time to make his way through before his untimely death. But Joe lived a full (if unfortunately too short) life, and he lived a life very much worth living. We, his friends and admirers, join his beloved wife Janie, his sons Lewis and Phillip, and his family in mourning his passing.

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