Walter Berns, who died last week at 95, was a scholar who spoke for a more serious and more confident America. He did his best service in the 1960s and ’70s, when America was at its least sober and self-confident.
Aristotle says nature intends the gentleman to be physically imposing but does not always achieve this intention. Nature delivered for Walter Berns. Or anyway (which may have been Aristotle’s point), Berns made the most of nature’s gifts. He was imposing.
Berns taught constitutional law in political science departments—at Cornell in the 1960s, at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, at Georgetown in the 1980s and ’90s. He did not do the sort of Socratic questioning favored by law professors. It would probably have provoked too much whimpering while the questioned students squirmed under his gaze.
Mostly, Berns lectured and students listened. Perhaps they didn’t agree with his various judgments, condemning this decision or that justice, lauding others. But most students came away with the sense that this was a serious subject, because Berns took it seriously—and he was self-evidently a serious man.
In the spring of 1969, students at Cornell “occupied” campus buildings to protest the imposition of penalties on the Afro-American Society for vandalizing university property. Leaders of the group brandished rifles in the air to dramatize their determination. After intense debate, the Cornell faculty endorsed administration proposals to waive the penalties and give in to other demands. Berns, of course, argued for upholding the university’s rules and against giving in to threats of violence. When the university went the other way, he resigned his full professorship. The whole episode still reverberated in the faculty when I came back to teach at Cornell more than a decade later.
The stern public moralist was not the whole man. With his friends—and especially after a few cocktails and a few (or more than a few) cigarettes—he could be charming, witty, an engaging raconteur. Before he entered graduate school at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, he had aspired to be a novelist. He spent time at a writers’ retreat in New Mexico, with the widow of D.H. Lawrence—and wrote of her years later with wistful affection. Among Berns’s very closest friends were Allan Bloom and Werner Dannhauser, fellow students of Leo Strauss and colleagues at Cornell. Bloom and Dannhauser were serious students of political philosophy but not paragons of conventional respectability. Walter Berns stood by them through thick and thin.
When he moved to Washington in the early 1980s, Berns joined a weekly poker game with Irving Kristol, Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia. With occasional additions, they kept up this game for many years. It’s probably safe to assume Berns didn’t lecture the others on constitutional law. Also probably a safe bet—if you like gambling—that Harry Jaffa wouldn’t have been invited to join that group, if he’d been in Washington. He couldn’t have been relied on not to lecture the others.
Jaffa died within hours of Berns last week, also in his mid-90s. They had been fellow students of Strauss, fellow scholars of American thought, broadly similar in their outlook and approach—and had been feuding for decades. So memorial tributes in the past week have repeatedly suggested the parallel with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, former collaborators, then political opponents, who died on the same day, each mentioning the other in his last hour. But Jefferson and Adams had reconciled in their later years and engaged in extensive correspondence. I don’t think Berns and Jaffa ever did reconcile. Jefferson and Adams wanted, among other things, to protect the political project they had both done so much to launch. Berns was devoted to the political project of Jefferson and Adams—and Lincoln—more than to any contemporary scholarly project.
On Jaffa’s side, the feud (if that’s the right word) seems to have been motivated by Jaffa’s determination to show—in public and in print—that his view of the American Founding was more compelling than the various tributes offered in the bicentennial era (the mid-1970s) by Martin Diamond, Irving Kristol, Robert Bork, and others. Jaffa sought to distinguish himself from those of broadly similar views. On the Berns side, it was simpler, I think: He stood by his friends.
Walter Berns had enlisted in the Navy before Pearl Harbor and served in the Pacific theater until the end of the war. He never wrote about his war experience, and I was never able to coax him to say much about it. I didn’t get much more from others in that generation, not even relatives or close friends of my parents. That generation disdained weepy confessions and boastful self-dramatizing.