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.
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.