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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Samuel Francis RIP

(Reprinted from the issue of February 24, 2005)

Capitol BldgSamuel Francis, whose column has appeared in The Wanderer for years, has died at 57. One of the most trenchant conservative pens in America will write no more.

In late January Sam suffered an aortic aneurysm and underwent seven hours of emergency surgery — not one dangerous operation, but two — in a Maryland hospital. He luckily survived that and, to the great relief of his friends, he seemed to be recovering for the next two weeks. Then, on February 15, his blood pressure suddenly plunged, and that was the end.

Details are hard to come by. Sam was in no condition to receive visitors, and a shadowy friend, who had driven him to the hospital and waited throughout the surgery, jealously guarded both access and information, at one point turning away a priest who tried to see him. Fortunately, the priest had reportedly managed to see Sam the previous day; this is about all I’ve been able to glean, and though I hope to learn more, I doubt that much more will emerge.

But I do know that some of Sam’s Catholic friends, especially Fran Griffin in her tireless charity, did their utmost for him. (Fran, the publisher of my newsletter, is always there when you need her — often before you even know you need her.) This must have been his only consolation in the painful and lonely final days of his life.

Sam was born in Chattanooga in 1947 and graduated from Johns Hopkins, later earning a doctorate in political science. I met him during the Reagan years, when he worked for the late Sen. John East of North Carolina; later he worked for the Heritage Foundation, where he wrote about Communism and the emerging problem of terrorism. After that he wrote prize-winning editorials for The Washington Times, where he became the target of a neoconservative vendetta that resulted in his firing in 1995.

His columns continued to appear in Chronicles and other publications, winning a small but devoted readership, among whom the shocking news of his death spread with a rapidity that might have surprised him.

Along the way Sam wrote a few books, including a small study of his intellectual hero James Burnham. I don’t think Sam actually met Burnham, but I worked with Jim at National Review during his last years there and shared Sam’s admiration for him. The key to Sam’s thinking was Burnham’s book The Machiavellians, a study of power I also regard as seminal. Long before it became fashionable to mock the “politically correct,” Sam was attracted by Burnham’s pessimistic logic and total scorn for liberal optimism, especially in matters of race and ethnicity.

Like Burnham, he had no desire to be accepted by liberals and stoically endured their ostracism. He was devoid of self-pity. It never crossed his mind to complain about the neglect he received, though it was a sort of organized neglect; his enemies were well aware of him, and they feared his pen.

Sam was a familiar figure at conservative gatherings. He was an uncompromising Southern paleoconservative, with an abiding contempt for Lincoln and the liberal tradition. When I came, late in life, to a new political insight, I often found that Sam had known it all along. But he was too polite to say, “You’ve only just figured that out?”

Willmoore Kendall used to say that American conservatives carried their political tradition implicitly, “in their hips.” He might have had Sam in mind when he said that.

For most of his life Sam was alarmingly well-fed; he reminded one of the character in P.G. Wodehouse who “looked as if he had been poured into his suit and forgot to say ‘When!’” (I should talk! The Lord made me skinny; I did the rest.)

But over the last two years he’d lost a spectacular amount of weight and quit drinking and smoking. It was startling to see him looking so fit. His determination to take care of his health came as a great relief to those of us who’d been quietly worried about him. He seemed to have taken the advice we’d been too shy to offer. That’s why his recent emergency came as such a shock.
A Puzzled Respect

I knew Sam well for many years, though not intimately, and he’s oddly hard to describe. Gruffly good-humored, at once cynical and jolly, he didn’t invite intimacy. Though I saw him often, we never had anything I’d call a heart-to-heart talk. He was outspoken and restrained at the same time. His mind was both searching and skeptical. I never heard him say anything about religion; my impression is that he had no particular faith, though I never asked; on the other hand, I never heard him say anything anti-religious.

I’m only guessing, but my sense is that Sam regarded Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, with a puzzled respect. He had many devout Catholic friends, including Pat Buchanan, and it can hardly have failed to impress him that his idol Burnham, an apostate of great intelligence, had returned to the Church on his deathbed.

Sam was an enigma. You never knew what was going on inside him, since he discussed political problems rather than ultimate questions. I was never even sure how well informed he was about Christianity; I still have no idea whether he had a religious upbringing in Tennessee. (He never married and is survived, as far as I know, only by a sister.)

Given his pessimistic temperament, Sam wasn’t given to inspiring affirmation. His outlook was bleak. The news was always bad, and I sometimes wondered what, if anything, he would regard as good news. His disdain for Republicans — “the stupid party,” he always called them — was fathomless. He seemed neither surprised nor disappointed when so-called conservatives rallied behind George W. Bush and the Iraq war; Burnham had taught him how deluding political labels and professed principles can be in the realm of power.

And yet, when a seemingly unbelieving man surrounds himself with Catholic friends, you can safely assume that he’s attracted to the faith. Whether or not he believes, he wishes he did.
Pray for His Soul

Some years ago my pastor remarked on how inappropriate it is that eulogies are now delivered at Catholic funerals, celebrating the virtues, rather than remembering the sins, of the deceased. It was a resonant comment.

This is an age that combines spiritual laxity with a false optimism, as if it were natural, if not automatic, for the dead to go immediately to Heaven. Why bother praying for their souls if salvation is their birthright — or shall we say their deathright?

As his readers know, Sam Francis rejected false optimism in any form. If there is one Christian doctrine he would have believed without much argument, it is the doctrine of original sin.

Let us pray for his soul, and ask God’s blessings on those who remembered him at the end.

SOBRANS examines the phenomenal anti-Catholic bestseller The DaVinci Code: a brilliant thriller, but naive in its bigotry. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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