Joseph Bottum is an accomplished poet, essayist and public intellectual.
He has been published in magazines and newspapers such as The Atlantic Monthly, National Review and The Wall Street Journal. He hosted the show “Book Talk” on public radio.
But he now finds himself with very large shoes to fill.
When Father Richard John Neuhaus died Jan. 8, 2009, Bottum continued on as the editor of First Things, the journal of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. Father Neuhaus founded both in 1990 and wrote the monthly column “The Public Square” in the back pages of the magazine. Bottum now faces the task of filling those pages.
A former college professor and literature editor for The Weekly Standard, Bottum graduated from Georgetown University, where he met his wife, Lorena, the daughter of a Brazilian diplomat. He earned a doctorate in medieval philosophy from Boston College. The Bottums have one daughter, Faith, whom they home school.
Register correspondent Paul A. Barra caught up with him in Charlotte, N.C., before Bottum spoke at the Envoy Institute’s annual dinner.
Now that you’ve taken over writing “The Public Square,” was it hard following the marvelous style and wit of Father Neuhaus?
Well, there’s a voice that seems appropriate for that space, a voice that defines that space, a voice that Richard John Neuhaus, who was a fantastically good writer, developed. He was fantastically good at many things, and something we have to remember is just how good he was at the sheer writing, the style. He knew what he wanted to achieve, and he could find the voice and the diction and the style that was superlative at doing that. By my definition, that is the most successful kind of writer; he was good enough, great enough, to develop the technique for doing it, and then he went ahead and did it.
When the rolls are called in heaven, as they ought to be called on earth, Richard John Neuhaus will be recognized for the journalistic feat of turning out month after month the tens of thousands of readable words on the topics that he chose to devote his professional life to. It’s an astonishing journalistic achievement, quite apart from anything else.
Since you’ve taken over at First Things, how have you coped without him? Are you able to fill his shoes?
The second Temple wasn’t like the first. I can’t do what Richard did, and I don’t know anyone who could. The tasks that formerly fell to Richard and me when I came up to New York I’ve had to divide among several people. Richard’s absence, quite apart from the personal loss, and quite apart from the institutional loss of the founder of this American institution, the sheer editorial loss of someone who would give me 20,000 words a month that I hardly had to edit is brutal.
That’s on top of the personal loss, which for my family has been just devastating. Richard John Neuhaus was wise in the ways of ideas and politics, ecclesiastics and journalism. His advice was constant; he was helpful. And it wasn’t like he was ordering me around; I am enormously grateful for any help I can get, although Richard and I spoke very little during the day. He had a work ethic that was almost painful for the rest of us to watch. We felt constantly indicted by someone who, when he sat down to work, he worked. And he did — every day. So what we’d do was talk all night. This is the other thing: When work was done, work was done.
And my family was drawn into his circle. Some time last winter, I was leaving the house, and my daughter, then 11, was sitting on the couch; she had her legs crossed, and she was bent over and her chin propped up, in one of those positions that only children and yoga masters can get into, and looking very sad. I said, “What’s wrong, honey?” She said, “Both the priests I’ve known best in all the world have died. Is this going to keep happening?” Two answers leapt fully formed into my mind, neither of which I was going to say to a young girl. One was: “Yes, it’s going to keep happening.” The other is: “Count yourself lucky, kid; it’s not every little Catholic girl who has (the late Cardinal) Avery Dulles and Richard John Neuhaus as the two priests she knows best in all the world.”
But they were involved in our lives in that way, and her experience of dinner table conversation about Catholicism, about the faith that she practices, was an experience — they’d both talk with her and pray together — that was lovely. The loss of Richard devastated us. He baptized her and gave her first Communion. She won’t ever have those experiences again.
Will First Things survive without Father Neuhaus?
The institution will go on. We’re well established, our reputation remains high, and we’re popular with a certain segment of the funding world and with our subscribers, and they support us. But this is always the defining moment for any institution and particularly for a magazine. They typically start with a specific purpose, in this case “The Naked Public Square” purpose; Richard John Neuhaus had written the book and founded the magazine to carry on the project. So, what do you do at the moment of transition, when the founder retires, dies or when the original purpose of the magazine has run its course?
We talked about it; we talked about closing the magazine, very seriously. I sat down with the board members in February, after we’d all recovered from the funeral. But Richard John Neuhaus brought me up a few years ago precisely, I think, to face this eventuality. He had a desire that the magazine go on, so we decided that the magazine would go on.
All in all, although I can’t put myself up as a writer or as a public figure against Father Neuhaus, still I’m quite proud of the magazines we’ve put out in the past months, of the writers we’ve managed to assemble for them, and our gradual focusing in on the new issues for the day that, if Father Neuhaus were here, he would see as the great tasks that face us now.
We’re going to have to make some changes. The magazine is going to have to be redesigned at some point. It is uncompromisingly ugly and presented itself like a journal, not a magazine, for 20 years. Some of the fights are new; some are old. On the day that Roe v. Wade is overturned and this nation halts its slaughter of children, Richard John Neuhaus will be seen as the hero that he is: a man who set himself heart and soul for 30 years against abortion and the killing of the elderly. We will not abandon that fight and the new fights that come up. The faithful will not compromise on them; the truth will not be compromised. First Things will never compromise.
Paul A. Barra writes from Reidville, South Carolina.