We lost a friend over the weekend. David Horowitz and I. And the conservative movement, or at least that forward-looking part of it seeking to engage the Left at the key checkpoints where it controls our cultural institutions. And America herself. We have all lost someone that meant our country well and did well by it even if he did not always do well by himself.
This friend was Michael Joyce, who died on February 24 at the age of 63. He worked in philanthropy but he shuddered at the idea of being called a “philanthropist.” I think he would like to be remembered as an artist (perhaps a trapeze artist, because he worked, ultimately to his peril, without a net) of social change. He loved football and was pretty good at it himself in his youth—one of those tough little guys who play the cornerback position like heat-seeking missiles. And he started off, in fact, as a high school football coach. But he had one of those relentless Catholic minds that gets hold of ideas and shakes them. In Mike’s case, the ideas had to do with America, its founding, and its essential nature; and how America had been debased by enemies within and how it might recover its identity. These ideas got him into a different game.
A summary of Mike’s career in philanthropy can be found in John J. Miller’s excellent book, A Gift of Freedom. He did a warm up at the Morris Goldseker Foundation in Baltimore. While there he came to the attention of Irving Kristol. Mike himself was a former bien pensant liberal who, because he’d read the classics of American thought and had an instinct for intellectual trench warfare, was actually a neo con waiting to happen. He always called Kristol “the Godfather,” referring to his role in founding the neo conservative movement. But I got a feeling that Irving really was a paternal figure for Mike. He was certainly one of the few people for whom Mike, who could be thoughtlessly cruel about others, spoke of with awe. And as for Kristol himself, when I once joked to him that his nickname would have to be changed to “The Great Godfather,” because Mike Joyce himself had taken over his role, he gave an eloquent shrug and said, “Why not?”
A one man talent agency, Kristol played a role in getting Mike a promotion to the Institute of Educational Affairs, and then to the John M. Olin Foundation in 1979. About the move to Olin, his predecessor there, Frank O’Connell, once told me that the final two candidates for the job were Mike and Bill Bennett, and Mike was hired because he was more impressive. If so, Joyce equalized things when he worked on the Reagan transition team in 1980 and helped get Bennett selected to head the National Endowment of the Humanities.
Olin was a proving grounds for what he would do later at the Bradley Foundation, beginning in 1985. Created out of the industrial fortune amassed by two remarkable brothers, Lynde and Harry Bradley, the foundation might easily have devoted itself largely to hometown Milwaukee matters if not for Mike. A Midwesterner himself (he grew up in Ohio), Mike himself became a transplanted Milwaukeean and came to love the city with a fierce parochial pride. A good part of the Bradley Foundation’s largesse was earmarked for civic concerns—a first rate museum, music and theatre, and above all for Mike, several million to keep the Brewers in town. But he also believed that the Bradley Foundation had to play a national role. It seemed improbable: At $600 million or so, Bradley was small by comparison with Ford, Rockefeller, and other of the other liberal foundations that were postmodernizing America. But Mike felt that by leveraging its money with the neo conservative worldview, he could multiply the effect of the Foundation’s smaller resources and make it a player. And this was what happened during his 15 years at Bradley. The Foundation, a mere David in comparison to the leftish philanthropic Goliaths, hit them squarely in the forehead with programs that countered their far more expensive own.
A fan and supporter of Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, Joyce got Bradley involved in the Wisconsin’s welfare reform movement, model and laboratory for the nation’s reform policy. He made Milwaukee the seedbed of the school choice movement and gave black kids the opportunity to escape failing and violent public schools. Bradley’s emancipation proclamation put a finger in the eye of the left-wing racists whose policies are designed to keep blacks on the liberal plantation. Mike understood very well that the school choice movement had taken aim at the unholy alliance between the Democrats and the National Education Association, America’s most disgraceful union since Dave Beck’s Teamsters, and black hustlers like Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, all of whom collaborated for their own cynical reasons to keep black kids in bondage.
Mike also helped touch off what would become compassionate conservatism. He was a Tocquevillian who believed that the genius of America was in its coming together in voluntary associations to create its future. Mike’s fingerprints were all over dozens of organizations where Bradley’s venture philanthropy made a difference. One small personal example: In 1998, Mike heard that my wife Mary had formed a non profit called the Friendship Club to help at risk girls in the small community where we live in the California foothills. He arranged for a modest challenge grant that the community matched. The Friendship Club has now served hundreds of girls in a community of a few thousand. Almost all of them have gotten through school against horrific odds. It is fully funded by the community the Bradley grant challenged. This story has been repeated, I reckon, in many other places. Such things add up.
He hated the Left and what it had done to this country. In the mid-1980s, when David Horowitz and I were looking for funding to start a Second Thoughts Movement to bring together the handful of others who were also refugees from the ‘60s Left, we stopped in Milwaukee to see Mike, who had just recently begun at Bradley. He supported the Second Thoughts movement and kept supporting us without hesitation in endeavors like the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and Encounter Books. And we were not the only ones.
I once asked him how he saw himself. “As the owner of a really good restaurant,” he replied. “I can’t cook myself, but I know how to hire great chefs.” These chefs have been preparing an abundant repast for the American political table for the last 20 years.
Mike was an odd and opaque person, not easily fathomable. The following are perceptions from the outside.
Mike was a little guy, a scrapper with a chip on his shoulder ready to fight friends, it sometimes seemed, as well as foes. He was capable of acts of incredible impulsive generosity that set one back. He was a heavy smoker and drinker and at times a fascinating non-stop talker; he was always thinking, always watching and plotting, not always altruistically—“deep devising,” as Homer says of Odysseus. He was a strong and faithful Catholic whose highpoint came when attended a private Mass with John Paul II; but sometimes he seemed to be a man who felt his own way to grace was blocked.
Mike seemed to live in a cerebral bubble, unconcerned with the impressions he made, particularly if they were bad impressions. He had contempt for people who had been born better off than him. (Hillel Fradkin, who worked with Mike for many years, once told me that he was the only person he’d ever known who continued to use a word that died in the early 1900s, “swells,” to describe such people.) This class prejudice, for that was what it was, was a blind spot. It kept Mike from appreciating people who he assumed had gotten with ease what he had gotten only by sheer doggedness.
He had contempt for what he derisively called “the Irish thing” and for poseurs like Tom Hayden who discover their Irishness and discontents as a cause in the middle of their Americanness. Yet he was more Irish than he knew—black Irish in mood and a little in appearance; truly Joycean, it always seemed to me, not only in the artistic pulling of many strings, but also in the silence, cunning and exile he practiced, particularly after he left Bradley in 2000 under unpleasant circumstances that were of his own making.
For all those years he had been the grand restaurateur of ideas and organizations. Now, nobody knew where he was or what he was doing. He was the bright star in the cosmos of ideas and action that suddenly flamed out. People wondered if he would find another place, if there were bridges left that he had not burned, if there was a second act in this American life. In the infrequent sightings, Mike himself always encouraged speculation that things were great and he was ready to go to the next step.
Friends of mine who ran into him were struck by his deteriorating appearance over the past few months. To them, he said that indeed he had been sick but was getting better. As recently as a couple of weeks ago a friend who saw him in New York said he was shrunken and gray and looked like someone who had just stepped out of a death camp. Mike told him blithely that he’d had a serious liver disease but was on the mend.
Perhaps he was in denial. More likely, he was doing it his way. I hope that when his end came he knew that whatever else had happened to him, in the one thing he had staked his intellectual life on—putting an army in the field so that conservatives could put up a fight in the culture war—he had succeeded very well.
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