Anniversaries are occasions for nostalgic celebration, for recalling to oneself and others how it is that this good thing came to be. As one who was present at the creation of this journal, I am pleased to mark its tenth birthday—though vaguely distressed to note how rapidly a decade can pass. (A decade here, a decade there, and the next thing you know you’re talking real time.) I also have to confess that my memories of how First Things came to be, and of how I came to be part of it, are not solely celebratory.
Things began for me, in fact, in embarrassment. It was the summer of 1988, and I was teaching at Valparaiso University and editing its journal of opinion, the Cresset. I was content where I was and expected to remain there until retirement. Then one day I received a general notice from Richard John Neuhaus, then Editor–in–Chief of the distinguished quarterly This World, announcing the imminent retirement of the journal’s current Editor and asking for suggestions for a successor. No names came to mind, and I laid the notice aside without further thought. Not long afterward, I received a call from RJN. Enter the embarrassment. He wanted to see if I had names to suggest, but somehow I got the idea that he was sounding me out for the job. When it became clear that was not the case, I felt thoroughly foolish and ended the conversation as soon as I decently could.
But my gaffe, as it turned out, planted a seed in his mind, and not long afterward I received another call from him, and this time he was sounding me out for the job. So it was that after a brief but intense period of agonizing, I found myself in January 1989 resident in Manhattan and ensconced as Editor of This World.
It turned out to be a very short career. Our relations with the midwestern institute that sponsored our work had always been problematic. The institute’s officers thought the New York office cost too much money, and, more important, their paleoconservative instincts coexisted uneasily with our perceived neocon tendencies. Just how uneasily I learned with a vengeance when, on the morning of May 5, 1989—a date that will live in infamy—the president of the institute, accompanied by a number of stone–faced associates, showed up in our office and informed the five of us on staff that we had two hours to gather our belongings and vacate the premises. (You can learn the sordid details by consulting back issues of the New York Times and assorted journals of opinion, as well as RJN’s essay on the subject in The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics, Mitchell S. Muncy, ed. [Spence, 1997].) We were, as you might expect, thoroughly stunned: the best I could come up with in response was, "I suppose this means no Christmas bonus."
So shortly thereafter we stood dazed on a street corner in the rain, the large green garbage bags that held our personal effects clutched in our hands, wondering what we would do for lunch and for the rest of our lives. Lunch was easy: we repaired to a neighborhood Italian restaurant and enjoyed a defiantly celebratory feast, the "raid lunch" that we have marked on that date every year since. As for the rest of our lives, we got on with them almost immediately, thanks largely to the resourcefulness of our once and future Editor–in–Chief. RJN quickly found new sources of funding and we set up our own institute, something we had in fact been moving toward even before the raid.
The idea at first was that we would reconstitute ourselves along familiar lines. We would begin a new quarterly, and RJN would continue to produce, as he had been doing for years, a monthly newsletter surveying the world of religion and public life. But then, in the endless conversations that accompanied the new venture, an alternative idea emerged. Why not combine the things we had been doing separately in one new monthly package?
I was appalled. My all–too–brief career as Editor of This World (one issue—a splendid one, I thought) had been most satisfactory. Editing a quarterly is a gentlemanly enterprise, one allowing for careful planning and extensive reflection (read: long lunches and lots of goofing off). What gentleman, on the other hand, would want to involve himself in the relentless deadlines and endless crises that accompany a monthly publishing schedule?
But RJN, reinforced by the advice of many trusted colleagues, was insistent, and though I mounted every argument I could think of against the proposal, I knew, deep down, that he was right. The plan to bring together our earlier efforts promised an effective editorial mix, and, other things being equal, a monthly is more likely to impress itself on the public mind than a quarterly. Thus the birth, my protests to the contrary notwithstanding, of First Things.
The response to FT, both in circulation and in enthusiasm, exceeded our most extravagant hopes, and I soon got over the nervous backward looks to Valparaiso University that the adventures of my first months away from the place had induced. This was, I knew virtually from the start, the best job I’d ever had—gentlemanly or not. My farewell to the class room came entirely without tears.
But the beginning of FT did not mean the end of unsettling times. Just a few months after the first issue had appeared, RJN asked me into his office and closed the door. He had decided, he told me, to become a Roman Catholic priest—after a period of preparation, Pastor Richard would become Father Richard. The news shook me, though I should have seen it coming. Only three years earlier, after all, he had published The Catholic Moment: why should it surprise me that he would make that moment his own? But surprise me it did—largely, I think, because I had been so caught up in the idea of our working together to further the cause of the evangelical catholic Lutheranism that his earlier writings had taught me to embrace. I knew I could not follow him to Rome, and in the subsequent weeks and months we had a number of those conversations that diplomats characterize as "a full and frank exchange of views."
But over time I learned that we could still work together on collegial terms. On those infrequent occasions over the years when we have disagreed on the merits of a manuscript, for example, the disagreement has seldom involved whether or not the essay reflected a Catholic sensibility. I hadn’t envisioned an ecumenical relationship, but it has worked out well.
As with RJN, so also with my associations with the other editors whose names have graced our masthead—men and women whose abilities I have depended on and whose friendships I cherish. I count it an extraordinary grace to have spent the last ten years at a place where the environment has been as congenial as the work has been fulfilling.