Personal memoirs can be an engaging read if you have interest in a particular person. Some, however, do more than just tell you about the life of the writer. Sometimes they pull back the curtains on a particular period of time and relate details about historical events. Such is the case with Michael Novak’s latest book Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.
For those those unfamiliar with Michael Novak, he is an accomplished author of 45+ books as well as a journalist appearing in many notable magazines such as National Review. His career really took off with his book The Open Church, published in 1964 detailing the second session of Vatican II.
In Writing from Left to Right, Michael shares his experiences and thoughts on some of the major events that have occurred in the past 50+ years. The book on its surface is what the the title suggests, his personal story about his journey from liberal to conservative. Along the way Michael sheds some light on the people and events that caused him to switch his ideological views.
The book begins with the influence of his father, than moving on to his 12 years of study for the priesthood which he ultimately determined was not his calling and his time in Harvard. He discusses influences from his days there that would leave an impression on him forever. Gabriel Marcel taught him that “When someones ceases being just an “it” to you and appears, even for a moment, as a “thou”, someone already known to you in the slightest way, you have stepped from the realm of objects to the realm of persons.” Marcel among other influential persons at Harvard would plant the seeds for Michael’s future humanitarian efforts. Perhaps the greatest contribution Harvard made on his life was that is where he met his future wife, Karen.
Michael would next spend time at Vatican II from September to December 1963. While there, his work would result in the book The Open Church. He brings to light in Writing from Left to Right the struggle at Vatican II between the established “conservative” wing and the “progressive” wing. Essentially, as he puts it, the progressives were more traditionalist than the conservatives. Karol Wotyla and Joseph Ratzinger led this school of thought. It is telling that they would one day both become Pope. Another thing Michael points out is how humbling Vatican II was for bishops around the world. “We found it a bit comical to watch all these important bishops, princes of the Church in their own dioceses, used to being chauffeured in shiny black cars, now forced to climb in and out of crowded school buses with everybody else.”
A point he made about the early 60’s really struck me. As Vatican II progressed there was a general feeling of hope of a new era dawning for the Church. The same thought was going on in the United States with the presidency of John F. Kennedy. It was quite interesting how he managed to tie both these events together to illustrate not just a nation but a world that held great expectations for the period in time they were in.
At it’s heart this book is a political memoir. Michael moves on to talk about writing speeches for Eugene McCarthy, Sargent Shriver, George McGovern and Bobby Kennedy. Michael praises each as being a great man and his admiration for them all shines through.
By this time Michael was a professor at Stanford. The assassinations of JFK and RFK, and Martin Luther King are perhaps the most recollected events of the 60’s. Michael had a personal encounter with the the loss of Bobby Kennedy. He received an invitation from Kennedy, who at the time was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, to fly to Los Angeles to be with him as the California primary returns came in (ultimately he did not go) — the very night the candidate was fatally shot. “An awful summer. An awful year. An awful five years.” as Michael states.
Perhaps what most shifted Michael from left to right was the economic debates of the 1970’s. This is when he realized the spending of Keynesian liberalism was not working and he came forward publicly as a supporter of capitalism. What follows I paraphrase from the book:
“I first realized I was a capitalist when all my friends began publicly declaring that they were socialists. Night after night I tried to persuade myself of the coherence of their logic. Nothing worked. Practical discussions seemed beyond the point. Finally I realized that socialism is not a political proposal, not an economic plan. Socialism is the residue of Judeo-Christian faith, without religion. It is a belief in the goodness of the human race and paradise on earth. That’s when I discovered I believe in sin. I’m for capitalism, modified and made intelligent and public-spirited, because it makes the world free for sinners. It allows human beings to do pretty much what they will.”
I found the closing chapters of this book to be the most interesting but perhaps that it because I am of the generation raised in the late 70’s and early 80’s. These chapters are spent dwelling on what Michael Novak has the called “The Big Three”: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. You will read of Reagan’s appointment of Michael as the US Ambassador to the UN Commission of Human Rights. Admittedly Michael knew nothing of human rights law but it was a position he accepted and ultimately flourished at. As much as Michael has been influenced by those around him it must be said that he had just as much influence on them. From a story about his meeting with Margaret Thatcher: “She had turned from the hall to go back into her office. “Here, I want you to see this – it’s your book. All marked up.” She riffled through the book to show me underlinings and marginal notations on a great many pages. “I told you I was reading you. And I want you to believe it. There! You can see for yourself.”
Michael Novak has led quite a life. He has witnessed and played a part in many of the events of the past fifty years. His humbleness in all of this is one thing that shines through in every page of this book. It is also evident that his Catholic faith has played a major part in his role in everything he has done. This review only touches upon a few of the events and the people he discusses in these pages. I would encourage anyone interested at all in not only the political scene of recent years as well as those who have a desire to know more about events that have occurred in our lifetimes, to read this book.
I received a copy of the book for this review from Image Catholic Books.