John Leo, Columnist Who Took Aim at Liberal Pieties, Dies at 86

John Leo, who as a columnist for Time and U.S. News & World Report used his acerbic wit to slaughter herds of liberal sacred cows, especially those wandering outward from college campuses, died on Monday in the Bronx. He was 86.

His daughter Alex Leo said that the cause of his death, at a hospice, had not been determined, but that he had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease and had recently been hospitalized for Covid-19.

Mr. Leo was often labeled a libertarian and a conservative, but he insisted he was neither — though they were not inapt terms for the often scornful tone he took toward left-wing pieties like affirmative action and campus speech codes.

He saw himself as a social skeptic, in the mode of his literary heroes Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and A.J. Liebling. Like them, he viewed American life with a gimlet eye, leavened by a disarming sense of humor and a deep reserve of cultural and historical knowledge.

“In many ways he was an old-fashioned Democrat,” the writer Roger Rosenblatt, a close friend, said in an interview. “He was anything but a right-wing nut case.”

Also like his heroes, and unlike many of today’s politically inclined columnists, Mr. Leo saw himself less as a warrior out to crush ideological enemies than as a thoughtful interlocutor, pushing readers toward enlightenment.

“People are hungry for strong analysis to rub up against,” he told Christianity Today magazine in 1996. “They may not agree with me, but they believe I mean what I say. If I say it strongly, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s right’ or ‘I think he’s full of beans and I’m going to explain why.’ Either way it makes people think.”

But his stance was not merely critical. He fashioned himself a moralist, defending what he saw as an endangered American sense of community that was under attack by liberal individualism and rampant capitalism.

“The culture has careened away from communal feeling to a view that we’re each just 250 million atoms bouncing around looking for advantage,” he said.

As a columnist for U.S. News & World Report in the late 1980s and ’90s, Mr. Leo played a lead role in the era’s roiling culture wars, which were marked by contentious debates about race, gender and inequality that can seem remarkably similar to today’s battles over the same issues.

He was not a reactionary — for example, he supported gay rights at a time when many conservatives still trafficked in open homophobia. He preferred to take aim at excess, especially in college humanities departments, where dismantling the Western canon and the proliferation of “studies” programs — disabilities studies, cultural studies — struck him as absurd and dangerous.

With one eye on campus, he kept the other on popular culture and what he saw as its debasement in the service of corporate greed. Along with other conservatives, like the former secretary of education William J. Bennett, he called out Time Warner in the mid-1990s for its ownership of Interscope Records, a major producer of gangsta rap. Largely as a result of their pressure, Time Warner sold its stake in Interscope in 1995.

But unlike some of his fellow combatants, Mr. Leo was too funny a writer to come off as a complete bluenose. He poked fun at himself, and he wore his erudition lightly. He insisted that his favorite painter was Sherwin Williams. He titled his first book, published in 1989, “How the Russians Invented Baseball and Other Essays of Enlightenment.”

As the title of his first book suggested, Mr. Leo was too funny a writer to come off as a complete bluenose.Credit…Delacorte Press

“Leo is funny in the way that Frank McCourt, the actor-writer, is funny,” the journalist Dennis Duggan wrote in 1990 in Newsday. “When they are on, which is almost always, you might as well prop your chin on your elbow and enjoy, because whatever you say is going to play like chocolate sauce on pasta.”

John Patrick Leo was born in Hoboken, N.J., on June 16, 1935 — Bloomsday, he was fond of noting — and grew up in nearby Teaneck. His father, Maurice Leo, designed kitchen and hospital equipment, and his mother, Mary (Trincellita) Leo, was a homemaker.

Mr. Leo said he grew up in a mixed household: His mother was a liberal Democrat, his father a conservative Republican.

“They trudged to polls every November to cancel out each other’s vote,” he told the online magazine Narratively in 2013.

Perhaps not coincidentally, one of his regular features for Time, where he worked from 1974 to 1988, was “Ralph and Wanda,” an imaginary ongoing conversation between a “conservative masculinist” husband and his liberal feminist wife.

As a teenager he commuted to Manhattan to attend Regis High School, an elite Jesuit institution on the Upper East Side, where he had a scholarship. He graduated in 1952 and studied philosophy and English at the University of Toronto, where he also edited a campus newspaper.

After graduating in 1957, he briefly considered graduate school before returning to New Jersey to look for jobs in journalism. He cold-called The Bergen Evening Record and was immediately hired to write obituaries.

He moved to Davenport, Iowa, in 1960 to edit The Catholic Messenger, a newspaper, and returned to New York City three years later to be an editor and writer for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal. At the time Mr. Leo considered himself a liberal, and his columns ran on the opposite page from those of the writer Garry Wills, who was a conservative at the time but has since become quite liberal.

Mr. Leo’s first marriage, to Stephanie Wolf, ended in divorce. He married Jacqueline McCord in 1978. She survives him. Along with his daughter Alex, he is also survived by his sisters, Virginia Kruger and Maryann Napoli; his brother, Peter Leo; two other daughters, Kristin and Karen Leo, both from his first marriage; and three grandchildren.

John Leo at home in 2002 with his cat Ralph. “The culture,” he once said, “has careened away from communal feeling to a view that we’re each just 250 million atoms bouncing around looking for advantage.”Credit…via Leo family

The New York Times hired Mr. Leo in 1967 to be its first intellectual affairs reporter. He remained for just two years, but he couldn’t have picked a better span of time.

American culture and politics were, depending on one’s perspective, either rapidly evolving or rapidly imploding, and Mr. Leo used his beat to report on antiwar protests, Black militants, the clash between liberal and conservative Roman Catholics, and the politicization of the country’s colleges and universities.

Though his reporting was often sympathetic to the left, this was also the moment when he, like many moderate liberals, began to turn away in revulsion from what he saw as its dangerous excesses.

He spent four years as a deputy commissioner with New York’s Environmental Protection Administration (now the Department of Environmental Protection) and a year as a columnist for The Village Voice before joining Time in 1974. He moved to U.S. News & World Report in 1988.

He retired from journalism in 2005 and later became a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think thank. He ran the institute’s Minding the Campus project, which focused, once again, on the excesses of higher education.

“He felt that it was the seat of American idiocy,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. “For him it was a gold mine.”

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