The news yesterday that Kate O’Beirne—longtime Washington editor for National Review, quick-witted talk-show debater for CNN— had died was sad but not surprising. I had had dinner with Mary Ellen Bork, one of her closest friends, a few weeks before and had heard how sick she was. As can be said of us all, it was only a matter of time.
The point of that trite observation is that a span measured in years is something quite different than one measured in weeks or days. Or is it? There is an important sense in which Bill Buckley was right: “from the day of birth,” he wrote in his account of a visit to Lourdes, “we are on our deathbed.”
I had known Kate for more than a dozen years. For a while, in the mid 2000s, when she ran the National Review Institute, we conspired on various projects to heal the Republic and stymie the Left. We were never close but always friendly. Indeed, it was part of Kate’s genius to be able to make even casual acquaintances feel as though they were part of an exciting private conspiracy.
Nearly all of the many memorial notices that have appeared about Kate dilate on two things: her wit and her profound Catholic faith.
The wit was multifaceted. One side was funny, another sharp and rapier-like. One of the first words that comes to mind when I think of Kate is “zest.” I remember encountering her at the bar on an NR cruise, drink and cigarette in hand, entertaining a circle of admirers with wisecracks and insights. She was a formidable debater but had the rare talent of taking apart the arguments of her opponents in a way that left them smiling, not angry. She would have liked Rule 12 of London’s famous Other Club (frequented by Churchill, F. E. Smith, among other notables): “Nothing in the rules or intercourse of the Club shall interfere with the rancour or asperity of party politics.”
Kate delighted in that asperity (“rancour” doesn’t seem quite right) but also deployed it with a warmth that was welcoming, almost confiding.
One of my fondest memories of Kate was of the party she threw at her home for Judge Robert Bork on the occasion of his reception into the Catholic Church. The ceremony had been performed at a D.C. chapel and was attended by a Who’s Who of Washington’s conservative intelligentsia. Bob’s Godfather pro tempore was the commentator John O’Sullivan. When the assembled multitude repaired back to Kate’s house John gave an eloquent talk (it’s the only kind he delivers). For a Catholic, he said, this life with all its tasks and obligations, its pleasures, duties, disappointments, and satisfactions is but prolegomenon. We are but pilgrims here, caught up in a journey that seems endlessly intricate and involving but whose terminus is the beginning of everything.
I cannot, at this distance, do justice to John’s remarks, but that was the gist of it: that the Catholic faith was an invitation to a pilgrimage that, valuable in itself, was but the bridge to a glorious new beginning. I remember Kate’s smiling appreciation of John’s talk, her joy in Bob Bork’s embrace of the faith that had immeasurable invigorated her own life. RIP.