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The Very Good Sometimes Die Young

I am sorry to say I didn’t even know Joseph Rago’s name before his recent and terribly untimely death, but I certainly knew his work.

I knew it because some time ago, I stopped referring to the editorial writers of The Wall Street Journal as “rabid dogs.” I figured this was because as I got older, my alignment with fiscally conservative positions became more pronounced, and maybe also because many of the social issues of recent decades, from gay people in the military to same-sex marriage, seemed resolved. (Abortion is a noteworthy exception.)

But after Rago died, the outpouring of tributes from colleagues and fellow professionals made me realize that a lot of what changed was probably the impact of a highly talented and decent millennial who joined the editorial page as an intern.

Rago, who was 34 years old, clearly held the admiration of his peers, both at the Journal and at other major news outlets. Reactions to the news of his death from his colleagues emphasized his personal warmth as well as his sharp mind. In 2011, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, and his colleagues decided to let his writing speak for itself in a collection of highlights of his work at the Journal over his 12-year career.

Rago seems to have raised everyone’s game, including that of longtime Editor Paul Gigot. In our firm’s newsletter in 2005, I held Gigot personally responsible for a vicious, unwarranted and ultimately unfounded attack on Michael Schiavo. The editorial characterized Terri Schiavo’s persistent vegetative state as merely “incapacitated” and suggested that Michael Schiavo’s efforts to end his wife’s life-sustaining care had been motivated by the resolution of an outstanding medical malpractice suit.

Attacking Michael Schiavo was a popular pastime in 2005. Even Jeb Bush, then the governor of the Schiavos’ home state of Florida, stepped in to sustain Terri’s life against what her husband – who was also her legal guardian – believed to be her wishes. Ultimately, after Terri Schiavo’s death, an autopsy confirmed that the devastating damage to her brain was irreversible. Her case was a nightmare for everyone involved, but that was no excuse to baselessly attack one of the people unfortunate enough to have to live through it.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a similar personal assault in the Journal’s staff-written editorials, particularly one aimed at a person who had not chosen to enter the public spotlight but found it thrust upon him. The editorials do contain plenty of criticism, and during the Obama administration it was directed almost daily at the sitting president. But even when the Journal accused him of arrogance, overreach or hubris, the criticism was directed at Obama’s policy choices, not his personal motives. The Journal never, to my recollection, said Obama was deliberately trying to injure someone else for his own pecuniary gain. The same goes for Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and other prominent figures on the political left.

Rago approached his commentary the way I try to approach mine: with what I hope are reasoned arguments, based on facts I cite and inferences or assumptions I try to clearly label as such. I may sometimes persuade, but mainly the goal is to inform the discussion with a perspective that ought not to be dismissed as mere dogma. I am not trying to manipulate someone into reaching a conclusion by the selective citation or strategic distortion of information. That is what people often do when they hope to be elected, but I’m not running for anything.

I now realize that I began holding the Journal’s editorials in higher esteem concurrent with, and perhaps largely because of, the impact that Rago had on that institution. He was the main editorial writer during the 2016 election and penned many of the Journal’s editorials on the Affordable Care Act. I wish I had appreciated him earlier, which is another way of saying I wish the Journal would start signing its editorials, as I sign my commentaries.

Rago’s impact was remarkable for someone so young. I hope it lasts. That would be the best way for his colleagues to honor his memory.

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