Very sad news on Tuesday of the passing of Michael Uhlmann, one of the unsung heroes of the conservative movement since the 1960s.
It is not easy to convey the insight and virtue of this energetic and magnanimous man, or to do justice to his significant impact, almost always behind the scenes because of his modest and self-effacing manner. A precis of his bio, drawn from Ryan Williams’s introduction of him last year when the Claremont Institute gave Mike their Salvatori Prize, is included at the end of this note, but I want to dwell on two highlights of his long career.
In 1970, when he was on the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the idea of amending the Constitution to abolish the electoral college was floated in Congress because of fears that had grown out of the three-way race in 1968. (Sounds familiar.) The proposed amendment has already passed the House of Representatives, but Mike produced a long memo for the Senate committee that stopped the idea in its tracks, and to this day the “Uhlmann Brief” remains a legendary defense of the electoral college that just may come back into prominence in the next few years. (A condensed version of it can be found here. I may reprint a few selections of the complete brief here on Power Line at some point.)
Second, in 1984, when he was serving on the White House staff in the Reagan Administration, Mike was instrumental in encouraging Reagan to publish his book opposing abortion, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation, against ferocious opposition from many of the moderates and political operatives on Reagan’s senior staff. (Opponents of the book likely included Nancy Reagan.)
In later years Mike became a professor of government at Claremont Graduate University, where he was one of the most popular professors on the faculty. Lunch or dinner with Mike was always a treat (especially dinner, because that always meant many adult beverages), with the most wide-ranging and witty conversation but also with sound thoughts and good advice on how to think and act about specific problems.
Did I mention he was a first-class raconteur? I wish I could remember some of his great stories, but it wouldn’t matter because print can’t capture the ebullience of his telling. But some of his practical wisdom has been boiled down to a few usable axioms, starting with “Uhlmann’s Razor”: When stupidity is a sufficient explanation for some botched policy or regulation, there is no need for recourse to more elaborate explanations. (I know this or similar formulas have been attributed to others, but I believe Mike had good claim to have originated it.)
Then there is Uhlmann’s Law of Government Policy: Whenever you think up or encounter what seems to be a needed and efficacious law or policy, stop, take a deep breath, and read it slowly, out loud, in a German accent. This one is especially effective with Woodrow Wilson speeches.
Like many of us, Mike came under the influence of Harry Jaffa at an early point in his life. I told Mike’s story in my book Patriotism Is Not Enough:
Michael Uhlmann recalled at Jaffa’s memorial service in 2015 his first encounter with Jaffa over a cup of coffee after a panel at the Philadelphia Society in Chicago in the mid-1960s: “What a flood of words and ideas! Whole paragraphs, pages, books, and libraries came tumbling out, on everything from the Goldwater campaign and the future of the Republican Party, to the virtues and vices of National Review and the burgeoning conservative movement, to Shakespeare as political thinker, to the centrality of natural right in the American political tradition, to the greatness of Leo Strauss, the American Founding, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill. I had never encountered anything like this in my life. There was no finger-wagging, only an endless stream of learned reflections, for the most part gently delivered, one thought begetting another in a long chain of reasoned discourse, which, if one followed the links (which I was barely capable of doing), connected the condition of America circa 1965 to forgotten lessons taught by Aristotle.”
From Ryan Williams’s summary of Mike’s career at a dinner to honor Mike in Washington DC:
Following his work for the Judiciary Committee defending the Electoral College, Uhlmann became Counsel to Senator James F. Buckley of New York. In 1974, after serving as Assistant General Counsel at the Federal Trade Commission, President Gerald Ford, following Senate confirmation, appointed Uhlmann as Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs at the Department of Justice. From 1981-84, he served as Special Assistant to President Reagan and Associate Director of the White House Office of Policy Development. He also held senior positions during the Carter-Reagan and Reagan-Bush presidential transitions. Regarding the latter, in 1988-89, as Clarence Thomas recounts in his autobiography, we have Uhlmann to thank for persuading him to become a judge.
After many years in private law practice in Washington, Uhlmann worked in conservative philanthropy as a Senior Vice-President at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.
Quite a career—and as I’m sure he’ll confirm in a minute if I don’t—it’s still going. He is Clinical Professor of Politics and Government at the Claremont Graduate University and a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He is also one of the finest writers and analysts to grace the pages of the Claremont Review of Books.
But many of us in this room, his students of the last 10-15 years, remember him most warmly for his skill as a teacher, his good humor, and the patient and wise role he has played in advising countless careers in law, policy, journalism, and political leadership.
As a teacher, he is that rarest of specimens: a scholar of political things who’s actually gotten his hands dirty in the legal and policy world at multiple levels of government, and so might actually know some stuff.
In his acceptance speech of the Salvatori Award, which he titled “The Struggle Ahead,” Uhlmann offered us some good counsel about our present moment:
I think it beyond argument that we do face a genuine crisis, that it is very deep, and that it is essentially moral and intellectual rather than merely political in the narrow sense of that term. I also think that conditions are likely to get worse before we see improvement. But when and if the denouement arrives, I believe the resolution will strain our constitutional order as nothing before. I say this because a significant percentage of the population seems to have lost faith in the foundations of the American constitutional order. That should not be altogether surprising, inasmuch as they have been badly tutored. The loudest and most influential among their instructors have argued for two generations or more that the Founders’ Constitution is not merely mistaken in this or that feature, but is fundamentally flawed, even illegitimate. For many if not most left-wing intellectuals it is seen as an anti-democratic plot foisted upon naïve citizens by corrupt white males. This disposition, once the more or less exclusive property of hot-headed pamphleteers, agitators, and the professoriate, has surfaced increasingly in the rhetoric of prominent public officials, who disparage the Constitution they have taken a solemn oath to protect and defend.
My recommendation is to read Mike’s whole speech. Mike knew a lot of stuff, and is irreplaceable. RIP.