KNIGHT: A life on the front lines of the culture war

Michael Schwartz fought political ambiguity with moral clarity

Michael Schwartz, a great man who passed from this earth last weekend at age 63, was an anomaly.

An Irish Catholic from the Duffy family, he had a last name that suggested a different heritage. He was so smart and good at telling jokes that a lot of people were stunned to find out he wasn’t Jewish.

Mike had a soft heart, but was also a tough guy from South Philly who exulted in Philadelphia’s reputation for having the country’s “worst, most abusive fans.” He reveled in the fact that Eagles enthusiasts had thrown snowballs at Santa Claus. When it came to sports, though, he was a Phillies fan all the way.

Mike spent much of his career in Washington and yet was anything but an inside-the-Beltway type. He shunned fame, dispensing ideas to anyone who could give them currency. Mike worked behind the scenes as a mentor and strategist for the pro-life and pro-family movements before, during and after his stints as chief of staff for Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Coburn and then with Sen. Coburn.

Losing his courageous, two-year battle against Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), Mike stepped down last November on a day when Mr. Coburn gave him a moving tribute on the Senate floor.

“He is one of the kindest, gentlest people anyone has ever met,” Mr. Coburn said. “He has been a light focused on how we do things to honor other people.”

Mike possessed enormous passion. He’d suddenly blaze with anger over lies told by politicians or wrongs done to the poor, widows, the infirm, the elderly, immigrants or unborn children. A lifelong Democrat until only recently, he’d rail against “liberals” and their tax-hungry schemes to perpetuate a dependent underclass. Then, he’d go back to his calm demeanor. The more I got to know Mike, the more I understood Irish poetry.

When I came to Washington years ago to head the Heritage Foundation’s Cultural Policy Studies program, Mike was working for Paul Weyrich at the Free Congress Foundation. He was curious to see who would be handling cultural issues for Heritage.

Having recently escaped the Los Angeles Times newsroom for a fellowship at the Hoover Institution, I was full of libertarian enthusiasm for cutting Washington down to size. I still want to do that, but Mike’s visit changed my outlook.

“You say you’re a libertarian? he asked with a smile. “OK, I’m for reducing government. It’s out of control. They spend like drunks. But let me ask you something. Do you favor abortion? Pornography? Gay rights? Do you think marriage is important? Why do you think the government is so big?”

He didn’t wait for me to answer. He read my face. “Bob, you’re what we call a social conservative or even a paleo-conservative.” Then he gave a tutorial on liberty, which is the freedom to do what’s right, not the choice between doing good or evil, which is what many people think it is. True liberty, Mike explained, is the freedom to discover what God requires and being unhindered in living it out. It means rendering unto Caesar only what Caesar is entitled to — limiting the government to its God-assigned role of safeguarding peace and justice.

Mike was an evangelist for marriage, God’s way of organizing the world and civilizing men. Married to his dear wife Rose Ann for 41 years, he lectured single guys on the importance of starting a family. “Unmarried men are a blot on the universe,” he’d say, entirely serious. He also could, between sips of Guinness, explain colorfully why the Irish are not especially fond of the British.

His passion and humor occasionally got him into trouble. Regarding the role of federal judges in legalizing abortion and undermining the rule of law, he quipped to a reporter, “I don’t want to impeach judges. I want to impale them.”

Mike influenced countless people, often by example. When we were hurrying to lunch one day, a homeless man accosted us. Mike spoke gently to him and walked him to a sandwich shop and bought him a sub and a Coke. That was standard procedure. He had a love for the downtrodden that reflected his relationship with Jesus, his beloved church and his blue-collar roots.

Two decades ago, Mike became aware of some church officials covering up abuses by homosexual priests. Failing to get change through private channels, he led a press conference exposing the cover-up. “That cost me some friends,” Mike told me.

A couple of weeks before he died, Mike received the Pro-Life Recognition Award from the National Pro-Life Religious Council, and the Cardinal John J. O’Connor Award from Legatus for his 40 years of pro-life service. O’Connor was the courageous New Yorker who quietly opened AIDS treatment facilities and prayed with patients. Because he upheld the church’s moral teachings, he endured hate and even spitting. He was one of Mike’s heroes.

For several years, Mike served as Concerned Women for America’s director of government relations. When I agreed to work for CWA in 2001, Mike was a big reason. If a stand-up guy like him could do it, so could I. We joked for years about the mild flak we got. Mike’s favorite line was, “If you’re a woman and you looked like me, you’d be concerned, too!”

On Thursday, an overflow crowd at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown, Md., said goodbye to one of the most decent, kind and wise men ever to enrich our lives. Our hearts and prayers go out to Rose Ann, their four grown children and seven grandchildren.

As for Mike, I have no concerns about where he is right now.

Robert Knight is senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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