Joe Rago—my dear friend, fraternity brother, and occasional colleague, who died at the unconscionably young age of thirty-four in July—was, in many ways, like Voltaire’s God: so good that if he didn’t exist we would have to invent him. I am certain that in the future stories will be told about Joe (I hope in the sort of bar rooms he frequented—dark, dingy, what a poncey decorator might call “under-designed”) that will sound to those who didn’t know him like gross exaggerations. Those of us who had the great good fortune to know him will know better. What about anyone else could only be a tall tale was merely the normal course of Joe’s life. To reduce him to a set of anecdotes is to flatten a life lived on a monumental scale, one lived in three (and sometimes four) dimensions.
To list Joe’s accomplishments is to give a mere glimpse of a fully formed character. He was a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board—the only job he ever had. He joined the staff of the Journal straight from Dartmouth, on the strength of a recommendation from Professor Jeffrey Hart, the long-time faculty advisor to The Dartmouth Review, the independent newspaper of which Joe was editor during his undergraduate years. As Paul Gigot, Joe’s boss at the Journal, tells it, Professor Hart sent him a letter with Joe’s clippings from the Review and the message “You have to hire this kid.” Gigot read the clips and came to the same conclusion; Joe started as a Robert L. Bartley Fellow in 2005 and never left. Through the years he was a frequent contributor to The New Criterion, regularly reviewing books and supplying longer features. At the time of his death he wrote the magazine’s “Fiction chronicle,” applying his acid wit to contemporary novels. He was beloved by the staff and frequently spoke to the Friends and Young Friends of The New Criterion. In a remembrance for The Wall Street Journal Roger Kimball hailed Joe’s “allegro spirit,” while James Panero lauded his “literary gifts” as “sui generis.” To simply say he will be missed at the magazine is to underplay severely just how much he meant to everyone here.
To reduce Joe to a set of anecdotes is to flatten a life lived on a monumental scale.
I must have first encountered Joe in the basement of our shared college fraternity, Phi Delta Alpha, which Joe had joined eight years prior to me. Though we never overlapped at Dartmouth, he was a constant figure in school life, regularly visiting on business real or imagined, beelining straight for the fraternity’s basement, where he would put in a tireless shift of revelry. He was a marvel: how could someone so accomplished in his professional life also be so proficient in carousal? His college exploits, both in the classroom and extracurricularly, preceded him.
He once wrote a paper for a comparative literature class, so famed that it was stored in perpetuity on the desktop of The Dartmouth Review’s office computer, on “the semiotics of ‘Pimp My Ride,’ ” an mtv television show. This sendup of a lit-crit professor, Joe’s own Sokal Hoax, was so deftly performed that it naturally received an A grade. A movie review, appearing under his byline in The Dartmouth newspaper—the rival, school-sanctioned outfit to the fiercely independent Dartmouth Review—touted The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a notably bad movie, as “the thinking-man’s Aeneid.” He went on to posit that “the tender father–son relationship that develops between Quatermain and Sawyer will hit home with any students who have fathered children of their own.” The editors of The Dartmouth, undoubtedly thrilled to have a piece from the editor of The Dartmouth Review, ran it untrammeled.
When I got to know Joe personally in New York—through monthly lunches and, more frequently, bibulous evenings—I realized that his sense of humor was hardly limited to the page. He possessed one of the quickest wits I have ever had the pleasure to come across. When we discussed my moving to London for a year, he related his experiences there as a junior-year study abroad student: “warm beer and pocket pies only have so much truck.” The Republican National Convention, which he was obliged to attend for work, was “Altamont but with thousands of police and attack helicopters.” Many of Joe’s witticisms are wholly unprintable, but his tendency to turn any situation into a riotous one is something that all who knew him will treasure forever.
Despite his essentially antic disposition, Joe was deeply serious about his work. He always thought of himself as a journalist, not an opinion writer, and detested the preening of other writers who preferred to pontificate rather than call sources and present the facts. He not only idealized the old image of the reporter—cultivating sources and investigating widely—he also embodied it. In the last year he had begun spending more time in Washington. Whenever we met he would regale me with tales from “the swamp.” He never liked going to D.C.—with its corporate sheen it was everything Joe hated in a city—but he clearly relished the contacts he had made within the Capitol and the White House. Part of the reason Joe’s columns were so percipient was his ability to extract telling details from the powerful and connected; that they repeatedly provided him with dirt is a testament to his innate talent as a reporter, his persistence, and above all his geniality.
It is a rare human who is both serious about work and takes himself utterly unseriously.
It was his ability to convey the essence of the issue at hand that earned him his greatest professional accolade: the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, which cited his “well crafted, against-the-grain editorials challenging the health care reform advocated by President Obama.” He was, of course, one of the youngest-ever recipients of the prize, but you’d never have known it from speaking to him, not because he wasn’t sharp—he was endlessly sharp—but because his characteristic humility prevented him from ever touting his own achievements. His professional successes included over a hundred appearances on Fox News’s “Wall Street Journal Editorial Report,” but no one could ever accuse him of acting like a television star: one of his final laments to me was that his producer had induced him to ditch his favored J. Press repp-stripe neckties for flashier Ferragamo silk-printed ones. It is a rare human who is both serious about work and takes himself utterly unseriously. Joe was certainly a rara avis, though in stature and bearing he looked more like a baby giraffe than a bird of any kind.
His seriousness manifested itself in the refusal to take a bad book deal: several publishers had approached him recently, but none of the projects appealed. They were either too general, and therefore not deep enough, or too abstruse and therefore limiting. He loathed the idea of writing something too timely, something that would soon be superseded and forgotten. He had been a history major at Dartmouth: posterity mattered. The last time we had lunch, a week before he died, he told me his dream project was a history of Dartmouth’s last hundred years. He would have been the perfect candidate for such a book—perspicacious, unbeholden to the school’s administration, well informed, and, of course, a fabulous prose stylist—and it is Dartmouth’s great loss that he will never get to write it.
Dartmouth was Joe’s abiding love, even if the place sometimes disappointed him. In an email discussing a campus protest in 2013, he made his position clear: “The College is not terrible. And in fact the College isn’t like other schools, it is more or less perfect and has no flaws.” What he meant was the College, qua college, was unparalleled. It might go through rough times—overbearing administrations, student unrest—but it remained the ideal college in his mind, and he was utterly devoted to it.
Beyond Dartmouth, he evinced the most affection for New York City, specifically Manhattan’s East Side. (With an endearing provincialism only granted to transplants, he openly loathed Brooklyn and considered the West Side “foreign territory.”) New York was, to Joe, the only place worth living. London had been weighed in the balance and found wanting; he expanded his distaste to greater Europe, indicative of an instinctual, if subtly expressed, patriotism. He loved the American system of government and thought it unmatched globally, both for its results, and also for its entertainment value. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he had never in his life voted. Energetic as he was—between his unremitting socializing and his work, I’m not sure when he ever shut his eyes—he must have had an inborn sympathy with a city that allegedly never sleeps. With the means to live almost anywhere, he chose to live on St. Mark’s Place, the famously grungy strip of the East Village where tattoo shops and other vice-peddling outfits proliferate. Utterly attached to the seediness, Joe surely was the only St. Mark’s resident to amble out daily, dressed in a suit, on the way to an actual office.
Strange to the end, it was Joe’s quirks that endeared him most to me. He was an obsessive picture taker (the word always pronounced, and usually spelled, “pitchers”) and in the time I knew him he had gone from disposable cameras, to pocket digital cameras (the great innovation for him was when these became waterproof), and finally to iPhones when the resolution became high enough. He kept boxes of developed photos in his apartment and for a time maintained a digital archive of his always surreptitiously gained snapshots. His picture-taking mirrored his journalism: superficially a straightforward presenter of “just the facts,” Joe always managed not only to find facts that others had missed, but to express them in a novel, rollicking way. His apartment was legendary for its lack of furniture: merely a bed and countless books piled. It was revealed to me that his trademark wire-framed glasses came from the hilariously named “39dollarglasses.com”—the sort of earnest, corny name that was irresistible to Joe. He never traveled without an extra pair, should he misplace or, more likely, break the pair on his face. Found in his desk was a years-old unopened envelope from The New Republic declaring that his subscription had expired. Onto the notice Joe had scribbled “happiest moment of my life.”
Through the memorable times, what stands out most about Joe was his inexhaustible generosity. He always had time to meet with me: lunch or “a beer or ten” (in Joe’s undying phrase), he never begged off, often paying in “Rupees,” a play off the Journal’s owner. He constantly encouraged my journalistic pursuits, regularly dispensing advice, and included me in his own—the time we dined at the “Trump Grill” as research for a column he was writing will live forever in infamy. When I asked him to write the twice-yearly fiction chronicle for this magazine, he gamely agreed, not even bothering to ask about word count or pay—he wanted to help out and thought it would be a good laugh. For Joe that was always more than enough.
What stands out most about Joe was his inexhaustible generosity.
While the word would have sounded ridiculous to him, Joe was a mentor to many other young journalists and young people generally. He served on the board of The Dartmouth Review since graduation and regularly met with the editors, guiding them towards a better product. He once outlined to me his vision for the paper, which he had executed so successfully during his own editorship: “Publishing inflammatory material is generally counterproductive when merely the tangible reality itself is self-refuting and hysterical.” His mentoring impulse stretched beyond journalism, too. After graduating, he didn’t miss one annual Phi Delt “rush weekend,” the only alumnus I know of to boast such a streak.
Two years ago when it appeared that one of our favorite watering holes, the relentlessly divey Subway Inn, would close, Joe deadpanned that it was a “loss for civilization.” The words haunt me now as I think about Joe’s death.
Editors’ Note: On September 24, 2o17 New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner released Joseph Rago’s cause of death, officially stating: “The cause of death is sarcoidosis involving lungs, heart, spleen, hilar and mediastinal lymph nodes. The manner of death is natural.” For more information, please see this notice in The Wall Street Journal.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 1, on page 78
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