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A Remembrance of Joe Rago ‘05

I doubt that I ever mentioned this to him but on one stifling summer day in Hanover, two years after he’d left for bigger things, I decided to tread from my dorm to an auxiliary library to withdraw the senior thesis of Joe Rago ‘05. Is there ever an honorable reason to pull someone’s senior thesis?

I wanted to examine how Joe could be so good. Was his way of turning a phrase limited to rich quarry like food court and a now-defunct Dartmouth PR platform called “the BuzzFlood.” (“At first, I was bowled over by the chowder-headed nonsense they were serving, but lately, I’ve started to come around. Inspired by their hard work, I realized that I, too, must shore up my brand.”) Or was he good with serious stuff, too?

When Peter Robinson ‘79 informed me on Friday morning that Joe had died suddenly, I was in an instant recalled to that summer, to the Berry annex, and to Joe’s senior thesis, whose odd title was still graven in memory: “New-Englandisms & Fanaticisms in Proper Boston.” A rich survey of Boston ghost stories. I can’t think of an undergraduate work remembered more than ten minutes after its consummation; here was one whose evocative title lurked in my mind for twelve years. As it turns out, Joe was good with serious stuff, too.

After Dartmouth Joe went to The Wall Street Journal with, I think it is fair to say, a reservation that it would require too many pairs of crisp trousers while offering too few ice-cold beers–not quite, that is to say, the genuine writerly experience. But I was able to witness Paul Gigot ‘77 become a mentor who seemed, to me, ennobling of Joe; and Joe speedily shaped himself into one of the great journalists of the young century.

In a political age in which buzz-flood P.R. hazes over reality, creating parallel realities of preferred fact patterns, it actually takes an opinion journalist to get to something true. This is why (you may be realizing) you have not read a worthwhile straight-news article in a year or more. It’s why Joe’s series on the Affordable Care Act deserved, and won, a Pulitzer; and was, more to the point, true.

In my time as a Robert L. Bartley Fellow on the Editorial Page of The Journal, I saw Joe cut through complex policy like greased lightning through butter, to borrow another phrasing of his. “What should I say when I meet with Melanie Kirkpatrick and Paul Gigot,” I asked Joe one late night before my interview. “Mumble something from Burke; that’s what I did.”
Joe, I found, preferred in his editorials to show rather than to state, and never shied from mustering facts where they were needed. These were culled from Washington sources astonished to receive an actual phone call from an actual intelligence searching for actual facts. Yet he avoided extraneous information where it had a tendency to cloud. This was Burkean indeed, because Joe, I learned as I observed him, tried to reduce until a problem was irreducible. In modern American politics, problems are reducible quite a bit. They are mostly invented.

A funny story of Burke is that he almost published a gargantuan history of England from Caesar to Queen Anne but abandoned the entire thing because Hume had already come out with his. Lord Acton said “it is ever to be regretted that the reverse did not occur.”

And this is where I am left after Joe’s passing. I fully expected to instruct children and then grandchildren to read Rago at the breakfast table, later on holidays home from college, and then in the thicket of some thorny life question. It would have been convenient to allow the style and genius of Rago to suffuse them generally, yet damning it, at edges of disagreement, with snapshot memories: Rago taking on board beers at Ryan’s Daughter on East 85th Street, Rago haunched on an unfortunate sofa in the office of the Review, Rago on the floor of The Journal at evening, reviewing the day’s work on a broad, white, flaxen sheet, erasing solecisms and applying a touch of style, in a mood approaching joy.

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