[The Human Life Foundation will hold its 19th annual Great Defender of Life Dinner on Oct 6. The following appreciation is reprinted here in memory of James P. McFadden, a widely known and admired Great Defender of Life—and the founding editor of the Human Life Review—who died on Oct. 17, 1998.]
A small package was delivered to my office. It contained a copy of the Human Life Review and a note from its editor, James P. McFadden, inviting me, on the recommendation of an unnamed source, to write for his fledgling journal. I was honored by the invitation and soon dispatched an article, which was just as soon rejected. There followed many more submissions and an equal number of rejections. McFadden became my coach, urging me on to better things while occasionally expressing his frustrations with me. I had underestimated the standards he set for the Review and, no doubt, overestimated my own abilities.
Who were the writers gracing the pages of McFadden’s new journal? Well-known personalities and public thinkers like British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, American playwright Clare Boothe Luce, Jerome Lejeune, the French doctor who discovered the gene that causes Down syndrome, President Ronald Reagan, Congressman Henry Hyde, Senator James Buckley, Judge John T. Noonan, and Princeton professor and ethicist Paul Ramsey. High standards, indeed. A maxim penned by McFadden and dear to his heart was “Good writing can win battles; great writing, whole wars.” Could I ever be equal to the task?
When I visited Manhattan, I stopped in to see McFadden at his East 35th St. office. “You are the most determined person I have ever met,” was his welcoming remark. In addition to being perhaps the most patient person I had ever met, he was quite cordial and encouraging. He took me to lunch and we discussed a wide assortment of things. Despite his New York residence, he was an ardent fan of the Boston Red Sox. The fact that we were both suffering through the “Curse of the Bambino” was an unexpected source of bonding. And he was addicted to puns. “The only certainties in modern life,” he chuckled, “are death and faxes.” Before I left, he regaled me with a tape of a 1979 testimonial dinner given in his honor, and a copy of John T. Noonan’s latest book, A Private Choice. (Noonan, along with Malcolm Muggeridge and William F. Buckley, had hosted the dinner.) His generosity to me was repeated over the ensuing years in many ways.
During that visit, McFadden told me how he came to establish the Human Life Foundation. Back in January of 1973, he had been aboard William Buckley’s yacht while it was docked in Miami for repairs. Wanting to catch up on the news of the day, he got a copy of the New York Times from a vending machine and, glancing at the front page, was stunned by what he read: The United States Supreme Court had, by a vote of 7-2, invalidated every single state law regulating the practice of abortion. He proceeded to pour over the ruling, which the Times printed in its entirety. The justices had determined that a constitutional “right to privacy” guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion. Reading the horrifying news, McFadden there and then vowed to do something about it. Right away, he created the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life to lobby politicians to counteract the ruling through legislation. And in 1974 he established the Human Life Foundation, to educate the public about the abortion issue and to support crisis pregnancy centers through a matching grant program. The debut issue of the Human Life Review appeared in the winter of 1975. The Review, regarded as the “brains” of the pro-life movement, continues to flourish under the capable hands of his eldest daughter, Maria McFadden Maffucci.
James Patrick McFadden was the right man for the job. He had served for two years in military intelligence in Germany. He had the professional background, experience, and contacts required. As the longtime associate publisher of National Review, he knew a great deal about opinion journalism, publishing, direct mail, and other forms of promotion. He was savvy about how Washington worked and well-versed in various political strategies. Moreover, he had the right temperament. An obituary in the Daily Telegraph referred to him as “Clever, witty, rumbustious and religious.”
Thanks to McFadden’s patience and guidance, I finally produced articles deemed worthy of appearing in the pages of the Human Life Review. McFadden was more than a mentor to me; he remains in my memory an unforgettable character. He was, as his close friend Buckley asserted, a “prime exhibit of G.K. Chesterton’s dogged insistence that piety and laughter are inseparable, and indefeasibly the work of God.” Malcolm Muggeridge said of him that “he combines to a remarkable degree a touch of saintliness and a strong dose of Machiavellianism—[comparable to] one of those drinks like gin and bitters that somehow work together very well.” Jim could see the funny side of everything while remaining “deadly serious” about his faith, his family (there were five children), and his country.
Nonetheless, the perennial question arises: “Why do bad things happen to good people”? In 1993 Jim McFadden was diagnosed with the cancer that would ultimately take his life. Surgery removed the tumor in his neck but impaired his speech. Eventually, he lost completely his ability to speak. Eighteen months after his operation, his son Robert, married just four years, died of cancer. There was enough evidence of McFadden’s protracted ill treatment at a New York hospital to justify legal action. Always a man of prayer, Jim would read the Psalms in the wee hours. One of his favorite passages was from Psalm 119: “In my trouble I cried out to the Lord, and He heard me. O Lord, deliver my soul from wicked lips, and a deceitful tongue.” Cardinal O’Connor, aware of the situation, promised to look into the case.
Jim endured his suffering for five long years, attending the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Agnes Church every morning, and continuing to edit the Human Life Review and work on other projects. On October 17, 1998, at the all-too-young age of sixty-eight, James Patrick McFadden passed from the earth. “Life born and unborn, was everything to Jim,” wrote journalist Ray Kerrison in the New York Post. “He defended it for others and fought desperately for it for himself. It was a privilege to have known him” (“Death takes a stubborn defender of life,” October 22, 1998).
Kerrison may have gotten in the best final line when he wrote, in a Christmas card to McFadden’s widow, Faith, “I can’t help thinking how exasperated Jim must be in heaven. Here he is, sitting on the greatest exclusive in all history—and he can’t get the story out.” Piety and laughter have a way of rubbing off on people.
This Blog was originally posted on October 2, 2018.