Commentary

Farewell to a Constitutional Conservative

Like thousands of Georgetown undergrads through his five-decade career there, I knew George Carey first of all as a teacher.

My freshman year began a few months before the Berlin Wall came down, and that first semester, a couple of my dorm buddies and I regularly made the trek across campus to join 70 or so other students for American Government with Professor Carey.

He held our attention effortlessly. We were 18 or 19 years old; Professor Carey would have been 55, but we thought he was cool—cool in the way that only someone who’d smirk at that description can be. He was entirely self-possessed, cheerfully curmudgeonly, and eccentric without affectation. Was he having us on with those repeated deadpan references to “the Great Coolidge”? And what was this “George W. Carey (TME)” business on the syllabus? We eventually ferreted out that the initials stood for “The Most Enlightened,” a self-designation that would have seemed pompous coming from anyone else, but one he offered with a twinkle in his eye.

Like all good teachers, Carey was tough. A couple of his syllabi over the years featured a Flannery O’Connor quote: “And if the student find this is not to his taste, well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

My second year, in an intensive, small-group seminar, I had what I suppose was a sophomoric reaction to Burke’s Reflections. When you’ve just slipped the parental chains, sentiments like, “we ought to see what it will please [men] to do [with their liberties], before we risk congratulations” don’t go down as easily as Keystone Light. Firmly but fairly, Professor Carey convinced me I was wrong. My memories of that seminar, “The Individual and the Modern State,” have a weird glow about them: I was 20 years old and I’d just found something I wanted to do forever.

We kept in touch after I graduated, but our correspondence dropped off for a few years around the turn of the century, during my soul-numbing detour into big-firm law practice. When we reconnected in the mid-2000s, I briefly wondered whether 9/11 might have moved my favorite professor in a nationalist direction, as it did so many others on the Right.

I quickly found out how much the Bush years had radicalized him. I remember his words better than the place—I think it was over burgers at the Tombs, surrounded by World War I propaganda posters—where he said to me: “I want—and I’m very serious about this—I want to see Bush and Cheney impeached, removed from office, then put on trial as war criminals.” To hear this from someone as genial, gentlemanly, and temperamentally conservative as George Carey was electrifying—like hearing Jimmy Stewart curse a righteous blue streak.

A few years later, on short notice as I struggled to finish my book, The Cult of the Presidency, Professor Carey gave me incisive and indispensably valuable comments, signing off with the encouragement/command “KEEP WORKING.” That someone I admired so much—without whom it never would have been written—actually liked the thing, made the sore back and countless all-nighters worth it in the end.

Looking through our correspondence, I came across a May 2011 email from Professor Carey to Larry Stratton—our regular partner at the Tombs—and me, subject line “Yikes”:

Gentlemen: Just think about this: “(A) smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and do fewer things.” (Gates) Mind boggling.

Disgusted as he was with what American government had become, George Carey never lost his air of bemused good cheer. He was a gentleman, a scholar, an inspiration, and a mensch—and I feel very lucky to have known him.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.