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The Gift That Is David Mills

Like my TAC colleague Micah Mattix, I was surprised and distressed to see that First Things had abruptly dismissed executive editor David Mills [1], who was a real heir to the late Richard John Neuhaus, especially in his singular style of writing and habit of mind. For me, the distress has a personal quality: David has been a good friend for years. I don’t know what happened at the magazine, and David, being a gentleman and a professional, is being discreet. So it was a relief to see a letter FT’s editor R.R. Reno sent to his board, in which he said:

David has made many important contributions to First Things for which I’m very appreciative. Please know that although I made a decision regarding the unique circumstances and needs of the position here, and about what’s best for First Things, I have high regard for David’s editorial skills and would warmly recommend him.

Midge Decter, he goes on to say, has stepped in as interim senior editor while the magazine looks for a permanent senior editor. It sounds pretty clear to me that this situation is not about any malfeasance on David’s part, but about an editorial disagreement about the magazine’s direction.

David has not asked me to write anything in support of him; he’s not that kind of man. Plus, I would not begin to second-guess Rusty Reno’s judgment here; having worked in newspapers and magazines, I can tell you that people on the outside who think they have all the workings of the place figured out almost always haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about. I will not make that mistake here; nor should you.

What I do want to say is that David Mills is one of the most intelligent, most gifted Christian writers and editors in the country — something that is clear to most people who read him and read the magazines he has edited. What may not be clear to those who don’t know David personally is that he is a man of wisdom, integrity and uncommon moral courage. I’ve seen this in him in various ways over the years, but what comes to mind this morning is an occasion in the past in which he stood up for me at a time and in a place where it was hard to do. It was an instance where it stood to win him no friends, and in fact potentially earn him powerful enemies. I’ve never forgotten it.

Any reader of David’s, or of First Things under his leadership, or of Touchstone before that, can see his gifts as a journalist revealed on the printed page, month after month. Only those who know him can testify to the man’s character. In my opinion, we need David Mills to stay active in journalism and public life — and I know that I’m not the only writer, Christian or otherwise, to believe that. If your magazine needs one of the best editors in America, he’s back home in Pennsylvania, and he’s available.

 

38 Comments (Open | Close)

38 Comments To "The Gift That Is David Mills"

#1 Comment By Nathan P. On March 20, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

Rod, I don’t mean to pry, but when you say “he stood up to me,” do you mean “he stood up for me”? It would be strange (though not impossible) if you mean the former.

[NFR: Yes, you’re right — I’ve corrected it. Thanks for the heads-up! — RD]

#2 Comment By Liam On March 20, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

Midge Decter, 86, is not a good omen.

#3 Comment By Caroline Walker On March 20, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

I’ve been a devoted First Things reader for about 10 years…and have no idea about the ins and outs about why David Mills should no longer be there. But I have an observation that may or may not be related. The content, since RJN’s tenure, has grown considerably more academic. Not sure if that’s the right word…but less accessible and more esoteric. It seems over my head now; whereas in previous years, the content — both in writing style and in choice of subject matter- – enriched my understanding of whatever issue was under consideration. I’m even debating whether or not to renew.

#4 Comment By Isyou39 On March 20, 2014 @ 1:57 pm

I am also a FT subscriber. I second Caroline Walker’s comment. FT has become turgid.

#5 Comment By Colonel Bogey On March 20, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

Mr Mills is a fine writer, and usually very entertaining, but he has one awful blind spot: contrary to his bizarre prejudice, cats are very GOOD creatures, and should never be disparaged.

#6 Comment By Art Deco On March 20, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

Midge Decter is nearly 87 years old and only lightly religious (“Jewish, unaffliated” she once told Current Biography). Her husband retired in 1995 and her son-in-law can now collect Social Security. She is an incisive social critic, to be sure, but really at a time in her life when the first order of business ought to be outings with her great-grandchildren. (She and her husband are still well enough to travel and have a mess of relatives in Israel among other places).

A while back, Fr. Neuhaus defended the use of the word ‘defunct’ to mean ‘finished a course of life’. It’s gotten clearer over four years that First Things has not survived its founder. One of the four deputies he employed over the years betrayed the enterprise, so grossly that he really should be unemployable. Another one mismanaged it and, after his dismissal, revealed himself to be unserious beyond anyone’s imagining. The current editor has done a fine job of rendering the publication soporific, just like an academic theology journal. Time to pull the plug and redistribute those foundation dollars to The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review, and Touchstone.

#7 Comment By scriblerus On March 20, 2014 @ 2:28 pm

This is unfortunate for David Mills and unfortunate for “First Things” at the same time. The magazine really suffered from the Bush years, when it was at the forefront of the effort to muster social conservative support for the George W. Bush administration, and then dealt with the death of Neuhaus and the noticeable ebbing of the Catholic neoconservative high tide after April-May 2005. In recent years, it seemed like the magazine had come to terms with its somewhat diminished status–publishing solid articles by academically oriented social conservatives (with the occasional unpleasant Weigel article) but without the frisson of Neuhaus’ political interventions. To be honest, I had wondered whether the board (more politically oriented people like Decter and others) would question whether they were getting their money’s worth. Nevertheless, I know that Reno and Mills, in cooperation with others like Robert George and his projects at Princeton, have done a great deal to midwife lots of socially conservative scholarship. I don’t know that much about the inner workings of the magazine and the string of sudden, acrimonious departures (Linker, Bottum, and now, it seems, Mills) apart from second hand gossip and what I read on the web but I really hope the magazine is not becoming weighed down by intractable internal disputes and politics. It’s not what it was (which is, in some ways, a good thing) but it can still contribute an awful lot.

#8 Comment By smith On March 20, 2014 @ 2:28 pm

Midge Decter? Midge Decter?

I’m not a conservative Catholic, but I read First Things because it frequently has intelligent contributions from that point of view, which I learn something from as a result.

And I know that Nehaus made an effort to align himself with neo-cons long ago. But still, that was…long ago, when those people still had a claim to mattering. (Though even then Midge Decter wasn’t worth anyone’s attention, and didn’t get it either.) The idea that intellectual life in 2014 is going to be enriched by a defrosted apparatchik like Midge Decter is…not encouraging for the magazine.

#9 Comment By mrscracker On March 20, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

One of my in-laws has a subscription to “First Things” and I enjoy borrowing issues.
That said, I’ve been puzzled why virtually every comment I’ve made about one of their articles online gets censored as “not contributing to the conversation.”Or words to that effect.Maybe their software system can detect low income non-subscribers?
🙂

#10 Comment By Jordan Hylden On March 20, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

Y’all… the masthead says that Midge Decter is an interim. My guess is that she’s a friend with writing experience and knowledge of FT who was local and had some free time on her hands. Not a long-term solution!

#11 Comment By Mark Brown On March 20, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

Sigh, that is disappointing. For years I’d read it cover to cover. In the last few years, absent a Rittlemeyer column and Mills’ shorts, I found myself reading less and less. Why? Bad topic selection. An increasing focus on esoteric Roman Catholicism. Worse writing. All the things the Neuhaus brought – nose for news, larger view of the Church, aesthetic pleasure – have gone missing. Instead of pitching it to the 60+ (80+?) set, they should hand it to MB Dougherty or Rittlemeyer. Might be interesting again.

#12 Comment By Ken Smith On March 20, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

That’s a shame. I don’t know David Mills at all, but I loved his “While We’re At It” columns – usually while brushing my teeth, as I think about it, as they’re admirably suited to, well, the sort of reading you can do while brushing your teeth.

#13 Comment By Rob G On March 20, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

“The Gift That Is David Mills”

And the gift keeps on giving…except when it’s his turn to buy the next round. (kidding! kidding!)

David’s got various things in the works, so he won’t go missing. What was it that Fu Manchu used to say at the end of the films? — “The world will hear from me again!”

#14 Comment By TheYTownProphet On March 20, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

Just one more vote of agreement with Caroline Walker’s comment.

#15 Comment By Ron Burgundy On March 20, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

I think people are misreading the announcement.

Midge Decter will be on staff only until a new hire can be made. It’s temporary. It may be a matter of a few weeks for all we know.

#16 Comment By RB On March 20, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

I’m with Caroline Walker. I started reading First Things as a teen when I pilfered my dad’s issues. I’ve noticed the online blog has jettisoned several contriubutors, including the inestimable Dr. Boli.

I used to feel part of the FT community; now I feel like a kid standing outside a coffee shop with my nose pressed against the window, looking in on very distant figures having a high-toned conversation. It’s a pity.

I hope everyone who had a hand in making FT great will have the prospects they deserve. Good luck, David Mills!

#17 Comment By David Mills On March 20, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

Rod:

Gosh, this is kind. Beyond kind. Thank you.

I was having lunch with a friend who read it on his phone and said, “Wait? Did you die?” Then he doubted your sanity. But that’s what friends are for.

I suspect Colonel Bogey of *being* a cat.

Anyway, thanks, much.

#18 Comment By BenSix On March 20, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

An 86-year-old neoconservative? I don’t wish to be discourteous but that sounds as wise as replacing a lineman with an ectomorph with a bad back.

#19 Comment By BenSix On March 20, 2014 @ 5:57 pm

Midge Decter will be on staff only until a new hire can be made. It’s temporary. It may be a matter of a few weeks for all we know.

Yes, I did the old “skim-read a blogpost and then write a comment in the time that could have been spent reading it thoroughly so as to avoid misunderstanding”. Sorry about that, because such foolishness gives comment threads a bad names.

#20 Comment By BenSix On March 20, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

Midge Decter will be on staff only until a new hire can be made. It’s temporary. It may be a matter of a few weeks for all we know.

Yes, I did the old “skim-read a blogpost and then write a comment in the time that could have been spent reading it thoroughly so as to avoid misunderstanding”. (Sorry about that, because such foolishness gives comment threads a bad name.)

#21 Comment By Perelandrian On March 20, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

I’m nodding as I read most of these comments. I used to read the First Things blog almost daily, but lately it’s just too academic and esoteric for me…and I was a theology major at one of the top Catholic schools in the U.S. Hard for me to believe they will have a large enough audience with the recent changes.

#22 Comment By Kamilla On March 20, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

Col. Bogey,

I have tried lo these many years to correct this major flaw in my friend David Mills. I fear the condition is incurable.

#23 Comment By PB On March 20, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

I read the Back Page religiously, because DB Hart is funny and profound at once. David Mills was not my favorite presence, to be honest, but I wish him well. As for the journal becoming more academic, who can say? There were a lot of issues in the Neuhaus days that were extremely dry and turgid, to be honest.

#24 Comment By Liam On March 20, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

Ron

I didn’t misread, but resorting to Midge Decter even on a temporary basis is a sign of circling the epistemically narrow drain of neo-conservatism.

#25 Comment By KMT On March 20, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

Dr. Boli is at this address: [2]

I’m not sure they knew what a treasure they had in him.

#26 Comment By Adam DeVille On March 20, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

David Mills is not only a fine writer, but also a fine editor. I worked with him on a couple of articles for *Touchstone* about 10-12 years ago, and found his editorial suggestions always eminently wise. He has the editor’s gift of greatly improving an essay beyond the first incarnation turned in by the writer.

#27 Comment By JM On March 20, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

When I saw the name Midge Decter I did a spit-take; that person is last on the list I thought would be chosen. Interim or not, having a neocon Arab-eliminationist be involved with First Things might be a bad sign of things to come.

#28 Comment By Jordan Hylden On March 20, 2014 @ 10:39 pm

…just to clarify, folks, I meant “friend” in that she’s a long-term trusted friend of the magazine (since the beginning in fact) who clearly has the chops to do the job and is available to step in. Hence, an obvious choice to fill a temporary staffing need. A friend of mine pointed out to me that I may not have been clear on what I meant.

#29 Comment By William Dalton On March 21, 2014 @ 1:14 am

I first became acquainted with Fr. Neuhaus when he was a Lutheran and editing the Religion and Society Report. The news of his becoming Roman Catholic (and a priest, no less) and then being locked out of his offices at the RSR blindsided me. Then I learned that what drove a wedge between Fr. Neuhaus and his employers was much the same thing that drove a wedge between the National Review and those who started The American Conservative. Fr. Neuhaus went on to start First Things, and my friend, Harold O.J. Brown took over the RSR newsletter. I enjoyed them both. Both saints have now departed for glory. I wish we could hear what both have to say now. I pray God will guide the boards of both FT and TAC to employ editors faithful to the Word, who can discern the truth and hire writers capable of communicating it to the public.

#30 Comment By Bill Reichert On March 21, 2014 @ 1:15 am

I miss David already.

We may have to start referring to the magazine “Second Strings.”

#31 Comment By mrscracker On March 21, 2014 @ 9:25 am

The name Midge Decter kinda sorta sounds familiar, maybe via the Heritage Foundation.But I’m troubled by comments citing her age, Jewish faith & number of family members she might have in Israel.What bearing does that have?
If I were an older Jewish woman looking at this site I wouldn’t feel very welcome.

#32 Comment By Liam On March 21, 2014 @ 11:08 am

Well, my brief reference to her age was intended to convey that she’s been in the same incestuous network for a very long time, not that she’s non compos mentis. I don’t care that she’s Jewish as such. The Heritage Foundation pool has become much less diverse of thought than it used to be and it is among the institutions of the right that has ossified. Midge Decter is part of that ossification, not a cure. It’s not a good sign for First Things that she’s the temporary go-to in the breach; it conveys the sense that the impulse is to keep circling down the narrow drain rather than get out of the drain.

#33 Comment By Joseph Dooley On March 21, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

The First Things’s website has gone way downhill since the reformat and merger of Postmodern Conservative with the First Thoughts blog. I have to think the decline in quality is also tied to David Mills’s exit.

#34 Comment By Ron Burgundy On March 21, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

Some people, honestly.

A business needs a temp employee that lives in the city.

This person needs to be able to work for a week or a month.

Do you understand what a temp is?

Do you think the magazine should persuade Ross Douthat to quit his job to work at for a month? Maybe he’ll take the job?

#35 Comment By Sharon Thomassie On March 23, 2014 @ 12:46 am

I’m sorry to hear of this. The section of ‘First Things’ where Mr. Mills posted was the favorite of mine and my daughters.

#36 Comment By Daniel Propson On May 23, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

I speak for many authors who have worked with David when I say that he is one of the best editors I have ever worked with — nay, one of the best editors I can imagine. I would be overjoyed beyond words if David could be convinced to start his own publication. I hope some people with a lot of money try to convince him to do so.

#37 Comment By Robert Kunasek On August 5, 2014 @ 11:45 am

I respect honesty and integrity very much thank you David.

#38 Comment By Nancy On April 18, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

[3]

There is order in truth as there is order in Love, which is why a man does not Love his wife in the same manner as he Loves his daughter, or his son, or his mother, or his father, or a friend. If he did, his relationship would be disordered.

In this respect, David Mills is mistaken; 2+2 cannot, in essence, equal 5, even in the set of Imaginary numbers.
2+2=5, may be the party line, but only for those who desire to render onto Caesar what belongs to God.

“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools”, for to deny that God Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, is to deny Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy.

The Law of Noncontradiction is clear; one cannot be for Christ, if one is against The Word of God Made Flesh.
There Is only One Truth of Love, One Lamb of God Who Taketh Away the sin of the world, Our Savior, Jesus The Christ; there is no other.