Like my TAC colleague Micah Mattix, I was surprised and distressed to see that First Things had abruptly dismissed executive editor David Mills, 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.