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Remembering Jon Basil Utley: Our Champion and Yours

The longtime publisher and booster of TAC built a colorful network of friends and allies who shared his unerring devotion to freedom.
utley gala

Jon Basil Utley, a friend of The American Conservative and so many individuals too numerous to count, passed away Friday, according to his wife Ana. In my last phone call with him on Thursday, March 12, I learned he had been undergoing chemotherapy. This was his second bout with cancer in a handful of years. He was 86 years old.

Friends had been trying to reach Jon for the last month or so. When someone as plugged in like Utley suddenly stops calling, returning phone calls, showing up at events or emailing, it’s a shock. We know now that unlike his previous health problems and a more recent tangle with the flu, this challenge wouldn’t be countenanced with his usual stubbornness and flinty resolve. Now is the time for regretting that we did not have one more email exchange, one more phone call, before he went off the grid.

So many people called Utley “friend” because that is what he was. He zeroed in on interesting, authentic people at every station in life and cultivated new bonds with unusual fervor. He was known to use the standing room at conferences, empty spaces between tables at dinners, and hallways outside of events to introduce his new and old compatriots to one another, hoping to spark meaningful collaborations. Business cards were passed, years-long friendships formed.

Though his mother Freda was a famous Soviet exile and anti-Communist intellectual, and Utley had been raised in circles most of us only read about (graduating from Georgetown University’s prestigious School of Foreign Service and later leading a dashing career in finance in South America) he was more an everyman than a snob in the truest sense of the word. Utley eschewed phony baloneys and uptight Washington, with its superficial obsessions with status, instead seeking out sincere fellow travelers in liberty. He wanted to stop war and repression in all forms. He believed free and independent thinking was the ultimate weapon against the corrupting power of the state and the power elite. If you were on board with this mission, you had a seat, and a sincere audience, with Jon Utley. No matter who you were or where you came from.

Utley’s interest in journalism emerged during his time in Bogota, Colombia, and he was the associate editor of The Times of the Americas for 12 years, from 1985 to 2003, debating free market issues, anti-communism, and current international affairs. Carrying on the lifelong mission of his mother, Ultey appreciated the power of information and began writing for a number of mainstream, conservative, and libertarian publications, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, National Review, and Reason. He was able, too, to use his self-made wealth to invest in a number of philanthropic and ideas-driven organizations that shared his values, and worked tirelessly to promote them.

Meanwhile, his anti-war convictions were fierce, but never so brave as when he joined other conservatives to oppose the first Gulf War in 1991. By 9/11 he was fully entrenched in a non-interventionist movement that questioned the military-industrial complex, the U.S. foreign policy role in the Middle East, and the use of force to spread American-styled democracy in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. After the start of the Afghanistan War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he was primed to join the new efforts at TAC and an emergent conservative bulwark against the war party in Washington was enjoined.

This is where I come in. Sometime after I began writing for TAC in 2007, I began attending informal lunches every month with several other like-minded individuals to hash out the roiling news cycle during peak war time. Think Patriot Act, secret torture memos, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, the Surge, secret CIA renderings, drones. Joining us would be TAC co-founder Scott McConnell and contributors Phil Giraldi, Gareth Porter, Chuck Pena, and Jim Bovard. Then-Rep. Ron Paul’s legislative aide Dan McAdams would pop in, as would defense lawyers from Guantanamo Bay working in Washington, and of course, Utley. 

Already rounding 80 years, Utley would never miss one of our “Liberty Lunches.” He was animated by the collective outrage and like the rest of us, juiced by the discourse of opposition. The lunches went on for years, and he became a steady confidant in our professional struggles and a booster of our ideas, personally and as a group, no matter how Quixotic. We fancied ourselves a minor rebellion in the Imperial City, and that suited Jon just fine.

To me, he was a source of confidence who brought to me a boundless stream of ideas and new connections. He sent me blushing constantly as he talked up my writing and work at TAC in front of strangers, and was an inspiration to this day. I wasn’t the only one: I look over at the bookcase in my office (his old office) and see Sen. Rand Paul’s new book, The Case Against Socialism. In it is a simple note from Paul: “thanks for letting us share your story.”

Aside from his steadfast interest and support for what we were all doing, Utley became a financial supporter of TAC during uncertain times. He remains on the masthead as our publisher, and contributed many articles not only about the wars, but on free trade and the economy, and his continuing fight against socialism and communism abroad. Just last year, he was awarded The American Conservative’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, with a fitting speech from his friend John Henry. To say he touched an untold number of  lives and selflessly promoted so many others’ interests and efforts, would be an understatement.

From human rights to civil rights, from excoriating despotism to ending Washington’s wars, Utley was on the “right” side of history from the beginning. He often referred back to his father, who was killed in a Soviet prison camp in 1939 as the foundational element of his entire approach to the world. His mother, who was forced to flee Russia with the tiny Jon, was a model of integrity and a lodestar for what was really important. That is what he leaves with me: a true spirit of friendship, bound by shared ideals, a responsibility to the truth, and a fealty to one’s principles no matter the cost. He will be missed.