Jon Basil Utley: A Man For All Seasons
A symposium in honor of our late friend and publisher
How do you best remember TAC’s longtime publisher, Jon Basil Utley?
Johnny Burtka, Executive Director
I met Jon on an early fall morning over breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel. While many friends of the magazine have had a lifetime to spend with Jon, I was only privileged to know him for four short years. Nevertheless, the impact that he’s had on me will last a lifetime.
When I flip open my journal, the notes from our lunch meeting are on the top of the very first page. As I spoke with him during breakfast, he took the opportunity to provide me with some welcome advice and a few important biographical details about his life:
“Do anything you want, but don’t insult a man in front of his friends.”
“I am only religious on the battlefield.”
“I smoke two cigarettes a day, one in the morning and one before bed.”
“The truth does not need equal time.”
“I was only 28 years old when I crashed my first plane near Bogotá.”
“The salesman who best organizes his time is the one who raises the most money.”
“Telling the truth is easier than lying because lies are always built on a foundation of other lies, and it’s hard to keep straight all the lies that you’ve told in the past.”
As I listened to Jon share his life story, I knew that I was in the presence of a great man. Over the next four years, I would spend countless hours talking with him on the phone and meeting in person on my weekly trips to Washington. One visit that I remember with particular fondness took place on a warm summer evening in 2018 when he invited me up to his rooftop in Georgetown to drink whiskey and watch the sunset. He regaled me with tales from his boxing days at Georgetown and explained how he was one of the only men in Washington to ever turn down offers from both the CIA & KGB. After nearly every meeting, I would call my wife and share some new detail that I learned about Jon—often with amazement at how many profound adventures he was afforded during his 86-year sojourn in this life.
My heart sank when I got the news that Jon had passed away. While I knew this day would eventually come, I had always hoped that it would be further down the road after we had a few more strategy sessions to discuss the future of TAC and a few more debates, preferably on his rooftop over whiskey, about trade & globalization—a subject that prompted spirited, yet friendly, disagreements between us.
On the day after he passed away, I went down to the Tidal Basin to see the Cherry Blossoms, which had reached peak bloom several weeks early due to the unusually warm weather. As I drove back home, we passed the Kennedy Center, and I looked across the Potomac to my left towards the Georgetown Waterfront. I saw Jon’s apartment building from a distance and said a prayer for him not knowing that he had already taken his leave from life’s stage.
I’d like to think that the flowers reaching peak bloom and the warm breeze of an eighty-degree, March day were Jon’s way of saying goodbye to a city that filled his life with so much energy and so many memories. And as I look back on our few precious moments together and replay hundreds of hours of conversations, I imagine Jon standing before me giving one final word of fatherly advice from his favorite poet, Rudyard Kipling, “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue / Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch / If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you / If all men count with you, but none too much / If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run / Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it / And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Robert W. Merry, Board Member
Jon Utley was born into adventure, intrigue, and danger, and that set the tone for a life as full of activity and bustle as any I knew in Washington. He was not much more than a toddler in the Soviet Union when his father was arrested by the Stalin sodality and sent into the nightmare of the Gulag. His mom, Freda Utley, recognizing the danger posed by this arbitrary regime, spirited herself and Jon out of the country. They eventually landed in America, where Freda emerged as a leading anticommunist voice and outspoken presence on the anticommunist scene. Jon grew up amidst luminaries of the cause of freedom, and he never wavered in his devotion to that cause and that birthright. Thus could he be seen in later years wherever people congregated to press for what he believed in–freedom, realism and restraint in foreign policy, restrained government, and the ethos of libertarianism. Organizational breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, cause gatherings, board meetings, speech forums, cocktail receptions–there was Jon, his enthusiasm and bonhomie overflowing as he greeted old friends and manifested an instinctive curiosity in meeting new ones. He never stopped thinking about the big questions of the day, never retreated from the causes he believed in, never slacked in his desire to express himself through the written word on the issues that moved him, which were many and varied. He cut a wide swath through life and through Washington, and he will be missed.
Wick Allison, Contributing Editor
I admit I took only one of every four of Jon’s phone calls. That’s because he had usually written me two emails on the same subject.
And that’s why I loved the man. He was not only principled, he was persistent. Day after day, when Iraq war clouds enclosed Washington, he attended meetings and seminars and dinners, standing up and speaking out against the war. He was alone and undaunted and somehow cheerfully unaffected by the disdain with which his fellow conservatives greeted him.
Jon had mastered the fine art of disagreeing with a twinkle in his eye. Opponents were not enemies; they were not even opponents. They were friends. They were wrong or maybe opportunistic or maybe cowardly but Jon had been wrong enough in his long life and had taken opportunities where he had seen them, and who among us, he once asked me, has not at some point been a coward?
When I was asked to take over The American Conservative in 2011, Jon was among the first to step up to help. His support and encouragement were as strong as his opinions. There was never a moment’s doubt where Jon stood. His genuineness was even greater than his generosity.
Jon Utley was that rarest of creatures, a real American hero who never stopped smiling.
Daniel Larison, Senior Editor
Jon Utley was an unfailingly generous colleague. As many others can attest, he was a passionate advocate for peace and for a humane foreign policy. I am sorry that I didn’t know him better. On the occasions when I did meet him at TAC conferences, he was a wonderful host and a supportive mentor. May his memory be eternal.
Matt Purple, Managing Editor
The last time I saw Jon wasn’t at Liberty Con, the libertarian confab held annually here in Washington, D.C., but that’s the occasion I remember best. I found him sitting in an auditorium, watching a panel discussion about tech regulation, surrounded by people about a quarter his age. We talked for a while, only for me to get up and leave, off to some other event. After I’d gone, he kept texting me, determined to keep the conversation going. He loved to talk, Jon, and not in the what-can-you-do-for-me way that prevails in Washington. I mean really talk, about ideas and family life and freedom. Even into his late 80’s, he seemed to have more energy than most twentysomethings I know. And I’ve never seen anyone show less fear in approaching a total stranger for a conversation. He was an unstoppable whirlwind, a hater of stupid wars, a lover of the blessings this country provides, a powerful advocate for both TAC and me personally. I miss him already.
Emile Doak, Director of Development
I joined TAC in early 2017 to coordinate our then-burgeoning events and outreach efforts. While my educational background was in politics, my professional background was not, so I was eager to connect with those more connected than I. In one of my first weeks on the job, Jon, our publisher and board member, was gracious enough to meet with me, a young new hire, to help me strategize our outreach within the conservative world. That Jon was more than willing to meet shows how deeply he cared about ideas, and especially the ideas that animate TAC. That he spent more than an hour in that first meeting simply asking me about my background and life shows how deeply Jon cared about others.
Indeed, Jon never hesitated to help others succeed. I owe a great deal of gratitude to him for opening doors for me. Whether it was going the extra mile to including me at conferences, meetings, or other events in the conservative world, I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. And I suspect I’m hardly the only person working in the conservative world who would say so.
Yet despite his fierce devotion to his ideas and activism, Jon never lost sight of the human dimension of politics. Earlier this year, I experienced a death in the family, and Jon was quick to reach out with a kind personal note of condolence—complete with musings on the mystery of life. That was Jon: curious, principled, but above all eminently kind. I pray for the repose of his soul. He will be sorely missed.
Leonora Cravotta, Director of Operations
When I first learned of the death of The American Conservative’s publisher, Jon Basil Utley, I was crest-fallen. I felt a pain in my gut similar to what I experienced when my own parents passed away. I did not realize this acute sense of loss because I had known Jon for such a long time, but rather because I had known him so briefly, less than two years. Yet, in that short time, an unbreakable bond was established. My experience was not unique. Jon’s genuine interest in others, engaging personality and quirky sense of humor endeared him to everyone he met.
I first met Jon in 2018 about two months after I had joined The American Conservative. He invited me to lunch because he wanted to get to know me better. He seemed genuinely interested in where I grew up, who my parents were, where I attended college and graduate school and most importantly what professional trajectory led me to The American Conservative. During the lunch, I innocently asked him about where he was born, because at the time I did not know that his father had been executed by the Gulag in Russia. When Jon told me about his father’s death, I expressed embarrassment that I did not know the circumstances beforehand. Jon quickly put me at ease, and I soon realized that he liked talking about his father and had clearly found a way to cope with his tragic exit.
In the spring of 2019, The American Conservative selected Jon as the inaugural recipient of our Lifetime Achievement award, which was to be presented at our second annual gala. As the director of operations, I was responsible for not only planning the gala but also for coordinating the production of a secret tribute video to Jon. In this capacity, I scheduled interviews, prepared questions and attended every video recording. The short production schedule gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about Jon in a compressed period of time. After all, I was present for not only the interviews which made the finished product but also the outtakes. Suffice to say, we could have made five videos about Jon.
While the “secret video” was being produced, Jon was calling the office every day to “touch base” about the gala attendee list. He would say “How are we doing today?” He wanted the numbers and if he wasn’t satisfied with them, he would start calling and emailing potential attendees. As a businessman, Jon realized that he was in part responsible for getting people to show up to see him honored. And show up they did. On the night of the gala, I came up to Jon after he received the award and asked him how he liked the surprise video. He then told me that someone had let the cat out of the bag prior to the gala. Yet, Jon kept the information to himself because he did not want to spoil our surprise. A quintessential Jon Utley gesture.
I am really going to miss him.
W. James Antle III, Contributing Editor
As a young TAC staffer, I first met Jon Utley at CPAC, where he was manning the “Conservatives for Peace” booth. This was at the height—or rather the nadir—of the Iraq war and any opinions that contradicted George “The Decider” Bush were still strictly forbidden. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” went the quote from an anonymous Dubya aide that even if apocryphal captured the zeitgeist. Some College Republican types snickered at the name of Jon’s group, engaging in hard hat talk about “commies” even though they were more likely to be video game players than brick layers. Little did they know that Jon understood more about the evils of communism than they could possibly fathom, the son of a mother who emerged as a leading anti-communist and a father who was murdered by Joseph Stalin’s goons.
Jon was excited to meet another conservative who shared his perspective that something had gone terribly wrong with our foreign policy after the Cold War, no matter how young or unknown. He beamed and quoted St. Crispin’s Day Speech: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Jon was a gentleman, an affable and thoroughly decent man. But his good nature should not be mistaken for a lack of courage. He was dogged in his convictions, unwilling to back down from any argument, whether it was a matter of war and peace, theology or simply the best font to use on the TAC website. He handed out the magazine and talked about the folly of our Middle East wars in front of conservatives who weren’t ready to hear it yet. He, along with Pat Buchanan, had opposed not just the second disastrous Iraq war but the first popular, seemingly successful one. More than that, he always discussed how lucky we were to live in America. Jon’s politics revolved around freedom and peace.
My last lunch with Jon took place near his home in Georgetown. He practically ran upstairs to a restaurant on the waterfront, wanting to eat outside. When he was informed the outdoor patio was closed, he ambled downstairs again and insisted we go somewhere else. I was afraid with all the running up and down I was going to lose Jon on my watch, but his energy was boundless. When we parted, I got into a cab outside his building. “Do you know that man?” the driver asked, beginning to tell stories about Jon and Russia and Latin America. Yes, I did know him. And thanks to his generosity, the band of brothers is not so few anymore. R.I.P.