COMMENTARY: Mike Schwartz, the happy warrior

OKLAHOMA CITY – It always made sense that a Philadelphia guy named Mike Schwartz — like me, a devout Roman Catholic and ardent conservative — wound up working for my fellow Oklahoman Tom Coburn, both during the good doctor’s three terms in the U.S. House and during his two terms in the U.S. Senate.

In all, Mike spent nearly 15 years as chief of staff for the man from Muskogee.

In the 1980s, Schwartz and I labored in the trenches for limited government, traditional jurisprudence, the moral worldview our forebears had bequeathed to us, and much more. 

I did not know — until after his death from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) last week — that Mike had remained a Democrat until 2010. He only left the party of Jefferson after Arlen Specter departed the party of Lincoln, to make an unsuccessful run for reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2010. 

Upon reflection, that did not really surprise me. Mike had admired Robert P. Casey, Sr., former governor of Pennsylvania and a pro-life Democrat, Specter’s frequent foe across decades in the Keystone State. Now, along with Sen. Specter, both Mike and Gov. Casey have departed this vale of tears.

Mike lived every day with the once-pervasive Democratic concern for the unborn, the elderly and those for whom former U.S. Sen. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota advocated – innocents at the margin of society too often without defenders, those without the faith, families and friendships central to the formation of men like Mike.

We worked together in the 1980s for Paul M. Weyrich at the Free Congress Foundation. Weyrich was a passionate “New Right” conservative who practiced a robust brand of politics, based on effective precinct-level organizational methods, learned from the labor unions but fused with “big picture” wisdom about the deficiencies of government compulsion.

I was Paul’s legal policy analyst, and a political journalist. For Weyrich, Mike focused on Catholic Church issues, notably including the clergy sexual abuse scandal that was then percolating just beneath the surface of public awareness.

He embodied courage in speaking truth to power when, in a press conference at the National Press Club, he called on leaders of the Church in America to grapple with clergy sexual misbehavior sooner rather than later.

He argued for forceful action both as a matter of morality and of prudence. Mike said, prophetically, the wrongdoing would, as more people became aware of it, shock the consciences of the American Catholic faithful and shred support for leaders who had averted their eyes from the scandal.

For his devotion to the Church and to common sense, he was denounced by some church officials at the time for even raising the issue. If more of those men had heeded his words, God knows the difference it would have made.

Mike was more like an Isaiah than a Jeremiah. He was stern when needed, but over all – like Humphrey – a happy warrior.

And, as is still the case with Coburn, with Mike Schwartz what you saw was always what you got: Honesty, integrity, passion, commitment, an ability to “dialogue” with policy opponents and a fearless, methodical approach to the intricacies of issues.

He worked tirelessly to help Dr. Coburn solidify his pro-life leadership in the nation’s capital and here at home. Coburn said Mike understood, “the closer you get to power, the more you need to humble yourself, and learn new things.”

Sen. Coburn — in an eloquent tribute delivered on the U.S. Senate floor last fall, when Mike’s illness forced him to stop coming to Capitol Hill each day — said he had been “mentored and modeled” through Schwartz.

He watched Mike up close, offering the homeless not only money and resources, but friendship – “and the gift of time.” To be clear, Mike’s concern was not for symbols of grievance or categories in the population, but for flesh-and-blood individuals.

In our long telephone conversations since the Reagan years, Schwartz was a source of invaluable insight and clarifying honesty to me.

When a mutual friend, now an Oklahoma legislator, told me last fall that Mike was ill, I made a note in my pocket “daybook” to phone him. … Then, 2012 ended and I wrote the reminder in the new book in January. 

Time slipped away and I never made that call, something I regret now.

Still, Mike knew how I felt about him. It took some years, but I finally borrowed the model of his life-long habit of praying for friends and – hardest of all – for enemies. For McGuigan, that last one was a challenge, but for Schwartz it was habitual. He pressed in the direction of forgiveness and understanding, without surrender of principle.

As we grow older, we Irishmen tend to become more transparent.

Tears and expressions of endearment flow more easily. 

Yes, Mike was an open book.

He studied the great saints, heroes and heroines of history.

He understood them as people — not cardboard cutouts from literature, or plaster figures on dashboards, or stone monuments in public squares, or images mounted in houses of worship.

He lived and understood the moral philosophy of our Church.

He wore his heart on his sleeve, both with allies and with those he opposed in his various professional incarnations, the last several years as Dr. Coburn’s trusted adviser and friend. He was indeed the kind of man who, knowing death was near, could describe himself as “the luckiest man alive.” 

I shall miss him and pray, by God’s grace, to see him again one day. 

Like Coburn, I believe Mike was greeted in Heaven with those words that overwhelm all the calumny and meanness of this fallen world: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25: 21, 23 New International Version) 

NOTE: This tribute is expanded from material included in Kathryn Jean Lopez’s compilation of eulogies honoring Schwartz. It was posted Feb. 8 at National Review Online’s “The Corner. At the same link, readers can access Sen. Coburn’s moving tribute on the Senate floor, delivered last fall.  

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