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Michael Novak's Political Journey from Left to Right

Many who came to know Michael Novak relatively recently during his time in Ave Maria may have trouble imagining him as a radical left-wing socialist in the 1960s. But his reasoned approach to conservative philosophy and economics is the result of a political journey that started when he was "to the left of the Democratic Party." He worked hard to get left-wing Democrats elected in the 1960s and early 1970s. By the 1980s, he was working for Ronald Reagan and being hailed by conservative icons such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. Novak, who turns 80 years old Sept. 9, describes this political transformation in his latest book Writing from Left to Right, available right after Labor Day. (See link at end of article)

mnovak1-225He's already written more than 45 books, and few men of letters in the United States have written so much, on such varied topics, as Mr. Novak. His works have been praised by politicians, philosophers and religious leaders – and Sports Illustrated magazine also hailed his Joy of Sports as one of the 100 best sports books of all time.

Seemingly disparate topics, but not to him.

"The connection is this," Mr. Novak said in an interview, "My dream was to write about the philosophy, the theology of American culture -- and not because it was American, but because there was something different here and unique. It belonged to the whole human race, but we were pioneering it."

Mr. Novak entered academic life in the early 1960s after 12 years preparing for the Roman Catholic priesthood – leaving the seminary just months before his scheduled ordination. Right, Margaret Thatcher listnes to Michael Novak after he received the Templeton Prize for Religion in 1994.

He drifted to the more radical political left in the 1960s, teaching at Stanford University, where he was voted two out of three years "the most influential professor." He came to Bobby Kennedy's attention during his 1968 run for the presidency, and worked on the campaign.

"I loved working for the Kennedys," he said, "even though I didn't appreciate at the time the Kennedys' personal life. No one said anything in those days. Not even close up."

The day of the California primary in 1968, he recalled, "Bobby called me and asked me to join him on the plane down to Los Angeles for the returns," but he couldn't go because he had a new baby at home. "I presume I would have been walking with him into the hotel" where he was assassinated, Mr. Novak said.

He left Stanford for a new Experimental College of the State University of New York on Long Island. It was there, among "some real whacko students and some real whacko faculty" that his political right turn began.

"I was radical, but they were destructive," he said.

Change was driven in party when he started to see the results of various left-wing initiatives.

"I supported very strongly the War on Poverty," he said, "and then it just went belly up. Crime went up 600 percent. Marriages fell apart at unprecedented rates. Marriages didn't even form. And I thought, 'This is crazy I can't keep supporting that.' So I became more conservative."

His Catholic faith has remained constant throughout his political journey, although he says that Church leaders don't seem to grasp fundamentals of how people can overcome poverty.

"It just seemed to me that the 'preferential option for the poor' was just a disguised way of saying more government funds to give to the poor and keep them dependent. Keep them like on a plantation. Keep them like Animal Farm."

His admirers included Lady Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.

mnovak2-300"One of the great blessings of my life was the friendship with John Paul II. He called me publicly, several times, his friend, and I had an open invitation to come by for a meal if he was free."

Although Mr. Novak had served for years on the Ave Maria University board of trustees, he didn't spend a great deal of time in Ave Maria until 2010.

"After my dear wife Karen died in August of 2009 . . . I began to realize I wanted to sell the house in Washington. I started sending my books to AMU. Then [former AMU President] Nick Healy said to me, 'Michael, your books are here. Why don't you come down?'"

"I really have loved it," he said. "I have enough strength to do a course a semester and the university provides somebody to team with and teach it with me which makes it a lot easier."

"As long as I live and as long as I have energy, I'll be coming back to Ave Maria."


Mr. Novak's book Writing from Left to Right is available on by clicking here.

Ave Maria University will honor Mr. Novak with a one-day conference Sept. 20 at which a number of scholars and friends will speak. More on the conference is available here.


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