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Commentary By Manhattan Institute

In Memoriam: John Leo

The Manhattan Institute mourns the passing of former senior fellow and City Journal contributing editor John Leo. A keen observer of “PC culture,” Leo was profoundly dedicated to the mission of restoring balance, rigor, and intellectual pluralism to American universities. He pursued this mission by editing, an online publication dedicated to chronicling developments within higher education.

A talented writer, Leo wrote a popular column, “On Society,” which ran in U.S. News & World Report for 17 years and was syndicated to 140 newspapers through the Universal Press Syndicate. He was also the author of three books, most recently Incorrect Thoughts, which skewered the rise of political correctness in American culture. His other books included How the Russians Invented Baseball and Other Essays of Enlightenment and Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Through these efforts, he was a tireless defender of free speech and free ideas. 

Prior to his time at the Manhattan Institute, Leo worked as a senior writer for Time and as a staff reporter for the New York Times, where he specialized in intellectual trends and the social sciences. He also served as an assistant administrator of New York City's environmental protection administration, editor of a Catholic newspaper in Iowa, associate editor of Commonweal, book editor of the social-science journal Transaction (now Society), and "Press Clips" columnist for The Village Voice

Leo also served as a member of the ACLU church-state committee and as a member, for ten years, of the Columbia Journalism Review's board of advisers. He taught a summer course in nonfiction writing at Southampton College. In his final years, he served as Visitor at Ralston College, a liberal arts college in Savannah, Georgia. 

A tribute from former colleague Matthew Hennessey, Wall Street Journal

For a few years, I had the most well-situated office in American journalism—ace reporter Judith Miller to my left and rumpled genius John Leo to my right. When Judy's door was open, I could eavesdrop on her conversations with political power players. When John took calls, they were likely to be from media royalty—Jim Lehrer or Ken Auletta, Carl Bernstein or Tom Brokaw. I never missed a chance to pepper him with questions. 

What was the secret to good column writing?  

“There’s no one way to do it,” he said. “But you’ve got to get out to a fast start. And you’ve got to keep up the pace.” I've never heard better advice.  

On my shelf, I have a copy of John's 1994 collection, Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Inside he wrote, "For Matthew Hennessey. Every word true or your money back."

They don't make writers like John Leo anymore. I'm lucky to have known him. 

—Matthew Hennessey, deputy opinion editor at the Wall Street Journal and former associate editor at City Journal 

A tribute from former colleague Harry Stein:

John was one of a kind, and his passing is as great a loss to journalism as it is to his wide circle of friends. He was relentless in his pursuit of truth, and sharp and cynical as he could be, (in his writing as in life), it was only in reaction to the world's failure to live up to his exacting standards. Things are changing before our eyes, and one can only wonder where new John Leos might come from to help set it right.

—Harry Stein, contributing editor at City Journal