Impecunious graduate students are always up for a free lunch, so I readily agreed, but also asked: "Who's Mike Uhlmann?"
Who's Mike Uhlmann!
I eventually came to understand Mike as five things: a devoted father and grandfather, a serious Catholic, a kindly and knowledgeable teacher, a formidable corporate lawyer, and a political mover and shaker. It was the formidable corporate lawyer, with a little bit of the macher mixed in, who showed up at the Ath that day in 1996.
Those who first got to know Mike after he had left the practice of law and taken up fulltime teaching may have never seen this side of him. From that point on, he was every bit the gentle teacher who would, however, tell amazing stories of being in the room with Goldwater, Nixon, Kissinger, Ford, Reagan, Meese, Buckley, Bork, Thomas, Will--every imaginable luminary of 20th-century Republicanism and conservatism--so that you knew here was no mere Mr.-Rogers-in-a-cardigan who happened to know something about the Constitution. You were in the presence of a serious player who had been at the center of things and moved the levers of power.
But he told those stories without any trace of the braggadocio that usually infuses Washington tales. I came to realize that the no-nonsense authority I had first observed in Mike was neither an affectation nor central to his character, but rather necessary armor to make his way and hold his own, to gain and keep respect, in a series of cutthroat environments. When among friends, he didn't need it, and so didn't use it. As Mike himself said, and everyone who knew him said of him, he loved teaching infinitely more than he loved the law or even politics. He was finally doing what he wanted to do, what he felt born to do. And he was happy.
Not to suggest that he was unhappy in 1996, but he was not kindly or gentle. At least that wasn't the impression he gave.
I learned from Charles and from Harry Jaffa the basic story of how Mike, already a budding lawyer, got to know Jaffa on the Goldwater campaign, and how Jaffa persuaded him to drop everything and come to Claremont to study political philosophy and the American Founding. Which, a few years later, Mike did. And then took that knowledge back to Washington to save the electoral college, help establish the Federalist Society, transform the federal judiciary--among other things--and practice law while out of power.
THE MIKE UHLMANN OF 1996 DID NOT look anything like an academic. His suit was too somber and perfectly fitted, his posture too erect, his manners too polished. He spoke that day on the budget. Despite the leadenness of the topic, I was mesmerized--by his command of the issue, his humor, his ability to structure and deliver a talk with apparent effortless ease, hiding all the work that must have gone into it.
I was--then as now, but more then--interested in clothes. Unique (I think) among grad students, I possessed a small wardrobe of custom-made suits. I naturally wore one to the event. Charles, as ever, had arranged to have his grad students sit with Mike at the lunch. Mike was next to me. As we spoke about politics, philosophy, and other things, the glint in his half-shut right eye said, "I'm not yet impressed, but I want to be, so keep trying."
Then the subject changed to suits. I complimented his. He examined mine--a glen plaid with a red overcheck--and then said the following, as best as I can remember:
When I was a junior associate at--[he named a bigtime firm so famous even I had heard of it]--I had a suit very much like that. Very tasteful, so I thought. One day I was in the elevator and a senior partner got on; it was just the two of us. He looked me up and down and said, "Nice suit." Relieved--this was an intimidating guy--I said, "Thanks!" To which he replied, "Off to the track after you get your hours billed?" I never wore it again.
I wore mine again, but never again without a tremor of trepidation, and never in front of Mike.
Some years later, I began teaching in the Claremont Institute's summer fellowship programs. Mike was always there, exuding kind, grandfatherly patience and good humor. And he was now something else to me, too: a colleague. At Mike's funeral, his brother said that Mike's ultimate goal as a teacher was to make all his students, eventually, colleagues--to teach them what he knew so that they could one day converse as equals. I do not believe I ever became Mike's equal, but he nonetheless--after that first encounter--always treated me as if I were.
WE HAD ONE MAJOR DISAGREEMENT. As the Trump phenomenon gained steam in 2015,1 asked Charles--by then and since, editor of the CRB--if I could make the case for Trump in its pages. He gave me a tentative yes, but then rejected the piece. I later learned that I had divided the house: many were passionately for publishing it, others passionately against. Nothing personal against me, I understand, but passions were running high then, especially about Trump. Mike was against.
About eight months later, Charles asked me to write something fresh on the same topic. I initially said no, but then wrote it anyway and sent it in. Once again, I divided the house.
Labor Day weekend, 2016, I arrived in Philadelphia for the American Political Science Association. At the time a non-formidable corporate flak, I was in town to give a paper on Machiavelli, a scholarly interest I maintained more or less as a hobby (or obsession). The fate of my CRB article had been decided--it would be published, under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus--but I didn't know that as I entered the hotel. Way down a very long hallway, I saw a familiar figure walking toward me. It was Mike. Now, I knew he had opposed the first piece and so assumed he opposed the second. I wondered to myself, "How's this going to go?"
Mike had a small entourage following him; he was holding court. But it didn't take him long to spot me. Here goes nothing! He broke out into a wide grin as our paths converged. He extended his arms, walked right up to me, took my face in his palms, kissed me on each cheek like a mafia don, and drawled out one word: "Deciuuuuuuussssss." And then he walked on down the hall.
I spoke to Mike frankly and freely before the conference was over. I made my pro-Trump arguments; he stated his objections and reservations. It would be inaccurate to characterize Mike as "NeverTrump"; he had certainly been anti-Trump in the primaries and remained, at best, Trump-skeptical--though certainly not pro-Hillary! I think that, like many (or even most), he expected Trump to lose and worried what his candidacy and loss would do to the Republican Party and to conservatism. And Mike was simply too much of a gentleman, too deeply religious, too old-school in every sense not to be put off by much of what we all saw. Those of us who supported Trump through everything, thick and thin, need to understand that this reaction can arise from a deep well of decency.
Trump's actions, our blandishments, as well as circumstance and events wore down Mike's skepticism, at least partially. So much of his public life was devoted to setting aright the federal judiciary that he could not help noticing that Trump had done and was doing more for this cause than anyone in a generation, and perhaps in Mike's lifetime. Encouraged by this--especially by the selection and swift confirmation of Neil Gorsuch--Mike began to say that, should Trump confirm a second Supreme Court Justice meeting his approval, he would "personally lead the Second Inaugural parade."
At my daughter's confirmation, I noticed a tall, white-haired gentleman escorting a young lady toward the altar. It was Mike, who was there as sponsor for one of his granddaughters. We chatted afterward; this was just before the Christine Blasey Ford hit job, when it looked like Brett Kavanaugh was cruising toward easy confirmation. "If this goes through, Mike, you know what that means," I said. He didn't hesitate: "I will lead the parade!" Nor did he backtrack when the hit job failed.
I join many others in feeling the same way about Michael Uhlmann: whenever and wherever deserved tribute is paid to this noble and good man, I will lead the parade.
Michael Anton is a lecturer in politics and research fellow of Hillsdale College, and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute.