Any reflection on the life of George W. Carey—scholar, teacher, gentleman, who passed away Friday at the age of 79—must begin with “TME.” The acronym appeared on his Georgetown University syllabi, his exams, occasionally his correspondence: “George W. Carey (TME).” It was a measure of how well students knew him whether they knew what it meant. The most creative guess I ever heard was “The Main Event.” Early in our acquaintance, I spent more hours than I care to admit searching online—assuming it was a degree, a professional affiliation, something—before being let into the fraternity. But by the time you were, you knew him well enough to understand. “Hilarity” isn’t quite the right word; “irony” is but doesn’t capture the fullness of it. It was the complete measure of the man once you got it.
He was perhaps the world’s leading authority on the political thought of the American Founding; certainly it would be difficult to identify anyone whose erudition or expertise surpassed his. His was a standard of honest, objective and deeply perceptive scholarship I do not ever expect to meet but to which I shall always aspire. In many ways, I might as well footnote everything I have written and will from here on out to his inspiration. The core of Carey’s political thought captured, too, the quiet self-measure of the man: a steadfast opposition to all senses of excessive entitlement, especially when asserted as individual rights, and a studied commitment to prudent deliberation. A member for many years of the Liberty Fund’s board, he was devoted in all manners to liberty, but of the ordered variety, as evidenced in his remark once that the age in history in which he would most like to live was 19th century England. Both the individual freedom and the Victorian morals would have suited him well. He once compared reading Burke to listening to Mozart.
His politics have been described as everything from paleo-conservative to communitarian-conservative. I always preferred “actual” conservative. His thought was framed by perspective but untouched by partisanship. A veteran of the Marine Corps, he opposed war because he opposed statism and because he intuitively grasped war’s moral gravity. Carey’s integrity, in all matters a rock, separated him instantly from the raft of pseudo-conservatives seduced by the temptations of power. It was no coincidence that one of his favorite films was A Man for All Seasons, for Carey was certainly that.
His friendships spanned the spectrum, none more emblematic, of course, than his 47-year marriage to his beloved Claire—a former professor of history and dean at Georgetown, referred to affectionately in all correspondence from him as “THE DEAN”—whose politics are not conservative and whose disposition in such matters is not demure. In nearly five decades, they never seriously quarreled.
Carey was a student’s teacher, unfailing with encouragement but also frank with reproach. He neither nitpicked nor withheld critique. Chapters or papers submitted to him invariably came back marked either “good to go” or “needs revision,” rarely much in between. As such his praise was believable when, amply, it came. He never appeared in the classroom without a coat and tie and once told me that foregoing them was the first step professors took in relinquishing the authority on which meaningful learning depends. Yet there was not anywhere about the man so much as a hint of presumption. That he continued to receive letters addressing him as “the Honorable George W. Carey” years after his service on the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities was a source of both amusement and bemusement, a sign that we Americans had our aristocracy too.
His wit was quick. He did not vote, noting in the classroom that research indicated one had a better chance of being struck by lightning on the way to the polling booth than casting a decisive ballot. Challenged once by a goody-two-shoes as to what would happen if everyone thought that way, Carey replied: “I’d vote.” He treated his teaching assistants so well that “TA-ing” for Carey came with air quotes around it. He tended to make his own copies, grade half his own exams and apologize for assigning what was left.
We emailed daily, trading barbs about the news, him reading drafts of anything I was to submit or publish with unfailing speed and perception. A span of any serious silence was greeted with a gentle inquiry from him with the subject line, “Existential status.” Within 48 hours of silence in reply to an email from me, I knew something was wrong and, for the first time, inquired into the same status of him. When he had signed off email and I wrote to him by postal mail instead, the greatest puzzle was what to call him. “George,” never—it would not have bothered him but would never have sat well with me. “Professor,” too formal, though I think I did opt for that once or twice. But what felt most familiar was “TME.” I once heard Carey described, ever so aptly, as “the last of the gentleman scholars.” He was decent, humble, so completely humble—happy in both the contemporary and the Aristotelian senses of the word. He was also the most enlightened man I have ever known.