Ramesh Ponnuru would have you think that fortune explains his rise to minor stardom as a writer for National Review. “I was just lucky,” he tells me over lunch last month. But clearly that’s too modest. He gives up the game when he tells me that, as a teenager in Kansas City, he was already writing a column for a local paper and subscribing to The Economist. When National Review hired him, Ramesh was 20, fresh from a summa in history at Princeton, where he edited the Princeton Sentinel.
Today, at age 31, Ramesh has just published his first book, Party of Death (Regnery, April 2006), a study of the Democratic party’s affinity for abortion, euthanasia, and what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death.”
In all this, luck probably mattered far less than intellect and drive.
My conversation with Ramesh turns to collegiate activism, partly because I organized “white scholarships” to protest racial preferences at my alma mater, Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, where I was head of the College Republicans. Somewhat predictably, it turns out that Ramesh wasn’t much of an activist at Princeton. He once thought about joining the College Republicans, he tells me, but after attending a meeting he realized that the club wasn’t for him. And indeed it’s hard to picture Ramesh engaging in the type of mischief campus conservatives are known for. Ramesh would rather be reading or writing or listening to Aimee Mann CDs.
The youngest of three brothers, Ramesh grew up in a household where politics and religion were not stressed. His mother is Lutheran, his father is Hindu, and the young Ramesh was agnostic. Until 1996, that is. That’s when he read Patrick Glynn’s article “Beyond the Death of God” in National Review. This article, he says, “made him a theist.” Ramesh came to believe in Glynn’s argument that the universe is not just matter in motion but is graced by a Creator’s touch. The “Anthropic Principle,” as the concept has it, makes the case for God’s existence, a case that Ramesh adopted.
Out of all the Christian sects, Ramesh chose Catholicism because, with his many Catholic friends, he was always “loitering at [its] gate.” Ramesh acknowledges the inner and unconscious workings of the Holy Spirit, but anyone talking with him for just five minutes will not be surprised that he calls his an “intellectual conversion.” Such is his character. Ramesh tends toward precision and correct grammar even when speaks. He uses the expression “being graduated” instead of the more familiar, but inaccurate “I graduated.” When I mention this, he says that although he’s no Bill Buckley, he tries to be “fastidious with my use of language.”
Ramesh insists that his newfound Catholicism has influenced neither his ideology nor his politics. “I’m not a conservative Catholic. I am conservative and a Catholic,” he says. And it’s true that he has always considered himself an economic conservative, having become a social conservative only after joining National Review. Originally he considered himself a libertarian, too, but over the years he has come to regard pure libertarianism as philosophically wanton for a number of reasons. Its proponents do not espouse protection for unborn children, he points out. And they naively sanction open borders.
Doctrinally speaking, Ramesh is not an orthodox Catholic. He says he doesn’t understand the proscription of homosexual conduct in Scripture, for instance, telling me that he needs to read more carefully on that subject. Homosexuality is not the only issue on which he parts ways with social conservatives. Ramesh endorses ending the federal war on drugs. He believes in the legalization of marijuana. He sees no vice in casinos. He does not support the Federal Marriage Amendment.
“Do you know that 40 percent of Americans still believe in sodomy laws?” he asks me. “I sometimes forget how conservative this country is.” Speaking of percentages, Ramesh is fascinated by polls. Sixty-seven percent of Americans think that Mother Teresa is in heaven. Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe that they are going to heaven. “That means that 10 percent of Americans think they are good enough for Heaven but that Mother Teresa is not. That’s just astonishing,” Ramesh says, laughing.
Ramesh takes credit for his mother’s budding conservatism, but says proselytizing his father and one of his brothers will be a tougher task. After Rich Lowry’s cover story embracing racial profiling, Ramesh’s sister-in-law asked if canceling her and her husband’s subscription would offend him. Ramesh, who is no fan of racial profiling himself, didn’t object.
Jonah Goldberg once asked rhetorically, “Is Ramesh a Vulcan?” To which Goldberg responded, “I don’t think so, but it’s a fair question.” Just the asking of the question reveals a perception–not unjustifiable–of Ramesh as a stoic, serious, and rigid fellow. Add to the mix his tendency to give four-pronged answers to policy questions, the angling of his head toward the sky in deep contemplation, the quintessential academician prose–and, I would add, his request for distilled bottled water at the table–and Ramesh could mistakenly come off as a bit, well maybe not Spock-like, but a little too correct.
“I have a soft touch, but it rarely comes out in my columns,” says Ramesh in his own defense. He makes a point, he says, to work from home at least two days a week so that he can spend time with his new baby girl, Mary, and so that his wife April can fulfill her duties as an adviser to Congressman Roy Blunt.
Ramesh apparently thinks his “soft touch” manifests itself as a “soft spot” on occasion, at least in the way he responds to criticisms levied against his columns. “As a writer I still need to develop a thick skin,” he says. Every email needs a response. “No, you’re distorting what I’m saying . . . .” or “The actual premise is this . . . .” or “You’re just wrong . . . !” are the stuff of some emails. Before you know it, he says, “my tone and language resemble the moron emailing me to begin with.”
Ramesh knows that he needs to develop a thick skin especially fast with his first book right now out. The Party of Death tackles abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, and more recently, Terry Schiavo. Even though it would seem to many that the abortion debate has been exhausted ad nauseam, Ramesh believes there is more to be said. According to him, the average prolifer or pro-abortionist is unfamiliar with the totality of Roe‘s extremism, including the fact that abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy is one of Roe‘s guarantees. People don’t know that as late as 1987, Democrats were more likely to oppose abortion–and disfavor Roe–than were Republicans.
“Today’s political outlook is more hopeful and favorable for the conservative movement than it has been in recent times, and yet there hasn’t been a comprehensive pro-life book in nearly 20 years,” explains Ramesh. Like any writer, he hopes the book will be successful and earn a place among the past greats: Reagan’s Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation, John Thomas Noonan’s A Private Choice: Abortion in America in the Seventies, and Bernard Nathanson’s Hand of God.
As for the future, Ramesh says he likes being a writer, but that he wouldn’t mind sampling the life of a corporate executive, perhaps to write about it. CEO Ramesh Ponnuru? CFO Ramesh Ponnuru? He left open the possibility of going Gary Wills on us–reading 12 books and writing a 13th on the same topic. “One thing’s for sure,” says Ramesh. “I will never run for office. I would be a terrible candidate!”
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire