Herbert London: A Personal Appreciation

Steve Balch

Since his death on November 10, a great deal has been said about Herb London. And there has been much to say. Herb’s activities and achievements covered so many areas of intellectual life and public affairs. But having had a rather unique association with him for more than thirty-five years, there are a few more thoughts I’d like to add to the many appreciations of his extraordinary life. 

First off, I’ve known no other individual who was willing to sacrifice so much for principle. Herb was not only of impressive intellect, but quick on his feet and well-informed across an encyclopedic range of issues. He exuded the confidence of a born leader, carried himself with natural authority, and apparently never slept. He also displayed a princely generosity, a loyalty and kindness that won and kept friends, to say nothing of a disarming affability that saw him through all manner of difficult encounters.

In short, Herb was a larger-than-life leader, who had all the attributes of genius except, alas, an appreciative domicile. Had he been born and raised in a red state like Iowa or Texas, or even purplish Ohio, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have risen high in public life, figuring in the doings of the mighty on the national stage. But in New York, he was like the mythical Antaeus in reverse – though a son of its streets, their baked-in liberalism continually sapped his strength. Had he been willing to jettison his strong convictions, those same streets would have provided him a potent launching pad. With like prospects and abilities many others would have done just that. But that wasn’t Herb’s way.

This steadfastness wasn’t just a matter of views on policy, it extended to his determination to maintain a sanitizing distance from the New York GOP’s less-than-savory state apparatus. More than anything else it was this self-imposed separation that kept him from winning the state controllership in 1994. There was real tragedy here, because Herb was just the kind of champion the conservative movement in New York (and America) has long hungered for, someone capable of joining commanding presence with the common touch. As we saw in a very different and less couth aspect in 2016, it’s a combination that can deliver a powerful political one-two punch.

Herb was, of course, fully aware of the disabilities his philosophy and integrity imposed on him. But though he never succeeded in winning public office, his presence loomed large in New York’s conservative political circles. Moreover, on at least one occasion his northeast roots and connections allowed him to perform an immense public service, saving the renowned Hudson Institute from a lingering death.

The Institute, one of America’s premier think tanks, had moved to Indianapolis, in part to secure support from the Lilly Foundation and in part to speak more directly to the problems of Middle America. It was a noble experiment but one that was faltering by the time Herb was selected to run Hudson (which as its name implies had been founded in New York). After several years of commuting to Indiana, Herb realized that the Institute had to return to American politics’ center stage, and be restored to its original eminence in foreign and strategic policy if it were to flourish again. It was a delicate maneuver which could have only been brought off by a consummate diplomat like Herb who had plenty of back-east connections. And bring it off he did. Hudson is now securely anchored in Washington where it is an important player in the capital’s conversations about national security and other major issues. Later in his career Herb created another think tank, the eponymous London Center in New York City, which survives him.

The Herb I knew best was a very busy man who gave a substantial amount of his very scarce time to help me and a few others create the National Association of Scholars. At the start of this process I had no experience in organization building, while Herb had lots, having already created New York University’s Gallatin School dedicated to bringing a classical curriculum to non-traditional students. This made Gallatin’s purposes something akin to those of the NAS, and the tasks facing the fledgling NAS, involving fundraising and strategic networking, were much like those Herb had accomplished on Gallatin’s behalf.

Our fellowship began in 1982 when I met Herb through Midge Decter and her Committee for the Free World. Herb would, in turn, introduce me to a great many of the other people destined to play pivotal parts in the NAS’s early history. These included his close friend Peter Shaw, a well-established Manhattan intellectual who became the first editor of the NAS journal Academic Questions. Then there was Irving Louis Horowitz, the prominent Rutgers sociologist, who would be both an intellectual patron and Academic Questions’ first publisher through his publishing house Transaction Press. And there was Carol Iannone, another high profile literary critic then on the faculty of Gallatin. (Carol continues to serve as Academic Questions’ Editor-at-Large.) All these were indispensable to the NAS’s subsequent success. Without Herb I could never have persuaded them to come on board.

As chairman of the NAS board Herb remained at the heart of the organization’s activities for the rest of his life. He often provided the NAS’s public face via radio and TV interviews. He unfailingly gave good counsel, acted as an indispensable intermediary between the NAS and parties beyond my reach, and was a major presence at all our conferences. But for me at least, Herb’s chief service lay in the confidence he radiated that, as a tyro, I very much needed to absorb. I may be beyond that need now, but I can never forget its worth back in the day. Absent Herb, I’d still be sitting in my office at John Jay College preparing for my political science classes and grading student papers. Not ignoble pastimes to be sure, but ones undertaken in a world without the NAS and all the good things it has brought forth. 

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