Monday, October 20, 2014

Remembering Joe Shattan — and What I Learned About Him from His Office

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (Public domain photo)

Former Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney speechwriter Joe Shattan died this past summer. I'm late in hearing about it (it happened in early June), but I would like to share some memories I have of him.

"What? John, you know a Quayle/Cheney speechwriter?" Yes, in the summer of 1990, I had an internship in the Office of the Vice President of the United States. Of America. It was thanks to the Institute for Educational Affairs (an organization that I think continues today under a different name).

Anyway, I was assigned to work with Zelda Novak (daughter of the "Prince of Darkness" conservative columnist Robert Novak), and I spent the summer doing pretty useless work in appropriate obscurity. But on the other side of my desk (stuffed in a cubby hole) was the office of Joseph Shattan, who was often traveling with the VP and who allowed me to spend my lunch hours in his office when he wasn't there. I never got to know him well or much at all, but I did get a good sense of him during those lunch hours, and you can see why.

I'm from Green Bay, Wisconsin. If you're a Green Bay person and there exists a photo of you with a Packer player, you've got it framed on your walls, and probably in a prominent place. In Washington, D.C., people are the same way about big politicians, and usually their desks and walls are covered with framed photos of them shaking hands with or at least photobombing presidents, vice presidents, senators, governors, and representatives.

But Joe Shattan? In his quiet, neat, book-filled office, he had plenty of photos, but they were of him and his family. Wife. Kids. I saw all those and didn't see the other celebrity-suck-up photos, and thought to myself, "This guy has his priorities right. Good guy."

When I stumbled across the news today that he had passed away (on June 8, 2014, at the young age of 63, felled by cancer), I found a couple things that reminded me of my fondness for this person. First, other people were writing about what a kind and genuine person he was — not something you generally associate with political people, especially conservative political functionaries who spent decades in government.

The other thing was a link to an article Shattan had written in 2009, in which he remembered how much he loved visiting the library in the Old Executive Office Building (a large old building next to the White House where the vice president has his office and staff). Shattan, a writer and clearly a book lover, really enjoyed going to the library, taking in the atmosphere of books and busy librarians and available information in that pre-internet age. Back then, I hadn't known about his joy for that library, but I had also enjoyed escaping to it when my useless tasks allowed. I can still remember that library well, with its beautiful columns and spiral staircases and awesome collections of books. I especially recall the corner where I dug through countless old copies of The New York Review of Books. It was the summer in which I had just discovered John Updike and Philip Roth, so I loved searching for old reviews of their books. The library was the one room in the Old Executive Office Building (now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) that had the same nice vibe as Joe Shattan's office.

I never knew Joe Shattan well, but I apparently knew him well enough to know that this book-loving intellectual whose politics were quite different from what mine became was a good man. I'm very sorry to hear about his passing. R.I.P.

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