The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Leo, conservative columnist for U.S. News, dies at 86

He poked fun at liberal pieties and what he called America’s “cultural breakdown.”

John Leo at home with his cat Ralph in 2000. (Jackie Leo)
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John Leo, a former columnist for U.S. News & World Report who delighted in puncturing the liberal pieties of college campuses, mocking political correctness and satirizing the idea of cultural victimhood, died May 10 at a hospice facility in the Bronx. He was 86.

He had Parkinson’s disease and had been hospitalized with covid-19, said his daughter Alex Leo.

Mr. Leo spent much of his career as a journalist for mainstream publications, including the New York Times and Time magazine, but he was best known for writing biting and often humorous opinion columns that drew on his Catholic education and a sense of moral outrage about modern life.

“I’m a moralist,” he told Christianity Today in 1996. “It’s a dirty word these days, but I approach things in terms of right and wrong.”

Mr. Leo called himself the “founder of the anti-sensitivity movement,” but his often jocular style masked a deep-seated belief that American culture had gone off the rails — veering to the left — and that it was his duty to blow the whistle.

“I think millions of Americans are in shock and mourning at the cultural breakdown we see all around us,” he said in the Christianity Today interview. “There must be a way to stand up and say, ‘This is not the way our culture has to go.’”

Mr. Leo pointed to the 1960s as the beginning of what he saw as the steady decline of American life, including changes in family structure and a growing militancy among students, minority groups, gay people and women.

“We have a grievance-based left now,” he said in 2001 on Fox News, where he was an occasional commentator. “If you cannot point to yourself as a victim, you can’t get anywhere in American life.”

Mr. Leo did not consider himself an ideologue, and he seldom wrote about partisan politics in his weekly U.S. News columns, which ran from 1988 to 2006 and were syndicated in more than 100 newspapers. He preferred to focus on what he described as politically correct (PC) developments in education, culture and sexual mores.

“Read one column and you may think Leo’s just another cranky Caucasian guy, bitter over becoming the scapegoat of the day,” journalist John Allison wrote about Mr. Leo’s 1994 collection, “Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police,” for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Consume all of ‘Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police,’ however, and it becomes clear that Leo has a big heart, an open mind that has thought things through and a ‘tough love’ attitude toward PC manifestations.”

Mr. Leo pointed out lapses in mainstream media, condemned the lyrics of rock music and hip-hop for their vulgarity and took umbrage at the popular 1991 film “Thelma & Louise,” about two women on the run after killing a man.

“All males in this movie,” he wrote, “exist only to betray, ignore, sideswipe, penetrate or arrest our heroines.”

He viewed the Pledge of Allegiance, to which the words “under God” were added in 1954, as a bulwark against growing secularism.

“To religious conservatives,” he wrote, “‘under God’ is a crucial symbol, the last religious reference left in the schools since the separationist makeover of education.”

Mr. Leo believed that efforts to instill self-esteem and ethnic pride in students were misguided and undermined the basic purpose of education.

“Real self-esteem is released when a child learns something and develops a sense of mastery,” he wrote in a 2002 column. “It is a by-product of, and not a substitute for, real education.”

He often railed against “elites” — invariably meaning liberal elites — despite living in New York and working for prestigious publications and, later, a think tank.

Some of Mr. Leo’s detractors pointed out that his arguments were sometimes bolstered by distortions and dubious assertions. In 1996, for instance, Mr. Leo wrote that “the amount of domestic violence initiated and conducted by men and women is roughly equal. In fact, women may well be ahead.”

The authors of the study Mr. Leo cited to support his column said he grossly misinterpreted their statistics, adding, “When we look at injuries resulting from violence involving male and female partners, nearly 90 percent of the victims are women and about 10 percent are men.”

John Patrick Leo was born June 16, 1935, in Hoboken, N.J., and grew up in Teaneck, N.J. His father designed stainless steel fixtures for hospitals and kitchens, and his mother was a teacher.

Mr. Leo commuted to Manhattan’s Regis High School, a prestigious Jesuit institution, then graduated in 1957 from St. Michael’s, a Catholic college affiliated with the University of Toronto. He later told Christianity Today that he had abandoned his earlier religious beliefs.

“I grew up in the Catholic tradition, and my head is permanently shaped by it,” he said. “I believe its social principles, and I defend religion against the assaults of a wrongheaded culture.”

He began his career at the Record newspaper in Bergen County, N.J., then worked as an editor and columnist for Catholic publications before writing about intellectual life for the New York Times from 1967 to 1969.

After working for New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, Mr. Leo launched the Village Voice’s media criticism column in 1973. The next year, he moved to Time, where he covered cultural and religious trends.

Despite his conservative views, the affable Mr. Leo had friends from every political viewpoint and was the longtime organizer of a literary softball team in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

His first marriage, to Stephanie Wolf, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1978, the former Jacqueline McCord, a former top editor of Family Circle, Readers’ Digest, Consumer Reports and Good Morning America; two daughters from his first marriage, Kristin Leo and Karen Leo; a daughter from his second marriage, Alexandra Leo; two sisters; a brother; and three grandchildren.

In 2006, Mr. Leo became a fellow of the Manhattan Institute, a leading conservative and liberal think tank, where he had a blog about developments in higher education until 2016.

From time to time, Mr. Leo devoted his column to skewering the conventions and pomposities of journalistic prose.

“For instance, ‘omnipresent’ means insufferable, as in ‘the Omnipresent Yoko Ono,’” he wrote.

He also mocked the proliferation of hyphenated modifiers, “the more meaningless, the better: in-depth interviews, blue-ribbon panels, tree-lined streets. In the whole history of American journalism, fewer than twenty streets have failed to be identified as tree-lined.”