On Sunday, March 20th, my friend and mentor Jonathan Rowe, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, died, swiftly and unexpectedly, of a sudden infection. The shock of this news has not worn off. The tragedy of it is still sinking in.
Jon was sixty-five, by all accounts healthy and supremely happy, living the good life in Point Reyes Station, California, with his wife, Mary Jean Espulgar-Rowe, and their eight-year-old son, Joshua. As a writer, he was in a zone, producing well-crafted pieces for a variety of outlets on the subject that had occupied his brilliant mind for decades: the failure of conventional economic thinking to account for or explain the workings of vast parts of our lived reality, in particular the cooperative realms of family and neighborhood and civic society, and the way the market has been relentlessly eating into these invaluable realms. Much recent history, from the collapse of the financial markets to the rise of behavioral economics to the failure of rising GDP to increase wages or wellbeing, has essentially validated Jon’s insights. In a just world he would have lived long enough to garner some glory for his prescience.
The funny and touching thing about Jon, though, was his almost complete lack of interest in personal glory. I have never worked with someone—certainly no writer— more genuinely humble and self-effacing. He was unfailingly kind, with an unmistakable inner light— he was a man of faith, though he almost never talked about it. He spoke with a gentleness bordering on diffidence, but also with a winning twinkle of humor. He had a subtle, original, and powerful mind, and a way of elevating any conversation such that you found yourself trying to express your own ideas with greater care, the intellectual equivalent of sitting up a little straighter in your chair. He was indifferent to money and material possessions—a characteristic he shared with his first boss in Washington, Ralph Nader (who calls Jon “as incorruptible a person as you will ever meet—honest to his intellectual and ethical core”), and with his first editor, Charlie Peters (who says Jon was “the nearest thing to a saint” to ever come out of the magazine).
His talent was such that when he left the Washington Monthly in 1985 I’m sure he could have landed a job and become a star at the Times or the Post or at one of the newsmagazines. He chose instead to join the humbler Christian Science Monitor, where he had the freedom to pursue the kinds of stories that furthered his vision.
For Jon, journalism was not so much a career as a means to an end, the end being the advancement of his ideas and the causes he believed in. After leaving the Monitor he found, or founded, venues in which to do this. He edited a short-lived magazine, New York Mix, dedicated to providing jobs for the homeless. He worked as a staffer and idea guru for Senator Byron Dorgan, a man he very much admired (and I know from Dorgan that the feeling was mutual). He joined a startup nonprofit, Redefining Progress, and cowrote with its founder Ted Halsted a famous Atlantic piece called “If the GDP Is Up, Why Is America Down?” He then created his own nonprofit, the Tomales Bay Institute, to further develop his ideas, while on the side hosting a talk show on his local community radio station.
But it was during his years as an editor at the Washington Monthly that I got to know him. I was an intern at the magazine, and Jon, along with fellow editors Tim Noah and Phil Keisling, took me under their wings. Jon assigned me my first big story, a survey of the Reagan administration’s budget-cutting record called “The Reagan Scorecard.” I did vast amounts of reporting on it, but got completely lost in the writing; Jon had to jump in and rewrite the thing top to bottom—I felt like a drowning man rescued by a lifeguard—and we shared the byline.
In those years and after, much of Jon’s best work appeared in the Washington Monthly. We’ve pulled those pieces from our archive and made them available here (see below). It seemed the least we could do to memorialize our dear friend.
Jonathan Rowe articles appearing in Washington Monthly:
1. The Cult of M1 (November 1983)
2. Weirton Steel: Buying Out the Bosses (January 1984)
3. Murder by Deportation (February 1984)
4. Why Liberals Should Hate the Insanity Defense (May 1984)
5. Nobel Fever: Why the Engineers Left the Shop Floor (June 1984)
6. The Official 1984 Reagan Scorecard (July 1984)
7. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Foreign Policy (October 1984)
8. I Was a Spear Carrier in the War on Poverty (November 1984)
9. What the Democrats Can Learn From Jack Kemp (January 1985)
10. Ralph Nader Reconsidered (March 1985)
11. Down and Out in Washington on $89,000 a Year (July 1989)
12. America’s Inc. Stain (September 1990)
13. The Case for the Clean Slate (November 1994)
14. What’s Un-Christian About the Christian Right (December 1995)
15. Reinventing the Corporation (April 1996)
16. The GDP Myth (March 1999)
17. Reach Out and Annoy Someone (November 2000)
18. Reassigning Tim Russert (March 2001)
19. Is the Corporation Obsolete (July 2001)
20. The Majesty of the Commons (April 2002)
21. Maid to Order (July 2003)
22. Gubernatorial Goldrush (December 2003)
23. The Freedom Tax (October 2004)
24. The Coffeehouse Candidate (April 2006)
If you’d like to contribute to a fund to support his family, please email his friend Gary Ruskin for details at firstname.lastname@example.org.