Goodbye to a Christian Gentleman

I knew John L. Swan for thirty-two years.

When I was a kid he was my tutor in Christian philosophy and in practical politics, and when I was a young man he taught me about good Scotch. He loved a good argument, a good fight, and good whiskey. When Jack died on February 2, I lost an adviser, a collaborator, a groomsman, and my closest friend. The world lost a Christian gentleman.

It was over a bottle of Dewar’s at Jack’s home in Flushing, Queens, that he and I conceived our first book, The Quotable Chesterton (1984). And it was over another bottle of Dewar’s that Jack, Richard Rabatin, and I decided to undertake the general editorship of the 46-volume Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton. I guess there must have been more Scotch flowing when we agreed to produce More Quotable Chesterton (1988), The Quotable Fulton Sheen (1989), and The Quotable Ronald Knox (1996). It took several bottles for us to concoct my 1993 campaign for mayor of the City of New York.

But there is a lot more to the story of Jack Swan than our fellowship with the malt. It’s a marvelous story, and now it can be told.

If you were on the Left, if you were part of the avant garde, if you were determined to promote liberal theology, lax morality, radical feminism, gay rights, abortion, euthanasia, if—to put it bluntly—you were out to topple God and the Constitution, then Jack Swan was your mortal enemy. Jack literally felt called by God to defend the Catholic faith and the American family. Every day of his life was a quest in defense of truth, a mission to preserve what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things.” Swan was a champion of subsidiarity and the foe of all efforts to purge the sacred from everyday life.

For more than thirty-five years Jack was a “community-relations consultant,” an adviser to numerous organizations, among them the Archdiocese of New York. The list of his more notable battles and victories provides the outline of the story of John L. Swan:

Twelve times Jack implemented the strategy that defeated the so-called “gay rights” bill in New York’s City Council.

He directed the campaign that defeated New York’s 1977 referendum on the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA went down in flames—more than 60% of all votes were cast against it—even though Jack spent just $11,000.

In 1980 the Nestle Corporation, recognizing that it was besieged by an internationally coordinated left-wing attack, hired Jack’s company (Institutional Planning and Development Corporation), which then constructed a grassroots defense of the company that successfully countered the biased, uninformed propaganda of its detractors.

When Enrique Rueda’s The Homosexual Network: Private Lives and Public Policy was published in 1983, it was the first attempt to exhaustively and objectively document the social impact of the gay-rights movement in the United States. Because Rueda made only a simple expression of gratitude in his introduction to “J.L.S.,” few people knew that the bulk of the research was provided by Jack Swan.

In 1985 a citizens group in New Zealand retained Jack to help defeat the proposed Homosexual Law Reform Bill that was pending in Parliament and had the support of gay-rights groups from around the world. Jack spent a month Down Under and met with numerous legislators and religious leaders, including the cardinal-archbishop of New Zealand, and this gave him an uncharacteristic visibility. The press—in New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Canada, and Europe—implicated Jack in conspiracies funded by everyone from the CIA to the Moral Majority, and he was even accused of being an “advertising executive” of the New York Archdiocese.

Jack’s greatest battle came on behalf of New York’s children. In 1993 he organized a coalition of Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Protestant organizations and individuals that defeated the implementation of the HIV/AIDS curriculum in the city’s public schools. This was the infamous Children of the Rainbow Curriculum (remember Heather Has Two Mommies?), and the coalition’s victory led to the firing of schools Chancellor Joe Fernandez. (I will never forget bringing Newt. Gingrich to Jack’s apartment, where for several hours the future Speaker listened to parent activists describe how they had defeated Big Brother. Newt was impressed.)

Jack proved over and over that elite bureaucrats can be defeated by communities willing to defend the public morality that unites and sustains them. In the final months of his life, Jack worked closely with Mike Long, chairman of New York’s Conservative Party, to persuade the state legislature to end partial-birth abortions. As always in his battles, Jack went about his work discreetly. He never marched down the street with trumpets blaring. Indeed he was so inconspicuous most of the time that many of us wondered how he managed to make a living. But he did, and he was never tempted to stand in the limelight. As the episode in New Zealand proves, he was not always successful, and I remember one night, years ago, at a City Council meeting when Swan was being badgered by a reporter from a certain local newspaper, who was sternly wagging a finger at Jack’s nose and saying, “I know you’re orchestrating this session, and I am going to interview you.” Jack smiled his choirboy smile, and in a voice that was equally stern but much calmer said, “I do not grant interviews to the New York Times.”

That was the real story: of a man of modesty and courage, who always gave credit where it was due but never wanted any for himself.

Jack was one month shy of his seventy-first birthday when he died. It was appropriate that his requiem was the first held in the newly consecrated Church of St. Agnes on Manhattan’s Archbishop Fulton Sheen Place. It was gratifying to see John Cardinal O’Connor, fourteen priests, and more than 400 people gathered to pray for the repose of his soul. In his homily, Msgr. Eugene Clark described Jack as one who stood for the politics of principle and against the purveyors of evil: a Catholic gentleman. Cardinal O’Connor referred to Jack as “absolutely indomitable.” He added, “Jack was a scandal to the modern world and I thank God for that.”

And I was reminded of something Archbishop Sheen once wrote: “What the world needs is a voice that is right not when the world is right, but a voice that is right when the world is wrong.” Jack Swan was such a voice. In the spirit of St. Paul, Jack fought a good fight, he finished the race; he kept the faith. Requiescat in pace, pal.

  • George J. Marlin

    George J. Marlin is the author/editor of ten books including Squandered Opportunities: New York’s Pataki Years (2006), The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact (2004) and Fighting the Good Fight: A History of the New York Conservative Party (2002). His articles have appeared in numerous periodicals including The New York Times, New York Post, National Review, Newsday, The Washington Times and the New York Daily News. Mr. Marlin is also general editor of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton.

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