Volume > Issue > Tom Bethell: A Life of the Mind & the Heart

Tom Bethell: A Life of the Mind & the Heart


By Donna F. Bethell & Andrew Wadsworth | May 2021
Donna F. Bethell holds degrees in physics and law and served in the Reagan Administration as Assistant Secretary and Under Secretary of Energy. She was Chairman of the Board of Directors of Christendom College for 17 years and is a lifelong resident of Washington, D.C.
Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth came to Washington, D.C., in 2009 to become Executive Director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, responsible for English translations of Latin liturgical texts. Since 2013 he is also Moderator of the Oratorian Community of St. Philip Neri in the parish of St. Thomas Apostle, Woodley Park.

Tom Bethell passed away peacefully on February 12, 2021, from complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was born July 17, 1936, in London, attended Downside Abbey School, and graduated from Britannia Royal Naval Academy Dartmouth in 1954, after which he served four years in the Royal Navy. Tom then attended Trinity College at Oxford University and, after graduating in 1962, came to the United States to pursue his lifelong interest in traditional New Orleans jazz, an early 20th-century genre not at all like what is called jazz today.

After teaching at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, Tom moved to New Orleans in 1966, where he made some of the last recordings of the surviving jazzmen in San Jacinto Hall and researched his first book, George Lewis: A Jazzman from New Orleans, a biography published by the University of California Press in 1977. It was in New Orleans that he landed his first journalism job at Le Vieux Carré Courier.

In 1975 Charlie Peters, founding editor of The Washington Monthly, invited Tom to join the staff, and Washington, D.C., became Tom’s home for the rest of his life. He also served as Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and wrote regularly for National Review and The Atlantic Monthly. For more than three decades, Tom was senior editor of The American Spectator, for which he penned “Capitol Ideas,” a monthly column of astute, humorous, and unflinching observations of politics, economics, American life, and anything else that was on his mind. Therein, Tom delved into the mysteries of Darwinian evolution, Einstein’s relativity theories, the Shakespeare authorship question, and the reasons why some Washington figures, reputed to be conservatives, suddenly achieved “strange new respect.” Tom occasionally bestowed the Strange New Respect Award on politicians and jurists whom he judged had lost the way of truth. In 1988 Regnery published a collection of his articles and essays under the title The Electric Windmill, prompting Tom Wolfe to write, “This book establishes Tom Bethell as one of our most brilliant essayists. His dissections of intellectual fashions are hilarious — and distinctly unfashionable.” Tom brought those talents to the Catholic publishing world, serving for the past two decades as a contributing editor of the New Oxford Review.

For 25 years Tom was a media fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he did much of the research for and writing of his books The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (Hoover Institution Press, 2012). In 2005 Regnery published Tom’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, and from that point he focused on two great science issues that had long intrigued him. In his books Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (Vales Lake, 2009) and Darwin’s House of Cards (Discovery Institute, 2016) he displayed his defining characteristics: a calm and methodical pursuit of the facts and an unparalleled ability to organize and present complicated information in an accessible way.

Tom is survived by Donna Fitzpatrick Bethell, his wife of 24 years. A lifelong Catholic, Tom began attending the Traditional Latin Mass at St. Mary Mother of God Church in Washington, D.C., in 2005. During the coronavirus pandemic, he attended St. Thomas Apostle Church, where a Solemn Requiem Mass was celebrated on February 25. What follows is the panegyric preached by Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth at that Mass.

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