Martin Morse Wooster's Front Row Seat

RIP to a prolific and colorful Reason contributor and author.


One of the gustiest windfalls to land in my account is to have made a friend of writer, editor, and blue-collar raconteur Martin Morse Wooster. More exactly, Martin made friends. The initial meeting was memorable. Attending a conference, Wooster had prepared by reading the program and what the various attendees had written (which I, most likely, did not). Martin saw my name and decided we should be pals. When our encounter came, he lumbered to his knees, flipped his 6-foot-4-inch frame into position, and initiated devout waving—bellowing the "We're not worthy" Wayne's World refrain.

I'd still be laughing, but for a hit-and-run driver who ended Martin's excellent adventure on November 12, just days short of his 65th birthday.

Martin Morse Wooster, of Silver Spring, Maryland, was a proud graduate of Montgomery Blair High School and Beloit College who then went on to have a unique career in journalism. The man presented an improbable combination: An outsized physical presence paired with an encyclopedic memory and sharp libertarian instincts, he exuded wonderment, humor, and a personality as soft as Miss Kitty's.

Martin devoured entire libraries as after-dinner mints, emerging ever more curious about what great work of history, politics, biography, economics, sports, or science fiction (pardon me, "S.F.") to hoist next. He cherished baseball, exhibits, museums, stage plays, conventions, the science of beer making, free market capitalism, and the United States. He was bogged down neither by car payments nor dependents. He lived richly on a tidy budget, zipped about on public transport, viewed every parade, and devoured each spectacle. When he paid for a movie, he would always—his sister, Ann-Sargent Wooster, informs me—insist on sitting front row. This past October, when his Washington Nationals were eliminated from Major League Baseball's postseason, Martin was disappointed but was quick to note the cost-savings. "In 2019 my barber, Ricardo," Martin emailed me, "could afford tickets to the first round of the playoffs. Shail, who owns the apartment building next to mine, could afford the second round. No one could afford World Series tickets." 

At the moment where he would meet with destiny, Martin was enjoying himself at the Ales Through the Ages confab in Williamsburg, Virginia, to "explore ancient ales and indigenous beers of the past." Martin had been bubbly to attend, despite the fact that his "opportunity to have a pint from the past" had gone dry (doctor's orders). His thrill was to take the train, meet some buds, and drink in the post-COVID conviviality. 

Martin, who edited 11 books and wrote three others, nailed plum assignments early. He was a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine under editor Lewis Lapham in the mid-1980s and then an associate editor at the esteemed The Wilson Quarterly. A longtime friend, Diane Weinstein, waited for Martin at Union Station for a lunch date not long after Martin had graduated college. Although not a sports fan, she became engrossed in a touching baseball piece in The Washington Post. At article's end, she was surprised to find the author was her soon-to-arrive friend. He had not said a word of it. 

Martin went on to write dozens of essays for the Post, as well as articles for The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Reader's Digest, Commentary, File 770, the Australian Financial Review, and Elle. He was a star at All About Beer, whose editor dubbed him a "Renaissance Man."

But here's a secret: Martin saved his best for these pages. As a columnist and Washington editor, Martin wrote 75 Reason articles between 1984 and 2010. He explained how the Reagan administration was defeated by the "education bureaucracy," how the "smutstompers" fumbled and stumbled, and how Christopher Jencks analyzed homelessness. In his own treatment of the topic, Martin was not intimidated by the fashion police. He noted that the famous street activist, Mitch Snyder, was the rage among "Hollywood stars such as Whoopi Goldberg and Martin Sheen" but—after interviewing him—found that he "looks more like an actor playing a homeless person than an actual bum." Not only was Snyder lacking "dirty hair or holes in his pants," Mitch was sporting "a bright-red ski cap and brand new hiking boots." The activist was a "former adman" who could bring it. "'Whatever you do,' one friend wrote [Martin], 'don't talk to Mitch Snyder about Gandhi.'"

On the epic fall of the Soviet bloc, Wooster wrote frequently. In a 1989 Reason column introduced by Irving Kristol's observation that "In Washington, people don't read enough magazines," it was game on. 

"This may be true in Washington," noted Martin, "but out here in Silver Spring, we read magazines by the truckload… Once each day, the factory whistles blow, the police officers stop traffic, and the double-wide tractor trailers lumber chez Wooster with the day's reading matter."

And the postman delivered. Robert Heilbroner, a diehard socialist, was dying hard in the pages of The New Yorker, announcing that in the 75-year tussle between capitalism and socialism, capitalism had won. Taking a big bite out of the 20th century, "Heilbroner demolishes the assumptions and principles of Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Joseph Schumpeter, whose pessimism about capitalism's future has proven unjustified." 

Martin gave the scholar his due. "Heilbroner is also very astute in analyzing long-term economic trends. For example, he notes that, over the past two centuries, manufacturing output has increased, on average, at a rate of 2.8 percent a year, 'not a terribly impressive figure until one realizes that it has multiplied production more than seventeen hundredfold during the period.'"

While Heilbroner distinguished himself, Wooster spied those who did not. "In the September 16 Nation, Alexander Cockburn seemed to combine the toppling of Leninism and Stalinism with his own midlife crisis. 'Like any 50-year-old I felt sad,' Cockburn wrote. 'The Soviet Union defeated Hitler and fascism. Without it, the Cuban Revolution would never have survived.'" Wooster did not miss the gopher ball. "And if Adolf Hitler had never existed," he wrote, "we would never have had the heroic deeds of World War II." 

Of course, Martin was fallible. In a July 2019 review of the play Aladdin, he claimed "A Whole New World" as "the greatest Disney power ballad of all time." I excoriated his lapse in judgment in an email response. "So you're putting this over Elton John's Lion King, with its 'I Just Can't Wait to Be King?' and 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight'?" 

That exchange was just one tiny twig of driftwood bobbing in an ocean of banter. Martin was a stunningly loyal correspondent. Former Reason editor, now Bloomberg columnist, Virginia Postrel knew Martin as a "voracious reader" and a decadeslong volunteer research assistant. "When he sent me a clipping—physical or virtual—I could always count on it being something of interest." John J. Miller, in a warm remembrance in the National Review, recalls that whenever Wooster "saw a reference to my book, even as just a footnote, he let me know… an act of kindness that might even be a form of philanthropy."

 Over the years, Martin sent me thoughtful notes on just about everything you could click on or cut out: Yasiel Puig, the Fairness Doctrine, Ken Auletta, Hulu, Theresa May, mmWave radio spectrum, Bryce Harper, an update that the "Samsung Galaxy Note 9 [that] now has…an eight-point battery check so the smartphone WON'T blow up," and a warning about a student who cheated on a graduation exam at Gandhi Medical College in Bhopal, even as nothing suspicious was found on his person, by "having had a micro-receiver implanted in his ear by an ENT surgeon." This year, he duly informed me that "in the September 17 WASHINGTON POST, Elizabeth Dwoskin says that tech companies told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that while they store user data they don't know where it is." But I know one place to look: in Martin's 3,297 emails (just counting back to 2006).

 Wooster's most serious long-form contribution is found in his book, The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of "Donor Intent." The first edition appeared in 1994, the second in 1998, the third in 2007, and the fourth in 2017. As he explained in the Weekly Standard, "Philanthropic history can be entertaining [given] the rise of such heroic entrepreneurs as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, John MacArthur, and Bill Gates [coupled with] … a profession that attracts the overeducated and underemployed, who often fill their many idle hours with memorably vicious office politics." 

The stories are fascinating. Henry Ford was not a perfect man, but "he lived simply and reinvested most of his profits back into his business," writes Wooster. Ford employed blacks (at equal pay scales) and paid "living wages." Ford Motor Co. gave criminals a second chance, hiring 500 ex-convicts between 1914 and 1920, "including one convicted of forging the name 'Henry F. Ford Jr." on a check. Yet Henry Ford (the real one) did "not believe in charity"—on moral hazard grounds. This view was not radical in the day; Wooster notes that George Bernard Shaw stated the case for tough-love socialism. But it put Henry Ford at odds with many of the policies of the New Deal. And it left the Ford Foundation, which would support just the causes that the man rejected, violating donor intent.

This pattern is not an outlier but virtually a path dependency, Wooster showed. From Andrew Carnegie to David Packard, legacy foundation executives commandeer resources to subvert contractual terms. The agency problem is not always ideological, as when the sizable fortune left by Beryl Buck (1896–1975) was dedicated to uplifting disadvantaged persons in Marin County, California. The bequest was legally challenged by San Francisco activists who argued Marin County was too rich—it hosted insufficient poverty for the resources at hand. They sued to substitute the social needs on just the other side of the Golden Gate. While the gambit failed, the Buck Trust legacy was not restored so much as it was consumed—"organizing meetings to decide what to do with the Buck funds" and then constructing a 500-acre campus, with I. M. Pei–designed buildings on expensive Marin County real estate (the sop to "donor intent") to house the "over 100 condominiums and a swimming pool and tennis courts and recreation areas" for Buck Center researchers. What rent seeking didn't capture, bureaucracy devoured. 

Ann-Sargent Wooster says that her brother "always liked children and talked to them in their own language." We tested that theory on our two daughters—he passed with flying colors. Andrew Ferguson of The Atlantic offers more data. The Fergusons hosted a crowded Christmas party when their young family included Gillum Ferguson, their 2-year-old son, and Gillum's soon-to-be-sister, who was "very much in evidence in my wife's profile." Andrew spotted his son "giving Martin the evil eye… and not merely because Martin had torn the drumstick off the Christmas turkey and was walking around with it, napkin under chin." At some point, the burning question had to be asked: Gillum "pointed to Martin's stomach and demanded, 'Is there a baby in there?' Completely unfazed, Martin responded 'NO YOUNG MAN THERE IS NOT,'" and turned on his heel, chatting up another guest. "Martin had a fan for life."

They ain't making 'em like Martin Morse Wooster anymore. But at Reason and in so many other publications, he's left his bounty.