The reputation of Washington as a heartless, power-crazed city, a place for the hard-eyed and the coldblooded, is not entirely undeserved. There is a lot at stake in the capital of a superpower: the fate of whole countries, the shaping of culture and education, millions and billions of dollars. Many who arrive in Washington from elsewhere, starry-eyed believers in a better world, are eventually consumed by envy, or bitterness, or greed.
But many are not. Some keep their heads, and even their ideals. James S. Denton, who died of prostate cancer on June 18, was one of them. He wasn’t a celebrity or a famous columnist, and you haven’t seen his name much on any front pages. He was a Washington figure who organized things behind the scenes, created institutions, connected people to one another.
He had a background in the Navy and came from a military family; his father, Jeremiah Denton, was a Navy pilot captured in Vietnam and later a Republican senator from Alabama. But from the middle of the 1980s up until the beginning of the 2000s, Jim ran organizations – first the National Forum Foundation, then Freedom House – that were dedicated to supporting nascent democracy movements in Central Europe. In this capacity, he trained some of the people who would become leading politicians and journalists, helped create think tanks across the former Soviet bloc, funded human rights organizations, and organized the exchanges of people and ideas that helped establish democratic institutions in central Europe and became the basis for America’s commitment to the region, too.
Later on, he ran a publishing house as well as the World Affairs Journal, a magazine with a 180-year history. But more recently, Jim returned to his core interest in Western democracy. In 2014, he had the foresight to see that the transatlantic alliance was in deep trouble — just how deep we are only learning now. He started a program, the Transatlantic Renewal Project, designed to bring Americans and Europeans back together again.
The title makes it sound as if Jim’s activities were rigid and formal. But much of the time he brought people together informally — organizing dinners, for example, dedicated to things he cared about. He invited congressional staffers from both parties, experts from think tanks with different politics, journalists and others; the point was to talk about Russian influence operations in Europe, or German politics, or the future of NATO — issues you don’t usually hear about on cable TV — and then to make everybody think about how Americans might help. He hosted one of those dinners on Capitol Hill in early May, just six weeks before he died. “I might need to slip away at some point,” he warned me just before it began. But he didn’t. Ill from chemotherapy, he still wanted to stay part of the conversation.
I suspect that for a lot of younger Washingtonians, Jim was a bridge, a link back to the Cold War, someone who could impart lessons from the past to the present. But to me he represented something even more important: a much older tradition of American idealism, as well as a particular strand of American pragmatism. Jim wasn’t just a thinker but someone who built coalitions around good ideas. He believed in bipartisanship, in alliances, and in democratic debate. He thought that, using these things, it was possible to make the world better. And he did.