As a columnist for U.S. News & World Report in the late 1980s and ’90s, Mr. Leo played a lead role in the era’s roiling culture wars, which were marked by contentious debates about race, gender and inequality that can seem remarkably similar to today’s battles over the same issues.
He was not a reactionary — for example, he supported gay rights at a time when many conservatives still trafficked in open homophobia. He preferred to take aim at excess, especially in college humanities departments, where dismantling the Western canon and the proliferation of “studies” programs — disabilities studies, cultural studies — struck him as absurd and dangerous.
With one eye on campus, he kept the other on popular culture and what he saw as its debasement in the service of corporate greed. Along with other conservatives, like the former secretary of education William J. Bennett, he called out Time Warner in the mid-1990s for its ownership of Interscope Records, a major producer of gangsta rap. Largely as a result of their pressure, Time Warner sold its stake in Interscope in 1995.
But unlike some of his fellow combatants, Mr. Leo was too funny a writer to come off as a complete bluenose. He poked fun at himself, and he wore his erudition lightly. He insisted that his favorite painter was Sherwin Williams. He titled his first book, published in 1989, “How the Russians Invented Baseball and Other Essays of Enlightenment.”
“Leo is funny in the way that Frank McCourt, the actor-writer, is funny,” the journalist Dennis Duggan wrote in 1990 in Newsday. “When they are on, which is almost always, you might as well prop your chin on your elbow and enjoy, because whatever you say is going to play like chocolate sauce on pasta.”
John Patrick Leo was born in Hoboken, N.J., on June 16, 1935 — Bloomsday, he was fond of noting — and grew up in nearby Teaneck. His father, Maurice Leo, designed kitchen and hospital equipment, and his mother, Mary (Trincellita) Leo, was a homemaker.