Remembering Irving Kristol
‘Journal,’ ‘TNR,’ Podhoretz, others eulogize
Neoconservatives mourn the death of the “Godfather,” Irving Kristol, who died of lung cancer Friday at the age of 89. Known for his wit, allusiveness, and great ability to find and cultivate new talent, Kristol was among the most influential policy intellectuals of the postwar period—and one of the pioneer critics of Great Society liberalism and the welfare state.
The Wall Street Journal, where Kristol wrote a monthly column for 25 years, carries an unsigned editorial pointing out that he “helped shape the basis for many opposition ideas to the modern political left, in both domestic and foreign policy. American politics rarely bends for long to the ideas of one person, a modest truth that Irving Kristol understood. So it should be noted that he enlisted a small army of similarly minded intellectuals (‘like-minded’ would be an oxymoron among this crowd) to carry the fight.”
James Q. Wilson in the Journal writes: “Irving Kristol’s talents were remarkable: He did for The Public Interest what he had earlier done for Commentary, the Reporter and Encounter—find good people and induce them to say important things even when it did not improve the revenues of the magazine. The Public Interest always relied on financial support from a few friends and rarely sold more than 12,000 copies. That didn’t bother Irving at all: What counts is who reads it, not how many read it. And for 40 years a lot of important people did read it.”
As for Kristol’s most memorable line—that a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality—Kristol’s friend and City Journal editor-at-large Myron Magnet observed: “What he really meant, of course, was simply a liberal who’d been mugged—who’d seen that all the liberal, welfare-state ideals for the uplift of the poor, and especially the minority poor, had in the end produced a criminal underclass, exactly the opposite of the intended uplift. The good intentions counted for nothing with him and even sparked a certain dry contempt; it was the result that mattered.”
Commentary Editor-in-Chief John Podhoretz remembers Kristol’s acumen as a fundraiser for little magazines. Having started the conservative college magazine Midway (later Counterpoint) at the University of Chicago in 1979, Podhoretz “called [Kristol], and he instructed me on the fine art of writing a grant proposal to a new foundation he had begun called the Institute for Educational Affairs. A few weeks later, he called me to report that a grant of $2,000 had been approved and, moreover, that he had used our little magazine as an example of what might be done on college campuses to encourage non-Leftist thinking among students. The board of the foundation found his pitch compelling, and it was decided that efforts should be made to encourage the creation of other publications like Counterpoint. From this seedling came a project that would, by the mid-1980s, lead to the creation of more than 50 college newspapers and magazines across the country engaged in a vital intellectual project to bring ideological diversity to campus life.”
Slate’s Christopher Hitchens recalls a dinner in Manhattan at which he and Kristol were in attendance and from which Hitchens took away the following: “Irving Kristol’s great charm … was that he didn’t care overmuch for the charm business. Most of his celebrated quips and interventions had a tough-guy street feel to them, a manner probably retained from his Marxist days. Typical of him (and I think also truthful) was the claim that he hadn’t known about CIA funding for Encounter but wouldn’t have given much of a damn if he had known.”
Damon Linker at The New Republic is less flattering: “What’s less often recognized is that while Kristol was growing more conservative he was also undergoing a different sort of transformation—from a dispassionate analyst of American politics and culture to a fully engaged advocate for a comprehensive political ideology. Lamentably, it is this change more than Kristol’s gradual drift to the right that may have done more to shape the contemporary conservative mind.”
The New York Times noted that Kristol “never sought celebrity; in fact, he was puzzled by writers who craved it…. He was happier consulting with a congressman like Jack Kemp about the new notion of supply-side economics and then watching with satisfaction as Mr. Kemp converted President Ronald Reagan to the theory.”
And The Washington Post quotes Karl Rove as saying that Kristol “made it a moral imperative to rouse conservatism from mainstream Chamber of Commerce boosterism to a deep immersion in ideas.”
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