Irving Kristol, Godfather of Conservatism, Dies

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Matthew Kruk

Sep 18, 2009, 8:51:55 PM9/18/09
September 19, 2009
Irving Kristol, Godfather of Conservatism, Dies

Irving Kristol, the political commentator who, as much as anyone,
defined modern conservatism and helped revitalize the Republican Party
in the late 1960s and early '70s, setting the stage for the Reagan
presidency and years of conservative dominance, died Friday in
Arlington, Va. He was 89 and lived in Washington.

His son, William Kristol, the commentator and editor of the conservative
magazine The Weekly Standard, said the cause of death was complications
of lung cancer.

Mr. Kristol exerted an influence across generations, from William F.
Buckley to the columnist David Brooks, through a variety of positions he
held over a long career: executive vice president of Basic Books,
contributor to The Wall Street Journal, professor of social thought at
New York University, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

He was commonly known as the godfather of neoconservatism, even by those
who were not entirely sure what the term meant. In probably his most
widely quoted comment - his equivalent of Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of
fame - Mr. Kristol defined a neoconservative as a liberal who had been
"mugged by reality."

It was a description that summarized his experience in the 1960s, along
with that of friends and associates like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and
Daniel Patrick Moynihan. New Deal Democrats all, they were social
scientists who found themselves questioning many of President Lyndon B.
Johnson's Great Society ideas.

Mr. Kristol translated his concerns into a magazine. In 1965, with a
$10,000 contribution from a wealthy acquaintance, he and Daniel Bell
started The Public Interest. Its founding is generally considered the
beginning of neoconservatism. "Something like a 'movement' took shape,"
Mr. Kristol wrote, "with The Public Interest at (or near) the center."

The Public Interest writers did not take issue with the ends of the
Great Society so much as with the means, the "unintended consequences"
of the Democrats' good intentions. Welfare programs, they argued, were
breeding a culture of dependency; affirmative action created social
divisions and did damage to its supposed beneficiaries. They placed
practicality ahead of ideals. "The legitimate question to ask about any
program," Mr. Kristol said, "is, 'Will it work?'," and the reforms of
the 1960s and '70s, he believed, were not working.

For more than six decades, beginning in 1942, when he and other recent
graduates of City College founded Enquiry: A Journal of Independent
Radical Thought, his life revolved around magazines. Besides The Public
Interest, Mr. Kristol published, edited and wrote for journals of
opinion like Commentary, Encounter, The New Leader, The Reporter and The
National Interest.

All were "little magazines," with limited circulations, but Mr. Kristol
valued the quality of his readership more than the quantity. "With a
circulation of a few hundred," he once said, "you could change the

Small circles and behind-the-scenes maneuverings suited him. He never
sought celebrity; in fact, he was puzzled by writers who craved it.
Described by the economics writer Jude Wanniski as the "hidden hand" of
the conservative movement, he avoided television and other media
spotlights; 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. Mr. Kristol was a man of ideas who believed in the power of
ideas, an intellectual whose fiercest battles were waged against other

A major theme of The Public Interest under Mr. Kristol's leadership was
the limits of social policy; he and his colleagues were skeptical about
the extent to which government programs could actually produce positive

Neoconservatism may have begun as a dispute among liberals about the
nature of the welfare state, but under Mr. Kristol it became a more
encompassing perspective, what he variously called a "persuasion," an
"impulse," a "new synthesis." Against what he saw as the "nihilistic"
onslaught of the '60s counterculture, Mr. Kristol, in the name of
neoconservatism, mounted an ever more muscular defense of capitalism,
bourgeois values and the aspirations of the common man that took him
increasingly to the right.

For him, neoconservatism, with its emphasis on values and ideas, had
become no longer a corrective to liberal overreaching but an "integral
part" of conservatism and the Republican Party, a challenge to
liberalism itself, which, in his revised view, was a destructive
philosophy that had lost touch with ordinary people.

Neoconservatism maintained a lingering sympathy for certain aspects of
Roosevelt's New Deal, but its focus had shifted to the culture wars and
to upholding traditional standards. Liberalism led to "moral anarchy,"
Mr. Kristol said, arguing the point with one of his wisecracking
encapsulizations: "In the United States today, the law insists that an
18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic
movie - but only if she is paid the minimum wage."

Mr. Kristol's rightward drift, though it brought him new allies like
Buckley and Robert Bartley, the head of The Wall Street Journal's
editorial board, broke up the original Public Interest family. Mr.
Moynihan went on to a celebrated career as a Democratic senator from New
York, and Mr. Bell gave up the coeditorship of the magazine in the early
'70s, declaring himself a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics
and a conservative in culture. (He was replaced by Nathan Glazer.)

But neoconservatism turned quite literally into a family affair for Mr.
Kristol. His wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, a distinguished historian of
19th-century England, wrote books and articles critical of modern
permissiveness and urged a return to Victorian values. His son, William,
who had been Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff, became a
leading spokesman for neoconservatism in his own right as a television
commentator, the editor of The Weekly Standard and briefly a columnist
for The New York Times. Friends referred to them as America's first
family of neoconservatism.

Mr. Kristol's weapon of choice was the biting polemical essay of ideas,
a form he mastered as part of the famed circle of writers and critics
known as the New York Intellectuals, among them the ferocious literary
brawlers Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald. Mr. Kristol once described
feeling intimidated at a cocktail party when he was seated with Ms.
McCarthy on one side, Hannah Arendt on the other and Diana Trilling
across from him.

He learned the hard way that he was not destined to be an author of
books. In the late 1950s he spent three months researching a study of
the evolution of American democracy, only to abandon the project, he
said, once he realized "it was all an exercise in futility." An
attempted novel was consigned to his incinerator. "I was not a book
writer," he said.

The four volumes published under his name - "On the Democratic Idea in
America" (1972), "Two Cheers for Capitalism" (1978), "Reflections of a
Neoconservative" (1983) and "Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an
Idea" (1995) - are collections of previously published articles.

As an essayist, Mr. Kristol was sharp, witty, aphoristic and assertive.
"Equivocation has never been Irving Kristol's long suit," his friend
Robert H. Bork said of him. Before achieving his reputation as a writer
on political and social affairs, he was a wide-ranging generalist. In
the 1940s and '50s, his subjects included Einstein, psychoanalysis,
Jewish humor and the Marquis de Sade.

His erudition could burst out at unexpected moments. An attack on
environmental extremists uses a quotation from Auden; a passage about
American men's obsession with golf cites T.S. Eliot. But he could be a
verbal streetfighter as well. John Kenneth Galbraith, he wrote, "thinks
he is an economist and, if one takes him at his word, it is easy to
demonstrate that he is a bad one." After it was revealed that Magic
Johnson had tested HIV positive, Mr. Kristol wrote: "He is a foolish,
reckless man who does not merit any kind of character reference."

Mr. Kristol seemed to need enemies: the counterculture, the academic and
media professionals who made up what he called the New Class, and
finally liberalism in its entirety. And he certainly made enemies with
his harsh words.

Yet underlying the invective was an innate skepticism, even a quality of
moderation and self-mockery, which was often belied by his
single-mindedness. This stalwart defender of free enterprise could
manage only two cheers for capitalism. "Extremism in defense of
liberty," he declared, taking issue with Barry Goldwater, "is always a
vice because extremism is but another name for fanaticism." And the two
major intellectual influences on him, he said, were Lionel Trilling, "a
skeptical liberal," and Leo Strauss, "a skeptical conservative."

"Ever since I can remember," he said in summing himself up, "I've been a
neo-something: a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-liberal, a
neo-conservative and, in religion, always a neo-orthodox, even while I
was a neo-Trotskyist and a neo-Marxist. I'm going to end up a neo. Just
neo, that's all. Neo-dash-nothing."

Irving William Kristol was born on Jan. 20, 1920, in Brooklyn into a
family of low-income, nonobservant Jews. His father, Joseph, a middleman
in the men's clothing business, went bankrupt several times; his mother,
Bessie, died of cancer when he was 16. "We were poor, but then everyone
was poor, more or less," Mr. Kristol recalled.

In the late 1930s he attended City College, the highly politicized,
overwhelmingly Jewish New York institution where his indignation at the
injustices of the Great Depression pushed him to the left, but not the
far left. In the large, dingy school cafeteria were a number of alcoves
where students could gather with like-minded colleagues. There was an
athlete's alcove, a Catholic alcove, a black alcove, an ROTC alcove. But
the alcoves that later became famous were Numbers One and Two.

Alcove One held leftists of various stripes; Alcove Two housed the
Stalinists, including a young Julius Rosenberg. The Stalinists
outnumbered the anti-Stalinists by as much as 10-1, but among the
anti-Stalinists were Mr. Bell as well as the future sociologist Seymour
Martin Lipset and the future literary critic Irving Howe.

Mr. Howe recruited Mr. Kristol into the Trotskyists, and though Mr.
Kristol's career as a follower of the apostate Communist Leon Trotsky
was brief, it lasted beyond his graduation from City College, long
enough for him to meet Ms. Himmelfarb at a Trotskyist gathering in
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. He fell in love, and the two were married in
1942, when she was 19 and he was just short of his 22nd birthday.
Besides William, they also had a daughter, Elizabeth. They, along with
their mother and five grandchildren, survive him.

After marrying, Mr. Kristol followed his wife to Chicago, where she was
doing graduate work and where he had what he called "my first real
experience of America." Drafted into the Army with a number of
Midwesterners who were street-tough and often anti-Semitic, he found
himself shedding his youthful radical optimism. "I can't build socialism
with these people," he concluded. "They'll probably take it over and
make a racket out of it."

In his opinion, his fellow GI's were inclined to loot, rape and murder,
and only Army discipline held them in check. It was a perception about
human nature that would stay with him for the rest of his life, creating
a tension with his alternative view that ordinary people were to be
trusted more than intellectuals to do the right thing.

After the war he and Ms. Himmelfarb spent a year in Cambridge, England,
while she pursued her studies. When they returned to the United States
in 1947, he took an editing job with Commentary, then a liberal
anti-Communist magazine. In 1952, at the height of the McCarthy era, he
wrote what he called the most controversial article of his career: "
'Civil Liberties,' 1952 - A Study in Confusion." It criticized many of
those defending civil liberties against the government inquisitors,
saying they failed to understand the conspiratorial danger of Communism.
Though he called Senator McCarthy a "vulgar demagogue," the article was
remembered for a few lines: "For there is one thing that the American
people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocably
anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel
they know no such thing. And with some justification."

After leaving Commentary, Mr. Kristol spent 10 months as executive
director of the anti-Communist organization the American Committee for
Cultural Freedom, and in 1953 he removed to England to help found
Encounter magazine with the poet Stephen Spender. They made an unlikely
pair: Mr. Spender, tall, artsy, sophisticated; Mr. Kristol, short,
brash, still rough around the edges. Together, they made Encounter one
of the foremost highbrow magazines of its time.

But another explosive controversy awaited Mr. Kristol. It was later
revealed that the magazine had been receiving financial support from the
C.I.A. Mr. Kristol always denied any knowledge of the connection. But he
hardly appeased his critics when he added that he did not disapprove of
the C.I.A.'s secret subsidies.

Back in New York at the end of 1958, Mr. Kristol worked for a year at
another liberal anti-Communist magazine, The Reporter, then took a job
at Basic Books, rising to executive vice president. In 1969 he left for
New York University, and while teaching there he became a columnist for
The Wall Street Journal.

It was during this time that Mr. Kristol became uncomfortable with
liberalism, his own and others'. He supported Vice President Hubert H.
Humphrey in his 1968 presidential campaign against Richard M. Nixon,
saying that "the prospect of electing Mr. Nixon depresses me." But by
1970 he was dining at the Nixon White House, and in 1972 he came out in
favor of Nixon's re-election. By the mid-'70s he had registered as a

Always the neoconservative, however - aware of his liberal, even
radical, roots and his distance from traditional Republicanism - he was
delighted when another Democratic convert, President Ronald Reagan,
expressed admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1987 he left New York
University to become the John M. Olin Distinguished Fellow at the
American Enterprise Institute.

By now Mr. Kristol was battling on several fronts. He published columns
and essays attacking liberalism and the counterculture from his perches
at The Wall Street Journal and The Public Interest, and in 1978 he and
William E. Simon, President Nixon's secretary of the treasury, formed
the Institute for Educational Affairs to funnel corporate and foundation
money to conservative causes. In 1985 he started The National Interest,
a journal devoted to foreign affairs.

But Mr. Kristol wasn't railing just against the left. He criticized
America's commercial class for upholding greed and selfishness as
positive values. He saw "moral anarchy" within the business community,
and he urged it to take responsibility for itself and the larger
society. He encouraged businessmen to give money to political candidates
and help get conservative ideas across to the public. Republicans, he
said, had for half a century been "the stupid party," with not much more
on their minds than balanced budgets and opposition to the welfare
state. He instructed them to support economic growth by cutting taxes
and not to oppose New Deal institutions.

Above all, Mr. Kristol preached a faith in ordinary people. . "It is the
self-imposed assignment of neoconservatives," he wrote, "to explain to
the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why
they are wrong."

Mr. Kristol saw religion and a belief in the afterlife as the foundation
for the middle-class values he championed. He argued that religion
provided a necessary constraint to antisocial, anarchical impulses.
Without it, he said, "the world falls apart." Yet Mr. Kristol's own
religious views were so ambiguous that some friends questioned whether
he believed in God. In 1996, he told an interviewer: "I've always been a
believer." But, he added, "don't ask me in what."

"That gets too complicated," he said. "The word 'God' confuses

In 2002, Mr. Kristol received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, often
considered the nation's highest civilian honor. It was another
satisfying moment for a man who appears to have delighted in his life
or, as Andrew Sullivan put it, "to have emerged from the womb content."

He once said that his career had been "one instance of good luck after
another." Some called him a cheerful conservative. He did not dispute
it. He had had much, he said, "to be cheerful about."

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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