Irving Kristol, RIP

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 19, 2009

Irving Kristol, RIP

Irving Kristol loved ideas.

He played with them, adapted them, argued with them, accepted, then rejected them, and advocated fiercely and eloquently for the ideas that ultimately passed muster with him. Politics and political life is oft-attacked for being bereft of ideas, but with Irving Kristol around, intellect always got its moment–and then some–in political circles. Blessed with a formidable brain and the drive to use his mental gifts to the greatest degree possible, Kristol imparted to his fellow conservatives–and especially, to the neoconservatives for whom he was a founding father–the importance and significance of ideas. He was supremely adept at holding his own and advancing his arguments in any philosophical discussion, a master at turning out the clever and memorable phrase, and a force of nature with the written word in particular. The many magazines and journals he started, the long shadow he cast over the debates in which he participated, the movement that owes so much to his leadership, all of these things stand as eternal intellectual memorials to a man who was an engaged intellectual in the very best sense of the phrase.

Although “neoconservative” has become a nasty epithet in the mouths of some (many of whom don’t understand just what a neoconservative is), Kristol wore the label with pride, and worked assiduously to make neoconservatism the political movement of consequence it is today, and shall continue to be in the years to come. I do not identify with neoconservatism myself, and I argue against neoconservative, Kristolian precepts like making one’s peace with the New Deal, but there is no denying neoconservatism’s ability to shape much of the political debate in America. It is remarkable how much of the success of neoconservatism as a movement is attributable to one man, but Kristol was the movement’s paramount hero. With a dazzling combination of innate talent and an appetite for hard work, Irving Kristol permanently and massively changed the American political landscape. For the better, one might add.

But it is not enough to speak of Kristol’s mental horsepower, his way with the English language, or his capacity to toil ceaselessly for his goals. No portrait of Irving Kristol would be complete without mention of his kindness and generosity to so many who admired him, and wanted to follow in his footsteps. For while Irving Kristol most certainly loved ideas, he also loved people.

Christian Brose charmingly testifies to Kristol’s capacity for great kindness:

. . . I had the pleasure of working at the two magazines that Irving was best known for — first at The National Interest and then very briefly at The Public Interest. By the time I showed up, Irving had long since ended his day-to-day involvement in both (he was never as much involved in the NI as he was in the PI), but I did have a chance to meet him on a few occasions when he came into the office for lunch with the staff. My memory, to my everlasting shame, is mostly that of a dumb young kid running his yap, overeager to engage with and impress the founder of the place, and him smiling and listening politely, arguing with me and asking me questions, but never doing what he should have done, which was told me to go sit quietly in the corner and color.

Others will have far better, and more personal, recollections of Irving Kristol. I knew him mainly through his writings and my brief time working in the institutions he built. For a young person fresh out of college, there was nothing quite like coming to work at the “Kristol palace,” as the editors used to call both magazines. It was a four-day work week with lunches on the house — from which came the joke, pretty antiquated by the time I got there, that we were dedicated to fighting socialism in the world while practicing it in the office. A professor of mine even tells the story of a student of his looking for a job that he sent to see Irving, who promptly met with him and talked with him for awhile, liked him, but didn’t have anything to offer him. So he told the kid to put down on his resume that he’d worked for Irving for six months, and if anyone brought it up, he would happily serve as a reference.

Brose’s experience was no fluke, as John Podhoretz reports:

Just an example of Irving’s approach: In 1979, as a first-year student at the University of Chicago, I started a magazine called Midway (later Counterpoint) with my friend Tod Lindberg, now the editor of Policy Review. I sent the first issue to Irving, a family friend. He called me a few days later. “Do you need money?” he said in his fascinating accent, which bore both traces of the Brooklyn of his youth and the London where he spent crucial years in his 30s. “Money?” I said. “No, we made enough from advertising to pay for it.”

“If you ever do, let me know,” he said. And a few issues later, we did. I called him, 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.

[. . .]

There are people throughout the United States, writers and editors and academics and thinkers and speechwriters and policymakers, who owe their careers and the shape of their lives to Irving and his direct efforts on their behalf—giving them counsel, writing them letters, finding them employment. He was a human job bank.

It was interesting how interested he was in people in this way, because he was not an open person—friendly, funny, brilliantly anecdotal, yes, but not given to the present-day exchange of intimacies. And yet no one I’ve known in my 48 years on this earth did more, and more selflessly, for more people than Irving Kristol. It might have been that his essential kindness required him to keep some distance emotionally, lest he be swallowed up by his compulsive need to help.

As Walter Berns put it on the occasion of Kristol’s 75th birthday, “[s]tudents and young scholars sometimes ask me for advice; I tell them to call Irving.”

He lived to be 89, a long and full life by any measure, but it is proper to feel shocked and cheated that he has been taken away from us. There are many more fights to be fought, and it shall be tougher for anyone on the Right–neoconservative or not–to fight them without Irving Kristol around.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Kristol lived a splendid jewel of a life, one that anyone of us would give our eye-teeth to live for ourselves. So much could be written about the breadth and scope of that life, but perhaps Peter Wehner put matters best in summing up Kristol’s talents, his capacity for warmth and friendship, and the monumental legacy he leaves behind:

“To the man who pleases him,” the book of Ecclesiastes says, “God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness.”

Irving Kristol must have pleased God. A lot.

Pejman Yousefzadeh is Senior Editor of the New Ledger.

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