News of the death of Irving Kristol — wordsmith, editor, professor, thinker — on Friday (September 19) reflected his importance in post-war political thought. “Architect of Neo-Conservatism” blared the carry-over page in the Saturday Washington Post, which put the news of Kristol’s death at age 89 on Page One. The Sunday New York Times devoted almost an entire page to the life and accomplishments of the founder of Encounter and Public Interest magazines.
In reflecting upon this remarkable man of word and thought, I did have to wonder: with the passing of this very influential thinker over the past half-century, where will the Irving Kristols of the present and future come from, now that we really need them? Will there be anyone with roots in liberalism who fearlessly challenges the left’s orthodoxy — and wins?
Kristol did just that. As the son of an immigrant, a product of Brooklyn and City College of New York, and one who grew up in the Depression a fervent New Dealer, he was a prime candidate to be a leftist. Indeed, the young Kristol got his political baptism as a member of the Young People’s Socialist League (albeit as part of the anti-Stalinist wing).
While in the U.S. Army during World War II, Kristol began to have some doubts about the leftism he had embraced while growing up. It was then that he also decided (“when I was smoking,” Kristol recalled to an interviewer) to become a writer.
Most of the tributes to Kristol focused on his leadership of “neo-conservatives” and the role they played in supporting Ronald Reagan in setting out to win the Cold War. The term “neo-conservative” (or “neo-con” for short) was actually begun as an insult by socialist Michael Harrington to describe Kristol and other liberals who “take a right.”
Kristol was doing that long before Reagan came along. As managing editor of Commentary Magazine in the early 1950’s, he faulted liberals for opposing congressional hearings on Communist infiltration in the U.S. In one memorable article, he noted that the American people knew that Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R.-Wisc.) “like them is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel no such thing.”
As the Washington Post noted in its obituary, “Mr. Kristol said he went to London to escape the uproar over the piece.”
But, as co-founder of Encounter Magazine in 1952 and Public Interest thirteen years later, Kristol would deploy his pen and create further uproar. He strongly defended the U.S. action in Southeast Asia, denounced the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s, proudly voted for Richard Nixon over George McGovern, and went to war with the environmental movement.
Through it all, he was a stalwart believer in the New Deal and government programs he felt helped improve society and once wrote a famous essay “Two Cheers for Capitalism” that illustrated the downside of the free market system. (Kristol had little use for the “Great Society,” however; he felt that most of LBJ’s programs were “redistributionist” and helped no one except those administering them). It is this side of him — the “big government conservative” and skeptic of business that so many “neo conservatives” are — that kept many more traditional conservatives apart from Kristol.
It is no surprised that by the 1980s, Kristol was recognized as a key conservative player and welcomed to the Reagan White House. President George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom at the White House.
Much of what Irving Kristol said in writing and the spoken word could have been said by any conservative Republican. But because of who he was and how he thought things through, Kristol was noticed, on the left and on the right. Put another way, when a self-styled “New Dealer” and onetime member of the Young People’s Socialist League criticized Democratic programs and policy, people listened.
Today, it is difficult to find a thinker with solid liberal credentials and history who will sit down and attack, say, the costly stimulus packages backed by the Obama Administration or the health care program and its “public option” aspect. For now, the liberal punditocracy and certainly the Democratic political establishment is on board with the Obama agenda.
Irving Kristol moved a lot of conservatives with his power of thought and analysis, and demonstrated that thinking for oneself can move others in a mighty way. My hope is he moved some to think and write — and have as much an impact as did he.
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