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Irving Kristol, 1920-2009

The intellectual and political life of the United States over the past 60 years was affected in so many important and enduring ways by Irving Kristol that it is difficult to capture in words the extent of his powerful and positive influence. Irving, who died today at the age of 89, was the rarest of creatures—a thoroughgoing intellectual who was also a man of action. He was a maker of things, a builder of institutions, a harvester and disseminator and progenitor of ideas and the means whereby those ideas were made flesh.

The clarity of his thinking and the surety of his purpose were one and the same; they were immeasurably enhanced by a powerful curiosity for the way things worked and the ways in which things could be made to work better. His was a restless intelligence, always on the move; there was not an idea he didn’t want to play with, and there wasn’t a new idea for a think tank or a magazine or a center for the study of something-or-other that didn’t excite him. He was a conservative by temperament and conviction, but he was an innovator to the depths of his being.

The number of institutions with which he was affiliated, or started, or helped grow into major centers of learning and thinking is hard to count. There is this institution, COMMENTARY, where he began working after his release from the Army following the conclusion of the Second World War. There were two other magazines in the 1950s, the Reporter and Encounter, which he helped found and whose influence on civil discourse was profound and enduring, even legendary. There was the Public Interest, the quarterly he co-founded in 1965 with Daniel Bell and then ran with Nathan Glazer for more than 30 years, which was the wellspring of neoconservative thinking on domestic-policy issues. He helped bring a sleepy Washington think tank called the American Enterprise Institute into the forefront. And he made Basic Books into a publishing powerhouse that was, for more than 20 years, at the red-hot center of every major debate in American life.

It was through his encouragement and lobbying efforts that several foundations began providing the kind of support to thinkers and academics on the Right that other foundations and most universities afforded thinkers and academics on the Left. Through his columns in the Wall Street Journal, he instructed American businessmen on the relation between what they did and the foundational ideas of capitalism as explicated by Adam Smith, and changed many of them from sideline players in the battle over the direction of the American economy into front-line advocates.

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.

Now, if one were to measure by the nature of colleges today as opposed to 30 years ago, one would have to say this venture did not effect much change. But what came out of it were dozens of young writers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs (like Peter Thiel, the co-creator of PayPal and one of the founding editors of the Stanford Review) who have enriched American life.

So it was with Irving the mentor. 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.

His hunger to do lots of different things, his innate restlessness, was certainly why he was not a writer of books, though he was a crafter of English prose almost without peer in his time, strong and bold and authoritative. He published several important collections of essays but left the writing of magisterial volumes to his wife. When they were dating, he related at his 80th birthday party, he told the ambitious young Gertrude Himmelfarb that he would make sure if they married that she would write 10 books—and, he reported almost offhandedly in a manner that made tears spring to the eyes of many in the room, page proofs for her tenth book had arrived that day at their apartment in the Watergate. I suspect that, in Irving’s eyes, his foremost contribution to the intellectual life of his time was the encouragement, support, and freedom he gave in supporting Bea as she became one of the great historians of ideas of the 20th century.

We at COMMENTARY will be opening the entirety of his 45-article oeuvre in our archives (from his first contribution, a short story called “Adam and I,” published in November 1946, to his last, a 1994 essay entitled “Countercultures“) for free perusal by all readers. It is a treasure trove, as he was himself an incomparable treasure of a man, an intellectual, and an American. May Bea, Bill, Liz, and Irving’s five grandchildren be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.



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