Irving Kristol, a Broker of Ideas Who Helped Create a Movement

Appreciation

By Joseph Dorman

Published September 23, 2009, issue of October 02, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There has been a flurry of obituaries and appreciations of Irving Kristol in recent days. And rightly so. Whether you admire his conservative ideas or loathe them, his mark on American politics is undeniable. He was, simply put, a key architect of the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 1980s that altered the Republican Party, and with it the American political landscape.

Kristol: The conservative thinker passed away at 89.
AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITuTE
Kristol: The conservative thinker passed away at 89.

Kristol’s influence was felt everywhere in Washington and New York, yet he was seldom in the public eye. In an age when everyone clamors to be a television talking head and airtime logged has become the measure of political influence, Kristol was most comfortable working behind the scenes. He was, like many of his passing generation, primarily a man of print.

Kristol, who died September 18 at the age of 89, was, above all, a broker of ideas. In journal after journal, from Commentary to The Public Interest and through his association with Basic Books and many foundations, Kristol understood, as few have, how to nurture thinkers and ideas and how, in turn, to mold them into a larger political movement. This was what made him the “godfather” of neoconservatism. He knew, better than almost anyone, how to launch ideas into the public sphere, how to shape the public dialogue.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, for instance, he was instrumental in presenting a reasoned critique of overambitious liberal social policies — a critique that has informed the thinking of Democratic and Republican administrations ever since. He would later champion the supply-side ideas that have become a staple of Republican thought since the Reagan years.

It was in 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s campaign for re-election, that I first encountered Kristol. Unlike so many who have written about him, I was neither a protégé nor a friend, nor even a conservative. I was a young producer for public television covering the campaign and knew I had to read him to understand the conservative movement. I should say, at the risk of confirming the worst conservative suspicions about the Public Broadcasting Service, that I was then (and am now) a liberal. But I was, contrary to those suspicions, intent on being fair to the conservative movement. More to the point, I was fascinated with conservatism, intrigued by a set of ideas so long considered anathema in the world in which I had grown up.

One day, I walked around the corner from the building in which I worked and picked up a copy of Kristol’s “Reflections of a Neoconservative” at the old Coliseum Books. (I still have my battered and dog-eared copy on my shelf.) As I read it, my world opened up. There was, of course, plenty to disagree with. But there were other times where Kristol’s points inevitably hit home. I was seriously entertaining conservative ideas for the first time, and it ultimately left me, I believe — after the initial excitement and giddiness had worn off — a more thoughtful liberal.

Kristol’s essays were not just interesting, but also deeply enjoyable. They had an easy and seductive eloquence. (Kristol was also, to be sure, quite handy with the sharp political attack.) The very first essay in the volume was a piece of personal history, “Memoirs of a Trotskyist,” about his years in the anti-Stalinist left in Alcove One at New York’s City College. Many political intellectuals at the time were familiar with the trajectory of neoconservative intellectuals from left to right, but it was news to me. Whereas those in the know found the story of this political evolution either tiresome or traitorous, I found it irresistible. Some years later that essay would lead me to make my film “Arguing the World,” exploring the divergent political journeys of Kristol, along with his former City College classmates Irving Howe, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, who would all go on to become part of the group known as “the New York Intellectuals.”

But before I could make that film, I had to steel my courage and write to Kristol. He was still living in Manhattan at the time, and he invited me for a drink at the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South to discuss my proposed film. He was charming and open and seemed to take me seriously in a way that I didn’t think I quite deserved at the time. Only later would I learn that this was one of his special talents — cultivating the young, taking them seriously; in doing so he would create and encourage several generations of young intellectuals on the right.

Seriousness was the hallmark of the New York Intellectuals like Kristol. They were men and women who made ideas — and intellectual argument — their life. But their high-mindedness was mixed with toughness. Their years on the radical left, along with their childhoods in the immigrant enclaves of the Lower East Side, Brooklyn and the Bronx, also made them street fighters, experienced in the art of the political brawl and the sharp and bruising political attack. In the end, what mattered most to them, though, were ideas, and Kristol was no exception. Today, when the public voice of the right is dominated by sobbing Glenn Becks and snickering Rush Limbaughs, men who specialize in havoc and accusation and obfuscation at the expense of ideas, men who work feverishly to close American minds, it’s worth remembering that Irving Kristol represented a very different tradition. He was, after all, a conservative intellectual whose elegant and incisive writing was capable of prying open the mind of a young liberal such as myself.

Joseph Dorman directed the 1998 film “Arguing the World.” He is finishing a documentary on the author Sholom Aleichem and is working on a second film about the Zionist idea.






Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.