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’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.