Irving Kristol, Architect of Neoconservatism, Dies at 89


Irving Kristol, Architect of Neoconservatism, Dies at 89

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009 3:25 PM

Irving Kristol, 89, a forceful essayist, editor and university professor who became the leading architect of neoconservatism, which he called a political and intellectual movement for disaffected ex-liberals like himself who had been "mugged by reality," died Friday at the Capital Hospice in Arlington.

He spent much of his career in New York but had for the last two decades lived at the Watergate apartments in the District. He died of complications from lung cancer, said his son, William Kristol, the founder and editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

The elder Kristol founded and edited magazines such as Encounter and the Public Interest that aimed at an elite audience of political, social and cultural tastemakers. In addition to his professorship at New York University, he advanced his ideas through monthly opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal and a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. He was for many years an editor at Basic Books, a small but distinguished publisher of social science and philosophy.

Karl Rove, a Republican strategist who advised former president George W. Bush, called Mr. Kristol an "intellectual entrepreneur who helped energize several generations of public policy thinkers."

Through his editing, writing and speaking, Mr. Kristol "made it a moral imperative to rouse conservatism from mainstream Chamber of Commerce boosterism to a deep immersion in ideas," Rove said. He added that Mr. Kristol helped create a synthesis of Cold War Democrats and Reagan White House anticommunist hawks, which proved decisive in influencing foreign and military policy in the 1980s.

Mr. Kristol and his historian wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, along with a group of sociologists, historians and academics including Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, Richard Pipes and for a while Daniel P. Moynihan, emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s as prominent critics of welfare programs, tax policy, moral relativism and countercultural social upheavals they felt were contributing to America's cultural and social decay.

His father was an immigrant garment worker from Eastern Europe, and Mr. Kristol grew up under humble circumstances that shaped his beliefs. "Those who have been raised in poor neighborhoods -- the Daniel Patrick Moynihans, Edward Banfields, Nathan Glazers -- tend to be tough-minded about slums and their inhabitants," he told the New York Times.

Middle-class sociologists, he said, "are certain that a juvenile delinquent from a welfare family is a far more interesting figure -- with a greater potentiality for redeeming not only himself but all of us -- than an ordinary, law-abiding and conforming youngster who is from the very same household."

Mr. Kristol had grown dismayed by the fragmentation of the Democratic Party over the war in Southeast Asia and remained a vigorous defender of a strong military to combat communist threats. He championed a steady focus on economic growth that gives "modern democracies their legitimacy and durability" but cautioned against running deficits. He popularized supply-side economics, long considered a fringe belief that tax cuts would lead to widespread financial prosperity. Supply side became a leading conservative cause in the 1980s and influenced the Reagan White House tax policy.

Mr. Kristol and many of his colleagues were dubbed neoconservatives, a term introduced by social critic Michael Harrington to describe the rightward turn of onetime liberals such as Mr. Kristol, whose extraordinary political odyssey had taken him from Depression-era socialist to anticommunist Cold Warrior and Vietnam War hawk.

While Harrington's use of neoconservative was not intended as a compliment, Mr. Kristol embraced the term and became its widely accepted godfather. A cover story on Mr. Kristol in Esquire magazine in 1979 helped legitimize him as the leader of a full-fledged movement, even as he played down the idea that such a formal faction existed.

"We are not a movement," he once said. "There has never been a meeting of neoconservatives." He called it an "intellectual current" that came to prominence after a "gradual evolution."

Mr. Kristol found his public profile raised greatly by the Reagan presidency, when many neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz, William Bennett, Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams, began to occupy administration jobs and found themselves in positions of influence over domestic, diplomatic and defense policy. Neoconservatism also formed the core beliefs of many advisers to George W. Bush, who gave Mr. Kristol the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, for helping set "the intellectual groundwork for the renaissance of conservative ideas in the last half of the 20th century."

Cultural and intellectual historian Paul S. Boyer of the University of Wisconsin called Mr. Kristol "one of those who helped make conservatism intellectually respectable" in the 1960s when New Deal liberalism was still a dominant political philosophy. Conservatives, Boyer said, had long been marginalized as backward-thinking scolds who denounced social policies created by the central government.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Kristol helped form a new conservative philosophy that advocated moderation against what he viewed as the excesses of the far right and far left. He wrote that "the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy. . . . It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic."

Jacob Heilbrunn, author of "They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons," said Mr. Kristol's thinking "played a big role in reshaping the Republican Party."

"He told traditional conservatives you need to accept New Deal and accept the achievements of liberalism," Heilbrunn said. "You don't try to roll it back but stop it from expanding further. He and other neoconservatives of his generation, including Norman Podhoretz, had a galvanizing effect on the Republican Party, and were viewed as heretics and ostracized by a mainstream intellectual establishment that was overwhelmingly liberal. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz come out of that radical and liberal tradition and they were seen as apostates."

Mr. Kristol's intellectual transformation began in the late 1940s, when he heard political philosopher Leo Strauss argue against a utopian view of government that could solve all societal problems. Mr. Kristol said he did not think it was up to the government to "shape society according to some design of perfection."

Mr. Kristol made a distinction between such programs as Social Security and Medicare, which collectively benefited society, and specific programs to help the poor that he felt inflamed class resentment. He said that many Great Society programs of the 1960s came too close to a form of income redistribution anathema to capitalism. He also denounced public-interest lawyers and environmentalists as malevolent forces in American society who contribute nothing economically but want to expand the size of government.

"Compassion organized into a political movement is a very dangerous thing and, I think, a wicked thing," he once wrote. "If you want to be compassionate, go out and be compassionate to people. If you want to give people money, give people money. If you want to work with poor people, go out and work with poor people. I have great respect for people who do that. But when people start becoming bureaucrats of compassion and start making careers out of compassion -- whether political, journalistic or public entertainment careers -- then I must say I suspect their good faith."

Irving William Kristol was born Jan. 22, 1920, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended City College of New York because of its free tuition. His classmates at a school dubbed a "Jewish proletarian Harvard" included many who would become the leading intellectuals of their generation, including sociologists Daniel Bell and Glazer, and literary critic Irving Howe.

They were featured in Joseph Dorman's 1998 acclaimed documentary "Arguing the World," which detailed their ideological and personal growth over the decades.

Howe, who remained a social democrat and later became an adversary of Mr. Kristol, once said he "recruited" Mr. Kristol to the Young People's Socialist League. Mr. Kristol allied himself with an anti-Stalinist wing of the group. "It was obvious that he was a tyrant, a butcher, a liar," he said of Stalin. He balked, however, at the radical left's restrictions on what he could and could not read. After graduating in 1940, he was a machinists' apprentice at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II before serving in the Army in Europe. By the end of the war, he began to shy away from what he saw as the parochialism of "the New York Jewish view of the world."

"Joining a radical movement when one is young is very much like falling in love when one is young," he wrote years later. "The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love is so valuable that it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment."

In 1942, he married Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom he met at a Socialist League meeting. She survives, along with their two children, William Kristol of McLean and Elizabeth Nelson of Charlottesville; and five grandchildren.

After World War II, Mr. Kristol became managing editor of Commentary magazine and helped shape its anti-Communist editorial view. He also wrote one of his most provocative essays, "Civil Liberties, 1952 -- a Study in Confusion," that said liberals were wrong to stand in the way of every internal security hearing or effort by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) to find Communist subversion in government and Hollywood.

"For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist," he wrote. "About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing."

He said he went to London to escape the uproar over his piece, and while there helped start the magazine Encounter with poet Stephen Spender in 1952. Mr. Kristol remained with the magazine for five years and it attracted cultural and political analysis by such contributors as Nancy Mitford, Albert Camus, George F. Kennan, Isaiah Berlin and Vladimir Nabokov. Once called England's "leading highbrow magazine," Encounter derived its influence not from its circulation -- which peaked at about 40,000 in the 1960s -- but from its high-profile readership. It was publicly revealed years after Mr. Kristol stepped down from the masthead that the CIA helped financially sustain Encounter.

He told the Times he would not have taken the job if he had known about he CIA's underwriting, but he was not alarmed by the revelation. "In those years,'' he said, "the Russians were carrying on a tremendous campaign against America, charging germ warfare and much else. There was certainly a case for the American Government responding."

Mr. Kristol had a brief stint editing the Reporter magazine in New York in the late 1950s, then joined Basic Books and New York University, where he was for many years the Henry R. Luce professor of urban values.

In 1965, during the foment of the Vietnam War and the rise of the counterculture movement, Mr. Kristol and his old classmate Bell started the Public Interest. Bell left in the early 1970s after a series of ideological clashes that culminated in Mr. Kristol's support for Richard Nixon while Bell supported the presidential candidacy of George McGovern. Bell was succeeded as co-editor by Glazer, who had been among its roster of neoconservative contributors. Nixon appointed Mr. Kristol to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Mr. Kristol remained associated with the Public Interest until it folded in 2005, and also found time to start the National Interest foreign policy journal in 1985. His books included "Two Cheers for Capitalism" (1978) and "Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea" (1995). Mr. Kristol had by that time become a gray eminence of conservatism with many of his ideas having been adopted by mainstream Republican strategists and policy makers.

One of his most prescient ideas was his argument that liberals were wrong to assert the Republican Party needed to distance itself from the "religious right." To Mr. Kristol, "religious conservatives are already too numerous to be shunted aside, and their numbers are growing, as is their influence. They are going to be the very core of an emerging American conservatism."

Despite his influence in public life, he kept a low profile. "People like Arthur Schlesinger go to 'in' restaurants, hang around with beautiful people," he once told The Washington Post with a shrug. "I never do that. I stay home and watch TV. I like Westerns and cop shows. Nothing solemn or instructional."