WASHINGTON — Irving Kristol, the political writer and publisher known as the “godfather” of neo-conservatism whose youthful radicalism evolved into an emphatic rejection of communism and the counterculture, died Friday. He was 89.
“His wisdom, wit, good humor and generosity of spirit made him a friend and mentor to several generations of thinkers and public servants,” said the editors of The Weekly Standard in announcing Kristol’s death on its Web site.
Kristol was the husband of critic-historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and father of neo-conservative editor and commentator William Kristol, an editor of The Weekly Standard.
A Trotskyist in the 1930s, Kristol would soon sour on socialism, break from liberalism after the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and in the 1970s commit the unthinkable — support the Republican Party, once as “foreign to me as attending a Catholic mass.”
He was a New York intellectual who left home, first politically, then physically, moving to Washington in 1988. He was a liberal “mugged by reality,” his turn to the right joined by countless others, including such future GOP Cabinet officials as Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Bennett and another neo-conservative founder, Norman Podhoretz.
He was a flagship in the network of think tanks, media outlets and corporations that helped make conservatism a reigning ideology for at least two decades, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary Rodham Clinton would claim was out to get her husband.
“More than anyone alive, perhaps, Irving Kristol can take the credit for reversing the direction of American political culture,” liberal commentator Eric Alterman wrote in 1999.
Vice President Dick Cheney was a longtime admirer and President George W. Bush, whose administration was heavily populated by neo-conservatives, awarded Kristol a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, praising him as “a wide-ranging thinker whose writings have helped transform America’s political landscape.”
Kristol himself would regard neo-conservatism as a job well done, a “generational phenomenon” that was “pretty much absorbed into a larger, more comprehensive conservatism.” But the Iraq War and the poor economy badly damaged the right’s unity and credibility over the past few years.
Unlike such earlier advocates of the right as Sen. Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, whose National Review journal Irving Kristol found “insufficiently analytical and ‘intellectual,’” most neo-conservatives were not lifelong Republicans. They were former Democrats, often academics, who broke with their party over Vietnam, race relations and what they regarded as the breakdown of civic order.
They shared the anti-communism of Buckley and others, but worried less about government spending than about moral and cultural issues, believing that people needed to change along with the system.
“If there is any one thing that neo-conservatives are unanimous about, it is their dislike of the counterculture,” Kristol once said.
Ironically, “neo-conservative” was not coined by a neo-conservative, but is credited to socialist author-activist Michael Harrington, who used the term in a 1973 essay about Kristol and other former liberals.
Active in publishing for more than half a century, Kristol wrote essays and reviews for The New Leader and Commentary; released several books, including “Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of An Idea,” and co-founded a seminal neo-conservative journal, The Public Interest.
He was a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, writing a series of essays in the 1970s that called on businesses to invest in conservative scholarship and counter the “permanent brain trust” of liberal politics.
With funding from Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and others, the right created such think tanks as the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kristol himself was a fellow at a key think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, and at least two major conservative books, Jules Wanniski’s supply side manifesto “The Way the World Works,” and Charles Murray’s anti-welfare “Losing Ground,” were published with Kristol’s help.
Kristol also taught at New York University, worked for several years as a senior editor at the Basic Books publishing house and in the 1950s headed the anti-communist magazine Encounter, which turned out to have been funded — without Kristol’s knowledge, he said — by the CIA.
Born in New York City in 1920, Kristol was at first similar to so many other children of Jewish immigrants — passionate about books and allied with the working class, a teenager during the Great Depression who “saw around me unemployed men eager to work but finding no jobs.”
“Under such circumstances, the notion of an economy planned by governmental authority seemed commonsensical, not ideological,” he later wrote.
By his mid-20s, Kristol had already backed off his most radical beliefs. A member of the armed infantry in Europe during World War II, he was surprised by his sympathy for the military establishment and by his distance from his fellow soldiers, whom he regarded as “thugs or near-thugs.”
“My army experience permitted me to make an important political discovery,” he wrote. “The idea of building socialism with the common man who actually existed — as distinct from his idealized version — was sheer fantasy, and therefore the prospects for ‘democratic socialism’ were nil.”
After the war, he returned to New York and was hired to edit Commentary, then a liberal publication, and contributed reviews on religion and philosophy and other subjects. Still disdainful of market economics, he was an anti-communist liberal who called Sen. Joseph McCarthy a “vulgar demagogue,” but added that “there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist.
“About the spokesman for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”