- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009


Irving Kristol, the “godfather of neoconservatism,” died Friday at age 89. I first met him when I joined the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) in Washington, a think tank, a peculiarly American institution that has spread around the world, in large part because of Irving’s influence. (I believe AEI is now the premier such institution in the world.).

Irving knew most of the most important intellectuals. He knew many scores of elected officials. And he influenced so many of those with whom he came in contact. Many of those went on to become highly influential. Jack Kemp was one; Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was another. Others would include Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Q. Wilson, Paul Wolfowitz, William Buckley, Chris DeMuth, the president of AEI for many years, and his son, William Kristol. In opposition were Patrick Buchanan and many others in the vast typology of conservatism. Important foundations gave their grants to those who understood Irving’s ideas.

Irving won many awards, probably the most significant of which was the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

During World War II, he was not an officer but a combat infantryman in the 12th Armored Division. He mentioned it matter-of-factly, but I sense he was appropriately very proud of his service.

He believed that neoconservatism had become and would remain a powerful force in shaping public policy. I believe that will prove to be the case, albeit under a different name. The label has been tarnished, not the idea. At root, it always reminds me of the campaign slogan of my hero, the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson - “Common Sense for a Change.”

Irving didn’t write many books, and he rarely accepted invitations to appear on television programs. (I think I had him on once on my PBS program “Think Tank.”) But his column in the Wall Street Journal provided a global forum. He was the founder or co-founder of three low-circulation-high-influence journals: Encounter, the Public Interest and the National Interest.

A few quotes give a flavor of his thinking and his wry way of describing his ideas. The most famous was that “a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” He explained one difference between neocons and earlier conservatives in terms of temperament, saying, “The trouble with traditional American conservatism is that it lacks a naturally optimistic disposition. Not only does it lack one, it regards signs of one as evidence of unsoundness.” He said that America had become “a conservative welfare state,” which was good, not bad. Another: “What rules the world is ideas, because ideas define the way reality is perceived.”

He understood that ideas have consequences. Some, of course, are good, but he cautioned that there was a powerful force in the “law of unintended consequences.”

The basis for neoconservatism was objective scrutiny in the social sciences. This meant careful, often painstaking empirical research. Such research could come down on the conservative side, some on the liberal, some quite difficult to label, such as the article “Broken Windows,” by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, which changed the way police and the public saw the issue of soaring crime rates. It led directly to increased incarceration and lower rates of violent crime. Obviously, a thug in prison can not harm the people you love.

As powerful as his ideas were, I suspect his most lasting impact was that of a match-maker, these days called “networking.” His door was open. He worked diligently at putting young people in touch with foundations, think tanks, publishers and those who booked radio and television programs.

As I came to know Irving personally, I saw him as erudite, warm, friendly, wry, whimsical and open-minded.

Irving believed in the idea of “American Originalism.” Without question he was a quite original American.

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, the noted historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, his son Bill, editor of the Weekly Standard.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Adas Israel Congregation, 2850 Quebec St. NW, with burial in Adas Israel Congregation Cemetery.

• Ben Wattenberg is a longtime senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and more recently the Hudson Institute. He is the author of 14 books.

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