Saturday, September 19, 2009

Irving Kristol, a self-described former communist who later helped shape the conservative movement as a writer and publisher, died Friday at the Capital Hospice in Arlington. He was 89.

“Irving Kristol was an intellectual giant who played a major role in developing the anti-communist arguments that led to the defeat of the Soviet Union,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times. “With his wife and son, the Kristol family came to represent one of the great intellectual-political families of the last 40 years.”

The Weekly Standard, the neoconservative magazine founded by his son, William Kristol, announced Mr. Kristol’s death on its Web site, saying he died of complications from lung cancer.

Known as the godfather of neoconservatism, Mr. Kristol was a youthful radical who went from embracing communism in his 20s to attacking it publicly in his 30s.

In subsequent years, he became an equally forceful advocate of free-market economics, including the supply-side tax cuts enacted during the Reagan administration and dismantling much of the so-called welfare state.

Neoconservatism was a label originally bestowed on Mr. Kristol in a 1973 essay by socialist organizer and writer Michael Harrington about former leftists who had moved to the right.

Although the title was not intended as a compliment, Mr. Kristol wore it as a badge of pride. Yet its meaning remained amorphous. Even though Mr. Kristol once wrote an “autobiography” on the history of “neoconservatism,” the exact definition of the term has long been a subject of significant disagreement. There has been no dispute, however, about the incredible influence of Mr. Kristol on not just the conservative movement but also the country as a whole.

Mr. Kristol will probably best be remembered for his quip that “neoconservatives” are former liberals like himself who were “mugged by reality.” Perhaps his greatest legacy was the vital role he played in shaping the intellectual force of former President Ronald Reagan’s two defining issues: defeating the “evil empire” and strengthening America through supply-side tax cuts.

Mr. Gingrich said in his “own development I was profoundly impressed by two Wall Street Journal articles by Mr. Kristol about ‘The Stupid Party’ and ‘The Future of the Republican Party.’

“These two articles were published in 1976 and they created the framework for the Ronald Reagan-Jack Kemp positive solution-oriented Republicanism which won so decisively in 1980,” Mr. Gingrich said.

“Our Republican ‘Contract With America’ in 1994 was in many ways built on Kristol’s insights,” Mr. Gingrich said.

Fighting communism was the cornerstone of Mr. Kristol’s rightward shift. Nearly three decades before Mr. Reagan was elected president, Mr. Kristol wrote the highly controversial essay “Civil Liberties, 1952 - A Study in Confusion” in which he chastised Hollywood liberals for stonewalling security investigations - including those by Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy - into communist subversion in Tinseltown. The resulting furor was so intense that he reportedly sought solace for a time in Europe.

Just as he saw defeating the Soviet Union as a moral imperative for securing the homeland, Mr. Kristol believed that fostering prosperity was critical. He called economic growth the “sine qua non for the survival of a modern democracy.” In his 1979 book “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” Mr. Kristol praised capitalism for being “congenial to a large measure of personal liberty.”

After Mr. Reagan left office, Mr. Kristol’s arguments continued to resonate. When the Republican Congress, under the leadership of Mr. Gingrich, finally passed a welfare reform bill that was signed by President Bill Clinton, Mr. Kristol’s mark on the legislation was unmistakable.

His journey from Trotskyite to cheerleader for capitalism happened not because he wanted different ends, but because he believed the means employed by the welfare state actually harmed lower classes, instead of helping them. By framing welfare reform as beneficial to recipients, ending the “cycle of dependence,” Republicans finally won the war on an issue that was once exclusively the domain of liberal Democrats.

Without achieving a mass audience, Mr. Kristol enjoyed enormous influence. From his early days as an editor of Commentary, which initially was a liberal publication, to the founding of the “neoconservative” Public Interest magazine, Mr. Kristol and his stable of writers were must-reading in Washington’s elite policymaking circles.

This is not to say that Mr. Kristol was firmly ensconced in the ivory tower. In his provocative 1984 essay, “Whatever Happened to Common Sense?” Mr. Kristol blamed sociologists and criminologists for creating a “criminal justice system that was supposed to reduce criminality but has instead caused it to proliferate wildly.”

Mr. Kristol is survived by his wife, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom he married in 1942, their two children, William Kristol of McLean and Elizabeth Nelson of Charlottesville, and five grandchildren.

He also left a notable legacy, having played a direct role in shaping the policies that defeated communism, overhauled the welfare state and ushered in an unprecedented period of prosperity in American history.

“Irving’s love of ideas, zest for life, and enthusiasm for solid passionate arguments never waned,” Mr. Gingrich said.

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