Fighting Words

Farewell to the Godfather

Irving Kristol, 1920-2009

Irving Kristol

According to his obituary in theNew York Times, Irving Kristol once felt intimidated among New York intellectuals when he found himself seated with Mary McCarthy on one side, Hannah Arendt on the other, and Diana Trilling across from him. This standard—of intellect, to say nothing of other allures—was very much relaxed by the time he found himself placed next to me at a dinner at the Lehrman Institute in Manhattan in the mid-1980s. He didn’t trouble to conceal his disdain at this placement, which may have been a ploy by the host to corral the (then) most ferocious chain smokers at one end of the table. Determined to upset his likely expectation of me—I having hung onto a version of Trotskyism many years after he had discarded it—I inquired politely about his time in London as an editor of Encounter. Nursing at the CIA’s teat as it had done, the magazine was nonetheless a haven for some real writerly talent, and its offices were a place where one might meet the most interesting and unorthodox people. “You want to know what really struck me about the London ‘scene’?” he replied shortly. “How many homosexuals there were.” I knew what he meant, all right, and his reputation for brusqueness had preceded him, but this seemed designed to forestall further literary chitchat. We were soon enough onto politics, and once again he more or less shut me up by saying that he didn’t believe that Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine Jewish editor imprisoned without trial and tortured by the dictatorship, had actually undergone the experiences described in his book Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. I don’t recollect quite how the evening ended, but if we had parted with mutual expressions of esteem, I am sure I would have remembered it.

Irving Kristol’s great charm, in other words, was that he didn’t care overmuch for the charm business. Most of his celebrated quips and interventions had a tough-guy street feel to them, a manner probably retained from his Marxist days. Typical of him (and I think also truthful) was the claim that he hadn’t known about CIA funding for Encounter but wouldn’t have given much of a damn if he had known. As for the image of a neoconservative as a liberal “mugged by reality”: Once people got over their affected fuss about the possible innuendo in the word mugged, they reluctantly saw that Kristol had found a memorably demotic way of encapsulating the sad fashion in which utopianism can collide with brute facts about the human animal. The very word neoconservative, which was used, if not coined, by socialist Michael Harrington to describe his lapsed former comrades, was eschewed or ignored by most of its targets until Irving Kristol said, in effect, the hell with it, that’s what we are, let’s adopt the title for ourselves. I used to enjoy embarrassing secular Jewish Reaganites by taunting them for their alliance with the so-called Christian Coalition; I could have guessed that it would be Kristol who would write the essay saying that on many critical questions, from the family to Israel, these religious right-wing types had much to recommend them.

In those days, the label neocon had a special association with the name of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who tried to enforce a distinction between different kinds of dictatorship—authoritarian versus totalitarian—and who also ended up excusing what went on in Argentina. It’s interesting to contemplate the metamorphosis of the term, since neoconservatism has now become shorthand for those who are willing to use American force against dictatorships, from Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein. The end of the Cold War probably helped clarify this process by decoupling intervention from the danger of a nuclear “exchange” (such a word!) and also by reminding us that there was a continuing threat from regimes that were more fascist in their ideology and practice than they were Communist. It’s strange to think that many on the left have been slow to see the menace of one-party, one-state, or messianic systems.

Kristol was generally scornful of “the intellectuals,” but there was one intellectual temptation to which he was strangely prone. He was fond of emphasizing that the working stiffs were smarter, and better on the main points, than the educated. His son William (to whom condolences, as also to his widow, Gertrude Himmelfarb) was being especially filial when he came up with the term cultural elite to sneer at, among others, those who didn’t see the essential soundness of Dan Quayle. Yet Irving Kristol’s original breach with the socialist movement was his conclusion—drawn from his time in the Army—that “the masses” were pretty rough and tough and dangerous to know. His two great mistakes, a slight and often overblown but nonetheless unmistakable kind word for Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1952 and a vote for Richard Nixon two decades later, both arose from this confusion between the idealized little guy and what turned out to be the small man—and between “the people” and those who practiced populist manipulation of them. *

The neoconservative faction, or should we say movement, is generally secular and often associated with the name of Leo Strauss. Kristol was one of those who never minded saying that he was a Straussian, and Strauss is unusual among the pillars of American conservatism in having been decidedly skeptical about religious faith. Here again, Kristol appears to have been contradictory between an abstruse, elite intellectual and the popular will: If I understood him correctly, he believed that religion was a useful tool for making people behave well, quite independent of whether it was true or not. If that should turn out to have been a paradox with a dry hint of cynicism, he very probably derived relish from it.

Correction, Sept. 21, 2009: This column originally misstated that Irving Kristol cast a vote for Richard Nixon three decades after giving support in 1952 to Joseph McCarthy. Kristol’s vote for Nixon was in 1972, only two decades later. (Return to the corrected sentence.)