The Magazine

A Genius of Temperament

Joseph Epstein remembers Irving Kristol.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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As the last of the New York intellectuals depart the planet, it becomes apparent that Irving Kristol, who published less than most of them, had a wider and deeper influence on his time than all of them. Just how and why is not all that clear, but it is so. Nor is it clear how best to describe Irving. He wasn't a writer exactly, or at least not primarily; neither was he chiefly an editor, though he in fact edited some of the best intellectual magazines of his day. He wrote political journalism, but to call him a political journalist is severely to limit him. That baggy-pants term public intellectual doesn't do the job, either. He was over his lifetime associated with various institutions--magazines, universities, think tanks--but he always seemed somehow slightly outside of, somehow larger than, all of them.

Irving was the ultimate free-lance. If my father were alive, he would say of Irving Kristol that he worked out of his car, with the irony added that Irving, who grew up in New York to immigrant parents, never learned to drive. Sui generis was what Irving was--an amazing figure, whose like we shall probably not see again for the simple reason that no one quite like him existed before.

He wrote with clarity and force, subtlety and persuasiveness, but, unlike a true writer, didn't feel the need to do it all the time. He was a splendid speaker, non-oratorical, casual, off-the-cuff division: witty, smart, commonsensical, always with a point to make, one that one hadn't considered before. I recall once hearing Irving introduced by Christopher DeMuth in a room that had a large movie screen behind the speaker's desk. "I see," said Christopher, "that Irving has brought his usual full panoply of audio-visual aids." "Yes," replied Irving, "a cigarette," which he took out of his pocket and tapped on the desk before beginning to speak.

Irving's reigning intellectual note was that of skepticism. As an intellectual, he lived by ideas, but at the same time he greatly distrusted them. All ideas for him, like saints for George Orwell, were guilty until proven innocent. "Create a concept and reality leaves the room," Ortega y Gasset wrote, and my guess is that Irving would have seconded the motion. In the realm of ideas, he preferred those that existed in the world as it is as against those that had to be imposed by elaborate argument or government fiat.

At the same time, he liked to play with ideas. I remember a Chinese dinner with him at which he tried out the idea that Modernism in the arts was the devil's work. He meant the actual capital-D Devil. Was he serious? I'm not certain even now, but the discussion, in which Irving argued that Modernist art undermined tradition and as such human confidence in institutions, was provocative in the best sense, causing a true believer (that would be me) to defend Modernism by arguing that the best of it was based precisely on tradition.

Irving himself did not provoke. I never saw him angry. Polemical though he could be in his political journalism, I never heard him put down political or intellectual enemies in conversation. If I could have any of his gifts, it would be his extraordinary ability not to take things personally. Accusations, insults, obloquy, all seemed to bounce off him. He had a genius of temperament.

He also seemed to be without vanity. I never heard him claim credit for any of the things that obituarists are now claiming for him: helping to elect Ronald Reagan, launching neoconservatism, discovering youthful talent, and the rest of it. I never heard him quote himself, or remind other people of things he had written, or make any claims about himself whatsoever. I once told him that I thought Encounter, which he edited with Stephen Spender in London, and on which, I am certain, he did the lion's share of the work, was the best intellectual journal of my lifetime, but my praise appeared only to embarrass him. He didn't seem to wish to talk much about it.

Irving's specialty was the insertion of common sense into places where one wasn't accustomed to find it. He advised the young not to bring along a novel when being interviewed for a job, because, however mistakenly, it creates the impression of dreaminess. When Michael Joyce became the head of the Olin Foundation, with responsibility for doling out large sums of money, Irving, while congratulating him, told him that in his new job he could promise him two things: First, he would never eat another bad lunch; and, second, no one would ever speak truthfully to him again. I once gave a lecture on friendship in which I made the argument that we mustn't expect our friends to share our opinions, but look instead for something beyond mere opinion to that more important entity, point of view. Irving, who was in the audience, told me afterwards that I had a good point, and he agreed with it, "except of course for Israel and Palestine."

The older one gets as a writer the fewer people are around whose approval means much. Irving was one of those remaining people for me. When I heard that he took pleasure in my short stories, I was genuinely delighted. He once introduced me at a talk I gave at the American Enterprise Institute, saying that I was in the tradition of the cosmopolitan wits. I was so pleased by this that before beginning my talk I couldn't refrain from saying that being introduced in this way by Irving I felt as if I were Andy Williams introduced by Frank Sinatra saying this guy can really sing, or Rodney Dangerfield introduced by Charlie Chaplin saying this guy has some wonderful moves.

Irving was an extraordinarily selfless husband--a feminist in action if decidedly not in ideology. By this I mean that in Irving's biography, in the early 1940s, there is a lacuna, during which he took time away from his own then youthful career so that his wife Bea (who is of course Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian of Victorian intellectual culture) could do her graduate studies at the University of Chicago and later research for her doctorate in London. How many men, of whatever political views, would have done that 60 years ago?

Irving and Bea were the Nick and Nora Charles of American intellectual life. They were always on the case together. They had a marriage in which the question of equality seemed simply never to have arisen. Congruent in their opinions, perfectly joined in what they valued, they were as united as any couple I have ever known.

One of my fondest memories is of a panel at Harvard on which sat Irving, Michael Walzer, Martin Peretz, and Norman Podhoretz. I don't recall the subject, but only that Irving, without being the least pushy about it, dominated, lighting up the room with his easy wit and charming good sense. I looked over at Bea, who was sitting a few rows in front of me and to my left, and could see how utterly enthralled she was by her husband's brilliance. After more than 50 years of life together, she still had a crush on him. I didn't have the least difficulty understanding why.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His third collection of short stories, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff, will be published in 2010.