The Magazine

My Irving Kristol and Ours

What the master taught his apprentices.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By MARY EBERSTADT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A young woman came by to visit the Policy Review offices a few weeks ago. Fresh out of a prestigious graduate school, enamored of both philosophy and creative writing, she'd been sent by a mutual friend and was looking for work. How, she wondered, might someone who loved reading and writing, but had no background in publishing or anything else of professional relevance, break into what used to be called "the higher journalism"--and make a living at it?

Though not exactly the stuff of Proust's madeleine, her question did send me wandering back in time. Twenty-five years ago, in 1984, I'd been a girl much like her--straight out of college with similar interests and questions, as eager to make a mark as a writer as I was unqualified for any such thing. Unlike her, however, I'd gotten lucky--about as lucky under the circumstances as it was possible to be. Back when I was in her shoes, I'd had the fantastic good fortune of putting that same question--and as it later turned out, many more as well--to an already legendary writer and editor named Irving Kristol, who died last week at the age of 89.

"More than anyone alive, perhaps, Irving Kristol can take the credit for reversing the direction of American political culture." These words taken from the Nation a few years back signal the Irving Kristol the world knows best: the godfather of neoconservatism. As that other titan of neoconservative thought, Norman Podhoretz, has suggested, "grandfather" may be the better label, given the generations of writers influenced by that family of ideas. For years now, at least since Peter Steinfels's 1979 book The Neoconservatives, articles and books and documentaries--including several essays by Irving himself--have wrestled with the question of his singular and manifold influence, in the process turning Kristol-gazing into a minor industry of its own.* Cold Warrior, ex-Trotskyist, coeditor with Stephen Spender of Encounter, coeditor with Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell of the Public Interest, founder with Owen Harries of the National Interest, public intellectual for nearly seven decades, contributor during those same years to the most influential journals and magazines of the day, from Commentary and the New Leader half a century ago to the New York Times Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, member of countless boards and all-around intellectual impresario: These are just some of the faces of Irving with which critics and fans alike must reckon.

Yet if history has given us two, three, many Irving Kristols, it has also stinted on the Irving whom I and many other people were privileged to know best. That is the amusing, avuncular, sometimes delphic boss we saw day in and day out thanks to the unique system of apprenticeship that he devised for the Public Interest. For almost two years between 1983 and 1985, I was one of the interns privileged to toil for great profit (if little salary) in the tiny, smoky, one-room magazine office in New York--that "halfway house," as David Skinner accurately dubbed it in these pages a few years ago, "for dozens and dozens of young assistants, who typically arrived fresh out of college and stayed a year or at most two before leaving for grad school, or government, or other jobs in journalism."

Only slightly larger than a college dormitory room, that Public Interest office was as stuffed with manuscripts and books and magazines as it was with people maneuvering around all the obstacles, including two or three interns, a managing editor, Irving's longtime (and universally adored) secretary Rita Lazzaro, and of course Irving himself, issuing a steady stream of wisecracks, phone calls, and dictated correspondence into the chaos. There were also the phones ringing on everyone else's desks, the banging Selectric II typewriters, the coffee cups, ashtrays, and cigarettes; some of the interns (like Irving too, back then) puffed away incessantly. Everyone including the boss ate lunch at their desks most days, adding further to the clutter and assault on the senses; and any authors or other hapless types visiting the magazine were further shoehorned into our hazy, bustling little office cubby. In truth, an environment more inimical to concentration and privacy can scarcely be imagined. On the other hand, as many were to find out, neither could a more fascinating or rewarding place to pass the days.