The Magazine

My Irving Kristol and Ours

What the master taught his apprentices.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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I arrived on the fabled doorstep in 1983. At that moment Irving was 63, the magazine, which later moved to Washington, was still in New York and it was roughly halfway through a tenure as remarkable for its longevity (40 years) as for the enduring high quality of its pages. Like most such hopefuls who made their way to Irving, I'd been sent by someone else who knew the shop--in this case Jeremy Rabkin, a professor at Cornell--and also shared the same simple if grandiose ambition of the other interns: We all wanted to be writers when we grew up.

Unlike most of the other helpers hired for the place, though--and herewith my perversely unique credential for offering an essay about Irving--I was unqualified for any such thing: no published work whatsoever to my credit, no background in economics or public policy, no understanding of urban planning, welfare initiatives, or other subjects for which the magazine's pages were renowned. Similarly did I lack any editorial or fact-checking experience, unless one counts a job in college spent poring over the footnotes in that undiscovered masterpiece of opinion journalism, The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy. And when asked by then-managing editor Mark Lilla to produce a piece of writing for Irving to read, I proudly brandished one document that has probably never been used as an entrée to journalism either before or since: a 40-page college paper on "Immanuel Kant's Theory of Aesthetic Judgment." Book Three.

As Irving cheerfully pointed out during the job interview, such was not exactly the stuff of which Horatio Alger stories in journalism are made, and he further observed that he could see no good reason to hire me. But he just as cheerfully did it anyway, thus fortuitously throwing me into the company of a number of other apprentices who by contrast had begun making marks of their own. This cast in 1984 included Tod Lindberg, who had cofounded a magazine at the University of Chicago and was already a paid contributor to numerous magazines (and subsequently an author, columnist, newspaper editor, Hoover Institution research fellow, and now editor of Policy Review). Managing editor Mark Lilla would go on to become a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago (and, as it turned out, an itinerant professional critic of his former boss). Thomas J. Main, another assistant editor, had already transformed thinking in public policy circles about a critical social issue, with a seminal essay in the Public Interest on "The Homeless of New York."

Those both ahead of and behind us in the intern line showed similar seriousness of purpose. Foreign policy strategist Robert Kagan had passed through the place earlier, as had at various times Steven Lagerfeld (editor of the Wilson Quarterly), author and publisher Robert Asahina, defense expert Seth Cropsey, journalist and Reader's Digest editor Rachel Flick Wildavsky, the late magazine editor and author Michael Scully, and a slew of others launched into a life of journalism or politics or both by their time at the PI. The masthead in the years to follow would witness a similar procession: Richard Starr (now deputy editor of this magazine), columnist and author Diana West, speechwriter and political consultant Daniel Casse, and David Skinner, editor of the National Endowment for the Humanities' magazine Humanities, among others. All these and more had Irving Kristol to thank, whether they ever did so or not, for their first and formative experience of what it meant to read and edit and write their way into the world.

This track record is all the more striking because Irving's intern "program" was less an actual curriculum than a glorified system of learning in a far more effective way--mainly, by grappling with the work of the distinguished authors the magazine published, and by eavesdropping on Irving's dictation and phone calls in that teeny-tiny office. Such eavesdropping, consisting as it did of listening to Irving talk with some of the most interesting and influential people around, turned out to be essential to our crash course in journalism.