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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So was the Public Interest's salary, which was so low that it was practically guaranteed to jump-start our literary ambitions. To be fair, the workload of a quarterly journal was light enough for Irving to grant us the boon of a four-day work week. But those Fridays off were meant to be used productively, reading and writing. Interns were expected to publish--if not in the PI then elsewhere, and if not for literary glory then because it was the only way of paying the rent. Getting a piece into the hallowed precincts of Norman Podhoretz's Commentary (where Norman's deputy Neal Kozodoy policed the pages with a legendary editorial ferocity) was a particular coup for those who managed it; so too was any appearance in Bob Tyrrell's American Spectator or Bob Bartley's Wall Street Journal. Writing and publishing as Irving expected his interns to do also meant making more connections in the wider world, of course. It was this fact, and not the sinister imaginings of subsequent critics of some neoconservative "cabal," that helped Irving's apprentices end up where they did.

Fortunately for us, Irving could no more help teaching young people than we could help taking his extraordinary interest in us for granted. Be brief: This was something we learned (or tried to) from Irving's dictations; long before email and instant messaging, his many letters covering all kinds of ground were typically just one or two sentences long. About editing: Always just cut the text if you have to, he advised, never add to what's there. How well he understood that most writers over-think and over-write, typically burying the lamp of their thought under bushels of dead words. About responding to critics en masse in a published venue: When answering letters written in response to something you've written, don't use the authors' names. Just lay out their common themes. That way you won't get caught up personally and can just stick to the ideas.

He taught a thing or two about religion and philosophy, too, to the long line of twentysomethings, some of whom outside the office lived a creed of personal nihilism whose origins he understood better than we did. A student of Gnostic movements throughout history, he recognized far better than we their reappearance on the world stage in modern and postmodern guises. "Think right, live left," we used to joke--though not around Irving; it was, we sensed, probably the one joke he wouldn't have shared.

In fact, though, he seemed to find just about everything else amusing--including some things that we interns did not think amusing at all, such as our all-too-serious ambitious young selves. This brings us to another fact about Irving's intern program: It worked because of his profound understanding of what young people are made of. He knew--and often wrote about--just how deeply modern and postmodern mores had penetrated into young souls. Decades before anyone but George Gilder and Midge Decter were saying so, he knew also that the sexual revolution had been a nearly unmitigated disaster for many people and their families, especially though not only the poor, and especially though not only young women. He knew, in other words, just how consequential the social changes from the 1960s on had been for one particularly vulnerable subset: the young.

That was how he could speak with such authority about "their turbulent sexuality, their drug addiction, their desperate efforts to invent new 'lifestyles,' and their popular music, at once Dionysiac and mournful." I remember those words leaping from the page upon reading them years later. In New York in the 1980s, new wave and punk rock were still reigning but on the way out, hip-hop and techno on the way in, and like everyone else I'd spent plenty of time slumming in clubs and other waystations of the popular culture, imbibing nihilism. Yet here was Irving, a 65-year-old bookworm who probably couldn't have found CBGB's if he were dropped off in front of it on a Friday night (and certainly wouldn't have gone in if he had), managing a decade later in just a few words to speak more truth about the scene than any of its itinerant habitués.

Irving understood what few in our post-authority age understand, which is that a great deal of contemporary youthful anomie is a cry of frustration against the disappearance of orthodoxy itself--and a substitute search for something higher than the low down, dirty, stifling counterculture. "Young people," he observed to a group of divinity professors and students back in 1979, "do not want to hear that the church is becoming modern. Go tell the young people that the message of the church is to wear sackcloth and ashes and to walk on nails to Rome, and they would do it." Furthermore, "young people, especially, are looking for religion so desperately that they are inventing new ones. They should not have to invent new ones; the old religions are pretty good." These knowing words, incidentally, were written on the cusp of the evangelical explosion, and well before the unforeseen turn to neo-orthodoxy by small but significant numbers of young Catholics and Jews.

Working for Irving at the Public Interest was an education in other unexpected ways. In particular, it left most of us permanently immune to at least two prominent stereotypes about neoconservatism that have been making the fevered rounds of commentary ever since. One of these was the charge that those on the right were somehow in it for the money--that nefarious corporate largesse rather than actual conviction accounted for the swelling ranks of young neoconservatives and conservatives. Two-thirds of my Public Interest salary, I remember smartingly to this day, went to rent a fifth-floor walk-up in a neighborhood that kids today would call "sketchy" if they were given to understatement. During those years the assistant editors lived off the free lunch Irving provided at Hamburger Heaven (often eating like trenchermen to make the food last into the night) and, many nights, on the free meatballs at happy hour at O'Lunney's bar on Second Avenue. Sometimes for entertainment in the most thriving city on earth, we'd get together and play the board game Jeopardy late into the night--because at least that was something we could do for free. (When one of the players, John Podhoretz, became an actual Jeopardy champion years later, it was clear that something good had come from our penury.) So much for the neoconservative gravy train!

Irving and his wife Bea, for their part, lived in an inviting and book-stuffed apartment near the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South--in which cozy quarters they made a habit of generously entertaining the interns alongside established writers and other prominent guests. For that reason among others, Irving's interns felt as warmly toward Bea Kristol as they were simultaneously in awe of her public persona, Gertrude Himmelfarb, historian. Irving himself encouraged such intimidation via his omnipresent adulation of her; he made sure we interns were aware of her many distinguished works, and remarked more than once in the office that in a hundred years' time, Bea would be the intellectual whose oeuvre would be left standing. Like Midge Decter, whose offices at the Committee for the Free World were at that time another hangout for young conservatives in New York, Bea took both a personal and an intellectual interest in Irving's apprentices, reading our fledgling writing and unfailingly extending to all the pleasure of her conversation and company.

A couple of times a year the mail would bring individual invitations, set out in Bea's perfect and perfectly tiny handwriting, for a soirée at the Kristols' apartment. There the office team got to meet the regulars on their social and intellectual list--Walter and Irene Berns, Martin and Sydnee Lipset, Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert Nisbet, H. J. Kaplan, Roger Starr, George Will, Bob Bartley, and many other writers and editors who would be influencing ideas and politics for years to come. And these are just names from an aperture of two years in the mid 1980s; one can only imagine the parade in full across the decades. Also in the Kristols' apartment, of course, the PI interns met the rest of the family. Their children Bill and Liz knew most everyone on the masthead, and many interns over the years became personal friends. Such are among the true and apparently terrifying origins of the "neoconservative media machine" that has since given so many swooning critics a case of the vapors.

The second stereotype that anyone who actually worked around Irving finds very funny in retrospect is the conflation of neoconservatism with Zionism. Going through piles of mail in the hobbity Public Interest office, one would occasionally come across a crazy letter--the kind that, back before email made all communications look alike, was identifiable by caked glue and cutout letters, say, or elaborate scrawling script running over both sides of the envelope (always a bad sign). Often such missives turned out to be passionately executed exercises in anti-Semitism, undertaken by correspondents who knew all too well that somewhere between the Trilateral Commission and the Public Interest offices lurked a conspiracy of Jews trying to rule the world. In fairness to them, of course, these correspondents may just have been ahead of their time; after all, any number of authors complaining about neocons in recent years have managed to make related, feverish cases, and in some of the best publications--rather than, say, in red magic marker on a dirty envelope.

Sometimes whichever intern was lowest on the totem pole would read aloud these ravings about how the Public Interest magazine was the red-hot center of one or another Jewish conspiracy--a ritual that we junior editors found all the more entertaining since most of us during those particular years were cradle Catholics. If the offices of neoconservative magazines really were what so many hysterical critics before and since have insisted, i.e., treacherous tools doing Israel's bidding, it was clear from the kind of people working in them that these Jews must be a lot dumber than their enemies otherwise seemed to think.

A one- or two-year berth at the Public Interest also enabled the apprentices to study Irving Kristol in one other way that demands to be mentioned, because it is the most significant of all: as a writer and man of letters par excellence, a virtuoso of his chosen literary form.

None of which is to say that Irving comported himself thus. As Nathan Glazer notes in his essay in The Neoconservative Imagination, Irving himself never kept track of his own publications, and "responded with disdain that he keeps no bibliography of his writing, that he leaves that to the scholars, who do indeed keep coming up with pieces he has forgotten" (it is one of many virtues of that book that compiler Mark Gerson has appended his own best stab at a thorough bibliography at the end). Nor did Irving write books proper, which might have made following his chain of thought somewhat easier (though he once told Tod Lindberg and me of having written, and then burned, a youthful novel). Rather, his chosen vessel throughout the decades was the essay--that deceptively limited-seeming form that is nevertheless, as Aldous Huxley once put it, "a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything."

And so Irving did, in one venue after another, as the piles of magazines around the office went to show--in Commentary, the Reporter, the New Leader, Encounter, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Magazine, and other venues where one could then measure out one's thoughts in thousands rather than mere hundreds of words. These essays are almost invariably pithy, but they stood on the shoulders of prodigious reading and learning. Irving read incessantly--not only magazines but books, and not only books but good and deep ones--as well as murder mysteries and English novels, Straussian arcana and business lore, everyone else's manuscripts, and a great deal else. That depth is part of why his essays reveal not one writerly virtue or two, but the whole tool kit: epigrams, irony, sustained logical argument, humor, dramatic closings, a knack for translating arcane points of argument into lively prose.

So many of Irving's one-liners have passed into the vernacular that even some of his admirers may not recognize their origins: "The major political event of the twentieth century is the death of socialism." "An intellectual may be defined as a man who speaks with general authority about a subject on which he has no particular competence." "The danger facing American Jews today is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them." "The enemy of liberal capitalism today is not so much socialism as nihilism." "Democracy does not guarantee equality of conditions--it only guarantees equality of opportunity."

Yet the flair on display in this body of work goes beyond such bons mots. His regular Wall Street Journal essays, for example, are easily among the best the newspaper has ever published, as are those he did for the New York Times Magazine. Many of his longer essays in the "higher journalism" genre, the ones that show up in the collected volumes, are truly great, far outlasting their immediate moments and capable of being read and re-read with profit long after whatever ostensibly occasioned them had passed from the scene. This is true whether the occasion was the American bicentennial ("Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism," 1976), say, or a chance gathering of professors and students of divinity ("Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism," 1979), or even--witness numerous articles on socialism and Freudianism--an entire intellectual movement.

In "God and the Psychoanalysts," for example--written in 1949, a moment when Freudian thought was preeminent, and decades before it would finally be forced into intellectual exile by the accumulated weight of criticism from all sides--Irving not only anticipates the coming psychoanalytic crackup, but also foresees why it is coming: because the understanding of human nature on which the Freudian edifice depends is itself fundamentally cracked. Man's "flight from God," he observed in this essay written six decades ago, "has also been a flight from his true self, which had been made in His image. So it was that Freud could build a theory of human nature on the basis of his experience with hysterics and neurotics." This fact, Irving could see clearly, was "a unique and strange achievement which testifies to our modern psychic equilibrium."

It is this gift for penetrating through any number of epiphenomena to the real fault lines beneath that transforms so much of Irving's writings from opinion pieces into lasting essays and at times profound meditations. Consider as one more example a Commentary essay written almost fifty years later, in 1994, humorously (if also bitingly) titled "Why Religion Is Good for the Jews." Ostensibly occasioned by a now-forgotten news blip--a prominent fundamentalist's remark that only Christians would get into heaven when the time came--it makes points far less transient than the event. First comes a gentle if rather obvious religious lesson ("As it happens, Jewish theological teachings do not recognize the doctrine of a second coming of Jesus (or a first), so it is hard to see why Jews should take such offense at these statements"). And second comes the inevitable wisecrack: "It is almost as if Jewish organizations, having fought (quite successfully) against Jewish exclusion from country clubs, now feel it necessary to take on the specter of discrimination in that Great Country Club in the Sky." Both moves are vintage Irving.

Reading through them again now suggests that two features of these essays have gone chronically under-appreciated by critics. One is the importance of religion to even his earliest thought. "I was born 'theo-tropic,'" Irving observes in his autobiographical memoir written in 1995, "and not even my dismal experience of a decadent orthodoxy could affect this basic predisposition." At another, earlier point in his writing he describes religion as always his favorite subject. It is from religion that Irving reasons time and again to the conservative conclusion that politics is not everything--one of several convictions unifying his thought across the years.

This fact also gives the lie to the frequently thrown contemporary jab about neoconservatism being somehow "messianic," an idiocy that no one actually reading the written record could pen with a straight face. Irving himself specified several times over the decades that neoconservatism was not a movement but a "persuasion" or "impulse" ("more descriptive than prescriptive," as he put it once). Moreover, his most explicit writing on the subject--his introduction to the 1983 collection Reflections of a Neoconservative--discusses several points he deems integral to neoconservatism, not one of which concerns foreign policy, which is where the bugaboo about "messianism" is typically lodged.

"The real trouble," he wrote in surveying American society for another jewel of an essay, a 1972 piece called "About Equality,"

is not sociological or economic at all. It is that the "middling" nature of a bourgeois society falls short of corresponding adequately to the full range of man's spiritual nature, which makes more than middling demands upon the universe, and demands more than middling answers. .  .  . [The critics of bourgeois society] may speak about "equality"; they may even be obsessed with statistics about equality; but it is a religious vacuum--a lack of meaning in their own lives, and the absence of a sense of larger purpose in their society--that terrifies them and provokes them to "alienation" and unappeasable indignation. It is not too much to say that it is the death of God, not the emergence of any new social or economic trends, that haunts bourgeois society. And this problem is far beyond the competence of politics to deal with.

If these are the words of a messianic thinker, then he is writing himself out of a job.

Similarly, not nearly enough has been made of Irving's sense of humor (perhaps not surprisingly, given the dour critics who have made themselves neoconservatism's Monday morning quarterbacks). Many essays sparkle with good-natured wit--as did Irving in person--and never more than when he is self-deprecating. "I really cannot believe that Americans are a historically unique and chosen people," he observes drolly in one example. "I am myself a Jew and an American, and with all due respect to the Deity, I think the odds are prohibitive that He would have gone out of His way to choose me twice over."

This comedic flair is evident early in Irving's writings. Two of his first Commentary essays are overt treatments of humor, one of them the magnificently wistful "Is Jewish Humor Dead?" (1951). Then there are the covert treatments. Another early essay in Commentary notes of some forgotten American humorists that "they may not be entirely out of mind, but they are quite out of print--deservedly so." Similarly, in an essay written in 1979 (itself slyly titled "Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed--Perhaps the Only--'Neoconservative' "), he issues his opinion of Peter Steinfels's The Neoconservatives thus: "I do not wish to suggest that the book is without merit. There is, for example, an excellent couple of sentences on page 4."

To write about Irving Kristol without understanding either his ineradicable respect for religion or his liberal sense of humor is like trying to describe food without tasting or smelling it. Facts not always being stubborn things, many self-appointed critics of neoconservatism have nonetheless done just that in absurdly offering up the portrait of a godless neoconservative ideologue. Even so, one suspects another, deeper reason for why certain detractors have failed to give Irving his literary due: their resentment of his longstanding and resolutely unapologetic attack on the counterculture and its legacy.

This is the Irving whom critics have truly wanted to hate: Irving the social conservative. As he put it in one 1993 essay that made waves called "My Cold War," what saddened him above all were "the clear signs of rot and decadence germinating within American society--a rot and decadence that was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism. .  .  . It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other. It cannot win, but it can make us all losers." Today, of course, many on the right as well as the left would drive social conservatives from the fold if they could. How quickly they have forgotten just which opinion writers consistently delivered the sharpest and most knowing critiques of modern morals during the past several decades--Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and other prominent neoconservatives. Social conservatism itself has been a bigger tent than is typically appreciated.

All of which brings us back to that little smoky office a quarter century ago. One day shortly before leaving the Public Interest for good, I was treated by Irving to one other rite of passage in the program, a lunch away from our desks at the New York Athletic Club. He mentioned something that seemed surprising--that, in the long run, he thought the internship program would prove more influential even than the magazine itself. I thought at the time he was referring to the careers that many of his former apprentices would go on to, and maybe he was. A quarter century later, though, I like to think that there may have been another, deeper way in which we interns had given something back to Irving.

After all, for years and years that one-room office amounted to a two-way eavesdropping street. In some sense that we didn't understand, we interns were all babbling Londoners to his pacing Dickens, the background voices to many a passing or written thought. Maybe listening to us was part of how Irving came to know what many people, including many people fighting over neoconservatism today, did not. The figurative kids of the world after the social revolutions of the sixties weren't quite all right after all--but they were worth trying to reach anyway, in whole or in part, one essay, one argument, at a time.

One afternoon in 1985 we were all sitting around the office when a call came in from one of the television networks. Someone was putting together a panel show on censorship, and they were interested in hearing Irving discuss one more essay that had turned into a lightning rod, "Pornography, Obscenity, and the Case for Censorship." Would Irving care to make an appearance on the show? they asked. No, he told them, Irving would not. Why not? Because, Irving deadpanned to us, he never did television. He had done it just once before and regretted it--because "when I saw myself on film, I couldn't believe it. I did not in fact look anything like what I know I look like, which is Cary Grant."

In a way that seems impossible to convey, he was just such an outsized, witty, urbane, and perpetually amusing gentleman to his apprentices--and by extension to the many other people he advised over the years, from his business students at NYU to the parade of writers and editors and politicians and more who sought his counsel. Such is even true of the readers who never knew him, but who found in his literary company a most agreeable and persuasive companion.

The critics who have charged neoconservatism with "selling out" its intellectual pedigree have gotten one thing right: Any writer following in Irving's footsteps would likely look inferior by comparison. But that does not make his intellectual heirs and beneficiaries wrong. When all is said and done about the contested particulars--the neocons, the magazines, the Jews, the Irvings both real and imaginary about whom his biographers may quarrel till the time comes when we find out who really does get into that Great Country Club in the sky--we are left with the same Irving who's been there all along. That's the writer whose lightning pen willed a whole new political world to life and made a great many people proud to consider themselves his fellow conservatives. Neither his personal nor his literary example will likely be matched in the higher journalism, or what's left of it, ever again.

Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, consulting editor to Policy Review, contributing writer to First Things, and author most recently of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism, forthcoming in spring 2010 from Ignatius Press.