Wilfred M. McClay
I cannot claim to have known the late Irving Kristol very well. But each encounter was memorable, and none more so than the last, in May of 2009. It was at a crowded and noisy reception at the Warner Theater, prior to Leon Kass’ presentation of the annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Irving’s health had been gradually declining for a long time, and he was by then wheelchair-bound and sitting on the sidelines. But he would not have missed the occasion of his close friend’s important lecture and clearly was enjoying himself, even though he was nearly deaf.
He seemed to accept such symptoms of physical decline with remarkable equanimity, even humor. As his son Bill relates in his lovely foreword to The Neoconservative Persuasion, a posthumous selection of his essays, when Irving would lunch with his colleagues Irwin Stelzer and Charles Krauthammer, sometimes at the end of one of their debates he would advise them, “I can’t hear what you’re saying. So I make it up. And,” he added, smiling, “sometimes you disappoint me.”
I knew conversation with him on this occasion would not be easy and might end up disappointing us both. Still, I had a feeling the opportunity might never come again, and so I presumptuously knelt down at his side and spoke directly into his ear. He didn’t seem to mind in the least.
My question was as follows. Here we were now, four months into the Obama administration, far enough to see pretty clearly where the new president and his large congressional majorities intended to take the country: among other things, toward a greatly enlarged public sector with vastly expanded regulatory and administrative roles for the federal government in industry, energy production, education, banking, environmental protection, medical care, trade, and virtually every other important aspect of the economy.
For those of us who had lived through the tumults and frustrations of the seventies, a heyday of ineffective governance and economic torpor, such a litany of top-down, command-economy measures seemed like a return of the repressed, as if all the vital lessons of those dreadful years were being cast aside in favor of a mindless embrace of hoary statist delusions that had already amply proven their inadequacy. How, I wondered, did Irving feel about this development? Were we in fact going backward? Would we have to relearn the same lessons all over again?
“Of course we will!” he exclaimed without hesitation, smiling as ever, eyes flashing. “The younger generation never learns much from the past.” A pause, and then a more direct gaze. “But you hope it learns eventually.” And it struck me both then and now how perfectly these simple words distilled his outlook on life: skeptical, realistic, historically aware, unillusioned, and yet, despite it all, hopeful. I heard no hint of condemnation in his words, since he was speaking of all younger generations, very much including his own. He was stating a fact about the human condition, not hurling moral thunderbolts of disdain or prophetic admonition, and he spoke with a rueful smile, not a bitter snarl or sighing resignation or—least of all—anything remotely resembling despair.
He had long ago concluded that it was pointless to expect people to be better than they were and then to be angrily disappointed in them for failing to meet unrealistic expectations. He believed in the sobering and restraining importance of experience, both as a residuum of hard-won traditional knowledge and as the ultimate proving ground for the new and untested. And yet, notwithstanding his skepticism and his sense of life’s contingency, there also was an irrepressible buoyancy about him, a kind of animal vitality born of hopefulness that kept him in motion and engaged and curious. It impressed me that he said “we” will. He did not speak as if he were checking out any time soon. But he did imply rather strongly that the task facing us was going to be one of general moral renewal and not merely one of winning political battles.
All of these qualities of mind and character come shining through in The Neoconservative Persuasion, a collection of Kristol’s essays ranging across sixty-four years, most of them previously unpublished in book form, ranging from his early contributions to a forgotten magazine called Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought to his valedictory words at the close of the career of his most important enterprise, the journal called The Public Interest. The range of subjects and authors he takes under consideration in these essays is staggering, from Tacitus to W. H. Auden, from supply-side economic theory to Jewish theology, from obscenity to the future of NATO, from Machiavelli to welfare reform.
Most astonishing of all is the high degree of pertinence that so many of these essays have for the present moment, despite the occasional or impermanent circumstances for which they were originally composed. Very few of them seem dated, and then only in very incidental and unimportant ways. They seem to have matured rather than aged.
This collection is welcome for another reason. Irving Kristol the writer has been consistently underestimated, and in two different ways. First, because he is often seen as more important for the institutions he built than for the things he wrote. He may well have seen himself in that same way, having concluded at the start of his career that all the most important innovations in modern intellectual history had come out of small, intently focused groups: circles, schools, salons, sects, metaphysical clubs, and the like. He realized that the task before him, which could be described as the defense of liberal society against its own excesses, would require the creation of something similar, an incubator and testing ground for the ideas that would become neoconservatism: a label for the distinctive intellectual “persuasion” that he will always be identified with.
“I decided that I wanted to create a salon,” he once told me, and that was just what he did. All the magazines he edited, most notably The Public Interest, and all the institutions he helped sustain, most notably the American Enterprise Institute, were that salon, an archipelago of gathering places where those who were like-minded, but not too like-minded, could have fruitful conversations and exchanges leading to enlivened inquiry and intellectual breakthroughs. It is not entirely surprising that emphasis on his achievements as an intellectual place maker should crowd out consideration of his own writing.
Kristol’s writings have been underestimated also because he was a man of ideas who had the ability to write simply, directly, and pithily about them. He had an uncanny ability to cut through the incidentals and accidentals of a matter, go right to its center of gravity, and grasp hold of it in clean, epigrammatic phrases. This is a rare and remarkable gift and yet one that is almost guaranteed to produce detractors in the world of ideas. He did not suffer from the academic’s addiction to parades of ever greater levels of complexity or to making arguments from authority while using jargon and willfully opaque verbiage. He weighed issues with great care and had a phenomenal ability to read and absorb and distill a wide range of often highly technical writing. But in the end, what he wrote was, like his words at the Warner Theater, often disarmingly direct, presented without qualifications or escape clauses, so much so that he often fooled those who confuse erudition with wisdom.
In addition, The Neoconservative Persuasion provides an excellent reminder, very badly needed, of the essential core of neoconservatism, a “persuasion” that has become so widely misunderstood, and sometimes willfully so, that a return to the original sources seems long overdue. Many on both the right and the left now dismiss it breezily as if it were nothing more than a crusading and neocolonial ideological commitment to the universal imposition of liberal democracy, particularly in the Middle East, heedless of the imperatives of culture and history. But for Irving Kristol, who in any event wrote mainly about domestic matters, it was always a vastly more complicated and nuanced thing.
In the beginning, he saw it not as a root-and-branch repudiation of liberalism in all its aspects but as a corrective to the destructive effects of liberalism run amok, an outlook that presumed the fundamental sobriety and humane good sense of a very moderate and culturally conservative form of liberalism. A neoconservative was, in the famous formulation, a liberal who had been “mugged by reality”—something that purer conservatives could not (and would not be likely to) claim for themselves. When Kristol and the late Daniel Bell started The Public Interest in 1965, they did so in reaction to the effects of bad political and social-scientific ideas that were taking their turn in the saddle of American political and intellectual life, such as the sentimentalization of poverty or the sensationalized fear of “automation.” But the project quickly grew beyond its origins. By the seventies, many of the overblown hopes of the postwar era, and particularly of the sixties, had come crashing down, in the form of chronic economic stagnation, swelling welfare rolls, endemic urban crime, and, on a deeper level even than these admittedly serious problems, a general loss of confidence in the American way of life and the American future, in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. The steady increase in these pathologies, the ever expanding list of America’s economic, diplomatic, cultural, and spiritual woes, became The Public Interest ’s bread-and-butter subject.
But The Public Interest and the neoconservatism it embodied were not merely a means of saving liberalism from itself, even if that motive contributed a great deal to their founding energies. They were also a modernizing and enlivening contribution to newly emerging, and as yet intellectually spotty and politically ineffectual, American conservatism, showing it how one might employ the tools and vocabularies of the social sciences to make conservative perspectives on social policy more widely persuasive. Both neoconservatives and traditional conservatives might deplore the ill effects of exploding rates of illegitimacy and single-parent families, facilitated by vastly misguided social policies; but it made a huge difference whether the opposition was expressed strictly in abstract philosophical or theological terms or in concrete and quantitative form, carefully correlating causes and effects, substituting numbers for impressions and statistics for anecdotes. In addition, neoconservatism, particularly as Irving Kristol practiced it, concerned itself with “the relation of our religious-moral traditions to the secular-rationalist culture that has been imposed upon them,” a concern that one sees consistently expressed over the entire span of Kristol’s long and productive writing career, beginning with his essays in the 1940s on subjects such as Auden, Ignazio Silone, and “the myth of the supra-human Jew.”
Kristol did not see himself as writing for the ages, and neither did he see neoconservatism as a permanent addition to the intellectual firmament. Instead, he saw it as a passing and generational phenomenon, claiming in his essay “An Autobiographical Memoir” (1995) that neoconservatism had by then been “pretty much absorbed into a larger, more comprehensive conservatism,” no longer warranting identification as something separate and distinct. He may or may not have been right about this. There may be a case to be made for the continuing distinctiveness of the neoconservative persuasion, which rests far more comfortably in the lap of modernity than does the older conservatism, being more accepting (for example) of the principle of equality, or of the mild regulation of the market economy, and accepting, if only because they have become “facts on the ground,” the necessity for many reforms (such as Social Security) that traditionalist conservatives had routinely anathematized. As one familiar formulation has it, neoconservatism accepts the New Deal but rejects the Great Society—or, to put it more precisely, it insists on pointing out the latter’s unintended but inevitable consequences. Neoconservatism could have been a much-needed Dutch uncle—a Jewish Dutch uncle—to American liberalism. But too many liberals insisted, and still insist, on seeing those two reform movements as sequential expressions of the same thing, and insist on judging social policies by their benign intent rather than their lamentable effects. Neoconservatism’s merger with conservatism may seem inevitable, but it really wasn’t.