Political writer and public intellectual Irving Kristol — a former Trotskyite who would break with the left and come to be known as the godfather of neoconservatism — died Friday in Washington. He was 89, and the cause of death was complications from lung cancer, The New York Times is reporting.
Here is an excerpt of an appreciation of Kristol by John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, which Kristol edited between 1947 and 1952:
The clarity of his thinking and the surety of his purpose were one and the same; they were immeasurably enhanced by a powerful curiosity for the way things worked and the ways in which things could be made to work better. His was a resteless intelligence, always on the move; there was not an idea he didn’t want to play with, and there wasn’t a new idea for a think tank or a magazine or a center for the study of something-or-other that didn’t excite him. He was a conservative by temperament and conviction, but he was an innovator to the depths of his being.
The number of institutions with which he was affiliated, or started, or helped grow into major centers of learning and thinking is hard to count. There is this institution, COMMENTARY, where he began working after his release from the Army following the conclusion of the Second World War. There were two other magazines in the 1950s, The Reporter and Encounter, which he helped found and whose influence on civil discourse was profound and enduring, even legendary. There was The Public Interest, the quarterly he co-founded in 1965 with Daniel Bell and then ran with Nathan Glazer for more than 30 years, which was the wellspring of neoconservative thinking on domestic policy issues. He helped bring a sleepy Washington think tank called the American Enterprise Institute into the forefront. And he made Basic Books into a publishing powerhouse that was, for more than 20 years, at the red-hot center of every major debate in American life.
Read the entire appreciation here.
Podhoretz noted that Commentary would be making available online the 45 articles that Irving Kristol penned for the magazine, between 1946 and 1994.
The editors of The Weekly Standard, whose founder and editor is Kristol’s son, William Kristol, released this statement on Irving Kristol’s passing:
Irving Kristol, writer, editor, and social philosopher, has died in Washington at the age of 89. His wisdom, wit, good humor, and generosity of spirit made him a friend and mentor to several generations of thinkers and public servants.
Kristol’s ideological formation and his political shift to the right is detailed in the 1998 documentary, “Arguing the World,” about four Jewish students who attended the City College of New York during the 1930s.
Read The New York Times obituary of Irving Kristol here.
Commentary magazine was established in 1945 and, before Monday, only changed its design three times, so the launch of this fourth iteration of the venerable conservative magazine with deep Jewish roots had a certain celebratory air to it. Extreme makeover, it was not. But even though the sit-down luncheon in a paneled room at the Harvard Club was as clubby as the address implies, it was sweet to see the way change comes to even those who proudly resist it.
There are now small headlines beneath the bigger ones. Some crisp ornamentation — no photographs or drawings, heaven forbid! The most radical departure was, in the words of editor John Podhoretz, “a little color, because life should not always be lived in black and white.” The conversation was, similarly, low-key and self-congratulatory — quite a feat given the fact that most of those in the room saw their president, their party, and their political ideology roundly defeated a few months ago. The subject was the future of conservative magazines and the outlook was pronounced cheerful. “Conservative magazines have flourished because the right actually loves its arguments,” said Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, with the kind of triumphal relish that seemed to prove his point.
Of course, some conservative magazines such as Commentary have also flourished because they are, in Podhoretz’s words “mission-driven” (translation: heavily subsidized) and don’t have to worry about actually making money. There was even an implication that putting forth strong and provocative ideas was way more important than hitting a bottom line of any sort. Could the champions of democratic capitalism really be dismissing the profit motive in service of a larger cause?
Stay tuned. In color.
Commentary editor-in-waiting John Podhoretz did some lively live-blogging of last night’s Democratic debate. His theme: The debate marked Hillary Clinton’s political funeral. And so Podhoretz said Kaddish and played “Taps” for her.
Here’s future Commentary editor John Podhoretz’s take on a recent interview that Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, gave to Time magazine:
He says he will refuse to shake Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s hand, even though he is a seeker after peace. He never says there will be peace with Israel, only “normalization,” and that this will only occur after Israel does every single thing he wants it to — and will not say there will be an exchange of ambassadors if that happens.
It’s helpful to look at the actual Time magazine interview to see that Podhoretz is spinning the prince’s words.
The prince did say of Annapolis, “I’m not going to be there for theatrical gestures of shaking hands that mean nothing.” But he also said, regarding shaking hands with the Israelis, “The hand that has been extended to us has been a fist so far. Once it opens for peace, it will be shaken.”
The prince also said: “We have made clear that peace means more than the end of hostilities. It means normalization. It means open borders. It means all those elements that normal human beings in one neighborhood act with together.” Asked a follow-up question about opening reciprocal embassies, the prince was evasive: “I hope we can imagine that they will withdraw, first of all. And that normalization will come after withdrawal.”
It’s certainly true that the peace process could benefit from some Sadat-like generosity on the part of the Saudis (though it’s worth remembering that they do have political considerations to take into account). But Podhoretz’s characterization is that of someone who is determined to see the Saudis’ intentions (and the prospects for Annapolis) in the worst possible light.
Commentary doesn’t wield the influence it once did (as our Alana Newhouse noted a few years back), but its pages continue to crackle with often intelligent, lively and provocative right-wing perspectives, as well as some of the most thoughtful writing on Jewish affairs that’s out there. Of course, it also publishes more than a few crazily bellicose articles on foreign policy (often penned by the elder Podhoretz).
In its heyday, Commentary rose to influence with sharp — and frequently necessary — critiques of left-liberal orthodoxies. At its best, Commentary has been invaluable. In recent decades, however, Commentary has all too often simply substituted the rigid orthodoxies of the neocon right for the dogmas of the left. At its worst, Commentary can be laughable.
Which side of the Commentary tradition will Podhoretz fils embrace? Given his work so far, I have my own prediction.