'Mugged Liberal' Kristol's Ideas Reshaped Lives

Sept. 21 (Bloomberg) — Does neoconservatism pass with Kristol? That's the question some are asking after the death of Irving Kristol last week at 89.

To recall Kristol isn't to recall decline, but rather to remind that neoconservatism, or something like it, actually has a vibrant future.

First, though, it's important to remember that what made Kristol Kristol was the sophistication of his commentary. Editors and TV producers today reward timely patter, but reject philosophy as tendentious. As a result it's easier to remember a columnist or TV anchor's hairline than what he said.

Kristol's comments, by contrast, stood out so much that they obscured the man. Many are reconnecting Kristol with his most famous remark, that a neoconservative is a "liberal mugged by reality." Many of us know the quote without remembering the author.

Second came Kristol's prophesies. Today both Democrats and Republicans are intensely concerned about a problem perceived as new: the interest-group nation, in which competing teams vie to see what they can get in terms of subsidy from Washington. This competition seems to drive all of us now, whether the fight is over a corporate tax break, the earned income tax credit, or a break we get when we turn in our clunker.

Kristol anticipated a nation on the take in a New York Times article, "From the Land of the Free to the Big PX." He summed up: "The people see the government as a mechanism for the satisfaction of their desires and appetites; the government inches delicately along the lines of least resistance, seeing the people as a congeries of blocs to be appeased, cajoled, or stimulated, as the occasion prescribes."

Elevating Others

It would be hard to come up with a better description of the White House's behavior during the construction of this past spring's stimulus bill, yet that line was penned in 1964.

Spotting the idiosyncratically singular "congeries" in a piece of political commentary reminds us of another Kristol strength. When it came to language, the man elevated others rather than going down to them. He didn't use big words to sound educated; but he refused to forgo precision in order to avoid seeming elitist.

Most commentators start out as egotists and get worse with time; the enfant terrible who is more of an enfant at 60, 70 or 80. These days, each application of television face powder perpetuates that dynamic.

Kristol started out as the original enfant terrible — and grew up. He routinely poked fun at the sanctimony of intellectuals who manufactured panics in order to exaggerate the importance of their message. When colleagues hyped the extent of U.S. anti-Semitism Kristol countered: "The danger facing Jews today is not that Christians want to persecute them, but that Christians want to marry them."

Academic Vanities

Kristol also pointed out the destructive vanities of his fellow academics: "No modern nation," he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1967, "has ever constructed a foreign policy that was acceptable to its intellectuals."

Many scholars write in magazines in order to be read by others. Kristol created magazines in order to give others a place to write. Early on he helped to establish Encounter, in the U.K., with Stephen Spender. In the U.S. he founded Public Interest.

Beyond the magazines there were the authors he advanced from his role as publisher at Basic Books. In multiple anthologies, the Kristol byline appeared not as writer but of aggregating editor. For decades young people who passed through his office left, if not with a job prospect, then at least feeling they might find one in the community Kristol had shown them existed.

Rare Magnanimity

Such magnanimity is rare today. To find someone work because he's a good fellow — to create a job for him — sounds like cronyism. Today applications are made online and rejected by human resources department with e-form letters about cutbacks.

Kristol's method was sound enough to yield a record few HR departments can match. Two Kristol proteges enriched my own life: the publisher Erwin Glikes, whom Kristol hired at Basic Books, and Robert Bartley, of the Wall Street Journal.

Most families have room for only one superstar, upon whom the rest wait. It is to Kristol's undying credit that his family had three: Kristol himself, his scholar spouse Gertrude Himmelfarb, and their son, Weekly Standard editor William.

Those who deem Kristol's death purely a Republican footnote forget that the neocons were once progressives put off by a movement they helped build.

Disaffected Democrats

The mood among Democrats today resembles the mood among Democrats in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that moment when neocons coalesced. Now, as then, the faithful find themselves shocked at the realization their own friends turn out to be constructing a new establishment, a cynical "congeries," to use that Kristol word.

In the coming months and years younger minds will be looking for a new leader. That leader probably will find a description for himself other than "neoconservative." But he — that's the generic, Kristolean he, which encompasses both genders — will find he succeeds best by imitating Kristol.

(Amity Shlaes, author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression" is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2009 Bloomberg

Available for order:

To book Amity Shlaes for a speaking engagement, contact Jamie Brickhouse at the Red Brick Agency, 646.281.9041.
Recent Articles
Free Markets Can Appeal to the Working Class
National Review
December 3, 2020
Biden's Dangerous Central-Planning Ambitions
National Review
November 24, 2020
Episode 41: Coolidge Not Silent Any More
National Review
October 28, 2020