The obituaries got most of the facts right: that Irving Kristol’s death at the age of 89 marked the passing of one of the most important public intellectuals of the past 40 years; that he began his political life on the radical Left, with a brief stint as a Trotskyist; that his rightward journey over the decades from that starting point on the Left to the neoconservatism of which he became known as the Godfather blazed a trail that a fair number of other intellectuals, myself included, would subsequently follow; that his influence was exerted not only through his own writings in a variety of publications (Commentary prominently among them) but also through the Public Interest, the quarterly journal he founded in 1965 and edited until it ceased publication in 2005; that the ideas he shaped and disseminated through these channels contributed mightily to a change in the climate of American public opinion; that this in turn helped bring about the great change in our political culture that paved the way for the election of a candidate as conservative as Ronald Reagan; and that the effects of his work are still being felt.
All true. And yet, having been closely associated with Irving personally and politically for more than half a century, I was both surprised and disturbed by the picture of him that emerged from the many obituaries I read: surprised because they—and especially the one in the New York Times—were on the whole far more respectful than I would have expected, but disturbed because they exacted a heavy price for this respectful treatment in the form of a portrait that was considerably less true to the reality of Irving’s career than were the plain facts they compiled to trace the arc of that career. Indeed, this was the case even with many of the tributes paid to him by a host of grateful disciples.
As most of the obituaries pointed out, Irving in the flesh was relentlessly cheerful, in addition to being unfailingly amiable, generous, and kind. Charles Krauthammer rightly spoke in his column in the Washington Post of Irving’s “extraordinary equanimity” while, and also rightly, describing him as a “deeply good man who disdained shows of goodness, deflecting expressions of gratitude or admiration with a disarming charm and an irresistible smile.” On paper, Irving was just as consistently elegant, urbane, and very witty. The most famous of his hundreds of delicious witticisms, of course, was his definition of a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” But my own favorite is this one:
In the United States today, the law insists that an 18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic movie—but only if she is paid the minimum wage.
As is unmistakably evident from this one sentence alone, Irving’s writings did not reflect or embody his personal qualities. On the contrary, his essays were decidedly biting and carried a lasting sting. Which is to say that he was a polemicist, one of the best in a heavily competitive field. As such he was almost always on the attack, and the attack was almost always directed (as in the sentence I just quoted) against liberalism and liberals and all their works.
This was not the impres-sion conveyed by most of the obituaries, in which the amiability of Irving the man tended to be confused with the urbanity of Irving the writer. But judging by the rage he provoked in his liberal targets, they were never under any such illusion. If anything, the urbanity of his style only seemed to make them even more furious than a pugnacious tone would have done—so much so that for a long time Irving was perhaps the most hated of all critics of the liberal culture (a position now occupied by his son, Bill, the editor of the Weekly Standard,who holds it not through inheritance or nepotism but strictly in his own right and on merit alone).
To the extent that any notice was taken in the obituaries of how embattled Irving was, it was muffled by the blandness of words like controversial and provocative, along with an emphasis on his willingness to criticize his own side, as exemplified by a book in which he gave only “two cheers for capitalism” (a title, by the way, suggested to him by me).
One possible explanation for this lack of notice is that illness and the infirmities of advancing age had driven Irving from the field of battle in the last 10 years or so of his life, so that memories had dimmed of how it once stood with him. This was not the case with our mutual friend Bill Buckley, who, unlike Irving, died last year with his boots on. But also unlike Irving, Bill had mellowed in recent years, and it was probably this, rather than a faded remembrance of things past, that accounted for the surprisingly benign rash of obituaries occasioned by his death.
In any event, and not to put too fine a point on it, in the eyes of the liberal culture of which Irving and Bill, each after his own kind, were such powerful antagonists, the only good conservative is a dead conservative. In addition, in treating Irving respectfully, the mainstream media were implicitly making an invidious comparison with his successors and disciples, whom they have lately taken to attacking as intellectually inferior to the founding fathers of neoconservatism.
To be sure, some of those very neoconservatives have also used Irving to make implicitly invidious comparisons of their own in the service of the sectarian battle they have been waging against the populism of talk radio, Fox News, and Sarah Palin. Thus, in order to highlight the contrast between what they see as true conservatism and the demagoguery, the hysteria, and the know-nothing vulgarity they find in this new populism, they have praised Irving for the putative moderation of his thought, for his supposed ability to see both sides of an argument, and for his alleged readiness to concede a point to his opponents whenever he thought they had one.
For example, in a tribute to which he devoted one of his columns in the New York Times, David Brooks, who described Irving as “easily the most influential contemporary writer in my life,” extolled him in the following terms:
Irving Kristol was born into a fanatical century and thrust himself into every ideologically charged battle of his age. . . . The century was filled with hysterias, all of which he refused to join. There were fanaticisms, none of which he had any part in. . . . So while others were marching to barricades, picking out bits of the truth that confirmed their own prejudices, editing contrary evidence and working themselves up into a righteous lather, Kristol would adopt an attitude of smiling forbearance.
Well, this is certainly very eloquent, but try telling it to his liberal victims, for whom Irving’s smile signified not “forbearance” but yet another maddening resemblance to the Devil. (“One may smile and smile and be a villain,” they might have said with Hamlet.)
For the truth is that Irving was no moderate, nor was he the intellectual equivalent of a bipartisan politician. He had very strong views on a wide variety of subjects that he was ever ready to defend to the death, and he did so over and over again—boldly, trenchantly, brilliantly. Robert Bork once put it well: “Equivocation has never been Irving Kristol’s long suit.”
And there was another thing, which is that Irving was a wildly irreverent provocateur. This side of him went entirely unnoticed by the obituaries, perhaps because it rarely showed up in print. But in private, far from seeking a middle ground, he loved making outrageously radical statements that would invariably leave you befuddled, uncertain as to how serious he was being, and at a loss as to how to respond. Once, for instance, sitting beside me in a synagogue, he looked up from his prayer book and whispered, “You and I both know that this siddur needs editing.” Despite the mischievous twinkle in his eyes, and despite the impiety toward a hallowed tradition that was more in keeping with a radical mind than with a conservative disposition, I thought then, and I think now in retrospect, that he meant it. I think he also meant it when he—who could pack more into a book review than the author had managed to say in the book itself—suddenly told me, apropos of nothing and with a puzzling ring of self-satisfaction in his voice, that the time had come to banish book reviews from the back pages of all magazines. Furthermore, for all the urbanity of his tone, he was at bottom contemptuous of the opinions he was opposing (as I can testify from a thousand conversations with him, especially when we were on opposing sides of an issue, and as the holders of those opinions could sense only too keenly).
The point is that before all else and above all else, Irving was a great warrior on the battlefield of ideas and a great general in the political and cultural wars of our time. It is for this that he should be held up as a model, and it is for this (though not, of course, for this alone) that he should be honored, and that his memory should be for a blessing.