Honoring Irving Kristol

Posted: Jun 25, 2002 12:00 AM
Last Thursday, President Bush announced the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in his presidency. This is an award inaugurated by President Kennedy to honor civilians who have served their country in the arts, literature, sport, politics and other endeavors. I was pleased to see that among the recipients is Irving Kristol. He is listed in the presidential citation as "an author, editor and professor who is one of the leading intellectuals of his time." It goes on to say, "Mr. Kristol's writings helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the renaissance of conservative ideas in the last half of the 20th century." It is difficult to properly put into context the magnitude of Kristol's accomplishment in the revival of conservatism. He is less of an original thinker than, say, Russell Kirk or Friedrich Hayek. And he is certainly far less well known than Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review magazine, or even his son, Bill Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard magazine. Yet, in many ways, Irving Kristol's influence on conservatism has been as great as any of these. It is not an overstatement to say that only Ronald Reagan has done more to push America to the right over the last 30 years. Kristol's great strength was in understanding, more clearly than anyone else on the right side of the political spectrum at the time, the profound importance of intellectuals in the political process. He then took it upon himself to provide the Republican Party and the conservative movement with a cadre of like-minded intellectuals, who came to be called neoconservatives. These people were essential to the election of Ronald Reagan and the legislative success of many conservative policies since then. As with so many of the conservative movement's most sophisticated thinkers in the postwar era, such as James Burnham and Frank Meyer, Kristol came to the right from the far left. When he came of age, the left worshiped intellectuals, and most of them worshiped Marx. In the 1930s -- in the midst of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism -- Marxism, communism, Trotskyism and lots of other left-wing "isms" seemed to be the cutting edge, the wave of the future and the place to be for anyone who fancied himself an "intellectual." The first batch of left-wingers to turn right in the 1950s were mostly ex-communists, horrified by Stalin and naked Soviet expansionism. The second wave, which included Kristol, came around in the late 1960s in reaction to the excesses of the New Left and the growing wave of anti-Americanism among conventional liberals. He was their leader, and he showed them a halfway house out of the left by creating "neoconservatism." Eventually, Kristol was joined by such heavyweight intellectuals as Norman Podhoretz, Pat Moynihan and Daniel Bell. In a small journal called The Public Interest, which he still edits, Kristol sought out university professors with conservative views on particular public policy issues. They might not have been conservative on any other issue, but he got them to write articles about the one issue on which they were conservative. In this way, he created a solid intellectual foundation for things like supply-side economics, welfare and education reform, and many other conservative policies that have been enacted into law. Kristol was also an important middleman between New York-based foundations, corporations and media, on the one hand, and the Washington-based policy community and Boston-based university professors who made up the neoconservative movement. He found the money for Jude Wanniski to write his book, "The Way the World Works," the first on supply-side economics; encouraged Harvard professors like Martin Feldstein to write for The Wall Street Journal and not just for academic journals; and he published the first article by a young Washington policy analyst named David Stockman in The Public Interest. In the process, Kristol helped wean the Republican Party away from its instinctive anti-intellectualism, and make conservative views semi-respectable in academia and the press. This critical foundation, which Kristol put together in the 1970s, all came together with the Reagan campaign in 1980. The people and the policies Kristol had nurtured for a decade behind the scenes became Reagan's advisors and program. Neoconservatives helped flesh out Reagan's agenda and find a less threatening voice with which to promote conservative ideas, and defended him against intellectual assault from left-wing academics and their friends in the dominant media. For all these reasons and more, Irving Kristol well deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Bush is to be congratulated for awarding it.