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
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