Irving Kristol, who died today at 89, was famously the godfather of neoconservatism, and he was the godfather of City Journal, too, having urged the Manhattan Institute’s then-president Bill Hammett 20 years ago to start a magazine. Ever practical and realistic, Irving knew that it wasn’t enough for conservatives to have good ideas; they also needed vehicles to communicate them. If the mainstream media—which in that pre-Internet era really had a monopoly on news and opinion—didn’t want to give conservatives a platform, there was no use complaining: we’d just have to start our own publications. Irving understood the power of ideas as well as anyone, but he also understood the power of institutions.
His own world-historically influential magazine, The Public Interest, bore Irving’s stamp of practicality and realism, indeed of realpolitik. It aimed, through its hard-headed emphasis on social-scientific data, to rise above mere theorizing and opinion into the realm of fact and proof. Ever the anti-utopian, in politics and in temperament, Irving was interested in the world as it is, not as some system wanted it to be. He’d had his youthful flirtation with left-utopianism and, disillusioned by experience, became a neoconservative—a liberal, as he defined it, who’s been mugged by reality. What he really meant, of course, was simply a liberal who’d been mugged—who’d seen that all the liberal, welfare-state ideals for the uplift of the poor, and especially the minority poor, had in the end produced a criminal underclass, exactly the opposite of the intended uplift. The good intentions counted for nothing with him and even sparked a certain dry contempt; it was the result that mattered.
For all The Public Interest’s hard-headedness, however, Irving—a New York Intellectual, after all—saw clearly the power of that very intangible reality, culture. He knew how perversely wrong Marx had been to think that economic relations mold the world, giving form even to our ideas. On the contrary, Irving understood, the ideas, beliefs, customs, virtues, even the prejudices that make up the tissue of our culture are the true shapers of reality. As he explained in his greatest essay, “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness,” which closes Two Cheers for Capitalism, Adam Smith, for all his greatness as an economist and philosopher, did not see how crucial to the functioning of markets as he described them was the Presbyterian culture of the Scotland that bred him, with its emphasis on probity, thrift, enterprise, and truthfulness. Even in the economic world, material reality is only part of the story.
As for virtue, how lightly and graciously Irving embodied it, in his storybook marriage to his intellectual equal, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, as a father to his accomplished children, and as a beloved, endlessly fascinating, convivial friend, as I, for whom New York became a poorer and duller place when Irving and Bea moved to Washington, can feelingly attest. He had a disabused, open-eyed optimism: when a huge crack opened in his pretty, nineteenth-century London living room when he was editing Encounter, he turned to Bea and said with a twinkle, “Well, that means we don’t have to worry about the children this year.” His generosity, especially to young conservatives, was legendary. It was partly a matter of policy, for nurturing the talented and finding them influential jobs is the way to build a movement. But it was even more an emanation of the sweetness of his temper and the depth of his humanity. I was complaining to him about New York’s plague of aggressive panhandlers back in the 1980s, and he said, “If someone is so in need that he asks me for money, who am I to determine what’s driven him to it? I always give something.” The reality he always had before him was the human reality.