Matisse said he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman. Irving Kristol seems to have wanted his writing to have the effect of a good martini on a beleaguered corporate executive. The executive’s prejudices, widely scorned among the young and the educated in the 1960s and ’70s, when Kristol began offering this therapy, were eloquently reaffirmed; his feelings, wounded by impertinent criticism, were tenderly soothed; his conscience, feeble but occasionally troublesome, was expertly anesthetized. The executive’s gratitude knew no bounds; in return, he and his foundations showered their faithful servant with the money and favors that made Kristol so prominent a figure in American intellectual life.
Born in Brooklyn in 1920, Kristol attended City College in the 1930s. There he was part of an unusual cohort of left-wing students, avid readers of Trotsky and Partisan Review, an astonishing proportion of whom eventually became leading American intellectuals: Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset and Kristol, among others. After college, Kristol tells us in the engaging “Autobiographical Memoir” included in The Neoconservative Persuasion, a recently published collection of his essays, he became an apprentice machinist but, alas, did not persevere. A stint in the Army had “the effect of dispelling any remnants of anti-authority sentiments” (along with his socialist ideals), because he thought his fellow GIs—representing the common man—were pretty poor stuff, while Army regulations were generally rational and fair. After World War II he followed his wife (now the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who edited this collection) from one graduate program to another until they settled in New York and Kristol became an editor at Commentary.
At Commentary Kristol found himself in another stellar cohort, this time including legendary founding editor Elliot Cohen, renowned art critic Clement Greenberg and popular culture critics Robert Warshow and Richard Clurman. After a few years he moved on to become executive director of the American branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and then, in 1953, co-editor of the Congress’s London-based journal, Encounter. The Congress was secretly financed by the CIA. Kristol may not have known that and probably wouldn’t have cared. In any case, England seemed provincial after New York City, so in 1958 he returned to edit The Reporter, the project of a wealthy but imperious European émigré. Soon he found himself an executive at Basic Books.
Kristol had tried to write a book (on American democracy) but gave up: “I was not a book writer. I did not have the patience and I lacked the necessary intellectual rigor.” He also lacked the patience for book publishing and was eager to start another magazine. A rich ex–CIA agent turned investment banker Kristol knew from the Congress for Cultural Freedom agreed to finance The Public Interest, beginning in 1965. Critical of the Great Society, and particularly of the War on Poverty, The Public Interest attracted much support from the Wall Street Journal, the Olin, Bradley and Smith Richardson foundations, and the American Enterprise Institute. Before long Kristol was the field marshal of the business class’s long march through the institutions of New Deal liberalism.
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Every ism has its truth. What was neoconservatism’s? The Public Interest’s critique of social policy had a dual thrust: assessment and explanation. The bottom line of the assessment was: the more active and interventionist the policy, the less successful. Social Security and Medicare, which simply mailed out checks, worked; more ambitious efforts, such as welfare, education reform, public housing, or juvenile delinquency and prisoner rehabilitation programs, did not. As the first sustained and scholarly review of postwar social policy in America, The Public Interest was a genuine public service.