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Irving Kristol, Architect of Neoconservatism, Dies at 89

File Photo, 1985 - Author and columnist Irving Kristol, pictured above as the main speaker at the Suburban Trust and University of Maryland Business Outlook Conference.
File Photo, 1985 - Author and columnist Irving Kristol, pictured above as the main speaker at the Suburban Trust and University of Maryland Business Outlook Conference. (Joe Heiberger - The Washington Post)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

Irving Kristol, 89, a forceful essayist, editor and university professor who became the leading architect of neoconservatism, which he called a political and intellectual movement for disaffected ex-liberals like himself who had been "mugged by reality," died Friday at the Capital Hospice in Arlington.

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He spent much of his career in New York but had for the last two decades lived at the Watergate apartments in the District. He died of complications from lung cancer, said his son, William Kristol, the founder and editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

The elder Kristol founded and edited magazines such as Encounter and the Public Interest that aimed at an elite audience of political, social and cultural tastemakers. In addition to his professorship at New York University, he advanced his ideas through monthly opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal and a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. He was for many years an editor at Basic Books, a small but distinguished publisher of social science and philosophy.

Karl Rove, a Republican strategist who advised former president George W. Bush, called Mr. Kristol an "intellectual entrepreneur who helped energize several generations of public policy thinkers."

Through his editing, writing and speaking, Mr. Kristol "made it a moral imperative to rouse conservatism from mainstream Chamber of Commerce boosterism to a deep immersion in ideas," Rove said. He added that Mr. Kristol helped create a synthesis of Cold War Democrats and Reagan White House anticommunist hawks, which proved decisive in influencing foreign and military policy in the 1980s.

Mr. Kristol and his historian wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, along with a group of sociologists, historians and academics including Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, Richard Pipes and for a while Daniel P. Moynihan, emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s as prominent critics of welfare programs, tax policy, moral relativism and countercultural social upheavals they felt were contributing to America's cultural and social decay.

His father was an immigrant garment worker from Eastern Europe, and Mr. Kristol grew up under humble circumstances that shaped his beliefs. "Those who have been raised in poor neighborhoods -- the Daniel Patrick Moynihans, Edward Banfields, Nathan Glazers -- tend to be tough-minded about slums and their inhabitants," he told the New York Times.

Middle-class sociologists, he said, "are certain that a juvenile delinquent from a welfare family is a far more interesting figure -- with a greater potentiality for redeeming not only himself but all of us -- than an ordinary, law-abiding and conforming youngster who is from the very same household."

Mr. Kristol had grown dismayed by the fragmentation of the Democratic Party over the war in Southeast Asia and remained a vigorous defender of a strong military to combat communist threats. He championed a steady focus on economic growth that gives "modern democracies their legitimacy and durability" but cautioned against running deficits. He popularized supply-side economics, long considered a fringe belief that tax cuts would lead to widespread financial prosperity. Supply side became a leading conservative cause in the 1980s and influenced the Reagan White House tax policy.

Mr. Kristol and many of his colleagues were dubbed neoconservatives, a term introduced by social critic Michael Harrington to describe the rightward turn of onetime liberals such as Mr. Kristol, whose extraordinary political odyssey had taken him from Depression-era socialist to anticommunist Cold Warrior and Vietnam War hawk.

While Harrington's use of neoconservative was not intended as a compliment, Mr. Kristol embraced the term and became its widely accepted godfather. A cover story on Mr. Kristol in Esquire magazine in 1979 helped legitimize him as the leader of a full-fledged movement, even as he played down the idea that such a formal faction existed.

"We are not a movement," he once said. "There has never been a meeting of neoconservatives." He called it an "intellectual current" that came to prominence after a "gradual evolution."


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