Our Own Cool Hand Luke
Editor's Note (Sept. 18, 2009): We republish this piece today on the occasion of Irving Kristol's death.
On Monday, April 25, the Public Interest passed away at the ripe old age -- for a quarterly journal of public policy -- of 40. It was a peaceful death, almost serene. Irving Kristol, co-founder and co-editor throughout its life, presided at the interment, a small dinner of past contributors and friends of the magazine.
He presided the same way that he presided over the magazine's life: with self-deprecation, sobriety and no fanfare. Magazines are not meant to live forever, said Kristol. New generations bring new ideas, and besides, the very idea of a quarterly magazine may no longer have a place in a time of such ferociously fast information flow. It had been a good run.
Kristol was being characteristically modest. For 40 years the Public Interest has been perhaps the finest scholarly magazine in America and, in relation to its small and exclusive circulation, surely the most influential. Heavy on empirical data, short on polemics and always lively, it challenged conventional wisdom on all the great domestic issues of our time: welfare, crime, dependency, automation, poverty, inequality, pornography and more.
It gathered around it a remarkable constellation of writers. The cover of the first issue, reprinted in the current and last issue, features articles by Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert Solow (a future Nobel Prize winner in economics), Jacques Barzun, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer. By the third issue they had added Milton Friedman, James Q. Wilson and Peter Drucker. For 40 years, an all-star team of social thinkers tilted at windmills and, unlike most brainy journals, knocked them down. The magazine's increasingly neoconservative bent over the years quietly shaped, and then came to dominate, political discourse in America.
This was due to many people but above all to its guiding editor. Kristol's influence and intellect and importance to the political history of our time are well known. The most remarkable and least known thing about him, however, is his temperament. He is a man of unique equanimity. His preternaturally even temperament betrays not a hint of angst, bitterness or anguish. He is not a happy warrior, just a calm and confident one; not Hubert Humphrey, but Cool Hand Luke.
This makes him unusual among conservatives, because conservatives tend to believe that the world is going to hell, and that tends to make them grumpy. But not Kristol. Both on the field of battle and off, he always retains a serenity and grace that express themselves in a courtliness and a quiet (yet devastating) humor.
His longtime friend and co-editor, Glazer, once wrote a piece about Kristol called "A Man Without Footnotes." I call him a man without rancor. I can think of only one other conservative with such an exceptional temperament: Ronald Reagan. Reagan was truly that political oxymoron, a conservative optimist. But most critics thought he was an optimist because he just did not know better -- James Baker had not briefed him on just how bad things were. Kristol knows how bad things can be, but he never -- never -- descends into despair or recrimination. When everyone else is headed for the bunkers, he keeps his head, his goodwill and his humor.
The main difference from Reagan is that Kristol is not an optimist. He does not believe in the onward and upward ascent of the human spirit. But he does believe that there is enough good spirit in ordinary human nature to get us to where we have to go anyway, as long as the illusions and delusions of the intellectuals are plainly exposed and avoided.
That is what he did not only in his enormously influential essays on everything from the Cold War to censorship, from supply-side economics to religion, but also as founder and editor of the Public Interest and, later, its foreign policy counterpart, the National Interest. His magazines cultivated not only new ideas but also an entire generation of editors, writers and scholars.
Which is why Kristol has earned, often from unfriendly sources, the title of godfather of neoconservatism. He has been compared to many people besides Don Corleone but, until Monday night, never to Ted Williams. My contribution to the gathering was to note that Williams hit a home run in his last time at bat, then quietly walked off the playing field. Very few leave the arena at the top of their game. That is what happened Monday night to the Public Interest -- with the equanimity and grace so characteristic of its longtime editor and founder.