Though I was not one of those fortunate to be close to him, I distinctly remember shaking hands with him three times: Once briefly at a Federalist Society Meeting at Harvard; one fantastic experience when I was able to sit down and have a conversation with him at a Toward Tradition conference in Washington, DC; and, luckily and most recently, for a few moments, when, just last October, I flew to the American Enterprise Institute to hear his wife, Bea, the distinguished historian known professionally as Getrude Himmelfarb, present what one suspects will be her last public lecture, a talk titled, Some Reflections on Burke’s Reflections. I exchanged one set of letters with him and spoke with him on the phone once.
So, in a sense I have no credentials to speak of the man, at least compared to many so much closer.
Of course, one of the marks of a great man is his ability to influence people he never gets to speak to or to know and, in that sense, Irving Kristol was a very great man.
This is obviously true in the Keynesian sense of practical men being the slaves of some defunct economist. In founding and being associated with small-circulation magazines and journals that were read by few but very influential people, Irving Kristol influenced the intellectual currents and this flow of ideas influenced everybody.
Irving Kristol’s influence on me was more direct. I “met” Irving Kristol on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal. My father was not a professor, not an “intellectual” — he was a businessman, and no amount of writing in specialized journals would have reached my home. Many intellectuals would have spurned The Wall Street Journal as non-academic but Irving Kristol did not. Lucky for me. His writing and his thinking were a great gift that opened my mind to the power of ideas.
My father read The Wall Street Journal because it was the businessman’s Bible and I read it every day because I admired my father. But while Dad valued the stock tables and the news, I found my place on the editorial and op-ed pages. Irving Kristol wrote there for a quarter century. Roughly that was from when I was 10 years old to 35. So from a boy struggling to understand the arguments to a mature man wishing he could write — and think — as well as he, I had the incalculable benefit of growing up with a quarter century of Irving Kristol as tutor to open my mind once a month.
He was not a philosopher, but wrestling with one important issue once a month one came to sense the outlines of a philosophy. Indeed as impressive as each piece was on its own, it was their coherence that was extraordinary.
John Podhoretz, writing at Commentary, said of Irving Kristol that he “…was the rarest of creatures — a thoroughgoing intellectual who was also a man of action. He was a maker of things, a builder of institutions, a harvester and disseminator and progenitor of ideas and the means whereby those ideas were made flesh.” The consequence of this for a young man growing up outside of an intellectual household was that Irving Kristol was a kind of brand, a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for where I would not be wasting my time to explore further.
In a sense, Irving Kristol gave me a priceless reading list. So, one thing led to another and I found The Public Interest, Commentary, sent money away to England to get a subscription to Encounter, read The New Criterion, The National Interest, looked for books published by Basic Books and looked for ideas coming out of The American Enterprise Institute. At around 20-years-old, I even joined The Committee for the Free World.
So I read Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb and Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer and Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter and Jacques Barzun and James Q. Wilson and so many more. How can you thank a man for giving you that kind of course in the history of ideas?
When I got to sit down with him, I tried to thank him. He was very gracious but was much more interested in what I had to say about my work publishing magazines for the produce and perishable food industry. In fact, I left our meeting only after he had somehow persuaded me that the very future of western civilization hinged on my work with the food industry. Although it is well known that he urged businesspeople to support the institutions that support democratic capitalism, it seems to me an under-reported part of the Irving Kristol story that he was so open to business and businesspeople.
Years later, after The Public Interest had closed, I found that the web site had fallen into neglectful hands, with advertisers using it to promote ideas Irving Kristol wouldn’t have abided. It didn’t seem right so I bought the site and made it into a little homage page, a small respect to say thank you to a journal… and a man… that had introduced me to a world of ideas.