Irving Kristol’s influence on American intellectual life in the latter half of the 20th Century cannot be overstated. His role in the American conservative movement cannot be extolled often enough. And the inspiration, counsel and friendship that he gave to scores of young college students, writers, journalists, academicians, activists, and elected officials will never be fully known and appreciated.
I know because I was once one of those college students. This was before the internet era, I will confess; and one of my guilty pleasures was to retreat to the campus library and devour current and old editions of the Public Interest, Commentary, National Review, the New Republic, Modern Age, and other magazines and journals, which Kristol either edited or contributed to, or in some way figured prominently because he himself was such a prominent and influential intellectual.
In fact, Kristol was building a “New Majority” before it was fashionable to do so, or even necessary — and before the Internet greatly facilitated intellectual and social networking and community building. And that, actually, is how I came to meet the man.
The year was 1988; the conservative movement and the Republican Party were arguably at their apogee; and I was a young and decidedly non-worldly college student interning in Washington, D.C.
I had founded a conservative campus newspaper to foster greater intellectual diversity at my college (Binghamton), and to promote a more robust and diverse dialogue and debate. Our campus newspaper encountered all of the problems that conservative organizations typically encounter on campuses then and now: hostility and discrimination from the college administration, student government, and various left-wing activist groups, all of which actively conspired to take away our campus funding.
Irving Kristol understood our predicament. He was, after all, intimately familiar with the oppressive intellectual atmosphere in the academy. He himself had fully traversed the political spectrum, making the journey from the Trotskyist Left to the mainstream Right.
But unlike most intellectuals, Kristol also was a practical man of action who deeply believed in America — and in America as it really is, and not just in a fanciful America as it might be or could be as dictated by leftist intellectuals.
That is to say, Irving Kristol was a true patriot who loved America and who loved his fellow Americans. And he became an intellectual entrepreneur of sorts who founded new publications and new institutions, while actively cultivating new intellectual talent.
One of the organizations that Kristol founded was the Institute for Educational Affairs, which helped to support independent campus publications of a right-leaning and iconoclastic bent. I wrote up a grant proposal, solicited the assistance of our faculty adviser and, to my great delight, received a modest but absolutely essential grant to sustain and support the publication of our newspaper.
We provoked debate and discussion about academic freedom, academic and intellectual standards, campus diversity, affirmative action and reverse discrimination, and even Roman Catholic theology and its bearing on public policy.
In 1988, I interned at the American Enterprise Institute and had the distinct honor and privilege to meet Mr. Kristol. The Institute for Educational Affairs had sponsored an evening meeting of conservative campus editors. We were all milling about, drinking, snacking and talking when suddenly one of the institute’s directors abruptly said, “This is Irving Kristol.”
All discussion ceased and there was a moment of awkward silence. This was before the internet, remember, and I don’t think any of us really knew what Kristol looked like!
Of course we all knew who the man was; all of us had read his many essays and the Public Interest, which he edited. We all considered Kristol a monumental intellectual figure who had helped to make conservatism intellectually respectable and formidable. Thus we knew his words and his thoughts, but not his face!
I quickly ended the awkward silence by extending my hand to Mr. Kristol’s and saying, “Sir, I’m John Guardiano; it’s a real honor and privilege to meet you. I’ve really enjoyed your work, your essays and your magazine, [the Public Interest]. You have had a profound influence on me. Thank you.”
Kristol beamed with that trademark twinkle in his eye, vigorously shook my hand, and engaged me in small talk before, soon enough, we all sat down to engage him in conversation.
Kristol began his talk by graciously thanking us for our efforts as conservative campus editors. “What you are doing for the academy,” he said, “is so important to the academy, and the academy doesn’t even realize it.”
We were, he said, fostering an intellectual and political discussion on campus that otherwise wouldn’t occur. We were exposing students to thoughts and ideas that they otherwise might not even realize exist. “All of us — and certainly the American people – are in your debt,” he said.
However, Kristol reminded us, “You’re in an intellectual ghetto. This means” (and here I paraphrase) your thoughts and ideas often will be viewed as scandalous and shocking to the academy. Thus, you would best be advised to sometimes hold your fire and to perhaps exercise greater tact and restraint than you would like.
I know, he continued, that given the hostility and theatrics of the campus left, you’d much prefer to beat the left over the head and make them see the truth; but that is not the best way to survive, let alone thrive, in an intellectual ghetto.
Kristol was right, of course, about this and about so many other things. He was truly a wise and learned man.
Kristol knew about the intellectual ghetto from his own personal experience as an esteemed editor, essayist and university professor who had long resided in that hotbed of unreconstructed liberalism: Manhattan. That’s why, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Kristol made it his life’s mission to develop a new intellectual and political majority founded upon learned discourse and spirited but reasoned debate.
When I graduated from Binghamton in 1990, I received two things that I will never forget. The first was a key to Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honor society; the second was a letter from Irving Kristol personally thanking me for my efforts.
“If ever there is anything that I can do for you, please do not hesitate to ask,” he wrote. For me, this was like receiving a battlefield commendation from the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps. Such was the high regard and esteem in which I held — and still hold — Irving Kristol.
I never did ask Mr. Kristol for anything; in fact, I never saw or spoke with him again. After all, as John Lennon once put it, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” I soon got busy with life, and stubborn foolish pride kept me from ever asking him for a professional favor.
Nonetheless, I regret not having spoken again with Mr. Kristol. He was that rarest of men: an intellectual giant, an intellectual entrepreneur, a gifted writer and essayist, a fine editor, a talent scout, a builder of institutions, a devoted husband, father and grandfather, and a patriot all wrapped up into one person, one man. We will not see his likes again; and our nation and our republic are immeasurably better off because we had him among us.
May he be remembered and honored; may the cause, the American cause, that he so vigorously and so thoughtfully championed live on; and may he rest in eternal peace.