Irving Kristolkristol irving

Class of 1940

Inducted 2010

As the founding father of neoconservatism, as a publisher, an editor and contributor to numerous magazines, and as a columnist and essayist, Irving Kristol was one of the most prominent and influential public intellectuals of the latter half of the 20th century. Originally on the left, his authoritative commentary helped pump new life into the Republican Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was an influence on many conservative writers, including his son, William Kristol, founder and editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. In 2002, President George W. Bush presented him with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Commonly known as “the godfather of conservatism,” Kristol was executive at Basic Books, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a professor of social thought at New York University, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Once asked to define a neoconservative, he said “a liberal who had been mugged by reality.” It was probably his best-known comment.

kristol irving neoconservatism

It was in 1965, during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, that Kristol and classmate Daniel Bell were concerned enough about the concepts of the Great Society to start a magazine called The Public Interest, a quarterly journal of public policy that lay the foundation of neoconservatism. It continued publishing until 2005. New York Times columnist David Brooks said it “had more influence on domestic policy than any other journal in the country — by far.” Kristol was married to Gertrude Himmelfarb, a historian who studied Victorian morality. Her brother was Milton Himmelfarb, a leading analyst of Jewish-American life whose essays were staples of Commentary, a magazine Kristol once edited.

Born in Brooklyn on Jan. 20, 1920, Kristol entered the College in the late 1930s, when the student cafeteria was the center of fierce political debates. In a section of the cafeteria known as “Alcove Number One,” a small group of left-leaning students took part in heated conversations about social justice, economics and politics. Among them were Kristol, Bell, the literary critic and author Irving Howe ’40, and Nathan Glazer ’40. All four would become part of a group known as the New York Intellectuals and all would be featured in “Arguing the World,” a 1998 documentary about the City College alcoves. Following his graduation from CCNY, Kristol moved to Chicago with his wife, who was doing graduate work there. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Europe, where he was a combat infantryman with the 12th Armored Division. It was his first exposure to life outside New York and it altered his beliefs about human nature and the trustworthiness of ordinary people versus intellectuals.

kristol irving medal of freedom

Receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Bush, 2002.

After a year in Cambridge, England, he returned to New York in 1947, and was hired as an editor by Commentary, then a liberal magazine. In 1952, at the height of the McCarthy era, he wrote a highly controversial essay critical of people who opposed the idea of Senate investigating committees, saying they did not understand the danger of Communism. Before returning to England in 1953 to help start the magazine Encounter with poet Stephen Spender, Kristol spent 10 months as executive director of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anti-Communist organization. By the end of 1958, he was back in New York. He worked for a year at The Reporter, a liberal anti-Communist magazine, then joined Basic Books until 1969, when he went to teach at NYU. In 1972, he started a column for The Wall Street Journal, continuing until 1997. He then began a long association with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He was also the founder and publisher, from 1985 to 2002, of another opinion journal, The National Interest. He published four books, collections of previously published articles: “On the Democratic Idea in America” (1972), “Two Cheers for Capitalism” (1978), “Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead” (1983), and “Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea” (1995). Kristol died on Sept. 18, 2009. He was 89.