WASHINGTON — Irving Kristol, the writer, editor and publisher known as the godfather of neoconservatism whose youthful radicalism evolved into a historic rejection of communism, liberalism and the counterculture, died Friday. He was 89.
"His wisdom, wit, good humor and generosity of spirit made him a friend and mentor to several generations of thinkers and public servants," said the editors of The Weekly Standard in announcing Kristol's death on its Web site. He died of complications from lung cancer.
Kristol was the husband of critic-historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and father of neoconservative editor and commentator William Kristol, an editor of The Weekly Standard.
A Trotskyist in the 1930s, Kristol would soon sour on socialism, break from liberalism after the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and in the 1970s commit the unthinkable – support the Republican Party, once as "foreign to me as attending a Catholic Mass."
He was a New York intellectual who left home, first politically, then physically, moving to Washington in 1988. He was a liberal "mugged by reality," his turn to the right joined by countless others, including such future GOP Cabinet officials as Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Bennett and another neoconservative founder, Norman Podhoretz.
"The influence of Irving Kristol's ideas has been one of the most important factors in reshaping the American climate of opinion over the past 40 years," Podhoretz said.
He was a flagship in the network of think tanks, media outlets and corporations that helped make conservatism a reigning ideology for at least two decades, the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Rodham Clinton would claim was out to get her husband.
"More than anyone alive, perhaps, Irving Kristol can take the credit for reversing the direction of American political culture," liberal commentator Eric Alterman wrote in 1999.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney was a longtime admirer and former President George W. Bush, whose administration was heavily populated by neoconservatives, awarded Kristol a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, praising him as "a wide-ranging thinker whose writings have helped transform America's political landscape."
On Friday night, Bush called Kristol "an intellectual pioneer who advanced the conservative movement."
Kristol himself would regard neo-conservatism as a job well done, a "generational phenomenon" that was "pretty much absorbed into a larger, more comprehensive conservatism." But the Iraq War and the poor economy badly damaged the right's unity and credibility over the past few years.
With the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Kristol's son declared that the liberals were back in charge.
"All good things must come to an end. Jan. 20, 2009, marked the end of a conservative era," William Kristol wrote in The New York Times.
Unlike such earlier advocates of the right as Sen. Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, whose National Review journal Irving Kristol found "insufficiently analytical and 'intellectual,'" most neoconservatives were not lifelong Republicans. They were former Democrats, often academics, who broke with their party over Vietnam, race relations and what they regarded as the breakdown of civic order.
Kristol left his liberal views behind as he became increasingly disillusioned by the perceived failures of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, by the rise of crime, drug abuse and other problems that government programs were supposed to solve.
They shared the anti-communism of Buckley and others, but worried less about government spending than about moral and cultural issues, believing that people needed to change along with the system. Kristol, the old student rebel, was appalled by the long-haired youths of the late '60s.
"Suddenly we discovered that we had been cultural conservatives all along," he wrote. "This shock of recognition was to have profound consequences. We were bourgeois types, all of us, but by habit and instinct rather than reflection. Now, we had to decide what we were for, and why."
Ironically, "neoconservative" was not coined by a neoconservative, but is credited to socialist author-activist Michael Harrington, who used the term in a 1973 essay about Kristol and other former liberals.
Active in publishing for more than half a century, Kristol wrote essays and reviews for The New Leader and Commentary; released several books, including "Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of An Idea," and co-founded a seminal neoconservative journal, The Public Interest.
He was a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, writing a series of essays in the 1970s that called on businesses to invest in conservative scholarship and counter the "permanent brain trust" of liberal politics.
With funding from Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and others, the right created such think tanks as the Heritage Foundation. Kristol himself was a fellow at a key think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, and at least two major conservative books, Jules Wanniski's supply-side manifesto "The Way the World Works," and Charles Murray's anti-welfare "Losing Ground," were published with Kristol's help.
Kristol also taught at New York University, worked for several years as a senior editor at the Basic Books publishing house and in the 1950s headed the anti-communist magazine Encounter, which turned out to have been funded – without Kristol's knowledge, he said – by the CIA.
Born in New York City in 1920, Kristol was at first similar to so many other children of Jewish immigrants – passionate about books and allied with the working class, a teenager during the Great Depression who "saw around me unemployed men eager to work but finding no jobs."
"Under such circumstances, the notion of an economy planned by governmental authority seemed commonsensical, not ideological," he later wrote.
At City College of New York, Kristol was bored in the classrooms, but fascinated and inspired by the unending debates and discussions of "Alcove No. 1," a small clique of student leftists that included Irving Howe, who later founded the liberal magazine Dissent, and sociologists Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer. All four would be featured in a 1998 documentary, "Arguing the World."
By his mid-20s, Kristol had already backed off his most radical beliefs. A member of the infantry in Europe during World War II, he was surprised by his sympathy for the military establishment and by his distance from his fellow soldiers, whom he regarded as "thugs or near-thugs."
"My army experience permitted me to make an important political discovery," he wrote. "The idea of building socialism with the common man who actually existed – as distinct from his idealized version – was sheer fantasy, and therefore the prospects for `democratic socialism' were nil."
After the war, he returned to New York and was hired to edit Commentary, then a liberal publication, and contributed reviews on religion and philosophy and other subjects. Still disdainful of market economics, he was an anti-communist liberal who called Sen. Joseph McCarthy a "vulgar demagogue," but added that "there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-communist.
"About the spokesman for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing."
In the mid-1960s, Kristol, Bell, Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan founded The Public Interest, which lasted 40 years and was praised by New York Times columnist David Brooks for having "more influence on domestic policy than any other journal in the country – by far."
The magazine was originally moderate (Moynihan had suggested calling it "Consensus) and supported civil rights and domestic spending. Kristol was even skeptical of the Vietnam War, writing that "South Vietnam ... is barely capable of decent self-government under the best of conditions."
But Kristol and others became increasingly disillusioned in the 1960s and, in 1972, when the Democrats chose anti-war liberal George McGovern as their presidential candidate, his disgust was complete. He endorsed Republican Richard Nixon, whom most intellectuals despised, and later was chosen by Nixon for the board of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting.
His reach kept expanding. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a powerful new champion: Cheney, then chief of staff under President Ford and an enthusiastic reader of Kristol's work. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and countless neoconservatives would become government and judicial leaders in the following decades.
"So I deem the neo-conservative enterprise to have been a success, to have brought elements that were needed to enliven American conservatism and help reshape American politics," Kristol wrote in 1995.
"If I am, as is sometimes said of me, a cheerful conservative, it is because I have so much to be cheerful about."
Kristol and Himmelfarb were married in 1942. Besides their son, they had a daughter, Elizabeth.