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Goodbye, Godfather

I don't know why I was so shocked to learn that Irving Kristol had died; he was 89, after all, and when I took his seminar at NYU in 1978, he was already the urbane "godfather of neoconservatism" on that Esquire cover, a moniker that would recur in his obituaries.

I don't remember what the seminar was called; it was basically, "Irving Explains It All For You." It was heady stuff for a wonky girl from Queens who had gotten her first subscription to Bill Buckley's National Review at 16. And, as that magazine cover attests, it was a heady time to be a young conservative; the Reagan ascendancy wasn't even a glow on the horizon yet, so we got to feel fresh and transgressive amid the stagnating sludge of the Counterculture.

And God, were my NYU years sludgy...an academic nadir for that institution, and a bitter contrast to the electrifying, cafeteria-table-pounding intellectual foment that formed Kristol into a Trotskyist back in the 1930s at CUNY. His subsequent ideological journey to the Right made this Brooklyn boy a fascinating contrast to the patrician Buckley, and the seminar was (aside from the nitty-gritty vocational training I found in NYU's undergraduate Journalism department) a rare highlight of my confused and lonely college career.

I remember little of what Irving explained so lucidly (although I seem to recall grasping some central concept of Hegel's for a few precious moments). What mattered was Irving--good-naturedly world-weary, pacing up and down and deconstructing the modern world between appreciative drags on an ever-present cigarette. One day, I scrambled off the creaky old Main Building elevator, late for class, to find him smoking in the hallway while the other dozen students slumped, fidgeting, around our conference table. "Ah," he said with no apparent irritation, "you're here. We can begin." That moment meant more to me than my diploma.

After graduation, (and soon after his Esquire cover hit the newsstands), Kristol floored me by offering me a coveted position as an indentured editorial servant at his legendary journal, The Public Interest. (For a glimpse of what I missed, go here.) I wavered, but signed on instead with a crappy travel magazine; I was young, and the prospect of junkets beat out the promise of being groomed for a think tank. That, and I was scared to death. I declined the offer with a note containing this poem, because Kristol had such a deadpan and I fancied trying to crack him up:

Irving, dear Irving

I find you unnerving,

I fear I'll incite

Your contempt.

Your intellect causes

My wonder unswerving,

For my own puny mind

Is unkempt!


He wrote a gracious reply to my "absolutely lovely" note, and acknowledged that my choice of globe-hopping was understandable. (As it turned out, the best junket I got was a weekend in Honolulu.) I'd go on to do some writing for the Right, but not for The Public Interest; I knew when I was out of my depth.

And depth is what I mourn this week. Having lost Buckley and now Kristol, I feel like a conservative version of Norma Desmond, wistful not for "faces, then" but for minds. I don't recognize what passes for "the Right" anymore; vulgarians like Limbaugh and demagogues like O'Reilly have expanded like a gas into the void they left behind. Kristol, Buckley and the like were jousters, not jesters; they relished take-no-prisoners debate, but could graciously engage an adversary afterward. (One summer, I did typing for National Review and was stunned to read Buckley's warm, convivial correspondence, including invitations to ski in Gstaad, with some of his bitterest ideological foes.)

And, despite the fossilized sound of "paleo"-conservative or the trendy sound of "neo," these guys were capable of ambivalence and nuance, of actually holding more than one idea in play at once. Kristol famously mustered only "two cheers" for conservatism; he espoused the civic virtues that flowed from religion but hinted at a personal agnosticism. Having forged (and fought) some of the foundational ideas of the twentieth century--ideas that could and did matter deeply--the Godfather Generation has been eclipsed by a bunch of frat boys. The ideas still matter, but it's harder than ever to hear them under the ranting and infantile name-calling.

Irving, Happy New Year; you are missed.

Posted on Monday, September 21, 2009 at 11:43AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | CommentsPost a Comment

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