Who was he: Irving Kristol, the "godfather of neoconservatism," was a powerful editor, journalist and university professor. Neoconservatism was, in his mind, an intellectual and political movement for disaffected ex-liberals. Kristol famously defined a neoconservative as "a liberal who has been mugged by reality."
Kristol founded and edited The Public Interest and Encounter, magazines aimed at an elite readership that included social and cultural elite tastemakers. His thoughts were well known through his professorship at New York University, but he advanced his ideas through monthly opinion essays in the Wall Street Journal. He became a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank. He was also editor of Basic Books, a small but well known publisher of philosophy and social science.
Republican strategist Karl Rove called Kristol an "intellectual entrepreneur who helped energize several generations of public policy thinkers. Through his writing editing, and speaking Kristol lit a fire under the conservative movement that was hard to put out." Rove also said that Kristol helped create a group of Cold War Democrats and Reagan White House anticommunist hawks that influenced military and foreign policy in the 1980s.
Irving and his followers were labeled neoconservatives, a pejorative term first introduced by social critic Michael Harrington to describe liberals moving toward conservatism, rejecting federal programs and supporting a limited welfare state. Kristol was the focal point because his extraordinary political adventure took him from Depression-era socialist to Cold War anti-communist and then to Vietnam War hawk. Although not intended as a compliment, Irving embraced the name neoconservative to the point he is often referred to as the "godfather of neoconservatism."
In 1979, Esquire magazine did a cover story on Kristol that helped legitimize him as the leader of this growing, serious movement, but Kristol downplayed the idea that a formal neoconservative faction existed. Kristol said that neoconservatism was not an ideology; it was a persuasion, or a way of thinking about politics not a compendium of axioms and principles.
In spite of his early downplay, the neoconservative position has grown to a powerful position, especially as seen within the George W. Bush administration as regards the "war on terror," the Iraq War and America's continued efforts at empire-building.
Background: Born January 22, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York to non-observant Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Kristol majored in history at the City College of New York and served as a combat infantryman in Europe during World War II. In 1942 Kristol married historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. The couple had two children, Elizabeth Nelson and William Kristol, himself a well known neoconservative and editor of The Weekly Standard and cofounder of PNAC, the Project for the New American Century.
Kristol was affiliated with the anti-Communist group the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and from 1947 to 1952 he wrote articles for Commentary Magazine. In 1953 Irving Kristol co-founded the British-based Encounter, and in 1959 he became editor of The Reporter. He became executive vice-president of Basic Books in 1961 and continued in that position until 1969.
In 1969 he became the Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University where he stayed until 1987, co-founded and co-edited The Public Interest from 1965 to 2002 and was the founder and publisher of The National Interest from 1985 to 2002.
Kristol was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a Fellow Emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. In July 2002, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by then President George W. Bush.
Irving Kristol died on September 18, 2009 in Falls Church, Virginia from complications of lung cancer, at age 89.