Chapter 1: Contrarian
It was in the nature of the times to talk back. Oratory as ridicule, the language of 1960s activists, troubled the Harvard University administration nearly as much as windows smashed and buildings blockaded. Even in the fall of 1970, with the decade officially closed, anti-war demonstrations ebbing, and the media declaring the death of the New Left, caustic retort (in reply to the Establishment version of truth) remained a highly developed art form inside Harvard Yard. William Kristol, Harvard class of '73, patently rejected the political ethos of his generation. He was, nevertheless, a master of its style, a first-rate smart aleck.
He arrived that fall pumped full of trenchant ridicule for the anti-war activists who, just eighteen months earlier, had spilled blood on the steps of University Hall as four hundred helmeted police swinging nightsticks broke up their sit-in. Two-thirds of Harvard's students had protested the crackdown by boycotting class. But Kristol derided the "stupid, self-congratulatory" Leftists at Harvard and elsewhere who continued to attract attention and sympathy. Only seventeen, he wore the casual arrogance of a young man who had graduated at the top of his class from a rigorous Manhattan prep school and then qualified for an accelerated three-year track toward graduation from Harvard. He had playful eyes under a high forehead, and brows that seemed to carry on their own conversation as he issued barbed wit under his breath.
From his surefooted start, Kristol would go on to become an intellectual Brahmin of the modern conservative movement, as confident in the superiority of his own thinking as any "liberal elitist" scorned by his populist friends on the Right. Rare was the right-winger who could talk the language of the New York Times editorial board, but this was the vernacular of Bill's upbringing. By the 1990s, he would become a practiced translator, relaying the Right's message through the house organs of the media establishment -- TV networks, eminent newspapers, foreign policy journals. He founded the Weekly Standard, an influential, and relentlessly irreverent, magazine. Behind the scenes, he helped shape some of the most important Washington policy battles of the era. But Bill's elite background also granted him license as an iconoclast inside a political movement that placed a premium on loyalty: He would confound and anger his loyalist allies on the Right, sometimes treating their cause (it seemed) with all the seriousness of a robust set of doubles.
By the time he reached Harvard that first semester in 1970, it was clear Bill Kristol would cut his own direction in life. He arrived at the peak of youthful revolt, without ever having rebelled against parents, authority, tradition. He never holed up at the Fillmore East, as his Manhattan prep school buddies did, smoking pot while Jimi Hendrix worked his guitar. He didn't, as his buddies did, indulge in the sexual revolution unfolding around him. But he was, like his buddies, a contrarian. The difference was that Bill Kristol's parents provided their son with a built-in outlet for his contrarian energies. Essayist Irving Kristol and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb were leading figures in an intellectual circle of ex-socialists who by the 1960s had turned their indignation from capitalist bosses to the counterculture then engulfing America's youth. Called "neoconservatives," these former Leftists would go on to provide intellectual heft to a conservative movement they once spurned.
Irving Kristol, who edited a journal of commentary, the Public Interest, had spent the entirety of his son's adolescence issuing forth scornful wit against conventional (that is, liberal) wisdom. Irving had been a socialist as a college student in the 1930s, but he couldn't stomach the radicals of his son's generation. He ascribed 1960s activism to motivations no more grand than boredom -- "a radical mood in search of a radical program...the last, convulsive twitches of a slowly expiring American individualism."
Bill absorbed all of his father's salty opinions, so that by the time he arrived at Harvard, arguing with the Left came naturally. But not in a Republican/right-wing/Young Americans for Freedom sort of way. In fact, Bill didn't even know many conservatives; in 1970, right-wingers were still considered mostly philistines within his parents' intellectual orbit of Humphrey Democrats. Richard Nixon, Bill's father fretted in 1968, appealed to the wrong majority, whose dominant temper was "sullenly resentful" and "impulsively reactionary." Bill, a budding avatar of realpolitik, considered the Right practically irrelevant to American electoral politics; he recalled reading National Review columns as a twelve-year-old that unabashedly, and wrongly, insisted that a silent majority of conservative Americans would sweep Barry Goldwater into the White House in 1964.
In the self-conscious world of New York intellectuals, the Kristols had achieved a measure of fame, with Irving Kristol broadcasting his opinions through the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. So their world offered an attractive safe harbor for a young man making his way in rebellious times. Harvard's eminent and diverse government department, which Bill was about to enter in 1970, included a number of his parents' friends and colleagues. Among them were James Q. Wilson, who headed the much reviled committee meting out discipline to Harvard's protesters; department chair and foreign policy scholar Samuel P. Huntington, whose 1969 report to the State Department on how to prop up the South Vietnamese regime in a postwar coalition had provoked the ire of campus Leftists; and Edward C. Banfield, the urban scholar whose exploration of a "lower-class" culture entrapping the poor sparked student protest. And there were sociology professor and Public Interest co-founder Daniel Bell, government and sociology professor Seymour Martin Lipset, education professor Nathan Glazer, and government professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- then Nixon's chief adviser on urban affairs and Bill's boss during a White House internship in the summer of 1970. Philosophy professor Harvey C. Mansfield had been to the Kristols' apartment for dinner, concluding that Bill's dismissive description of his toney prep school was a sure sign the young man would fit in with the Harvard elites.
Months after arriving, Bill signed on as contributing editor to a start-up conservative magazine aimed at a national college audience, the Alternative. Edited by R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the Alternative in the 1970s offered young conservatives reinforcement and a place to air their unpopular views. (Later, the magazine broadened its readership and took the name American Spectator, publishing some of the most controversial and savage sallies against the Clinton administration.) Bill contributed a review to the magazine's November 1970 issue, castigating a book by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas as "more than stupid, more than cliché-ridden, more than simple minded, more than an insult to almost any reader's intelligence....The book is, alas, neither serious nor humorous; it is merely pathetic." He compiled a droll holiday wish list asking for, among other things, "a few weeks of obscurity" for Spiro T. Agnew, "babies" for Women's Lib leaders, and "a success...some success...any success" for Richard Nixon. Later he wrote a column complaining that a purported Harvard-Radcliffe "charity" was in fact a solicitation for such political causes as the United Farm Workers and ethnic identity groups. That liberals would call this a charity, he wrote, was more evidence of their "facile ideological self-gratification."
On the Harvard campus itself that first year, leftist protests that might offer targets for Bill's poison pen were on the wane. Small groups of radicals still raised howls over American imperialism in front of the university's Center for International Affairs, the target of a violent Weathermen raid a year earlier. But the national Students for a Democratic Society, once the flagship of the New Left, had splintered internally into carping factions at Harvard and elsewhere.
During that first full academic year of the 1970s there was a sense that the winds had shifted, something was over. "As we rush off to the first day of classes this morning we might remember, if just for a moment, that this University is on strike. Remember...?" pleaded one commentator in the Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper. The previous academic year had ended with a student protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, with demonstrations sparked by the deaths of four students at Kent State, with a tense meeting at Harvard's Sanders Theater where students overwhelmingly voted to support a university strike. "Remember?" the commentator begged his readers as Bill began his first term.
Despite the lull in protests, Harvard's student body remained predominantly liberal and left, with conservatives viewed as curiosities at best, warmongers at worst. In the 1972 presidential election, 75 percent of Harvard-Radcliffe students would favor George McGovern over Richard Nixon. The Harvard Crimson, which editorialized in support of Vietnam's Communist-backed National Liberation Front, was still a font of socialist wisdom. The faculty was more politically diverse, with a government department that served as a bastion of "neos," liberal and conservative. So Bill never felt constrained from offering his minority opinions in class. He took every chance he could to point out the "mindless conformism" of the Left: The kind of lazy thinking, for example, that would prompt the Crimson editors to make the leap from criticizing American military policy to supporting the Communists.
During Bill's first years at Harvard, conservative views frequently became the target of harassment by leftist radicals. The Harvard chapter of SDS, which had curbed its anti-war efforts, now picketed and stalked professors, such as Banfield, whose work was considered racist and reactionary. A pro-war "counter-teach-in," organized by Bill's friend Stephen Rosen under the guise of the Young Americans for Freedom, was cut short by hooting radicals. Kristol friend Jim Muller described to Crimson readers an encounter with an SDS activist who was urging fellow radicals to shout down supporters of Nixon's Vietnam policies. "I asked him whether or not he supported free speech, and here was his answer: 'I'm for it, as long as it isn't counterproductive.' " When Harvard President Nathan Pusey denounced the campus's leftist radicals as dangerous imitators of Joseph McCarthy, it struck a chord with broad segments of students, liberal and conservative.
Bill wasn't intimidated by the Left's pugilists. On the contrary, he sought them out. During his second year at Harvard, he would slip into his Spiro Agnew T-shirt and wander up to the Radcliffe campus to visit his former roommate Robert McTiernan. (Kristol didn't really like the crass vice president, but he couldn't resist promoting a politician who had dismissed anti-war leaders as an "effete corps of impudent snobs.") He'd take up a spot in McTiernan's dorm, or inside the dining hall, juicing casual talk into pointed political debate, his forehead crinkling, his eyes dancing in delight. Was Kristol kidding or not when he praised Nixon's 1972 bombing of the Haiphong Harbor, a wave of B-52 raids that set off another round of student strikes, as "one of the great moments in American history"? It didn't matter because the provocations had the intended effect, putting Bill at the center of the debate -- the practiced warrior alone among flailing liberals.
On a campus where liberalism was equated with enlightenment, Bill's conservative opinions stood out as strange, farcical, or daring, depending on his audience at any given moment. Susan Scheinberg, the attractive freshman who lived next door to McTiernan, was part of the tiny audience of undergraduates who categorized Bill's politics as daring. She was on her way to becoming a rising star in the classics department, ultimately graduating with honors and an award as Radcliffe's most promising humanities student. Like a good classicist, Susan didn't think much about contemporary politics, though she called herself a liberal Democrat when she did. At the time, she didn't believe conservatives could be erudite; like most Harvard liberals, she assumed they were all golf-playing executives, racists, or just plain ignorant. Until she met Bill.
Susan and Bill struck up a courtship that eventually would lead to the marriage of the brash fast-talking Manhattanite to the shy, scholarly daughter of a neurologist from Scarsdale, New York. The pair shared a love of high culture, discovering opera together, and a disdain for a youth culture that blithely dismissed the wisdom of age and the ages. Susan's view of the world blended more shades of gray than did Bill's. But she was impressed by Bill's political stamina, his imperviousness to insult or denunciation. "Like water off a duck's back," she'd say (and would watch with bemusement years later as Bill counseled their three children to do the same whenever their feelings were hurt). He welcomed attack and delighted in the gamesmanship of fierce political debate. He was fast on his feet, quick with the comeback, and had the demeanor of a young man convinced he'd already heard it all.
As Bill began his final year as an undergraduate in 1972, a number of professors from Harvard and elsewhere, as well as his parents, signed onto an advertisement in the New York Times supporting Nixon's reelection. Student radicals loudly protested, calling for the firing of Harvard professors who had advertised their support for this "war criminal." That activists would react with such extremist rhetoric to the prospect of professors supporting an incumbent president confirmed in Kristol's mind the growing intolerance of leftist thought. Free speech and the free speech movement had been pillars of 1960s activism; this protest, he decided, revealed the radicals as supporters of free speech only for those who agreed with them.
Bill could barely contain himself.
Inside a Radcliffe dining hall, he provoked a vociferous argument with one of the protest's instigators. The two young men debated for hours, back and forth, thrust and jab, the activist denouncing Nixon for war crimes, Bill defending the Nixon administration and questioning his opponent's commitment to academic freedom. Susan stood in awe of her boyfriend, not for his forensic skills, but for his audacity: Bill harbored his own doubts about America's military policy in Vietnam. And he hadn't even supported Richard Nixon. In the spring of 1972, he'd been the chief Harvard organizer for the presidential primary bid of Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a military hawk, but also a Democrat.
But he never let on.
* * *
One could make the case that Harvard's radicals, in their ardor and anger and grand certitude, were no different than Irving Kristol and his cadre of Trotskyist friends in the 1930s, gathering in Alcove 1 of New York's City College lunchroom to "argue the world" with the Stalinists in adjoining Alcove 2. One could assert that Bill was prematurely adopting the pose of a famous father who had drifted rightward to become a middle-aged crank, ignoring his own past to denounce the new generation of radicals as "a mob who have no real interest in higher education or in the life of the mind." Hadn't Bill sadly skipped a beat in his own development when he leapfrogged the progression from youthful utopianism to the mature skepticism that had shaped his father?
One could make that argument, and many a liberal adversary would. But it would miss the core of the Kristols: Like father, like son, and like mother and daughter, this was about as bourgeois a family as they come. Even in the days when twenty-two-year-old Irving and eighteen-year-old Bea Himmelfarb, the girl with the shiny brown eyes who would become his wife, were dutifully attending Brooklyn branch meetings of the Young People's Socialist League -- Fourth International (where Trotskyists nourished the fanciful notion of organizing local blacks), radicalism was not a natural fit for Bill's parents. If there was such a thing as a conservative temperament, "cool and critical in respect of change...unadventurous, that has no impulse to sail unchartered seas" (to borrow the words of political theorist Michael Oakeshott), the Kristols embodied it. In the 1930s, with the world's economies in depression and fascism's shadow looming across Europe, "it was very easy to be radical, particularly if you were Jewish," recalled Irving Kristol. "The only question was what kind of radical you'd be." Along with fellow CCNY students such as Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Melvin Lasky, and Seymour Martin Lipset, Kristol opted for the Trotskyist brand, which had fewer sins to disguise than the Stalinists, who were forced to defend the Soviet Union's despotic leader.
The Kristols were drawn to socialism as much by the swirl of brainy energy behind the Trotskyists' relentless theoretical arguments as by the prospect of an egalitarian future. (Politics and study, Kristol once wrote, were outlets for the sexual energies of young men at the all-male City College.) "It was very stimulating intellectually to be a Trotskyist," Bea, who attended Brooklyn College, would later recall. "They were simply the smartest people around." In their lunchroom debates, these radical polemicists learned what Howe would famously call the "uses of the appearance of a coherent argument."
There was nothing personally rebellious in the Kristols' short foray into socialism, nothing suggesting disdain for their parents, their professors, their communities or universities. As noted by historian Alexander Bloom, the immigrant world in the 1930s was full of radical literature; the city's socialist college students "planned to be emissaries from their parents' worlds, not exiles." What would horrify the Kristols three decades later was the passionate bad manners of 1960s activists who spurned their parents, violently stormed campus offices, and shouted down police officers as "pigs" and government officials as "war criminals." "Our objections to 'the system' focused on issues, not individuals," Himmelfarb insisted. Neither could the Kristols countenance a political movement as determined to upset society's social order -- marriage and sex and gender roles -- as its economic order.
Irving asked Bea to marry him after four dates (foreign movies only for these cafe radicals), and waited a year for her parents' consent, as he sought to assure them that his future was brighter than his $13.89-a-week apprentice machinist job. The pair was never tempted to pursue the Bohemian lifestyle that captivated some young radicals. Irving "wanted a girl to love and marry," not free love. Politically, what Irving Kristol aspired to, what most of these precocious Jewish sons of East European immigrants in the 1920s and '30s aspired to, was less to upend the American way of life than to become the social conscience of the nation's thinking elite. The college diploma, to New York's radicals in the 1930s, was a ticket to American nobility. They faced rampant anti-Semitism and the systematic exclusion of Jews at preeminent universities such as Harvard and Columbia, but remained convinced of their rightful place at the top of the American pyramid. They self-consciously titled themselves "intellectuals" -- as if that were a career description -- and busily started up journals and magazines aimed at a thinking elite.
Unlike the 1960s radicals, Irving Kristol didn't harbor a natural aversion to authority. In fact, he rather liked it. After he was drafted in 1944, seeing action as an infantryman in Europe, he gained new appreciation for "army vigilance," which, he asserted, was the only check on his fellow soldiers, who "were too easily inclined to loot, to rape, and to shoot prisoners of war." He was an unabashed urban elitist who once wrote of the group of midwestern soldiers in his unit, "I can't build socialism with these people. They'll probably take it over and make a racket out of it." (A generation later, his urbane son Bill would leave office colleagues snickering behind his back after regaling them with an awestruck description of a Texas truckstop -- a thoroughly alien dining experience for him.)
Irving recalled that "it would never have occurred to us to denounce anyone or anything as 'elitist.' The elite was us -- the 'happy few' who had been chosen by History to guide our fellow creatures toward a secular redemption." Even Irving's attraction to Bea bespoke an inclination toward ancienne noblesse: Both were children of immigrants -- his father a garment subcontractor, hers the owner of a small glass manufacturing business. But Bea's quiet sophistication -- she would later describe herself as an "unregenerate prig" -- suggested an upbringing, in contrast with Irving's, of strong intellectual roots. Bea's grandfather had been a Hebrew teacher and her brother Milton became a leading religion commentator; her parents always expected her to attend both college and graduate school. Bea also attended the Jewish Theological Seminary as a college student and was trained in the faith's rigorous intellectual traditions. Moreover, like other learned New York Jews of the era, she had a keen interest in matters European, particularly British.
By age twenty-two, Irving Kristol was ready to leave the Trotskyists and nurse his ambition to become both an "intellectual" and a "writer." Like their comrades, the Kristols had opposed U.S. involvement in the "imperialist" war looming in Europe. Stalin's 1939 nonaggression pact with Hitler, freeing German tanks to roll across Europe, changed their minds. When Bea earned a fellowship to pursue graduate studies at the University of Chicago, Irving followed and took a part-time job as a railroad freight handler while awaiting the draft. He also attended classes at Chicago, and thus was introduced to a vibrant academic atmosphere that focused more on classics than radical politics. After the war, the Kristols' traditional marriage continued building on untraditional gender roles. When Bea was offered a scholarship to pursue a dissertation on Lord Acton in England, Irving again followed, busying himself with work on a novel. When they returned to New York in 1947, Irving joined Commentary -- an anticommunist, culturally highbrow Jewish magazine -- and within five years rose to managing editor.
Bea Kristol was, in the work she authored, Gertrude Himmelfarb. She kept her own name professionally, though insisting that this was no feminist statement; she was simply too lazy to change the paperwork. (Intimates, on the other hand, saw it as a calculated decision to maintain a voice independent of her more polemicist husband.) Himmelfarb's attitude toward work would be something difficult to grasp for those in the modern feminist era: She never envisioned herself pursuing a "career" even though she went on to write nine books, becoming a leading Victorian scholar. "It never occurred to me that I might become a professor," she said later. "I went to the university not to become 'credentialed' but to get educated. I chose the University of Chicago because I was told it was intellectually exciting. I got my graduate degrees by default, as it were. In order to get fellowships, I had to do the right things -- take courses, pass exams, write dissertations. In the process of doing those things, I somehow acquired the degrees."
The best way to understand Gertrude Himmelfarb is to place her in the same category as eminent Victorian women she studied, such as George Eliot or Charlotte Bronte, who opposed women's suffrage and thought it quite appropriate that men and women keep to their separate spheres in life. While Himmelfarb might not oppose the women's vote today, she became a vigorous critic of feminist politics in academia, and she defended the centrality of what multiculturalists deride as "Dead European White Males" in the curriculum. She criticized the feminist movement for promoting "equality rather than liberty" and "not the equality of opportunity for individuals but the equality of results for groups as a whole." Of modern women, she would say, "It's very sad, women who feel under this pressure to be a 'career' mom."
Himmelfarb was a working mother herself. But in her mind, she was merely pursuing her scholarly interests while tending her family. She worked at home, writing, and in university libraries, researching. When her two children, Bill and Liz, were born in the 1950s, she hired au pair girls to help out while they lived in London ("English girls from the countryside -- Mind you, all my English friends had proper nannies, and thought it rather outré only to have an au pair") and a housekeeper when they moved back to New York. She didn't go "to work" -- in the sense of having an outside-the-home job -- until Bill was twelve and Liz was nine, when she became a professor at City University of New York's graduate school and began teaching a couple of courses each week.
Quiet in demeanor, meticulous in her work, ever fretful of saying something publicly that might be factually precarious or misconstrued, Gertrude Himmelfarb never achieved the high profile of the vocal polemicists who populated the neoconservative movement. Nevertheless her tiny voice in person could slash opponents in print. New Republic contributor Roy Porter once described her as a historian who "has made it her mission to lay bare the pretentions of the founding fathers of modernity; her forte is exploding their pretentions with deadly elegance." The work she produced from the 1940s on, particularly her controversial studies defending the Victorian era, would lay much of the scholarly foundation for the conservative "family values" movement in the 1980s and 1990s. (What other college kid would get the opportunity, as Bill did, to cite his mother's work in the footnotes of his senior thesis?)
Timing and bloodlines practically ensured that Bill would be born with the soul of a contrarian. In December 1952, the month he was born in a New York City hospital, his mother was outlining a book challenging conventional wisdom about Darwin's legacy, and Bill's father had just earned widespread notoriety as an apologist for Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the years following the war, Irving Kristol was still a liberal, but -- like many other liberals of the era -- he was also staunchly anticommunist. In 1952, as McCarthy was blindly accusing hundreds in government, Hollywood, and academia of Soviet sympathies, Kristol wrote an essay condemning not McCarthy, but liberals defending the civil liberties of his victims. Although he labeled McCarthy a "vulgar demagogue," what his readers would always remember was his defense of the demagogue: "There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: He, like them, is unequivocally anticommunist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification."
Later, Kristol would express regret at not further disassociating himself from McCarthy. And, in fairness, Kristol was far from the only New York intellectual with a fuzzy position on McCarthy: Nathan Glazer later echoed regrets that he and other New York anticommunist liberals never articulated a respectable and moral position. But the McCarthy essay, Kristol's first serious plunge into political writing, set a pattern in the coming decades -- a poison pen that would take a fabric of truth and stretch it, his critics asserted, beyond the tent-poles of supportable fact -- just as he had in the McCarthy essay by ignoring widespread anticommunist sentiment among leading American liberals.
By the time Bill was five months old, the Kristols were back in England, where Irving co-edited Encounter, a start-up magazine funded by the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom, a collection of anticommunist intellectuals. Their six years in London were intoxicating. By day, Bea wrote her study of Darwinism. By evening, both Kristols mingled with prominent literary lights. For the first time in their lives, they met elected politicians, mostly deeply learned liberal Members of Parliament and their conservative counterparts. The latter revealed to the Kristols another world to which they'd never been exposed: vibrantly intellectual conservatism.
Their circle of friends included homosexuals as well, such as poet W. H. Auden. No one, said the Kristols (who would later become open critics of the gay rights movement) made a fuss, or frankly paid much attention, to sexual orientation. "We knew [Auden] quite well," recalled Himmelfarb. "He was perfectly open about his homosexuality, very accepting of it for himself. But if you talked to him about it, he would say it's a great misfortune to be a homosexual." Their Manhattan friends were not immune to the changing cultural mores that troubled both Kristols and later emerged as major themes in their writings. But the Kristols were less judgmental of their friends than of society writ large. Widespread divorce, a few out-of-wedlock children, but "very few scandals" was how Himmelfarb described their circle.
The Kristols returned to Manhattan in 1959, renting an apartment on Riverside Drive, in a building overlooking the Hudson River. Within weeks of arriving in the States, six-year-old Bill had shed his British accent and was consuming baseball statistics like popcorn. The Kristols wanted their children to pursue old-fashioned classical educations, where respect, discipline, and Latin figured prominently. So when the rote lessons of the French Lycée proved insufficient, they enrolled Bill in the prestigious Collegiate School for Boys, a five-block walk from their West Side apartment.
Collegiate was, its granite facing explained, "a place to attend to your soul" -- Protestant style. With its accented masters determined to turn each year's crop of young boys into proper Renaissance men, Collegiate easily could be mistaken for a British school. In fact, it was Reformed Protestant Dutch, attached to the West End Collegiate Church. Bill went to a school with a glass crucifix overhanging one end of the Flemish-styled building (the church) and an American flag overhanging the other (Collegiate School). One morning a week, the schoolboys were ushered into the Christian chapel to hear a moral lesson from the pulpit.
Other Jewish boys attended this Protestant school, and some, as they grew older, were troubled that they had been schooled in a Christian atmosphere. Bill and his parents were not. "We had gone through public schools, we had sung Christmas carols, it didn't matter," recalled the senior Kristol. "We were so secure in our Judaism," added his wife. Secure enough, in fact, that Bill's mother saw to it that her son attended Hebrew school at the Orthodox Congregation Shearith Israel, which blended the traditions of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Judaism. As nonkosher Jews whose display of faith mostly consisted of observing the high holidays, the Kristols were not permitted to join the Orthodox temple. But Himmelfarb, attracted to its upper-class style and intellectual rigor, was determined that Bill pursue his bar mitzvah studies there.
As parents, the Kristols didn't issue rules so much as set standards that Bill rarely crossed. As a youngster, he fit comfortably into Collegiate School, which had impressed Irving because the students, neatly attired in jackets and ties, stood up whenever an adult entered the room. Eager to overcome its aristocratic reputation, the school offered scholarships to a few needy high achievers. Still, the culture of the A-team prevailed. "There was this code," recalled Bill's friend Mark Farrell, who attended Collegiate on scholarship, "like the students there knew they were part of the winner's circle." To a public school student like Farrell, it was the kind of place where you noticed the smell of new books, where you felt awkward at birthday parties that looked more like adult cocktail receptions, where the kids' banter sounded dauntingly sophisticated and worldly. In seventh grade, Kristol and two friends precociously borrowed from the Greek myth of Hermes in naming their satiric magazine Turtle Scoops.
Billy, as he was known to friends then, didn't qualify as the most popular kid in school, but he was best friends with the kid who did -- Jimmy Warren, big shot athlete, student council president (and later a liberal-leaning TV pundit from his post as Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune). Billy was a little too condescending, a little to smart-alecky with his under-his-breath comebacks to be a class favorite. "Cynical with a somewhat condescending edge that could turn people off," was how Warren put it. Ken Turner, a scholarship student who went on to become a firefighter, saw the same personality trait: "When you're as opinionated as him you could rub people the wrong way, but he's so damn smart." Ted Merritt, one of a pair of students who annually competed with Bill for the class's top academic spot, agreed: "He didn't suffer fools gladly, but I think he had a real respect for people achieving in other [than academic] ways, like sports." In fact, Bill was consumed by sports, and his cutting style was just as likely to be employed in an argument defending the Mets as it was debating the merits of the antiwar movement.
There was something remarkably self-sufficient about Bill, as if his parents set his rudder early and let him cruise at his own, predictable bearing. His parents were neither a visible presence at school, nor at Bill's sporting events. If there was daylight left after school and activities, Bill would play pick-up basketball with friends. (As an athlete, Kristol wasn't a star, but he was intense and determined, bulldoggish in the workmanlike position he played for the school's soccer team.) On weekends the boys would ride the New York subways on their own to see the Knicks or the Mets or the movies.
Bill had an early obsession with electoral politics that his parents -- with no real interest in the gritty details of vote-stumping -- never understood. "To us, Washington was a foreign country," his father recalled. But Bill studied party conventions and election outcomes with the same zeal that he applied to studying batting averages. When he was twelve, he rode in on the back of Pat Moynihan's truck, handing out flyers in support of his unsuccessful campaign for New York city council president.
At Collegiate, Kristol's academic achievements earned him a spot near the top of the forty-boy class. In his high school years, Billy was the kid who could conjugate French verbs better than anyone, who readily qualified for advanced placement in European history. But he wasn't the egghead either, tied as he was to Jimmy Warren and Collegiate's popular clique. There's a relic of the era, a hippie-esque short film made by his high school friends (even the title bespeaks the late 1960s culture -- No Tracks on the Ground but the Ones He's Making) that opens with a scene of Collegiate students sitting in class, killing time while a teacher grades papers. As the classroom of scruffy-haired teenage boys erupts into loud chaos, a clean-cut Billy Kristol sits at his desk, neither part of the rowdies creating a ruckus, nor one of the loners absorbed in a book. What's striking is his awareness: He's watching the scene and the camera, connected but apart, seeing it all unfold even while he's in it (just as he would two decades later in the tumble of Washington politics).
In the late 1960s, Collegiate's other teenage boys weren't as immune as Bill from the counterculture sweeping the country. Their hair pushed the boundaries of Collegiate's above-the-collar rule; drugs and rock 'n' roll clashed with the Dutch Reform morals. Instead of meeting white-gloved girls at mixers, the most daring boys slipped off to smoky, slow-motion parties where they passed reefers to the strains of Hendrix and the Stones. They flashed each other peace signs and several banded together as a political party they called the SNOIDES, modeling themselves on the Dada art movement as they commented on "the boredom that infests this school like maggots on a fat pig." The Vietnam War, and the prospect of being drafted, weighed heavily on the minds of this set of Collegiate students, many of whom attended an anti-war moratorium in Washington. By contrast, Bill never went to Vietnam protests and didn't think much about the draft. (As it turned out, he didn't have to; his registration in December of 1970 came as the draft was winding down and few numbers were called.) His parents sheltered him from much of the unrest, once declining an offer of cheap rent on a Greenwich Village house because of that neighborhood's thriving counterculture.
As they neared graduation, Bill increasingly stood out from his classmates. His curly, ash-colored hair stayed short. He wore his camel-hair sports jacket to school without complaint. He didn't sneak off to drug parties or rock concerts. ("Bill's a baby boomer? Yeah, I guess he is, I never thought of him that way," his father would say in a telling remark twenty-five years later.) Bill's politics were at odds with his classmates', too. When several friends floated the idea of starting a group to foster pride among black and Hispanic students, Bill spoke out against it, arguing that Jewish students also faced discrimination but didn't organize for special recognition.
The boys at Collegiate knew Bill was different, too, because of the whispers about his father. In 1966, when Bill was fourteen, the New York Times revealed that in the 1950s the CIA had secretly funneled money into the Congress for Cultural Freedom and, by extension, the magazine Encounter that Kristol had co-founded in London. Irving Kristol denied any knowledge of the CIA connection. Nevertheless, in an era when the CIA was seen as the satanic arm of American imperialism, the rumors shaped his son's reputation as Collegiate's budding radicals passed the word that Irving Kristol was a reactionary mole. (Indeed, in the mouths of the teenagers, this New York Times report was contorted into a belief that the CIA financed Kristol's current magazine venture, the Public Interest.)
Shortly before Bill's graduation from Collegiate, Irving was invited to the school to give a lecture defending American policy in Vietnam. The students, long past the age when they jumped to their feet when an adult entered the room, asked questions that were skeptical, aggressive, even disrespectful. The elder Kristol grew visibly annoyed. One student stood up to say he hoped the domino theory was accurate and that communism would spread through Asia, rescuing its people from America's evil grip. Friends broke into applause.
Bill wasn't fazed by his classmates' abuse and would remain in political sync with his father. "We often wondered," said Stephen Rosen, one of Bill's closest Harvard friends, "why aren't we rebelling? We had good relationships with our parents. As a result, we saw nothing inherently unjust about authority, about somebody telling you what to do."
That Bill saw nothing unjust about authority -- nor any of the traditional social orders that had incited the defiance of his generation -- marked him as an ideal candidate for the Straussians, a school of political philosophy that one of its many critics has labeled "radical elitism." During his graduate studies at Harvard, from 1973 to 1978, Bill became a devoted follower of Leo Strauss, a twentieth-century philosopher who rejected the prevailing view that all thinking since the Enlightenment had, by definition, led to society's betterment. Strauss taught that "the beginning of wisdom -- not the end, the beginning -- is to take the ancients seriously again," wrote Bill's uncle, Milton Himmelfarb. Embracing science, technology, and liberal democracy, Americans considered their society a testament to human progress, looking backward from a vantage of superiority. But Strauss, wrote Gertrude Himmelfarb, taught that "great minds are great for all time, not only for their own time," and that "truth does not change, only beliefs do."
For Bill and other bright young conservatives on campus in the 1970s, Strauss held intuitive appeal. There was, first of all, the dizzying intellectual high of joining a small cadre of political philosophy students who considered themselves smart enough to mine the complex secrets of ancient thinkers such as Plato. There was, too, the Straussian language of morality -- "good" and "evil," "character" and "virtue" -- that offered a vivid counterpoint to liberalism's blurring of social and moral distinctions. And there was the thrill of pursuing a discipline that was so (to use a term that hadn't yet been invented) "unpolitically correct," brazenly tearing asunder modern America's assumptions about tolerance and equality and even democracy. For Straussian political theory was the black-diamond slope of scholarship -- as dangerous as it was difficult.
Strauss, a German Jewish immigrant who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s, taught for two decades at the University of Chicago before his death in 1973. Strauss's followers ranked him with the likes of John Locke and Edmund Burke. "There are many excellent teachers," Milton Himmelfarb once wrote. "They have students. Strauss had disciples." Strauss's widening circle of followers became influential (if widely reviled) on university campuses, where they settled into government or political science departments. Although dismissed by liberal colleagues, their courses were often popular because they were able to "address the souls of students," noted one adherent. Among the most prominent scholars associated with Strauss was Allan Bloom, whose critique of modern society, The Closing of the American Mind, became a best-seller on its release in 1987. Straussian graduate students from the 1970s, such as Bill, were second-generation disciples of the philosopher; in the 1980s and 1990s, as they moved into the upper echelons of academia and government, they would form an intellectual elite to counter a liberal elite's definitions of morality and justice.
The Straussians believed that the measure of a healthy society was how virtuous its citizens were -- not how much personal freedom they enjoyed, nor how equal their standing. Indeed, they saw inequalities as a natural (and age-old) element of human life. The rot of modern thinking, Straussians believed, was evident in the presumptuous social engineering by twentieth-century courts and government in such matters as school busing and affirmative action. Straussians also regarded as dangerous the anything-goes ethos of the 1960s, particularly in sexual matters. They raised alarms about liberation movements that led to legal abortion, single motherhood by choice, and civil rights protections for homosexuals. Straussians were concerned with personal behavior, the character, of people -- and, unlike liberals, they didn't shrink from judgment. They condemned the new tolerance underpinning public policies that offered sympathy and assistance, no questions asked, to poor women who continued to have children out of wedlock or homeless drug addicts who refused to seek treatment.
To be sure, this antimodernism of the Straussians was in keeping with a history of conservatism that resisted change (captured so concisely by William F. Buckley Jr.'s injunction to conservatives to "stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop!' "). But in contrast to other social conservatives -- leading Catholic thinkers such as Buckley Jr. or, in later years, Book of Virtues author William J. Bennett -- the Straussians arrived at their focus on old-fashioned virtue from a starting point devoid of religious faith. Indeed, like the liberal secular humanists they loathed, Straussians relied on human reason and generally lacked personal religious beliefs. Strauss, who believed his own Judaism to be a "heroic delusion" and "noble dream," wrote of the "incompatible claims of Jerusalem and Athens...." Milton Himmelfarb described Jewish Straussians as distantly respectful of their faith. "In general they think religion to be a good thing -- politically, of course, and for others: Strauss says that liberal education used to be for gentlemen and religious education for the masses. The philosopher's education began where the gentleman's left off."
Straussians believed that the ancient philosophers offered timeless truths that transcended the ages. These truths could be grasped by human reason and a life committed to a quest for true knowledge. Straussians drew a sharp distinction between these ancient truths and the changeable "opinions" guiding modern society's belief system. As modern Americans "it's so very hard for us" to respect the teachings of the past, explained Harvey Mansfield, Harvard's premier Straussian and Bill's graduate professor. "Not only do we believe in democracy, but we believe in progress. We think we're on the edge of things and everything has led up to us....You need a counterforce against the weight of present-day opinion."
As scholars, Straussians have drawn much criticism from university historians. Strauss believed that the writings passed down by classical philosophers contained timeless truths that could only be unlocked with rigorous and imaginative reading of their works. His method largely rejected the modern historical view that these writings were not just a product of great minds, but also should be studied in their context -- time, place, and social and economic circumstance. Straussians approached texts like Talmudic scholars, reading passages over and over, debating the author's true meaning and intentions, assuming that contradictions were there for a purpose. (A book or paper written by a Straussian, such as Bill's senior thesis, is laden with Ibid. footnotes, references almost solely to the work under consideration to the exclusion of comparative works or other analyses.) The most devoted Straussians also believe that ancient texts contain possible numeric codes: If there are seven chapters, is the author's true meaning found in Chapter Four, the precise middle of the text?
This "esoteric" reading of texts was based in part on the assumption that, historically, prophets of truth faced persecution: Socrates, for example, had been forced to drink the cup of hemlock after Athens's "mob-led, passion-ridden democracy" had convicted him of impiety. But Strauss also made a more controversial assumption -- that the great classical thinkers knew, as he knew, that truth was dangerous to society and should not be broadly circulated. Truth should only be accessible to a democratic aristocracy, one that by intellectual ability, interest, and character had devoted itself to the quest for true knowledge.
The idea of dangerous truths -- that philosophic truth might conflict with political or social order -- is not a new one, nor is it terribly offensive when one stops to consider the role that myths and manners play in civilized society. What led critics such as University of Calgary professor Shadia Drury to condemn the Straussians as "radical elitists" was their underlying assumption that they had a special claim on the truth. While Straussian philosophers, wise and good, could be entrusted to use their own reason, everyone else needed to live by moral codes as defined by traditional society, and by God. Straussianism, Drury argued, is "neither wise nor good. It is not wise because it cannot defend its beliefs before the tribunal of reason; it preaches only to the converted."
If Straussians considered religion a societal myth, they, unlike secular liberals, didn't believe this dangerous truth should be broadly circulated: Religion, with its clear moral standards, provided the life-glue to civilization. Straussians actively cultivated a deep and abiding respect for religion and those who practiced it; the clash between divine faith and philosophy, they believed, was a fruitful tension. "We Straussians always say that we're different from the other secularist academic types that infest our country because we take religion seriously," Mansfield explained. "But, on the other hand, you can wonder whether it's possible to take religion seriously without being religious."
As a graduate student, Bill shared his peers' belief that faith was for others, not himself. He wrote in his senior thesis: "Religion can, at least indirectly, cause democratic man to regulate his opinions and his tastes; by influencing men at home, it can moderate their public greed and restrain some of their passions....Men need dogmatic beliefs, and religious beliefs are the most desirable of all." A decade later, after he and Susan had three children and were living in the Virginia suburbs, he would return to the synagogue, explaining (in opaque Straussian terms) that "a moral basis for modern society has to come out of the biblical tradition to some degree. You're not going to reinvent Athens."
rdThe notion that society's health should be entrusted to a sort of democratic aristocracy, one whose membership rests on natural and cultivated intelligence and character -- not wealth or family lineage -- held a particular lure for young men who were Jewish or sons of immigrants. (There were few women among the Straussians.) For Bill and other right-leaning intellectuals like him, the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom, its roots with the aristocratic Buckley and Catholic social circles, wasn't a comfortable fit. The elitism of the Straussians was purely intellectual.
The Straussians offered "an invitation to join those privileged few who, having ascended from the cave, gaze upon the sun with unhooded eyes, while yet mindful of those others below, in the dark," Milton Himmelfarb wrote. Bill's family had long ago ascended from the cave: Both of his parents, and his uncle, were deeply influenced by the philosopher. But Bill had not truly begun his ascent from the cave until his first semester at Harvard in 1970, when, once a week, he pushed the elevator button at the Holyoke Center and traveled to the eighth floor. There, in assistant professor Mark Blitz's office, he and a handful of other students discussed and debated Plato's vision of a just society, while down below in Harvard Square, boarded-up shops tried to recover from the summer's spree of rioting by leftist protesters.
Blitz, a leading protégé of the eminent Mansfield, was still in his twenties when he taught those weekly sessions. He had a New York-bred fast mind and faster tongue; Bill immediately clicked with his instructor. What initially appealed to Kristol, and his friends Jim Muller and Bob McTiernan in that same tutorial, was Blitz's Straussian style of teaching. Never before had these young men read a single text so carefully, assiduously peeling each layer of onion, missing nothing. For Bill, it was like opening a window to a new world. He and the other students spent an entire semester on Plato's Republic, wrestling with troubling and fundamental questions about equality, democracy, and justice. The following semester they embarked on Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil.
To young men questioning the egalitarianism of the Left, the insights of the philosophers they studied offered fortitude, making the case that the leveling of society would lead to a worship of mediocrity. Certainly, this had its political implications, but there was also a personal attraction: The philosophers' acceptance of natural inequalities as an inescapable fact of life was liberating to brainy young men who had long ago looked around and realized that, No, everyone wasn't as intelligent or gifted or driven -- or as suited to political leadership. The notion that truth could be dangerous, or at the very least politically unacceptable, also rang true to students who had witnessed rising leftist orthodoxy on college campuses.
In his second year at Harvard, Bill enrolled in Mansfield's lecture course, Government 106, a staple of budding Straussians that surveyed political philosophy from Plato to Locke. Mansfield was a theatrical lecturer who spoke in hushed tones and riddles. He pitched his lectures high, leaving sophomores scrambling to keep up but attracting graduate students to return for second go-arounds, knowing there was always more to mine.
Bill and his friends were inspired by the professor's provocations. Mansfield wrote much about the weaknesses of American democracy: "Once democracy is established, the gravest danger may arise not from outside but from within....Populism undermines democratic legitimacy by making the government timid and the people impatient." Those who had the most to gain from modern American democracy -- principally women and minorities -- were the students most ill at ease in his class. Mansfield needled the students with sexist remarks and was a staunch opponent of affirmative action. (Twenty years later, he still had his doubts about coed campuses, noting that male students had become less high-spirited, turning into "premature husbands" in the presence of female company.)
As a graduate student beginning in 1973, Bill became part of a bumper crop of Harvard Straussians with ambitions to change the world. The friendships he brought from his undergraduate years included Alan Keyes, later ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council and far-right presidential candidate; Stephen Rosen, who became a Harvard professor of national security and military affairs; and Jim Muller, a scholar specializing in Winston Churchill's life. In graduate school, this group was joined by an even more devoted group of Straussians from Cornell University, where they had lived in Telluride House with Allan Bloom as their resident adviser. They included, among others, Francis Fukuyama, who later authored The End of History, asserting the universal triumph of capitalism and democracy; Stephen R. Sestanovich, a Soviet scholar who later served as ambassador at large in the Clinton State Department; and future author-professors Jeremy Rabkin, Arthur M. Melzer, and Robert P. Kraynak.
If the global issues facing these Harvard students in the 1970s weren't quite of the magnitude as those facing Irving Kristol and his friends at CCNY forty years earlier, you'd never know it. The Straussians were just as pugnacious, just as arrogant, just as certain that they held the nation's uncertain future in their hands. "It would never occur to anybody to say, 'Well, I don't think I'm really competent to pass judgment on something like that,' " recalled Eliot A. Cohen, who later chaired the Strategic Studies program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. Recalled Rosen, "We thought we were smarter than anybody else, full of piss and vinegar and testosterone."
Kristol was less intent on verbal conquest, more willing to listen to an opponent's arguments than the worst of his braggadocio friends. When he began teaching undergraduate courses, he was popular with his students. With fellow Straussian students, he eagerly shared access to the prominent figures in his family's life. If there were flashes of "famous father syndrome," rooted anxieties about measuring up to his last name, it could be glimpsed in one classmate's recollection: Bill would fill his lunch tray inside the student lounge and plant himself next to a fellow student who might be a friend, a competitor, or both. Then he'd offer this jarring conversation opener, "So who do you think, among the people we know, will become a legend in his own time?" But then, that story might have more to do with Bill's own internal drive, his propensity for networking and getting himself known, regardless of the fact that he had a father whose opinions appeared in the New York Times.
Kristol, Rosen, and Keyes roomed together in a cockroach-infested apartment during their first year of graduate school. (When the bikers upstairs noticed their neighbors' subscription to National Review, the trio could hear them ominously ranting about their uncontrollable urge to aim their shotguns at the "fascists" one floor below.) Between Kristol's barbed retorts to the latest stupidity on TV and Keyes's operatic voice pontificating on the devolving state of America, even Rosen could feel a little slow. They played touch football with the other Straussians on Saturday mornings, an outing open only to those who could present a coherent distinction between the moderns and the ancients (a test that typically unfolded something like this: "Oh, wow, let's see....Well, the moderns argued that you can know what's best for politics without knowing what's best for men, whereas the ancients have to know what's best for men before they could put together a state." "Okay, fine, you play center.")
After Susan and Bill married in 1975, they moved into an apartment near Radcliffe that quickly became the social center of the Harvard Straussians. Their friends would come over for dinner, settling onto the couples' brown corduroy couches, plates in laps, to debate everything from welfare reform to Plato's views on justice. The verbal jousting usually began with an opener such as: "I heard someone say that until the last poor person in the world is fed, we have no right to any additional possessions." Then they'd rigorously work through the proposition, debating such questions as, "Do the poor have first claim over everybody else in society?" and "Would people actually be better off with such a redistribution of wealth?" Even if they never reached a conclusion, the debate would leave these young Straussians on an endorphin high from the exercise of their restless minds.
Bill's scholarly influences during those years extended beyond Strauss, and included neoconservative social scientist James Q. Wilson, as well as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose 1976 Senate bid gave Kristol his first real campaign experience. But mostly he was shaped by the Straussians, particularly Mansfield. The Straussians offered a rich intellectual vocabulary to counter liberal views that as a freshman Bill could only dismissively label "stupid" or "self-congratulatory." If the Left talked about the moral consequences of declining cities, the Straussians could change the subject to the moral consequences of broken families in those cities. If the Left's activists talked about the immorality of the Vietnam War, the Straussians could respond by asking about the morality of Communism, which destroyed not only lives, but the human spirit. Even in foreign policy they invoked the language of morality and virtue and -- in sharp contrast to the Republican establishment -- eschewed the popular diplomatic jargon of "game theory" and "spheres of influence," terms which they considered soulless.
If the post-Watergate 1970s were a period of rampant cynicism about national leaders, the Harvard graduate students found in Strauss a place to park their personal idealism. For Strauss considered political life a high moral calling, with the potential to shape a society, its economic health, even the character of its people. Straussians were taught to appreciate the "magnificence of statesmanship, and to worry abut the conditions that make it possible," said Mark Blitz. Abraham Lincoln was one model, a president whose determination to hew to a standard of right and wrong, independent of popular opinion, led him to define the nature of equality and liberty. Winston Churchill, who could single-handedly will a depleted nation to continue resisting the Nazis, loomed as another huge and inspirational figure. In 1974, Bill and his friends celebrated the former prime minister's 100th birthday the British imperial way -- by roasting a pig.
Kristol would always harbor his own concerns about the dangers of the Straussian school promoting "a bunch of self-important jerks" by granting license to a democratic aristocracy. But he absorbed the alternative moral universe offered by the Straussians and put it to work in a political philosophy he would later label, "the politics of liberty, the sociology of virtue." His Straussian training would also provide a scholarly foundation to his opinion that educated elites have a civic duty to guide public opinion. As he would explain twenty years later: "I don't think 'all men are created equal' means everyone has the same judgment, capacity of judgment, or understanding. In a healthy society there would be elites that directly or indirectly shape the culture and people's understanding....One of the paradoxes of being conservative in the late twentieth century is that you're supposed to be for the elites, but today the elites are more liberal [than the people], so you end up being for 'the people.' And that can degenerate into a kind of dumb populism."
For Kristol, the best hope for democracy lay in what he would later call "guided populism." He would continue to live by the words he first typed in his senior thesis, that it "is necessary for those who now direct society to educate democracy." If there was one thing that Mansfield wanted his students to take away from their education, it was the importance, especially in a democracy, of standing up to the vagaries of public opinion. Bill absorbed that lesson, and with it the Straussian emphasis on reasoned men controlling the passions of a less enlightened populace. As Mansfield put it: "We live in a democracy, so you need the people on your side, but there is a difference between the present majority and what the majority might be. Changing the majority [opinion] requires a kind of courage, taking a risk to lead people from what they now think to what they might think."
But Straussian political philosophy also posed conundrums for these American students on two fronts -- religious faith and patriotism. Those students with strong religious beliefs tended to peel off and become "fellow travelers" who preferred to look to the Bible, rather than ancient Greece, for moral guidance. For a patriot (as American conservatives claimed to be), Strauss's critiques of liberal democracy posed a similar conflict: America was the embodiment of modernity, equality, democracy, and liberty to pursue one's own "happiness" -- all the things that presumably troubled the Straussians. Critics such as Shadia Drury questioned the Straussians' commitment to American democracy. But historian Gordon S. Wood explained it another way: The Straussians, he wrote, attempted to overcome these inherent conflicts by lavishing their scholarly attention on America's founding documents and the statesmen who crafted them; the Straussians found "natural truths" in America's origins that harkened back to classical notions of governance in ancient Greece. It was the Straussians, not historians, Wood wrote, who first "appreciated the fact that republicanism...meant not just an elective representative government but the virtue of self-sacrifice and an antipathy to commerce. And they saw, sometimes more clearly than many historians, that the Founders' great republican faith in the people was limited by their fear of direct democracy or of interested majorities."
Those words certainly capture the themes of Kristol's own Straussian writings. In his senior thesis, Kristol used French writer Alexis de Tocqueville's description of the American settlers' cruel treatment of Indians to demonstrate democracy's shortcomings and the greed and acquisitiveness arising from the country's commercialism. Reflecting a Straussian's skepticism that virtue can arise from economic self-interest, he described the skillfulness of the American colonialists in "satisfying their desires at the expense of others," and their tendency to succumb to short-term passions. "It seems that the natural inclination of a democracy, if left unattended, is to degenerate at least into a society whose members vainly try to satisfy vulgar passions, at worst into a despotism," the Harvard student fretted.
Kristol's Ph.D. dissertation on the American judiciary is a condemnation of activist courts, which by the 1970s had become a sympathetic forum for liberals unable to obtain the laws they sought in legislatures. But most of the paper's 494 pages are devoted to a Straussian-style meditation on what the authors of the Federalist Papers -- Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay -- intended when they made their case in support of the U.S. Constitution. Kristol emphasizes the "sacred maxim" of the Constitution's separation of powers, which modern judicial activists breached by making policy decisions originally intended for legislators. The Founders, Kristol argues, granted the judiciary a special role in curbing the public passions of the moment, and they expected judges to hew strictly to the Constitution, the original and fundamental expression of the people's will. This, he writes, is necessary "for the sake of the people's liberty."
Most, though not all, of the Harvard Straussians learned to live with the conflicts between their training and religious or patriotic beliefs. To the Harvard Straussians, contradictions and conflicts were a natural part of human life; only liberals, with their intellectually uninteresting earnestness, were naive enough to think conflict was unhealthy. "People never show their true face to the world," explained Rosen. "Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. You pretend to be good even if you know you're bad....It's a tribute to how powerful Good is. It's not dishonesty in the sense that you're living a lie, it's that this is the best you can do under the circumstances."
In 1977, when Billy Joel sang the line "We all have a face that we hide away forever" in his hit song "The Stranger," Kristol and his fellow graduate students joked that the singer must be a closet Straussian.
Copyright © 2000 by Nina J. Easton