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Sep 20

Written by: Diana West
Sunday, September 20, 2009 9:29 AM 

 

Funny what you learn from obituaries. Since Irving Kristol passed away at age 89 a couple of days ago, I have picked up a few things I never knew about his career and "neoconservatism" during the time I worked for Irving as an assistant editor -- intern -- at The Public Interest magazine, then in its original midtown Manhattan location at 10 E 52nd Street.

That was back in the fall of 1983. I was straight out of college, and the job paid about $10,000 a year, plus lunch (a very large lunch, usually from Burger Heaven across the street), and the occasional lottery ticket purchased with office petty cash on the condition, laid down by Irving, that if we won and all became millionaires, none of us could quit our jobs. And it was a great job  -- lots of reading, talking, smoking (too much) going on in that one room that contained the entire magazine staff, including, of course, Irving.

It was cosy, all right, but never claustrophobic, probably because of the huge office windows onto Manhattan. Irving sat at a desk in the corner, facing into the room. Next to him sat his secretary Rita Lazerro (I may have the spelling wrong). Beside Rita sat first Tod Lindberg, now editor of Policy Review, and later Richard Starr, now a managing editor at the Weekly Standard. I sat at the next desk by the door. Across from me sat writer Mary (Tedeschi) Eberstadt, and next to her, completing the rectangle, sat Mark Lilla, now a professor at Columbia. When I came to work at PI, Irving had just published Reflections of a Neoconservative. I remember trying to buy the book at a charming little bookstore in my upper East Side neighborhood (I lived at the 92nd Street Y) where the owner told me: I wouldn't carry Irving Kristol if he were the last author on earth. Which about sums up the liberal-conservative dialogue to this day. I bought the book in a midtown chain store. Irving signed it to "a collaborator!" I was in.

Assistant editors edited, also wrote and were edited by Irving -- an excellent learning experience given Irving's strength as an essayist of clarity and brevity. (My first experience with Irving's editing came with a review essay I had written in which I had taken particular care crafting the first, extremely descriptive page. It came back from him with a long pencil slash through ...  the first extremely descriptive page.) His obituaries note that early in his career he abandoned notions of book-writing, leaving both a history and a novel unfinished, to focus on essay and column writing. He became a master of the form. It has been noted that he continued to find writing inspiration in Shakespeare's Sonnets all his life. PI interns also came away with selections from the office book shelf of back copies of Auden's The Dyer's Hand, Oakeshott's On History, Irving's essay collections Two Cheers for Capitalism and On the Democratic Idea in America, and Gertrude Himmelfarbs' Victorian Minds. Himmelfarb -- Bea -- is Irving's wife. One of my favorite "Irving" stories was learning that these two great minds relaxed by devouring detective and spy fiction and watching TV cop shows -- simultaneously.

Equally as valuable as the editing experience was the education that came through listening to Irving make and take phone calls in the office. Such calls were often from his broker. They didn't yield much information but were somehow thrilling all the same. Someday, maybe, we thought, lunching on BLTs and chicken salad, we can be writers and have brokers, too.

Irving was always kindly but never casual; always accessible, and always helpful. (Long after I was an intern, he and Bea were both encouraging and very helpful when I was working on the proposal to The Death of the Grown-Up.)  We interns always took a proprietary pride in Irving's  achievments, in his wit and polemical style. Irving wrote at home and would usually arrive late in the morning for a varying length of time, sometimes bringing in his Wall Street Journal column, I want to say on a yellow pad but it sounds so antique, for Rita to type up. Of course, those days are antique. Pre-Internet, pre-computer, we worked on typewriters, read newspapers and magazines in hard copy, and worked with real pencils on actual paper manuscripts. We worked on our own pieces for PI and other journals. One pre-'Net duty that came to me as an assistant editor was to read a column of Irving's over the telephone to George Will -- which does sound fantastic but that's what I remember.

I didn't realize while I was going through it what a very ingenious pipeline Irving had put together to help young conservatives writers find their professional footing in a liberal medium. Today, there are scores of us either in journalism or politics who got their start at PI, which has undoubtedly changed the political conversation in this country in a lasting way. Which is an amazing testament, really.

But not surprising. Irving Kristol was an amazing man. 

 

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