William Kristol

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William Kristol (born December 23, 1952 in New York City) is an American political commentator and columnist. He is cast as a neoconservative for his advocacy for Israel and strong advocacy for projecting American power and for a strong American presence in the Middle East. Starting with the 1991 Gulf War, he continuously called for the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Kristol has recently been advocating for a preemptive military strike against Iran [1].

Kristol is an important public figure and journalist whose thinking and processes of argument should be clearly understood by progressives for several reasons:

  • Kristol is extremely well connected politically on the right and far-right of the American political spectrum. He is one of the most articulate Straussian pundits (as a former student of Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.) who regularly make appearances on television.
  • He is an engaging individual who clearly understands the role of personal relationships in the process of political argument. He is the right winger with the friendly smile. Note for instance, in his television appearances how Kristol consistently makes eye-contact with his interlocutors.
  • His arguments appear to be well-constructed, seemingly supported by facts, as opposed to other popular figures on the journalistic right whose arguments consist largely of name-dropping (for instance George Will), or bilious invective (Charles Krauthammer) or plain silliness (David Brooks). This is not to say that these arguments do not exploit logical fallacies such as question framing or clever uses of ad-hominem arguments. Kristol is particularly skilled at cherry-picking facts, such as polling data [2] or in dismissing counterarguments.
  • Kristol nevertheless also has intellectual weaknesses which are further explored below. Basically, progressives should keep in mind Kristol is an apologist for the American right, not an unbiased committed thinker. Moreover, in the 2004 presidential contest, Kristol has become a full-time apologist for the Bush administration, hardly distinguishable from the lesser shills such as Krauthammer and Brooks.
  • Kristol plays the good cop/bad cop game for the right. He seems moderate, willing to yield some points in an argument but fundamentally is the loyal servant of the right wing. This was recently displayed in his attack on Cindy Sheehan on the PBS News Hour [3]

Contents

Personal background

Kristol is the son of Irving Kristol, considered to be one of the founders of the neoconservative movement and Gertrude Himmelfarb, a Victorian scholar. Kristol graduated in 1970 from the Collegiate School, an elite preparatory school for boys located in Manhattan. Elite here of course is a euphemism for boys from primarily wealthy families. Collegiate (currently) does have an outreach program for minorities, but certainly Kristol's economic and social status when entering was privileged from the get-go.

In 1973 he received the B.A. from Harvard University graduating magna cum laude, and in 1979 the Ph.D. in political science, also from Harvard. During his first year of graduate school, Kristol was Alan Keyes' roommate. This detail is significant since later, in 1988 Kristol would run Keyes' unsuccessful 1988 Senate Campaign against Paul Sarbanes in Maryland. After teaching political philosophy and American politics at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Kristol went to work in government in 1985, serving as chief of staff to Education Secretary William J. Bennett during the Reagan Administration and was a collegue with Gary Bauer who served as Under Secretary of Education. Kristol then became as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle under the first President Bush. Later he became the leader of the Project for the Republican Future.

After the Republican sweep of both houses of Congress in 1994, Kristol established along with neoconservative John Podhoretz and with financing from Rupert Murdoch, the conservative periodical The Weekly Standard. In 1997 he founded, with Robert Kagan, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a movement credited in part for some the foreign policy decisions of the Bush administration. Kristol is currently chairman of PNAC and editor of The Weekly Standard.

Kristol is a regular political contributor to the Fox News Channel.

Kristol as a polemicist

Progressives should understand that Kristol regards argument and debate as a form of contact sport. This falls witin a tradition often taught in American elite prep schools, and carried on in the so-called elite universities, to view rhetoric and knowledge of the classics, as a means of intellectual manipulation. This intellectual swagger is quite manifest early on in Kristol's college career as the following vignettes illustrate.

During his second year at Harvard (Kristol was on a special 3-year Harvard program, so referring to him as a sophomore would be misleading), he was known to show up at the Radcliffe campus wearing a Spiro Agnew T-shirt. Kristol didn't particularly like Agnew but he enjoyed prickling the anti-war activists who were still plentiful at that time (1971).

In the fall of 1972, at the beginning of his final year as a Harvard undergraduate, a number of Harvard faculty signed onto an advertisement in the New York Times supporting Nixon's reelection bid. Student radicals at Harvard protested, and a small minority mostly affiliated to the Progressive Labor Party, called for the firing of Harvard professors who publicly supported this "war criminal." During these protests, Kristol provoked an argument with one of its leaders during an evening meal at the Radcliffe campus. The two undergraduates argued for several hours into the evening, Kristol defending the Nixon administration and questioning his opponent's commitment to academic freedom. It is reported that his future wife, Susan Scheinberg, witnessed the spectacle in amazement not at so much at his argumentative ability, but for his audacity. Indeed, Kristol was not even a Nixon supporter. In fact, in the spring of 1972, he had been the Harvard coordinator of Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson's presidential bid.

Kristol as a right-wing apologist

The following excerpt from Chapter 1 of Nina Easton's, Gang of Five referenced below sums it up best

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."

These principles are very much at the core of Kristol's support of what could best be called the imperialist project of the PNAC.

Kristol's style of argument

Kristol uses personal style effectively to frame arguments and effortlessly guide an argument in the direction most suitable for his purposes. Framing or question framing is a rhetorical device used in discourse to challenge an interlocutor and force a response within a limited range of options, all of which are unfavorable to the interlocutor.

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