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Battler for the republic: Irving Kristol's terrible swift pen.

For more than four decades, Irving Kristol has been one of the most important figures in American social and political thought. As co-editor of Encounter and a writer for Commentary in the 1950s, Kristol was one of the principal shapers of the liberal anti-Communist consensus. As a founder and co-editor of the Public Interest magazine from 1965 to this day, Kristol has done more than any other American to demonstrate the unintended negative consequences of government programs. Throughout his career, Kristol has been the secular world's most articulate opponent of the erosion of serious religious commitment into secular humanism and nihilism. And since the 1970s, Kristol has served as one of capitalism's greatest champions and most trenchant critics, supporting a religiously based free market and policies such as supply-side economics while opposing avarice and amoral corporate conduct.

Kristol was born in 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrant Jewish parents. He graduated from Boys' High School in 1936 and went to City College of New York, where, as he writes, "The honor I most prized was the fact that I was a member in good standing of the Young People's Socialist League." From the now-fabled Alcove One of the City College cafeteria, Kristol and his Trotskyist friends conducted daily heated debate with the Stalinists in Alcove Two, who greatly outnumbered them. To be prepared for these battles, the Trotskyists could be satisfied with only the most disciplined arguments, the most rigorous preparation, and the most substantively founded contentions. It was in Alcove One that Kristol contends he received his "real education," by learning to "think logically," reading the works of the great anti-Communist Sidney Hook and others.

The alumni of Alcove One include Daniel Bell, Philip Selznick, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Melvin Lasky, while the most famous graduate of Alcove Two was the H-bomb spy Julius Rosenberg. Although most of the veterans of Alcove One have long since abandoned socialism and retain little philosophical attachment to their days as radical young leftists, the experience garnered in the movement was invaluable. Kristol has written that he has "no regret about that episode in my life. Joining a radical movement when one is young is very much like falling in love when one is young. The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love is so valuable it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment."

Mugged by Reality

Kristol joined the Army after spending a year in Chicago while his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, now one of America's most eminent intellectual and social historians, studied for her doctorate. It was in the Army that Kristol completely discarded his socialism. Living with "the masses" for the first time in his Army barracks, Kristol saw that his bunkmates were neither socialists nor the idealized common people he had read about at City College. He realized that a democratic socialism was impossible: ordinary people would adopt socialism only if forced to by a totalitarian, coercive state. With these lessons infusing his thought, liberalism would never be the same for Irving Kristol.

In 1946, Kristol landed a job as an assistant editor at Commentary magazine, which was published by the American Jewish Committee. Under its editor, Elliot Cohen, Commentary became one of the leading organs of the liberal anti-Communist consensus in the post-war era. Kristol was later offered the job of editing Commentary, but turned it down. The post went to his friend Norman Podhoretz, who still runs Commentary today, and like Kristol has been a towering figure in American neoconservatism.

In 1953, Kristol went to London to co-edit Encounter along with Stephen Spender. Encounter was the publication of the Congress of Cultural Freedom, an organization of liberal anti-Communist intellectuals from around the world. Unbeknownst to Kristol, the Congress was partially funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. When this was revealed in the mid-1960s with much consternation to the New York intelligentsia, Kristol was unconcerned. On one level, a simple look at some of the people associated with Encounter proved that the CIA had no editorial influence over the magazine. On another level, Kristol did not see anything wrong with the CIA to begin with.

Kristol returned to New York in the late 1950s, where he spent a year as editor of The Reporter magazine and took a job as a vice- president of Basic Books. In 1965, he founded the Public Interest magazine with his friend Daniel Bell. He has also been a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal since the 1970s. In 1986, Kristol left New York for Washington, where he is a John M. Olin Distinguished Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He maintains a morning office at the Public Interest and an afternoon office at AEI.

His essays have filled three books. On the Democratic Idea in America, published in 1972, deals primarily with social philosophy. Two Cheers for Capitalism came out in 1978 and deals with the connections between morality and economics. Reflections of a Neoconservative, published in 1983, is a compendium of Kristol's best essays on a variety of topics.

Anti-Communist Liberal

Kristol began his post-college political writing career with potent attacks on Communism. He was a core member of the anti-Communist left, which was centered around Commentary and the Congress of Cultural Freedom. Other integral thinkers in this group included Kristol's mentor Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, Robert Warshow, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Bell, as well as social democrats Irving Howe and Michael Harrington. These liberals and leftists opposed Communism primarily for two reasons. First, they saw it as a distinctly anti-liberal ideology that denied the free play of the mind, strangled creativity in the arts, and stifled basic political freedoms. Second, they feared that Communism would delegitimize liberalism in the eyes of the American people. It would be all too easy for Americans to fail to make the distinction between the evil ideology of Marx-ism and the promise of liberalism. The anti-Communist Left therefore was committed to dissociating itself from Communism by attacking it with full force.

Kristol's first major article of political concern, "`Civil Liberties,' 1952--A Study in Confusion," was Commentary's greatest strike at the Communists and the fellow-traveling Left. Communism "is an Idea," wrote Kristol, "and it is of the essence of this Idea that it is also a conspiracy to subvert every social and political order it does not dominate." Because of the anti-democratic nature of the ideology, he argued that Communists do not deserve the constitutional protections that define the society they seek to destroy. Thus, Kristol had no problem denying Communists civil service jobs, just as he would have no problem forbidding Nazis from teaching in a Jewish neighborhood or discouraging a businessman from paying "a handsome salary to someone pledged to his `liquidation.'"

It was Kristol's analysis of McCarthyism that made this article so distinctive. While Kristol characterized Joseph McCarthy as a "vulgar demagogue," he resisted the tendency of many of his colleagues to lionize the targets of the Senator. On the contrary, he ridiculed the alleged subversives for their intellectual cowardice in hiding behind the Fifth Amendment and refusing to defend their beliefs when pressed. Kristol reserved as much obloquy for their liberal defenders, who could not understand that the opposite of a wrong (McCarthy in this case) was not automatically a right. It is on this topic that Kristol penned one of the most quoted and controversial lines published in the 1950s. "For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification."

Kristol's writings about Communism demonstrated above all an understanding of complexity and a distrust of ideology. While most Americans either sided with McCarthy or with his targets, Kristol was one of the few able to see that both could be wrong. Even in the most polar of times, Kristol was strong enough to avoid being drawn to an extreme, as most of his contemporaries were.

Kristol's appreciation of complexity explains why he was so opposed to abstract ideologies. He understood that people are too complex for a scientific system like Marxism to manage. Ideas and ideologies that try to perfect the world neglect the mixture of good and evil in human nature. Even the most flawless theory has unintended consequences when put into practice. This philosophy stayed with Kristol, and has constantly informed his work. It is most significantly manifest in the journal that he founded and edits, the Public Interest.

Character and the Public Interest

The Public Interest was founded as a forum for empirical analysis of the burgeoning welfare state. It espoused no philosophical opposition to government programs. If a government program could help the people it intended to, Kristol and his colleagues would support it. The Public Interest was distinctively non-ideological in the sense that it was not committed to a particular way to get from Point A to Point B. Sociologist and current co-editor Nathan Glazer describes this characteristic of the magazine's early years best in his contribution to the 20th-anniversary issue, "Interests and Passions," where Glazer writes of the early Public Interest,

A principled opposition to government involvement in these areas did not need to be discussed: It was clearly"ideological," just as Marxist insistence on the necessary conflict between the social classes was ideological. Rather, the proper scope of argument over arrangements in these areas was technical, and among these, policies that made use of economic incentives to achieve publicly beneficial action....But this was not considered ideological; this was practical, in avoiding costs and heightening efficiency.

The men who wrote for the Public Interest were some of America's foremost social scientists. Regular contributors included many of the familiar names of neoconservatism--Kristol, Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Edward Banfield, James Coleman, James Q. Wilson, Roger Starr, Thomas Sowell, and Daniel Bell. The works of Jude Wanniski on supply-side economics, Charles Murray on poverty, and Lawrence Mead on welfare were launched in the pages of this journal. The primary weapon of the writers for the Public Interest was "the law of unintended consequences," which was used to show the multiple of negative effects that can arise from the pursuit of a single good. Not only was the work incisive and prescient, but it was lasting; many leading graduate programs in government and public policy assign back issues of the Public Interest as required reading.

Though the early issues of the Public Interest reflected what Daniel Bell called "the end of ideology"--the idea that all policy problems could be solved technically--changes started to occur in the 1970s. In 1971, constitutional scholar Walter Berns wrote a lead article advocating the censorship of pornography, and Bell questioned fundamental aspects of capitalism in a subsequent essay. Kristol responded to these changes in a 1972 Editor's Note, in which he wrote that social science would no longer be enough for the Public Interest. Rather, questions about the "ultimate goals" of society would have to be asked, because the political problems of the day demanded it. Kristol determined this as he came to the realization that anti-pollution advocates were not only railing against dirty air but against technology, and consumer advocates were not complaining about labeling but about free enterprise. Fundamentals of political philosophy and human nature could no longer escape examination in the pages of the magazine.

Kristol's decision to move the Public Interest from sociological critique to moral questioning reflected a change in neoconservatism. Any remaining idealism from the liberal pasts of many of these writers was now gone. The belief that human nature was fundamentally good and that people would prosper if only given the proper utensils was now understood to be fallacious.

James Q. Wilson explored this change in his 1985 essay, "The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy." Wilson shows how many of the early articles in the Public Interest calling for policies, such as a negative income tax or family allowances, have been disavowed by their authors because they do not take into account the character of the recipients. As Wilson wrote in exploring the new-found importance of character to the writers for the Public Interest, "But for most social problems that deeply trouble us, the need is to explore, carefully and experimentally, ways of strengthening the formation of character among the very young. In the long run, the public interest depends on private virtue."

Defender of Faith

Perhaps the most significant manifestation of Kristol's conservatism has been in his writings on religion. Considering that Kristol wrote about religion in the 1940s and did not return to the subject until the 1980s, his thoughts display a remarkable continuity. In both decades, Kristol laments faith in pure reason, political liberalism, and, most of all, the domination of secular humanism over traditional religion.

In "The Future of American Jewry," published in Commentary in August 1991, Kristol defined secular humanism as a religion in disguise that "can be summed up in one phrase: `Man makes himself.' That is to say, the universe is bereft of transcendental meaning, it has no inherent teleology, and it is within the power of humanity to comprehend natural phenomena and to control and manipulate them so as to improve the human estate." The tool of the secular humanist is his reason, which he uses to understand and infinitely improve the world.

Kristol argued that the philosophy of secular humanism strikes a dagger at the heart of religion. While secular humanism teaches that man can distinguish right from wrong through reason, religion instructs him to look to tradition, faith, and the collective wisdom embedded in history. Because secular humanism is so focused on the individual's exercise of his reason, it cannot provide the transcendent moral structure that religion can. Kristol contended that secular humanism "is the source of a spiritual disarray that is at the root of moral chaos."

In seeking to fill the spiritual void created by secular humanism, man has turned to numerous chimeras. One is political liberalism, which, like secular humanism, is intensely melioristic. Kristol explored the contradictions between liberalism and religion in several articles in Commentary in the late 1940s. These articles generally focused on his fellow Jews, whom he regarded as especially susceptible to secular humanism because of the orientation toward good deeds that is so central to the religion. But his critique was not limited to Judaism; he wrote with great passion about the tendency of liberalism to tell man that doing good is the sole meaning of religion. He especially decried "the transformation of Messianism into a shallow, if sincere, humanitarianism, plus a thoroughgoing insensitivity to present spiritual problems."

Kristol has likewise been critical of another attempt to fill the spiritual void created by secular humanism. In a 1949 Commentary article, "God and the Psychoanalysts," Kristol faulted Freud for seeking to replace the lessons of religion with a formula for happiness and fulfillment supposedly based on scientific reason. Even worse, suggested Kristol, was the extension of psychoanalysis into the domain of religion itself. Kristol quoted the dean of Hebrew Union College, a major Jewish seminary, who declared that religious teachings should be screened to examine whether "they strengthen or weaken the mental and emotional health of the common man." As Kristol saw it, secular humanism was threatening religion not only from without, but from within.

Alienated Intellectuals

Kristol also attributes to the loss of religious faith what the great literary critic Lionel Trilling has termed "the adversary culture." The adversary culture is composed of the permanently disaffected and alienated members of society who wear tie-dyes instead of ties, prefer the Third World (or any world, for that matter) to the United States, and smoke pot instead of salmon. No longer believing in God or country, the adversary culture is stumbling in a blinding whirl of protests, complaints, and arguments in search of that nexus of spiritual meaning that all people need to survive.

Kristol explored the historical roots of the adversary culture in several essays from the mid 1970s. Most of these are found in his 1983 collection, Reflections of a Neoconservative. In these essays, Kristol contended that the adversary culture is the intellectual descendant of the French Enlightenment. Like the adversary culture, the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution rejected religion with all of its built-in checks on man's power to change the world. The refrain of the revolution was "Universal Regeneration of Mankind," and it sought to destroy any institution or tradition that could not be justified by reason. For the first time, the realization of utopian fantasy was seen as a real possibility. While previous crafters of the model society, from Plato to Thomas More, knew that any attempt to realize their dreams would lead to horrific unintended consequences, the Jacobins had no such scruples. Kristol held the French Revolution accountable not only for the adversary culture, but for more pernicious forms of utopianism, such as Marxism and Nazism.

In the contemporary United States, Kristol has argued that the adversary culture is sustained mostly by university professors who are alienated from and disillusioned by bourgeois society. Mass higher education has spawned a vast population of intellectuals who accept the benefits of free time and tenure, and proceed to rail against the capitalist society that supports their lifestyle.

Kristol contends that these intellectuals are a historical anomaly. For the first time, bourgeois society has intellectuals who find themselves at odds with the goals of society rather than the failure of the citizenry to reach those goals. They feel superior to bourgeois society, which they regard as unambitious and boring. As Kristol has written, "the class of people we call intellectuals--poets, novelists, painters, men of letters--has never accepted the bourgeois notion of the common good...[they regard bourgeois standards as] a `vulgar' conception of the common good--there is no high nobility of purpose, no selfless devotion to transcendental ends, no awe-inspiring heroism."

While the intellectuals have stayed cloistered in their ivory towers, their students have descended upon the real world as what Kristol has called "the new class." Kristol characterizes the new class as "scientists, lawyers, city planners, social workers, educators, criminologists, sociologists, public health doctors...[who] find their careers in the expanding public sector rather than the private...[who] are acting upon a hidden agenda: to propel the nation...toward an economic system so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfill many of the traditional anticapitalist aspirations of the left."

Their favorite word is "externality," which they use to justify the transfer goods and money from the private sector to the public sector through the government agencies that they staff. While they may speak in the language of environmental concern or safety, there is a deeper meaning. As Kristol wrote, "They may speak about `equality'; they may even be obsessed with statistics and pseudostatistics about equality; but it is a religious vacuum-- a lack of meaning in their own lives, and the absence of a sense of larger purpose in their society--that terrifies them and provokes them to alienation and unappeasable indignation."

The Moral Roots of Capitalism

Kristol entitled his collection of essays dealing with economic issues Two Cheers for Capitalism. No economic system, Kristol contended, can earn that third cheer by itself. Economies supply only goods, not the good. As one of capitalism's greatest champions, as well as one of its toughest critics, Irving Kristol believes that the best economic system is a free market embedded in traditional religious values.

Lacking utopian fantasies, bourgeois society is content and does not seek to remake the world. It understands the restraints of history and the demands of tradition that are essential to religion. It is, as Kristol says, "primarily a society oriented toward satisfying the ambitions of ordinary men and women. These are modest ambitions....They are...domestic ambitions: bettering the economic conditions of one's family, moving from a `rough' neighborhood to a `nice' neighborhood, and above all offering one's children the possibility of moving still further ahead in economic and social status."

Capitalism is the only economic system for bourgeois society. Through the voluntary exchange of the marketplace, individual needs can be satisfied no matter how mundane they may be. The successful capitalist must know the needs of his community and what changes it would consider better rather than worse. If he becomes alienated and loses touch with his neighbors, he will not produce what they need and will not prosper. Capitalism is not an economic philosophy of utopianism; it is one of practicality. Kristol contends that capitalism must be embedded with the understanding that the point of an economy is only to materially supply the people. A successful capitalist economy will subsequently provide people with the free time to pursue the higher and finer things in life. But to work effectively, a market economy requires a set of moral values that come from outside capitalism.

Thus, capitalism and a religiously based moral society are ultimately dependent on one another. In order for a market economy to prosper, it cannot be orphaned from the bourgeois society that supports it. Capitalism provides the things a bourgeois society needs to survive, and bourgeois society provides the moral basis that the market needs to function effectively. As Kristol said in his Francis Boyer lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in 1991, "If you de-legitimize this bourgeois society, the market economy--almost incidentally, as it were--is also de-legitimized. It is for this reason that radical feminism today is a far more potent enemy of capitalism than radical trade unionism."

Kristol contends that the most destructive forces against capitalism are those that threaten the social fabric. In order for capitalism to work, it needs to be embedded in a stable and morally confident culture. That is why radical feminism, which seeks to change the fundamental arrangements of society, is so detrimental for a market economy. While capitalism can produce the wealth that an adversary culture needs to prosper, it cannot withstand the onslaught against bourgeois values that it promulgates.

According to Kristol, the essential spirit of American capitalism was captured by Horatio Alger, the author of the popular boy's stories from the 19th century. Alger's protagonists "insist[ed] on a continuity between private ethics and the social ethic of a good society." Their profits were garnered while they were practicing "the bourgeois virtues [of] probity, diligence, thrift, self-reliance, self-respect, candor, [and] fair dealing."

"The Last, Best Hope of Democratic Capitalism"

Kristol's vision of a morally based capitalism has intellectual roots in the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment and its progeny, the American Revolution. Even the original capitalist thinker, Adam Smith, believed that free markets could only work in an atmosphere and a society where conventional morality was practiced. In formulating this theory, Smith did not even consider a society without what Kristol calls "the Puritan ethic, the Protestant ethic, the capitalist ethic...frugality, industry, sobriety, reliability, piety." Smith felt that he could afford to be unconcerned with art and culture, with such affectations left in the hands of the ultimately sensible population. As Kristol said of Smith, "That amiable, decent genius simply could not imagine a world where traditional moral certainties could be effectively challenged and repudiated."

As Smith realized, self-interest alone could never guide a society to the good. That same self-interest that drives capitalism has to be honed and disciplined by morality and religion in order for a society to prosper. Thus, as Kristol points out, it was possible for the capitalist Adam Smith and the traditionalist Edmund Burke to respect and admire one another. This was so because they "saw no intrinsic difficulty in reconciling the commercial spirit, with its emphasis on individual liberty, to the prescriptive claims of traditional institutions and traditional modes of individual behavior."

Kristol reveres the American Founders for establishing a conservative political system in the wake of a revolution. The American Revolution was, in the words of Tocqueville, a revolution marked by "a love of order and law." Their temperament was so conservative that, as Kristol describes in a 1976 essay, "The American Revolution as a Successful Revolution," "[they] went on to create the new political order, held the highest elected positions in this order, and all died in bed." Kristol maintains that the greatest product of this Revolution, the Constitution, is "dry, legalistic, and lacking in eloquence."

Kristol has been sharply critical of contemporary business executives for failing to sustain a culture in which capitalism can thrive. Unlike the days of Horatio Alger, when everyone knew about Harriman, Rockefeller, and Mellon, "Not only do we not know who the chairman of General Motors is; we know so little about the kind of person who holds such a position that we have not the faintest ideas as to whether or not we want our children to grow up like him." As a result, the anti-capitalist adversary culture has a target with no armor of respect or virtue to protect it.

Business executives, according to Kristol, have similarly failed to understand the indispensability of a bourgeois culture to their enterprises, and therefore have never sought to defend it against its attackers. Instead of defining the legitimacy and benefits of their operation to the American people, businessmen focus on being "socially responsible" by serving as university trustees and on museum boards. They subsequently find themselves either supporting or apologizing for the cultural Left that is set to destroy them.

Kristol has been harshest of all in criticizing businessmen who profit directly from the adversary culture, seeing "nihilism not as an enemy, but rather as just another splendid business opportunity." Blind to the self-destruction generated by supplying a culture fundamentally at odds with its principles, Warner Brothers defends profiting from the sale of the lyrics of Ice-T and CBS celebrates single-parent households in Murphy Brown.

Since businessmen were not going to save capitalism, Kristol set out to do it for them. It is in this vein that Irving Kristol embraced supply-side economics. The point of supply-side economics was to cut tax rates to spark the entrepreneurial spirit that would increase investment. More important, Kristol regarded supply-side economics as the way to bring America back to a moral and personalized capitalism. As he said, "[It is] the last, best hope for democratic capitalism in America, and if it fails--well, then conservatives can concentrate on nostalgic poetry and forget about political economy."

Not wanting to spend the long nights pouring through dusty volumes of Coleridge and Eliot, Kristol played a key role in the development and promulgation of the theory of supply-side economics. He published the first popular article on supply-side economics in a Jude Wanniski article in the Public Interest in 1975. He then arranged for Wanniski to spend a year at American Enterprise Institute, where he wrote The Way the World Works. Kristol also arranged a meeting between Wanniski and Congressman Jack Kemp, who in turn enthusiastically embraced supply-side economics and became its greatest champion on Capitol Hill.

Neos and Libertarians

Irving Kristol is often called "the godfather of the neoconservatives." He accepts the political label, quipping that "a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality." (Another way of putting it may be that a neoconservative is a conservative who didn't vote for Goldwater.) Neoconservatives share the traditional conservative skepticism about modernity, the liberal belief in a welfare state, and the practical man's distrust of ideology. The familiar names of neoconservatism are Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard John Neuhaus, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Midge Decter, William J. Bennett, Seymour Martin Lipset, James Q. Wilson, Aaron Wildavsky, and many others. This is such a politically diverse group--Bell, Glazer, Moynihan, and Lipset, for example, never joined Kristol, Bennett, and Kirkpatrick in the ranks of conservative Republicans--that many observers have suggested that the term "neoconservative" no longer has any meaning.

The term is still valuable, however, in describing a grudging willingness to accept a certain number of government programs. In this sense, almost all conservatives active in politics and most in the intellectual world are neoconservatives. Even Ronald Reagan, for all his anti-government rhetoric, in practice made his peace with Social Security, federal civil-rights laws, and other government programs that Barry Goldwater campaigned against in 1964. Almost every leading conservative-policy idea today--from vouchers for private schools to consumer choice health plans to tenant management of public housing--involves some acceptance of the role of government in social policy and is therefore in the neoconservative tradition.

The most important conservative criticisms of Kristol and the neoconservatives, therefore, come from libertarians upset with what they call "big-government conservatism"--an acquiescence of the neoconservatives to a large federal government in Washington. Kristol returns the criticism; he has faulted libertarian thinkers from Bernard Mandeville to Ludwig von Mises for failing to understand the way in which capitalism is dependent upon a bourgeois society embedded with traditional religious virtue. Kristol contends that libertarians are dead wrong in thinking that capitalism can run on automatic pilot with everyone acting in their own self-interest. The nihilistic libertarian theory of "whatever is, is just" that runs through their writings is anathema to neoconservatives who agree with James Q. Wilson that "the public interest depends on private virtue."

Kristol now lives in Washington, where he maintains a morning office at the Public Interest and an afternoon office at the American Enterprise Institute. His greatest influence on American politics probably comes through his son William, who is the chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, and is universally regarded as one of the best conservative minds in Washington.

The elder Kristol's greatest concern about America has to do more with culture than politics. Kristol considers nihilism "the problem in our future." Against this enemy, he has devoted his lifework to defending capitalism, the American political tradition, and bourgeois civilization grounded in religious truth.
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Title Annotation:founder and editor of Public Interest journal
Author:Gerson, Mark
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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