The Practical Liberal by Christopher DeMuth

Christopher DeMuth, "The Practical Liberal," The American, September 22, 2009.


Irving was, from start to finish, a proponent of vigorous government within its proper sphere. He never passed up a chance to enter a dissent, serious or wisecracking, against libertarian-minded companions such as myself. So I note with some satisfaction that, apart from his war-time service in the U.S. Army, he spent his entire life in the private sector. Indeed his Army experience caused him to take “a solemn oath that I would never, never again work as a functionary in a large organization, and especially not for the U.S. government.” Of advice to public officials and politicians he was profuse, but it would never have occurred to him to compile a résumé, submit to a background check, testify before a congressional committee, or engage in the euphemism and compromise of active politics and policy making. As far as I know, his only ventures into the halls of government were for a passing stint on a humanities advisory council and occasional visits with presidents and legislators, culminating in his appearance at the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. His revealed preference was for private endeavor and entrepreneurship—founding journals and foundations, writing and editing manuscripts, raising and doling out money, and setting himself up as a job-training-and-placement service for policy activists and intellectuals. And for the satisfactions of unpolitical private life—teaching, learning, socializing, and always and everywhere reading (about everything under the sun) and arguing (preferably over a good meal and wine).

Among Irving’s greatest satisfactions was cigarette smoking, which he did with relish and without apology. Approaching 80, he developed lung cancer and had surgery to remove part of one lung. It was a success, and he responded with a panache that was characteristic but startling under the circumstances. “It was a great procedure!” he exclaimed with a broad, mischievous smile. And it was great—modern medicine gave him an extension of nine years, during which he argued cheerfully with friends, accompanied his wife through the writing of two new books and the preparation of two essay collections, and watched with quiet pride as his two children and five grandchildren continued to grow, prosper, and move the world in their own distinctive ways.

The American