The intellectual world will be a much poorer place with the death of Nathan Glazer. I had the good fortune to get to know Nat (as he was known) when I began working on the editorial staff of The Public Interest in its last decade of publication. Nat served as the journal’s co-editor with Irving Kristol who founded the journal in 1965 with Daniel Bell. For me, it’s hard to think of Nat without thinking of Irving and the editorial partnership that they forged over many years and decades. Irving was known, of course, as the father of neoconservatism, while Nat was, by the time I met him in the 1990s, a one-time neoconservative who had made a partial return to his liberal roots. Yet together these two very different intellectuals edited one of the nation’s most important and influential policy journals.
The offices of The Public Interest were located in Washington, DC, though their original headquarters were in New York City. Irving was a daily presence, coming into the office every day to review manuscripts, solicit new pieces, and of course, talk by phone with his co-editor Nat. Although we younger editors didn’t see much of Nat, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and taught at Harvard, he too was a regular presence. He wrote frequently for the journal, and he seemed to know a countless number of scholars whom he could draw upon to fill the pages of The Public Interest. It’s not as easy as it may seem to fill 128 pages (the journal’s typical length) with quality, original work. So, whenever it looked like we might be coming up short, Irving would have us get Nat on the telephone. Nat, as he would tell us, always has manuscripts in hand by his colleagues which are ready to go, or an original piece of his own in the back of one of his desk drawers. He never failed us in making it to publication in time with a full issue.
It seems instructive to ask, especially in these polarized times, how Nat and Irving succeeded in such a long and fruitful intellectual partnership, notwithstanding their political and philosophic differences. How did they do it, without coming to blows? I would begin by noting that they were good friends and in fact not so far apart as one might suppose. If Irving was a critic of liberalism, it was because he appreciated liberalism’s strengths and wished to protect it from its worst inclinations. Similarly, if Nat was a liberal, he was not I think it fair to say a progressive. Nat was skeptical of what social policy could achieve, and wary of its unintended consequences for individuals, families, and society. When it came to social policy, he was a follower of the Hippocratic Oath—that first, one must do no harm.
Nat and Irving shared something else in common that made their editorial collaboration run seemingly without friction. They were interested in ideas that were well expressed and true to social reality. They were not fearful of those with whom they might disagree, nor did they believe in monologues. They believed in meeting the other side’s best arguments head on, as well as engaging with each other when they saw things differently (as they often did). They shared a common faith in the respectful exchange of ideas and the intellectual endeavor of getting to the bottom of things.
Yet if Nat was modest when it came to devising policy solutions, he was fearless when it came to offering his opinions on such contentious topics as affirmative action, immigration and assimilation, multiculturalism, monuments and public art, or the serious problem of inequality in American society. I should add though, for the benefit of the born-digital generation, that when Nat offered his opinion on a hot button issue, it was nothing like the tweets and blogs that we daily consume from today’s “thought leaders,” as they are known. Nat came to his opinions, which he most often expressed in long essays of 8,000 words or more, based on rigorous research and deep reflection, while always adhering to the facts of the real world, not as we might wish things to be. This was another intellectual quality that he shared with his co-editor Irving, and was another factor in what make their editorial collaboration a success.
Nathan Glazer was a social scientist who understood the limits of social science and its child, social policy. He was a committed liberal who however eschewed ideological thinking of any sort. He had, as a prominent editor once remarked to me, a genuinely interesting mind. He saw more capaciously than most of us ever will, and was able to make sense of what he saw and then write about it in such a way (as Irving might have said) that all of us understood the world around us a little better than we did before as a result.
This was Nat’s invaluable service to the nation’s intellectual life, and one that will be greatly missed.