We’re not all that adversarial on this side of the ideological divide of opinion journalism, and sometimes two institutions, such as National Review and Commentary, which marks its 75th Anniversary with the November 2020 issue, have genuine warm and friendly feelings, personal and institutional. Of the three recent editors of the journal, two have the last name of Podhoretz, and in the celebratory issue, now off the presses, dad Norman, who served as editor from 1960 to 1994, and son John, who has held that post since 2009, when he took over the reigns from Neal Kozodoy, have a wonderful discussion about what it means to be a magazine editor. It’s published here, and we offer a slice:
NORMAN: Let me tell you about the two articles published by Commentary that both resulted in the appointment of the author as ambassador to the United Nations—Pat Moynihan’s “The United States in Opposition” and Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”
Pat was a very, very witty man, very witty, one of the wittiest I’ve ever known, both in speech and on paper. But he wrote very quickly and sometimes sloppily. He had been ambassador to India under Nixon. And he came back at the end of his term with this long manuscript. So I read it and I was very excited by it, what it said, but it was way too long. So I mostly cut it and reorganized it and got it down to a manageable length of, I don’t know, 7,500 words, something like that. I met him at the Century Club in New York and nervously handed him the manuscript because I’d published things by him before, but they had not been as heavily edited as this one. And he sat in his chair with the manuscript and I sat next to him. That never happened. You don’t want to be in the vicinity of an author who you’ve edited. But he insisted I be there. And he held the thing and he kept casting away every page as he read it, he threw it on the floor, and hmm, hmm, uh-huh, hmm, mmm, like that. And finally when he finished, he had made not a single change, not one, not even a “the.” He understood exactly why I had done what I had done. And, instead of yelling at me, or grudgingly accepting me, he showered praises upon me. And the article turned into a classic.
JOHN: And Jeane Kirkpatrick?
NORMAN: Jeane was very, very academic as a writer. There’s a way that academics are virtually forced to write in order to gain credibility. And the result is often obscure to the lay reader.
JOHN: It’s that line from Yeats — “all cough in ink.”
NORMAN: Jeane’s 100-page article was unreadable. It was full of jargon, allusions that were not explained, so that most lay readers would be unable to follow it. So I had to cut it and do a lot rewriting in the process, because I had to join things together and so on and so forth. She very grudgingly accepted it, and the article was published as edited, maybe with a few changes. And it became a sensation. And somebody gave it to Ronald Reagan, and he later offered her the job as ambassador to the UN. She never either criticized me or thanked me. But years later, a friend of hers said to me, “You know, Jeane has never forgiven you for butchering her article.”
JOHN: The most self-confident, intellectually self-confident writers in my experience have very little problem with being edited. When editing triggers a defensive or hostile response, it’s because the writer himself is insecure and believes that he is coming under attack or criticism.
NORMAN: That’s exactly right.
JOHN: I sometimes tell writers I’m arguing with that I don’t do this for my health. I’d prefer to surf the Internet all day than to spend 10 hours trying to help turn something good into something that is the best that it could be. But that’s the job.
Read the entire discussion if you can — it’s packed with great anecdotes and observations. Other celebratory essays in the issue come from Joseph Epstein, “My Commentary,” and Matthew Continetti, “Learning from Commentary,” and then there are the usual jewels, the kind that one finds in every issue, such as Barton Swaim’s “The Know-Nothing Elite.”
We encourage our readers to get this special issue — and to even subscribe to Commentary (of course, after making sure you are an NRPLUS member). And we further encourage our readers to join National Review in a heartfelt expression of congratulations to John, Norman, Neal, and the many good people who, for a hell of a long time, have made and kept Commentary a vital voice in America’s public square.