Magazine | August 16, 2010, Issue

The Prize Fighter

Norman Podhoretz: A Biography, by Thomas L. Jeffers (Cambridge, 393 pp., $35)

‘It’s important to have enemies, because everything depends on the kind of enemies you have,” Norman Podhoretz once told Cynthia Ozick. It is the kind of quote you would expect from a politician, not a magazine editor with a literary bent. Yet this influential and contentious intellectual has certainly made his share of enemies over the years, and they largely have been the right kind of enemies.

Along with William F. Buckley Jr. and Irving Kristol, Podhoretz stands as one of the most important architects of conservatism in the late 20th century. With Kristol, Podhoretz is a founding father of that much-maligned group, the “neoconservatives.” His 35-year editorship of Commentary spanned a time of great political and social change in America and his personal political odyssey was deeply shaped by those changes.

Now comes the first full-scale biography of Podhoretz, written by Thomas L. Jeffers, a professor of literature at Marquette University. At first glance, an English professor might seem like an odd choice for the job. Today, most people know Podhoretz for his writings on politics and foreign policy. But Jeffers’s book reminds us that Podhoretz came to politics through literature; his early works dealt almost exclusively with it. He was a star pupil of Lionel Trilling at Columbia and could have had a prominent academic career had he not been drawn — willingly and gratefully — into the world of the New York intellectuals of the 1950s.

Podhoretz was born in 1930 and raised in the lower-middle-class ethnic and racial stew that was Brownsville, Brooklyn. A grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Podhoretz showed early both academic promise and a wealth of self-confidence. A strict but caring teacher guided his studies, trying to transform this “slum child” into a gentleman of letters.

A full scholarship to Columbia was followed by graduate studies at Cambridge University. One of his earliest major publications was a review of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March; Bellow was angered by the review, and there’s some evidence he held it against Podhoretz for years.

Podhoretz’s ascent was interrupted by a short stint in the Army, after which he joined the staff of Commentary (where a young Al Pacino worked briefly as an office boy/mail clerk). Podhoretz began writing reviews and essays for The New Yorker, Partisan Review, The New Leader, and The New Republic. He had left Brooklyn for Manhattan forever.

Contrary to the stereotype of an era of conformity and cultural stagnation, the 1950s was a high time for intellectuals in the U.S. More students going to college meant more academic jobs for intellectuals. A growing middle class meant more of an audience for literary/intellectual magazines that would employ writers like Podhoretz (at rates that would make today’s freelancers envious).

It was also the high point of liberal anti-Communism. Liberals, bolstered by former Marxists and Trotskyites, were not shy about condemning the sins of Communists and their fellow-travelers. This was the milieu in which Podhoretz began his career. In 1960, at the age of 30, he was named editor of Commentary. He was at that time a fairly standard anti-Communist left-liberal. (In 1964, he called Goldwater supporters “really vicious.”)

In the early 1960s, Podhoretz rode the increasingly liberal cultural wave. Norman Mailer was a close friend; another was Jason Epstein, who would found The New York Review of Books and invite Podhoretz to be its editor (Podhoretz declined). During this period, Commentary published excerpts from Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, an influential precursor of the coming counterculture, as well as Norman O. Brown and James Baldwin.

It would be a mistake to call the Podhoretz of this period a radical. A few years earlier, he had written an essay titled “Know-Nothing Bohemians,” attacking Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac for being “hostile to civilization.” Forget about the lunches with Jackie Kennedy and the drinking with Mailer; at heart Podhoretz had always been a member of the middle-class bourgeoisie and his gradual shift to the right would further intensify his identification with those values.

#page#His time in Europe had left him with a distaste for cheap anti-Americanism. From his days with Trilling at Columbia, Podhoretz would always retain a strong streak of cultural conservatism, a kind of elitism that wanted to defend the best of literature and Western civilization. Years later, Podhoretz would write: “My line from now on must be elitist in culture, anti-elitist in politics.”

A shift in Podhoretz’s politics began with his 1967 memoir Making It. The critical reaction was negative, often harshly so. Many of his friends resented their portrayal in the book. Some reviewers thought the author’s effort self-serving and self-aggrandizing. In many ways the book was jarring. Published at the height of great social and cultural change in America, it celebrated an older notion of American success, a modern intellectual’s rags-to-semi-riches tale. Podhoretz’s main sin was honesty. Writers and intellectuals weren’t supposed to care about success, but here was one of their own proclaiming, even celebrating, such worldly goals, even as other liberals became increasingly focused on the ills of America, from racism to the war in Vietnam. Intellectuals were supposed to be alienated from the larger society, and here was one of their own proudly claiming a stake in it.

The book, as Podhoretz later said, was “a kind of blasphemy.” It argued that “it is possible to live a reasonably decent life and maintain one’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual integrity without becoming a revolutionary.” If Norman Podhoretz was becoming alienated from anything, it was from the leftward drift of American liberalism.

In 1970, while walking alone on a winter’s road in upstate New York, Podhoretz had a mid-life crisis/spiritual awakening. Jeffers is not entirely clear as to what happened, but it seems to have been a result of the combination of turning 40, the depression that had set in as a reaction to the criticism of Making It, and the dislocations in American society during the late 1960s. All had taken their toll on Podhoretz; the resulting epiphany made him take his Judaism more seriously and quit drinking.

It also opened a new chapter in which Podhoretz and Commentary would more forcefully criticize the New Left, black radicals, the politicized university, and the counterculture. Podhoretz still considered himself a “left-liberal,” but was increasingly torn. He was generally against the Vietnam War, but sometimes felt “inclined to support” it “simply out of the huge well of contempt I feel for most of the people who oppose it.” On race, Podhoretz criticized the militancy of black radicals, worried about black anti-Semitism, and opposed affirmative action and racial quotas.

Again, this is not a complete reversal of opinion. In 1963, Podhoretz had written an essay titled “My Negro Problem — And Ours.” It was a brutally honest and awkwardly personal account of race relations in which Podhoretz condemned as simplistic the idea of universal white guilt and universal black innocence, all while arguing that the way out of America’s race dilemma was through miscegenation. The essay was a sign, even in the Golden Age of civil rights, that Podhoretz’s views on race had always been somewhat less than romantic.

If there was one area where Podhoretz made the biggest impact, it was foreign policy. He spent much of the 1970s as part of a small but influential band of Democrats (many soon-to-be-former Democrats) who tried to stop the drift of the Democratic party toward McGovernite isolationism. Their goal was even more fundamental: to arrest the lack of faith in American power and institutions in the post–Vietnam War era. Groups like the Committee on the Present Danger sought to keep alive anti-Communism, warn Americans of the continuing threat from the Soviet Union, and remind everyone that America still had a role to play in defending liberal-democratic values across the globe.

Podhoretz befriended former Johnson and Nixon aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan and published his article “The United States in Opposition,” which argued for a full-throated defense of liberal-democratic principles in the face of opposition from the Soviet Union and its Third World allies. The article led directly to Moynihan’s appointment as U.N. ambassador.

#page#Podhoretz would become a close Moynihan confidant and adviser. He later grew disillusioned with Moynihan — who soon after became a U.S. senator — owing to the dissonance between Moynihan’s private, hawkish views and his public opinions too often tailored for Democratic audiences. There was another difference between the two men: Moynihan had never given up on the New Deal idea of an activist government, while Podhoretz was slowly shedding that faith as he drifted rightward.

Podhoretz would launch yet another Commentary contributor into the United Nations. Jeane Kirkpatrick, then an obscure professor at Georgetown and member of the Committee on the Present Danger, wrote “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which sought to differentiate authoritarian regimes supported by the U.S. from totalitarian regimes supported by the Soviet Union. Reagan would choose this self-described “AFL-CIO Democrat” as his first U.N. ambassador.

In 1980, Midge Decter, Norman’s wife and compatriot, formed the Committee for the Free World, to carry the anti-Communist banner. In that same year, Podhoretz published his small book The Present Danger, which reaffirmed the need for America to contain Communism and support democracy. The book’s subtitle said it all: “Do we have the will to reverse the decline of American power?” That same year, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan provided an emphatic answer to Podhoretz’s question.

Podhoretz also devoted more attention to the plight of Israel. His 1982 essay “J’Accuse,” written at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, is as relevant and potent today as it was back then. What makes the piece so effective is that Podhoretz calls American criticism of Israel “a cover for a loss of American nerve” in the post-Vietnam years — “a cover for acquiescence in terrorism [and] for the appeasement of totalitarianism.”

As “J’Accuse” demonstrates, Podhoretz’s great skill, besides editing, is as a writer of polemics, in the sense of well-argued political combat. Podhoretz is not just a very good prose craftsman; he also brings a style of tightly contained verbal ferocity to his essays. The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz once said that Podhoretz taught her that good writing must show “no yielding. No ‘on the other hand’s’ to concede a point.” That is Norman Podhoretz’s style: to the point, unyielding, relentless, always seeking to score debate points against opponents. As the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus said: “Norman gives new meaning to the word ‘intense.’ There’s nothing that doesn’t matter.”

If the motto of the countercultural Left was “the personal is political,” Podhoretz’s motto could have been “the political is personal.” It is hard to see him skiing in Switzerland with John Kenneth Galbraith, as Buckley often did. It was that intensity that helped clarify the issues of the Cold War in its last two decades, but it also exacerbated the growing polarization of contemporary politics. Podhoretz and other neoconservatives provided intellectual backbone to the conservative movement, but sometimes blurred the lines between backbone and rigidity.

It is not enough to say, as Jeffers implies, that Podhoretz did not leave the Democratic party, but that the party left him. Yes, liberalism has evolved, but so did Podhoretz. Not all neocons made the entire trip rightward, but Podhoretz appears to have done so. Just this past March, Podhoretz wrote a defense of Sarah Palin in which he declared that he “would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party.” That certainly is a long way from private meetings with LBJ at the White House in the 1960s.

Writing a book about the life of a writer and editor, especially one as anti-countercultural and bourgeois as Podhoretz, can be a challenge. Jeffers neatly lays out Podhoretz’s career in a workmanlike fashion in what is basically a semi-authorized bio. Jeffers clearly admires his subject, but too often the biographer and the subject merge, their views nearly indistinguishable from each other. One wishes that Jeffers had stepped back just a bit and provided more analysis of Podhoretz’s career and ideas.

Overall, though, Jeffers serves up a rich intellectual history of postwar America. Podhoretz outlasted many of his enemies and ex-friends, saw the end of the Cold War, and watched his son John ably take the reins at Commentary while watching his son-in-law Elliot Abrams serve under two U.S. presidents. From the streets of Brownsville in the 1930s to the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, Norman Podhoretz’s life has been an idiosyncratic intellectual and political odyssey: an idiosyncratic, yet wholly American life.

– Mr. Cannato is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the author most recently of American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (HarperCollins).

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