At Home With Norman Podhoretz
“Podhoretz is nothing if not active and enterprising,” Mailer continued. “So the moment he moved over to the right, he had to be far to the right. And so I feel that I’m responsible, to whatever degree, for helping to have shoved him over there. Which is too bad, because he now is paying for his sins on the right by having supported the war in Iraq and he has to live with it—has to live with all the idiocies of the neoconservatives.”
Podhoretz’s attacks on members of the Family became increasingly personal—as did their criticisms of him—and he used the pages of Commentary to air his grievances. In 1997, just months after Allen Ginsberg’s death, Podhoretz published an article entitled, “My War with Allen Ginsberg,” which detailed their friendship and falling out—and what Podhoretz saw as Ginsberg’s moral failings. In particular, Podhoretz focused on Ginsberg’s sexual promiscuity and drug use. He wrote: “Ginsberg was also fulsomely praised [in his obituaries] as a pioneer of the gay-rights movement, which indeed he was. Yet so far as I have been able to determine, no one thought to draw a connection between the emergence of AIDS and the rampant homosexual promiscuity promoted by Ginsberg… And I could find only one mention (in the Weekly Standard) of Ginsberg’s active sponsorship of the abominable North American Man Boy Love Alliance (NAMBLA), an organization devoted to the legalization of homosexual pedophilia.” On Ginsberg’s drug use, he wrote: “Moreover, persuaded by propagandists like Ginsberg that they could try marijuana with impunity, untold numbers of kids were getting hooked on it, and a certain percentage of these, having thus dipped a toe into the drug culture, would soon plunge into the deeper and more dangerous waters of LSD or heroin or cocaine.” Ginsberg had earlier said that Podhoretz “has a great ridiculous fat-bellied mind which he pats too often.”
In his 1999 book, Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer, Podhoretz also went after Mailer for his sexual promiscuity and drug use. “Combining the skill of a professional juggler with the talents of a White House scheduler, he could keep a number of affairs going simultaneously for years, some of them even overlapping with his successive marriages,” he wrote. “Where he found the energy and the time for all this while still turning out many pages a day always baffled me. Evidently, living that way fed rather than drained him.” But according to the book, it was Podhoretz’s betrayal of Mailer that undid their friendship. Podhoretz had proved a loyal friend to Mailer, who affectionately called him a “foul-weather friend.” Even after Mailer stabbed his wife, Adele, with a penknife in 1960, Podhoretz stood by him, yielding to his plea not to turn him in to the police or a mental institution. However, when Podhoretz hosted a party for Jackie Kennedy and failed to invite Mailer—who was infatuated with the Kennedys and was trying to get on their good side—he says Mailer was furious and their friendship never recovered.
Meanwhile, Decter also was attracting fire from the left with her attacks on feminism and liberal child rearing. In The Liberated Woman and Other Americans (1970) and The New Chastity and Other Arguments (1972), she argued that women who proclaimed their desire to break the chains of male oppression really were afraid of having children and becoming responsible adults. The goal of women’s liberation, Decter argued, was “to keep (a woman) as unformed, as able to act without genuine consequence, as the little girl she imagines she once was and longs to continue to be.” Decter went even further in Liberal Parents, Radical Children (1975), blaming liberal parenting for producing self-centered, spoiled children who believed they could change the world. As she explained on C-SPAN in 2001: “There’s the evidence of women in their late 30s and 40s who are now desperately looking for husbands, or unable to find husbands, have discovered—guess what?—they want to have children. They never knew this before because their heads were so rattled with this stupid propaganda… There’s so much suffering all over the place, and women suffer and maybe they suffer more than men in Africa and in Muslim countries. And then you look at American women. They’re healthy, they’re vital, they’re employed, they are educated, and for them to claim that they’ve been oppressed is just—it’s immoral.”
As Commentary became “an extension of his own personality,” in the words of Nathan Abrams, author of Norman Podhoretz and Commentary Magazine: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, Podhoretz’s rightward march continued throughout the 1970s, especially on the Cold War. He considered détente to be a form of appeasement. “I thought that we should not be figuring out how to be friends with the Soviet Union,” he says. “We should be figuring out how to win the Cold War, how to win the war against them.” In the 1980 presidential election, Republican Ronald Reagan was arguing the same thing. Podhoretz enthusiastically backed Reagan; the lifelong Democrat’s conversion to conservatism was complete. As he wrote just months after the election: “What we need is an economic policy that will unleash the productive energies of an artificially hampered people and thereby foster growth; a program of rearmament that will make our defenses invulnerable and provide us with the power both to contain Soviet expansionism and to protect our vital interests in the Persian Gulf; and a legal structure that will encourage the revitalization of the values of ‘family, work, and neighborhood.’”
By that time, Commentary had become so influential that opinion pieces occasionally translated into high-level government positions. The most famous examples were Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote the 1974 essay “The United States in Opposition” and Jeane Kirkpatrick, who attacked Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy in her 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” Both went on to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Kirkpatrick later credited Commentary with rallying the country against the Soviet Union: “Norman forged a community which managed, just barely, to develop enough courage to confront the Soviet Union and Israel’s tormentors,” she told Moment in 1995.
During the 1980s, Commentary began promulgating ideas that would later became foundational in neoconservative thought on foreign affairs: the threat of terrorism and radical Islam, the imperative of American global leadership and the advancement of democracy, and skepticism of international institutions. As Abrams writes, “Neoconservatism was Podhoretz’s personal ideology, in which he pushed his own ideas for the future direction of America.”
Decter also turned her attention to the Cold War. In the 1980s, she headed the Committee for the Free World, which sought to publicize the threat the Soviet Union posed to the United States and to Israel. The group’s goal was “to alter the climate of confusion and complacency…that has done so much to weaken the Western democracies.”
As Commentary marched right, tensions with the American Jewish Committee grew. Although AJC remained committed to Podhoretz’s editorial independence, his extreme conservative views meant that many top members of AJC despised the publication. To offer a liberal counterpart to Commentary, AJC started a new bi-monthly magazine, Present Tense, in 1973. However, in 1990, as funding was drying up, AJC stopped subsidizing both magazines. While Present Tense quickly died, Podhoretz secured funding from right-wing foundations and individual donors and kept the magazine housed at AJC.
Podhoretz stepped down as editor of Commentary in 1995 and was succeeded by Neal Kozodoy. In 2007, Commentary made a complete break from AJC and formed its own independent nonprofit 501(c)(3) to house the magazine. It could then court conservative donors directly, instead of going through AJC bureaucracy. Two years later, Podhoretz’s youngest son, John, took over Commentary. Since the elder Podhoretz left, circulation has dropped to near 26,000, according to the Commentary website. But Podhoretz is still a respected and influential voice of the right. In 2002 and 2003, he was an outspoken proponent of ousting Saddam Hussein, arguing that the Iraqi dictator directly threatened the United States. In his 2007 book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, Podhoretz described the war in Iraq as a single front in what would be a decades-long war against radical Muslims whose objective is “to murder as many of us as possible” and destroy “the freedoms we cherish and for which American stands.” He predicted that after Iraq, it would be necessary to topple the ruling regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria to lay the groundwork for democracy in the Middle East.
If anything, the Arab Spring has only darkened his worldview. “I shared George W. Bush’s belief that there was a hunger for freedom in the Arab world,” he tells me. “But the Arab Spring has persuaded me that I was overly optimistic, if there is a tendency, as we have already seen, for the Islamic forces in the Middle East to take power, and if most of the people in the region are in favor of the Islamic program and the imposition of Sharia law. This is true in Egypt. And in Syria, if and when Assad falls, he will be succeeded by an Islamic group, either the Muslim Brotherhood or something worse—and I don’t know if there is something worse.”
He has also publicly come to the defense of Sarah Palin. “True, she seems to know very little about international affairs, but expertise in this area is no guarantee of wise leadership,” he wrote in a 2010 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “What she does know—and in this respect, she does resemble Reagan—is that the United States has been a force for good in the world, which is more than Barack Obama, whose IQ is no doubt higher than hers, has yet to learn.” He concluded the piece by saying: “I hereby declare that I would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party, and I would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama.”
Four decades after he went through his own political evolution, with many friends and old acquaintances shed, Podhoretz remains perplexed that so few of his fellow Jews have made the same journey. In his most recent book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, written in 2009, Podhoretz sought to explain the phenomenon, which shows little sign of abating. In presidential elections, Jews typically support the Democratic candidate by margins of better than two-to-one, even in years of Republican landslides. In a piece published the same year in The Wall Street Journal, Podhoretz made his best case for a Jewish shift to the right. “I think it is fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind—economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a nation…that has afforded more freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history,” Podhoretz wrote.
“If anything bears eloquent testimony to the infinitely precious virtues of the traditional American system, it is the Jewish experience in this country. Surely, then, we Jews ought to be joining with its defenders against those who are blind or indifferent or antagonistic to the philosophical principles, the moral values, and socioeconomic institutions on whose health and vitality the traditional American system depends.”
The most recent presidential election has resoundingly demonstrated—once again—that the vast majority of American Jews just don’t see it that way. But the old Cherokee intends to keep on fighting.