At Home With Norman Podhoretz
Having abandoned the left six decades ago, The 83-year-old former editor of Commentary and grumpy grandfather of the right is still waiting for the majority of American Jews to follow suit.
A youthful Norman Podhoretz, with abundant black wavy hair, looks out from a sepia photo, circa 1943. He is standing with nine other boys in a Brooklyn schoolyard, all wearing identical dark club jackets with a big “C” on the breast pockets and smiles on their faces. The “C” stands for Cherokees, the street gang to which they belonged.
While sitting in the den of his comfortable apartment on a quiet tree-lined street on New York’s posh Upper East Side, Podhoretz recalls that the main requirement for Cherokee membership “was to be tough and not to back down from a fight.” The Cherokees long ago faded from the Brooklyn landscape, but Podhoretz has remained loyal to their credo for more than seven decades.
At 83, Podhoretz is a short, stocky man, bald, with a fringe of gray hair circling his shiny pate. He is virtually the last surviving member of the New York Family, a group of mostly Jewish intellectuals who were at the cutting edge of left-wing politics in the middle of the 20th century. In the 1970s, Podhoretz scandalized the group—and broke permanently with many of his closest friends—by abandoning his long-held leftist views and turning to the political right, taking Commentary, the influential magazine he edited for 35 years, along with him. Later, he became the proud patriarch of a neoconservative family: His son John is the current editor of Commentary and a columnist for The New York Post, and his son-in-law is Elliott Abrams, a feisty political infighter who was a top adviser to President George W. Bush. Podhoretz’s wife, Midge Decter, has been for decades a prominent conservative writer and activist in her own right.
Podhoretz’s influence extends far beyond his family ties, however: Many consider him to be the intellectual godfather of the neoconservative movement. In June 2004, Bush seemingly endorsed that view by awarding Podhoretz the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. “The biggest deal imaginable,” Podhoretz called it at the time. “It’s the most wonderful honor ever to come my way.”
The medal might have been the capstone to Podhoretz’s long career, but it wasn’t the end of it. Most members of the New York Family have long since passed on or ceded the political stage to their children, and the war in Iraq soured even many Republicans on the so-called neo-cons. Nevertheless, Podhoretz remains in the fray. Still spry mentally and physically, he continues to churn out articles and books. He says that “after loafing for a few months,” he is busy writing again.
With two of his obsessions, Iran’s nuclear program and the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, likely to remain at the top of the foreign policy agenda for years to come, the pugnacious octogenarian doesn’t intend to retreat from the arena. When asked, for example, whether the apparent success of economic sanctions on Iran has changed his view on the necessity of a military strike, the old Cherokee refuses to yield any ground. “I’ve been saying for something like seven years that nothing will stop Iran from getting nuclear capability, and neither sanctions nor diplomacy will work,” he says dismissively. “If there is no military action taken within the next few months, or maybe years, then Iran will become a nuclear power.” When he smiles, it is a kindly, grandfatherly smile—even when he is talking about bombing Iran.
Podhoretz was born in 1930 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, not far from that schoolyard where the Cherokees preened for the camera. He is the son of Jewish immigrants who had come from Galicia, in Central Europe, along with millions of other refugees seeking a better life in America. Norman’s father Julius was a milkman who always had steady work, even during the Depression, but he never made much money. The family lived in a cramped apartment in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, but Norman’s immigrant parents made it clear to him that their life in America, however meager, was vastly preferable to what they might have had in Europe. Podhoretz says his parents were “lapsed Orthodox,” but they gave him a strong Jewish identity. “What I got from them was this strong sense of connection to Jewish culture, and I never had any problem with my identity as a Jew,” Podhoretz told me.
Like his parents and other Jews of similar background, Podhoretz gravitated toward the political left as he grew up. But while his older sister Millie joined a Communist front group called American Youth for Democracy, Norman could never become anti-American in any way. He cherished America and had faith in its leaders. During World War II, his family assembled by their radio to listen to the “Fireside Chats” delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Norman—along with millions of other Americans—was buoyed by the reassuring patrician voice that came through the speakers. Too young for military service, Norman and his friends aided the war effort by recycling tin foil from cigarette packs and saving dimes for stamps that slowly grew into $25 war bonds.
The war’s end was bittersweet for Podhoretz. “Now I would never get a chance to find out what it was like to be a soldier fighting for my country and whether I was man enough to take it,” he later wrote. The fact that a dozen or so of his relatives served and all of them escaped injury “helped bolster the romantic fantasies I entertained about going to war and giving my all for the ‘land of the brave and the free.’”
His Brooklyn neighborhood was an urban stew—one-third Jewish immigrants, one-third Italian immigrants and one-third native-born Americans, mostly African-Americans. Inevitably, gangs formed along ethnic and racial lines, and as an adolescent, Podhoretz was part of the urban street life as a member of the Cherokees. “I actually lived a kind of double life,” he told me. “I was very good at school, of course, and well-behaved. I was a star pupil from kindergarten on. But my friends outside school, my gang, were the bad boys—that was who I was.”
The teachers at Boys High School, which was academically rigorous, quickly pegged Podhoretz as an intellectual superstar and urged him to aim for the Ivy League. One English teacher took a particular interest in the milkman’s son. She knew he had the academic chops for Harvard but found his social graces lacking. “She took me out to dinner,” Podhoretz later recalled. “I didn’t know what fork to use, how to use a napkin. She did this deliberately in order to humiliate me so that I would learn how important it was to master these arts and therefore be a fit candidate for admission to Harvard.” Even as he grappled with the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork, Podhoretz was getting another education with the Cherokees. At 14, he and his friends often hung out at a pool hall frequented by hustlers and bookies. “We were teenagers, and we didn’t have a lot of money, but we did hang around pool halls, we did a lot of gambling, we did a little drinking and chased girls,” he recalls. Despite those distractions, Podhoretz ended up graduating third in his class from Boys High and won a scholarship to attend Columbia University.
Because his family couldn’t afford to pay for a room in a dormitory or fraternity house, Podhoretz lived at home in Brownsville and commuted to Columbia, where he was studying literature. “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan—or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan,” he would later write. This allowed him to keep a foot in both worlds, but it also led to his first brush with trouble. During his freshman year at college, even as he was beginning to acclimate to the rarified world of the Ivy League, Podhoretz impregnated a Brownsville girl. The girl’s parents insisted on an abortion, and he didn’t object. He was already smart and ambitious enough to know that he didn’t want to be married to a woman he didn’t love just because of a teenage fling. Podhoretz dutifully escorted the girl to a seedy part of New Jersey to visit a shady doctor who specialized in abortions, which were then illegal. It took the nervous Podhoretz two trips to summon the courage to actually get to the doctor’s office. One of his Columbia classics professors helped him cover the cost.
Podhoretz worked hard at Columbia, and he quickly attracted the notice of the famous professor and literary critic Lionel Trilling. Before meeting him, Trilling had heard from other Columbia professors that Podhoretz was a brilliant student. But Trilling decided this for himself after reading Podhoretz’s review of his book, The Liberal Imagination, in the student publication, The Columbia Review. Trilling said it was the most intelligent review the book had received, and later he recommended Podhoretz for both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Kellett Fellowship. Podhoretz won both of them, and after graduating from Columbia in June 1950, he headed to Cambridge University in England to continue his studies.
After his first year at Cambridge, the young graduate student embarked on a long summer vacation that was to include his first trip to the fledgling State of Israel, a country that eventually would become almost as dear to him as his own. From London, Podhoretz planned to travel to Paris and then go on to Greece and Tel Aviv. On the first leg of his trip, he met Jacqueline Clarke, a woman six years his senior. She was independent and attractive. Her father had been an Irish toolmaker who died when she was six, and she lived with her mother in London. Podhoretz was instantly attracted to her, and he commenced his first serious romance. Clarke had been a Communist Party member at 16 and had had a fling with a cartoonist for the Daily Worker, a left-wing newspaper that faithfully supported all the views of the Soviet Communist Party but overlooked its dark totalitarian side. To the youthful Podhoretz, she was an exotic creature. Together, they visited Athens, and when he talked endlessly, she taught him an important lesson: “Why don’t you stop talking and just look,” she said, “There are wonderful things to see around you, but have you seen any of them?” He listened and took her advice.
Norman and Jacqueline would remain close friends and spend time together in London after their travels were over. But after Athens, in that lovely summer of 1951, they went their separate ways and Podhoretz flew on to Israel. He had never been an ardent Zionist, but he felt compelled to visit the Jewish state to honor his father, who wanted his only son to value his religion and culture. At his father’s request, Podhoretz had taken classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary while at Columbia, and he viewed his trip to Israel in a similar vein.
He stayed in Israel for six weeks and had mixed impressions. Describing some of them in a long letter to Trilling, he wrote: “I covered almost every inch of Israel, spent lots of time in kibbutzim, fell in love with the Yemenites, argued endlessly about What is Judaism, Who is a Jew and Why Not? explored Tel Aviv (which is vile) and Jerusalem (which Jehovah did well to choose as his city)…and finally went away a sadder and wiser man, with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth.”
As a graduate student, Podhoretz was exempt from the draft, and he could have continued his studies in Cambridge to avoid military service. In the summer of 1953, however, he decided it was time to put on his country’s uniform. But Podhoretz was only patriotic up to a point. “I didn’t want to join up in the military because you had to join for three years,” he explained. “If you got drafted, it was only two years.” Podhoretz returned to New York, but he had to wait five months to get his wish.