At Home With Norman Podhoretz
While he was waiting, he wrote six articles for Commentary. Launched eight years before, in 1945, by the American Jewish Committee, the thoughtful, provocative monthly magazine was envisioned as a “Jewish Harper’s, only more scholarly,” according to Podhoretz. While not reflected in its circulation numbers, Commentary had quickly become an influential liberal voice in intellectual circles. Its bylines included many luminaries of the 20th century: Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, Gershom Scholem and Norman Mailer.
Podhoretz first met with Commentary founder and editor Elliot Cohen in the summer of 1952, while on a summer break from Cambridge. Cohen asked him to review Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Natural. That review, published in March 1953, was so well-received that Cohen was eager for Podhoretz to contribute additional pieces. So while he waited for Uncle Sam to summon him late in 1953, Podhoretz cranked out more articles for the magazine. His pieces on television drama, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and other topics so impressed Cohen that he was promised a job once the Army was done with him.
When he was finally drafted, Podhoretz’s new friends at Commentary gave him a going-away party and some gifts, including a Parker “51” fountain pen. The send-off was so elaborate, Podhoretz later said, it was like having his bar mitzvah all over again.
In his later years, Podhoretz would become known as an enthusiastic proponent of U.S. military power, but his own military career was less than heroic. To a girlfriend back home, Podhoretz wrote that basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey was “the most horrible experience I’ve ever gone through.” The other men could run tirelessly and do pushups, and he could not. They could quickly take apart a rifle and put it together again, and he couldn’t. For the first time in his life, Podhoretz was at the bottom of the class.
At his army induction, Podhoretz told the personnel interviewer that he had supervised English undergraduates while at Cambridge. Assuming he was a teacher, the Army automatically assigned him to communications intelligence. To train for his assignment, Podhoretz spent four months at the Army Security Agency School in Fort Devens, Massachusetts. There he learned how to decode military communications traffic from all over the world. Wearing earphones, Podhoretz and his fellow soldiers listened to Morse code transmissions, quickly typed out the dots and dashes, and forwarded the sequences to the cryptanalysts.
The Korean War had just ended, so after completing his training at Fort Devens, he was sent to Germany as part of the army of occupation. The future Cold Warrior ended up spending about half of his two-year hitch delivering a series of Pentagon-sponsored lectures on the differences between Communism and democracy. “The course was outlined in a group of pamphlets prepared by the Defense Department and was supposed to be conducted by an officer. But the poor second lieutenant to whom this job was handed in my outfit nearly had a nervous breakdown as he was delivering the first lecture and had to leave the podium before he even finished,” Podhoretz recalled in his 1999 book, Ex-Friends. “After searching unsuccessfully for a replacement among his cadre of officers, our company commander found out that there was a lowly enlisted man on the base who had any number of college degrees. Desperate enough by now to go against the regulation calling for an officer, he offered to relieve me of my regular military duties if I would take the job.”
The day after he was discharged from the Army in December 1955, Podhoretz went to work as an assistant editor at Commentary. From that perch, he was welcomed into the New York Family, the group of literary luminaries that now included Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt, Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol. It was a time when ideas mattered, and when members of the Family gathered for cocktails in one of their Manhattan living rooms to discuss them, they did so with a passion and erudition rarely matched today. “To the members of the Family, the arts, politics and the relations between them were matters almost of life and death,” Podhoretz later observed.
By the time Podhoretz joined Commentary, he was already romantically involved with the woman who would become his wife. Midge Rosenthal Decter was nearly three years older than Podhoretz, and she had been raised in a far different environment: the lily-white world of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her family was solidly middle class, and after graduating from the University of Minnesota, she moved to New York to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary and then at New York University. The two first met in the late 1940s, when both were at JTS. But Midge was about to be married to Moshe Decter, a writer and social activist, and they lost touch. In 1955, when Norman and Midge encountered each other again, Midge was a divorcée with two young daughters. When Podhoretz joined Commentary, Midge was working there as a writer and as Elliot Cohen’s secretary, but she soon moved on to the Zionist magazine Midstream to avoid a messy office romance.
In 1956, they married and moved to an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, not yet the trendy liberal neighborhood it would become. They were early pioneers in the community, which they chose because they had children and it had spacious, rent-controlled apartments. The area had a large Jewish population and a lively cosmopolitan feeling along busy Broadway, which slants across parts of the neighborhood. Norman and Midge were—and remain—intellectual soul mates. Like him, she eventually migrated from the political left to the political right. She would later work as an editor for the Hudson Institute, CBS Legacy Books, Harper’s, Saturday Review/World and Basic Books.
Politically and personally, Midge and Norman rarely disagree. “We like each other,” she says simply. “I knew Norman when he was a kid.” She downplays her influence on his ideas, saying only that by giving him four children, she sparked his concern about the decline of public education.
At Columbia and Cambridge, Podhoretz had been a staunch anti-communist, but by the late 1950s, he was gravitating toward what would become known as the New Left. Khrushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes and his “cult of personality” convinced Podhoretz, and many others, that the Soviet Union might move away from totalitarianism. Podhoretz began writing articles criticizing the Cold War, calling for a nuclear test ban and nuclear disarmament. “The whole approach was that the country was not living up to its ideals or potentialities, partly because of the Cold War,” he explains. Even then, Podhoretz was attacking liberals—but from the left. He and his fellow New Leftists believed that the Democratic Party had become too timid and that it was necessary to radically reconstruct American society in order to eliminate poverty, racism and other injustices.
Podhoretz’s boss, Elliot Cohen, struggling with mental illness, committed suicide in 1959. Podhoretz was determined to be his replacement. In interviews with the publication committee, he vowed to move Commentary to the left and make it less Jewish in its subject matter and roster of contributors. In 1960, Podhoretz got the job. Commentary became the intellectual center of the New Left, and its circulation and influence soared. In the first year under his leadership, subscriptions rose from 20,000 to 25,000, and by 1965, they had soared to 60,000, an all-time high.
But the turmoil of the 1960s steadily eroded Podhoretz’s beliefs. The New Left morphed into a youth “counterculture” that rejected the institutions and conventions of its elders and wanted to upend, rather than perfect, American society. The movement that Podhoretz had helped to promote had become to him increasingly anti-American, celebrating drug use, sexual promiscuity and an “anything goes” attitude that Podhoretz couldn’t abide. He famously attacked the Beats and Allen Ginsberg—whom Podhoretz never forgave for editing one of his own poems without permission and running it in The Columbia Review—as “know-nothing bohemians” who “know nothing, stand for nothing, believe in nothing.” “It never occurred to any of those kids, or even the grown-ups, that the system they described was what was responsible for the prosperity they enjoyed,” he says. Podhoretz was particularly disturbed by the New Left’s comparisons of the United States with Nazi Germany. “I simply could not stomach any of this,” he later wrote. “I still loved America, and my own utopian aspirations were directed at perfecting, not destroying it.”
The Vietnam War cleaved the country in two, eventually sparking violent anti-war demonstrations in America’s streets. Many on the New Left now argued that America was no better—and perhaps worse—than the Soviet Union. Podhoretz had been an early opponent of the war, but he simply could not accept the idea that America was evil. Meanwhile, the nonviolent civil rights marchers of the early 1960s were being pushed aside by black militants who openly advocated violence. Podhoretz was appalled when his fellow Family members, joined by liberal celebrities and socialites, embraced “radical chic,” fawning over Black Panthers who brandished weapons and wore berets.
Among the many radical groups in the 1960s vying for political space, Podhoretz thought he detected the fetid smell of anti-Semitism. Black anti-Semitism surfaced during the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968, which set the community-controlled school board in Brownsville—now largely black—against the mostly white and Jewish United Federation of Teachers. In 1963, his explosive piece, “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” described the fear and distrust he had for African Americans, despite his liberal leanings. “I find that I am not afraid of Puerto Ricans, but I cannot restrain my nervousness whenever I pass a group of Negroes standing in front of a bar or sauntering down the street,” he wrote. “The hatred I still feel for Negroes is the hardest of all the old feelings to face or admit, and it is the most hidden and the most overlarded by the conscious attitudes into which I have succeeded in willing myself.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War the year before had transformed it from underdog to conqueror, and anti-Zionism began to become acceptable in some leftist circles. It didn’t happen overnight, but by the late 1960s, Podhoretz’s political journey from left to right was well underway. “I was reacting against the anti-Americanism of the left, and that drove me out of the left. It’s as simple as that,” he remembers. “But, you know, when it turned out that this was also affecting Israel—that the anti-Semitism was coming back in the package—that made it doubly imperative to take the kind of stand I was taking.” Under Podhoretz’s leadership, Commentary began running articles attacking the New Left as
anti-American, anti-liberal and anti-Semitic, and calling its revolutionary spirit “futile and dangerous.” The magazine became a consistent critic of liberal views, whether the issue was crime, poverty, education, race relations or art. These were the views of Podhoretz’s intellectual friends, and many never forgave him.
It didn’t help that in 1967 Podhoretz published Making It—a book Trilling and Podhoretz’s publisher had advised him against—in which he accused leftist artists and intellectuals—his circle of friends—of being obsessed with accumulating status, fame and wealth, while claiming otherwise. He wrote: “Every morning a stock-market report on reputation comes out in New York. It is invisible, but those who have eyes to see can read it. Did so-and-so have dinner at Jacqueline Kennedy’s apartment last night? Up five points. Was so-and-so not invited by the Lowells to meet the latest visiting Russian poet? Down one-eighth. Did so-and-so’s book get nominated for the National Book Award? Up two and five-eighths. Did Partisan Review neglect to ask so-and-so to participate in a symposium? Down two. Because of the dirty little secret, many of the most avid readers of this daily report would indignantly deny having a subscription to it…” Norman Mailer, a member of the Family, penned a scathing review of the book—after initially telling Podhoretz that he liked it. Mailer called the book “brutal—coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless,” adding that the Family was “furious to the point of biting their white icy lips…No fate could prove undeserved for Norman.” In a 2007 interview in Paris Review, Norman Mailer explained why the book caused such a rupture, conceding that his own scathing review of it might have exacerbated the conflict. “In the first half, his thesis is that the dirty little secret among the left, among artists and intellectuals, is that they really want to make it, and they want to make it big. And they conceal that from themselves and from others,” Mailer recalled. “And then he starts to give portraits of all the people on the left who have made it—pious, sweet little portraits, with people who we know goddamn well are not that at all.