July 30, 2010 New York Times
By DAMON LINKER
By Thomas L. Jeffers
Illustrated. 393 pp. Cambridge University Press. $35
The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right
By Benjamin Balint
290 pp. PublicAffairs. $26.95
Over the past decade, “neocon” has become an all-purpose term of abuse among critics of the right. Yet few of these critics appear to realize that from the beginning there have been two very different branches of neoconservative thinking. The first aimed to bring sober, dispassionate analysis and a skeptical temper to questions of domestic policy; the second specialized in devising cogent, often highly polemical arguments in favor of a militarily aggressive foreign policy.
The first exercised its greatest political influence during the 1990s with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s crime-fighting policies and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The second peaked in the years immediately after 9/11, when the administration of George W. Bush pursued a doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive war and set out to transform Islamic civilization at gunpoint. When critics denounce neocons, they rarely mean the first branch, which today is largely extinct. Instead, they mean the ideas and outlook associated with the second branch. That ultimately means the ideas and outlook of Norman Podhoretz and Commentary magazine, which he edited from 1960 to 1995.
Thomas L. Jeffers’s exhaustive but frustratingly uncritical biography, “Norman Podhoretz,” is most engaging in its early chapters, telling the story of how this brilliant and ambitious child of Jewish immigrants from Galicia rose from poverty in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to become first, the star student of the great literary critic Lionel Trilling at Columbia University and then, at the age of 30, the editor of Commentary, the magazine of the American Jewish Committee and one of the two leading journals (along with Partisan Review) of the legendary New York Intellectuals.
By the late 1960s, Podhoretz’s considerable talents as a writer, critic, editor and high-spirited raconteur had won him a place at the center of the cultural and political action. Commentary published leading lights of the New Left like Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown. Podhoretz jousted with Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg at parties and in print. He organized soirees for Jackie Kennedy.
Jeffers, a professor of literature at Marquette University, skillfully weaves together these and countless other stories of Podhoretz’s dramatic ascent to the peak of influence within the liberal intellectual world. But he runs into problems when he tries to explain Podhoretz’s march to the right, which began around 1970 and has never ceased. In 1972 Podhoretz broke from the Democratic Party to vote for Nixon. By the end of the decade, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Ronald Reagan. But it wasn’t long before he was taking to the pages of The New York Times Magazine to assail Reagan for insufficient toughness in confronting the Soviet Union and defending Israel.
By 2002, Podhoretz had moved so far right that he thought George W. Bush’s bellicose response to the 9/11 attacks was merely a good start; in addition to attacking all three members of Bush’s “axis of evil” (Iraq, Iran and North Korea), Podhoretz insisted that the United States needed to prepare for military assaults on Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Libya. Today he believes Sarah Palin would make a perfectly fine president.
How could a once thoughtful man spend the past 40 years transforming himself into a commissar? In his 1979 memoir, “Breaking Ranks,” Podhoretz himself described his initial lurch to the right as a perfectly sensible reaction to the excesses of the counterculture, the rise of a black power movement tainted by anti-Semitism, the descent of the antiwar movement into nihilistic violence and the Democratic Party’s embrace of left-wing isolationism in 1972. Jeffers accepts this account but adds a surprising theological twist, telling us that in February 1970, Podhoretz experienced a mystical vision in the woods of upstate New York that convinced him “Judaism was true.” Jeffers has difficulty explaining precisely what this revelation meant, and how it inspired Podhoretz to change his political views, no doubt in part because it had no discernible effect on his observance of Jewish law and rituals. As Podhoretz himself puts it, he felt it unnecessary, both before and after the vision, “to go to services, eat kosher, all that stuff.”
To grasp the true significance of the vision, the reader must skip ahead about 120 pages in Jeffers’s narrative to a 1985 speech in which Podhoretz spoke of his pride at using Commentary to defend “my own” — “my own country” and “my own people.” In light of these comments, Podhoretz’s revelation appears to mark the moment in his life when he began to “unlearn” what, he said, he had been educated to believe as a liberal — namely, “that it was more honorable and nobler to turn one’s back on one’s own and fight for others and for other things in which one had no personal stake or interest.” Beginning with his vision in the woods, Podhoretz would devote his life to standing up for himself as a Jew and as an American against an ever lengthening list of those he deemed to be mortal enemies.
The story of American Judaism’s growing self-confidence — its increasing willingness to defend itself as well as its move from the periphery to the center of cultural and political power in the United States — is the unifying thread of Benjamin Balint’s beautifully written and richly researched history of Commentary from its founding in 1945 (15 years before Podhoretz took over), to 2010 (15 years after his retirement). By placing the man and the magazine in this broader context, Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former assistant editor at Commentary, manages to strike just the right balance between respectful admiration and critical distance. The result is the best book to date about neoconservatism — and one offering far greater insight into the mind and career of Norman Podhoretz than Jeffers’s obsequious biography.
“Running Commentary” describes how the vision of the magazine in its early years was shaped by Elliot Cohen, its gifted founding editor. Cohen believed that intellectuals — writers who were seriously interested in the arts, literature and ideas — were bound to feel alienated from American life with its middle-class mores and middlebrow taste. That Commentary was a Jewish periodical in a predominately Christian country only intensified the feeling of estrangement. And yet by the time Podhoretz took over in 1960, the alienation had begun to wane, with the magazine tentatively, though still critically, affirming aspects of American life. In his first decade as editor, Podhoretz sharpened its critical edge, increasing its distance from the political mainstream. But by 1970, he had concluded that the criticism had gone too far, and that Commentary should take the lead in defending the United States, Judaism and Israel.
Podhoretz wasn’t wrong to sense a certain nobility in standing up for “one’s own.” Yet his self-defense, to the exclusion of other human values, be they moral, literary or intellectual, has come at a cost. Today Commentary regularly publishes essays that sound, in Balint’s apt words, “like speeches intended to buck up the troops or self-congratulatory sermons to the faithful.” As for Podhoretz himself, he has grown so intolerant of criticism and dissent, so terrified of impending doom at the hands of militant Muslims, and so furious with his fellow Jews that his intemperate rantings are dismissed by all but his neoconservative progeny. The Brownsville wunderkind has ended up an embittered, paranoid crank, standing by and for himself alone.
Damon Linker teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania. His new book, “The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders,” will be published in the fall.