Norman Podhoretz

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A. Alvarez (review date 9 July 1965)

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SOURCE: Alvarez, A. “Critic on the Hearth.” Spectator, no. 7150 (9 July 1965): 52-3.

[In the following review, Alvarez acknowledges the sharpness of the essays collected in Doings and Undoings but stresses that he is uncomfortable with Podhoretz's evolution from a literary critic to a moral sentinel.]

In one of the most intriguing essays in an immensely intriguing collection [Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and after in American Writing] Norman Podhoretz sets out to defend “The Article as Art”:

Why should the magazine article, of all things, have become so important and fertile a genre in our day? Why have so many writers … found it possible to move around more freely and creatively within it than within fiction or poetry?

His slightly anti-climactic answer is that the article chimes with our taste for the functional, as in architecture or painting. But clearly there is more to it than that. The article is a short-term form in a time when the value of long-term efforts seems none too high. It offers instant cash, more or less instant reputation and, at best, instant controversy. It is also, in New York, a projection of the intense, caustic arguing which continually rumbles away in the intellectual jungle where everyone knows everybody else, and the knives are sharp and busy.

Podhoretz is an expert in knocking criticism: witty, subtle, ironic. Reading him in full cry—against Faulkner or Mary McCarthy or the Beats—is a sharp aesthetic pleasure, like watching a good athlete on form: the intellectual muscle is all there and all being used, with no holds barred, no false pieties, and everything working for him. On his day, Podhoretz, as they say of Skegness, is so bracing. Yet it turns out that literary criticism isn't quite what he means when he talks of ‘the article as art.’ In the introduction to Doings and Undoings, he writes off his earlier, more exclusively literary essays as the work of someone who is a stranger to him now, adding:

What I mean, then, in saying that for me literature is not an end in itself is that I look upon it as a mode of public discourse that either illuminates or fails to illuminate the common ground on which we live … I write as a participant observer of the culture for whom the novel is one form of discourse among many, and not necessarily the most valuable.

What concerns him at the present, then, is not the work of art as such but the cultural and political situation it reflects: what we do, what we think, what we are, and the forces that make us so. Partly this shift of focus is a symptom of Hack's Fatigue, the disease all reviewers suffer from sooner or later: an utter boredom with literature as the beginning and end of wisdom. Heaven knows, Marianne Moore had the root of the matter in her poem on ‘Poetry’: ‘I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.’ Partly, too, it reflects a change in environment from the Eisenhower-McCarthy days when Podhoretz began writing, the days of comfort, prosperity and fear, when the intellectuals, cosily provided for in their universities, opted out of everything that didn't directly concern their relatively narrow specialist functions. But by the time Podhoretz was about thirty and was fully coming into his own as a writer, Eisenhower had been replaced by Kennedy. The intellectuals were rallied to, or behind, Washington and it seemed possible that their brand of tensely sceptical criticism might even influence those who were governing the country. For not only did Kennedy take an amused, gossipy interest in the highbrow magazines, but, thanks to the grace of his sheer presence and style (though not always his policies), the business of politics seemed, for the first time since Jefferson, not entirely hypocritical and sub-literate. Hence the intellectuals were often tempted to deliver themselves of their own State of the Union Messages.

Yet when Podhoretz defends the article as ‘functional,’ something beyond all this seems to be involved: I mean a specifically Jewish anxiety about the value of one's work and the tradition one should be in. This anxiety is very much present in the writing of the three cultural heroes whom he acknowledges: Lionel Trilling, who was his teacher at Columbia, and Isaac Rosenfeld and Robert Warshow, both of whom died prematurely in their thirties, leaving behind some brilliant articles, some less satisfactory creative work and a pervasive influence. With all of them the question of what one is and how one behaves vis-à-vis society emerges from every discussion, no matter how literary its overt intentions. I suspect that this is linked somehow to the Old Testament and Talmudic concern with secular moral order. Lacking a belief in an after-life, Judaism is, after all, the worldly religion; it centres on patriarchal authority, the intricacies of family piety, and its ten commandments are a social code. At the core of it all are twin concepts of respect and responsibility. And this puts a great weight of justification on the gifted Jew, a disturbing certainty that talent, cleverness and success are not in themselves enough; one must also contribute to and maybe alter, however little, the moral climate in which one lives.

Clearly, Podhoretz has felt all this keenly, more so perhaps because, whilst at Columbia, he also attended the Seminary College of Jewish Studies, where young rabbis are trained. Though the rabbinate was not his style, as Trilling's most gifted student a teaching job in a university would have come automatically. Yet that, in the early 'fifties, seemed too restrictive and comfortable a solution. As an outstanding critic, a more glittering chance on the New Yorker appeared. Finally, he turned that down in order to edit Commentary, the American Jewish Committee's excellent highbrow magazine. His choice, in short, was for a public function in the Jewish intellectual world.

It is as editor of Commentary that he has come into his own and written his most ambitious ‘articles as art.’ The problem is to know to what extent his rather grand position has changed or distorted his freedom of judgment. His two latest articles are particularly relevant: one on Hannah Arendt's book on Eichmann, the other on the Negro problem. Both are highly personal, committed, passionate and deliberately provocative, yet for all their bravura I find them curiously unsatisfactory. It is not simply that I disagree radically with his conclusions—to provoke disagreement is, after all, one of the functions of a fighting article—it is a matter, rather, of tone. Consider, for example, the rhetorical question that ends the Arendt piece:

The Nazis destroyed a third of the Jewish people. In the name of all that is humane, will the remnant never let up on itself?

Leaving aside whether or not the appeal is justified (I don't think it is), there remains the question of whom it is made to. Not, I think, to his peers in the Manhattan gang—whom he ironically calls ‘Everyone-I-know’ and who took sides with a vengeance in the Arendt affair—but to the Jewish middle-class community as a whole: to all those Long Island doctors, philanthropic businessmen and psychoanalysts with cultural leanings—wealthy, adjusted, assimilated, complacent.

Now, I personally believe that in matters of real intellectual conscience one can't finally appeal to such people because the answers and assent one gets from them, however enlightened and liberal, will be in the last analysis middle-brow, philistine. Ultimately, they don't want to know. I also believe that Podhoretz is perfectly aware of this. After all, he fought his way out of the Brooklyn jungle by sheer talent; he owes no one anything. And as editor of the most influential Jewish magazine he is in a unique position to shake his readers' more comfortable pieties. His talent has made him an eloquent spokesman for his generation. It would be a pity if it were to trap him in the false position of moral guardian of the Community Chest. Doings and Undoings is a brilliant collection of essays, but it made me uneasy.

Roderick Nordell (review date 11 January 1968)

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SOURCE: Nordell, Roderick. “He Typed His Way Up.” Christian Science Monitor 60, no. 39 (11 January 1968): 11.

[In the following review, Nordell comments on the “self-congratulatory” statements in Podhoretz's memoir Making It and argues that the book's strongest passages are those in which Podhoretz writes about his associates.]

The literary version of American success typically has power, fame, and money turning to ashes as soon as they are won. Now a going-on-40 critic and editor, who has been “thought of as spokesman for his literary age group,” tastes the ashes and finds them good.

The depression-child intellectual from Brooklyn grows up to enjoy the state dinner at the White House, the luxurious conference at Huntington Hartford's Paradise Island. Gone are his undergraduate doubts about ambition and its fruits: it had been envy, not concern for his integrity, that had prompted his classmates' head-shakings. He's been poor, and he's been rich, and, believe him, rich is better.

Success has not spoiled Norman Podhoretz, he seems to say [in Making It]. He knows how to succeed in the literary business without really getting a bad conscience.


In an age when intellect can be chic and profitable, such may be the view many intellectuals hold of themselves, but rarely in public. The O.K. pose—violated, as Mr. Podhoretz notes, by a Norman Mailer—is to belittle success while serving values that transcend it. For certain well-educated Americans success has replaced sex as “the dirty little secret,” to use a phrase Mr. Podhoretz borrows from D. H. Lawrence. It is an embarrassing topic in polite conversation, he says.

Now this reviewer is no prude, but he did find some passages in this book embarrassing. When Mr. Podhoretz comes clean about the dirty little secret, he exposes feelings one prefers not to confront in others or oneself. Seldom has such plain-spoked self-congratulation appeared on the printed page-everything from the boy Norman's acceptance by the neighborhood gang, the Cherokees; to the graduate student's appearance in Scrutiny, “the notoriously hardest to crack of all the magazines of its kind in the world”; to “how I became the first and possibly the only young literary man ever to be invited to write both for Partisan Review and the New Yorker in the course of a single week”; to winning power struggles on the way to his present post as editor of Commentary magazine, conducting one battle “over a period of six weeks as skillfully as the most seasoned pro-lining up support and sympathy from all the right quarters and behaving myself with just the right combination of diffidence and fervor.”


To an admirer of articles and criticism by Mr. Podhoretz in previous years, he appears—he must be—too perceptive not to anticipate the impression of such passages. His preface says: “For taking my career as seriously as I do in this book, I will no doubt be accused of self-inflation and therefore of tastelessness.” But he seems to see himself as a latter-day Lawrence, risking a new kind of tastelessness in order to bring a hidden topic unhypocritically to the surface.

One only hopes he is not followed by a literature with as many candid success passages as the sex passages in novels after Lawrence. For the career-centered parts of Making It are less interesting than the parts in which Mr. Podhoretz turns his analytical eye outward—toward the home people from whom new “sensibilities” cut off the child, toward the Columbia University of Trilling and Van Doren, toward the Cambridge of Leavis, toward young Americans going to Europe to find their Americanness, toward the “family” of New York Jewish intellectuals, its influence and its tribal ways.

Apart from a daunting use of lengthy parentheses, the context of Mr. Podhoretz's theme is rendered in a way to call up a whole segment of recent American literary life.

It was a decade ago when Diana Trilling, a member of the “family,” referred to Mr. Podhoretz as “spokesman” for his literary generation. He credits her in this book with giving him a sense of “possibility,” a wide-ranging alternative to “the assumption that teaching was the only career in America in which a serious man with intellectual interests could maintain his pride and his integrity.”

Now he sounds like a spokesman more for himself than for a generation.

Albert Bermel (review date 29 January 1968)

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SOURCE: Bermel, Albert. “Talking It Up.” New Leader 51, no. 3 (29 January 1968): 18-20.

[In the following review, Bermel extols Podhoretz's candor about his success in Making It, applauding the author's accessible use of vernacular prose.]

Norman Podhoretz has not lived a life; he has been inhabited by a career. In Making It he chronicles his rise from Brooklyn schoolboy and son of a milkman all the way up to editor of Commentary. Under his guidance, the magazine has increased its circulation. The White House was alerted by his essay, “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” consulted him in person, and now has a program for tackling Podhoretz's Negro problem. The most modish people in New York ask him to their parties; he has actually been a guest at the home of Philip Rahv. If he has not made it to the top of the career pile, who has?

In his first chapter Podhoretz looks back at the awesome cultural divide he has traversed, and at the “immense transformation I had to work on myself in order to become what I have become.” As he reveals his qualifications, however, we see that he is writing pen in cheek. For him barriers did not truly exist. When young he may have worn the clothes of a junior Brownsville hoodlum, but he sounded distinctive: “Without any conscious effort on my part, my speech had largely lost the characteristic neighborhood accent and was well on its way to becoming as neutrally American as I gather it now is.” A lady schoolteacher who tried to play Higgins to his Eliza Doolittle deplored his lack of social graces; but his mother's friends were “nearly as proud as she was of the high grades I was getting at school and the prizes I was always winning.” They “marveled at my cleverness, quoting my bright sayings to one another and even back to me.”

At college, where he was “utterly open, limitlessly impressionable, possessed of something like total recall, and a great gift for intellectual mimicry,” Podhoretz ingeniously composed papers that imitated the different styles of his professors. “It is no wonder—though it was a great and glorious wonder to me then—that A+s (an unusual grade at Columbia outside courses in the sciences) should have begun appearing on my record almost as regularly as As.”

From the tutorship of Lionel Trilling, Andrew Chiappe, and F. W. Dupee, he moved on across the Atlantic to Clare College, Cambridge, and thence to Downing, “the college of F. R. Leavis, the greatest critic in England,” by whom the “ultimate accolade was bestowed upon me: he invited me to write for Scrutiny. Thus it was that at the age of 21 and in the notoriously hardest to crack of all the magazines of its kind in the world, I made my first appearance in print as a professional literary critic.”

Returning to this country, he was told by Trilling's wife that “with my talent, there was no telling how far I might go.” Trilling recommended him to the late Elliot Cohen, who was editing Commentary at the time (1953). Cohen assigned him some book reviews. And here Podhoretz comes clean and tells us what we have surmised for 155 pages, thanks to his refusal to indulge in false modesty: He “had been chosen for a role [he] seemed practically born to play.”

He wrote unfavorably about Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March and “was virtually the only reviewer of the book who was able to see and understand it, even if very imperfectly,” as “a willed and empty affirmation” of Bellow's claim to be an American as well as a Jew. After the piece appeared Podhoretz glided into the intellectual circles he calls “the family”; he heard celebrities spoken of by their first names; he proved to be “the first and possibly the only young literary man ever to be invited to write both for Partisan Review and the New Yorker in the course of a single week.” Robert Warshow, his mentor at Commentary, said of the offer from the New Yorker, “You lucky bastard. I wish they would ask me.”

Although the Army snatched Podhoretz away for two years, he continued to write for Commentary. In Germany he “received a bulletin from Warshow telling me that my less than reverential attitude toward Faulkner had provoked the pious ire of several members of the family. … They're still talking about me, I said to myself, thank God.” His Army stint completed, he took on the editor's job he had been promised at Commentary. Cohen was ill and away from the office. Two other editors had temporary charge. They did not praise his work. He felt oppressed and unwanted. (To spare them the embarrassment of being publicly named, Podhoretz refers to them in the singular as The Boss.) At last, unwanted beyond endurance, he went to the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the sponsors of Commentary, and told them that “The Boss was running the magazine in a spirit altogether alien to the way in which it had been run by Cohen; worse, if Cohen ever came back The Boss was planning to make life so miserable for him that the return would last only long enough to induce a relapse and set the stage for a coup.”

The AJC begged Podhoretz not to resign, fired the older half of The Boss, and hired a new man. The triumvirate functioned uneasily; the new man had to play verbal intermediary between Podhoretz and the remaining Half-Boss. Cohen subsequently took over the magazine again, but the Half-Boss cravenly made no attempt to pull off the coup, or a half-coup; as it happened, Cohen even had the temerity and unwisdom to begin “siding regularly with him.” By now Cohen was “a shrunken, shaken man in his late fifties who was pitifully unsure of himself.” So unsure that he rejected some of Podhoretz's ideas and so compelled him to resign and revert to freelancing until Cohen committed suicide.

Then, “with the keenest anticipation,” Podhoretz “watched the mounting signs that the AJC was seriously considering me as a candidate. In response to a casual inquiry, I indicated that I was not interested in the job.”

Now, this was a master stroke and an audacious gesture. Podhoretz was undergoing a writer's block. He had met some of the authors whose work he was bravely cutting down to size. What were they? Not villains, only people trying to make it, much as he was. The shock had dried up his well springs. He needed that Commentary job. More: He wanted it. Fortunately, the AJC had had enough of mediocrities; they were after Podhoretz or nobody. Their casual inquiry blossomed into an urgent request. After a couple of lunches at private clubs, Podhoretz was forced to “reconsider.” As he sensibly asks, “were magazines thrown up for grabs every day of the week that so extraordinary an opportunity should be tossed away with such smug complacency?”

The Half-Boss got his comeuppance: “a generous severance arrangement” and the blame “for the decline of the magazine.” Thus, at 30, an old soldier of the peacetime Army, various literary skirmishes, and a full-scale office war, Podhoretz found success.

This success which, for him, meant the acquisition of power, money, and fame, constitutes the book's melody line or rather, its haunting refrain. Not for Podhoretz the “superstition, cant, and hypocrisy” of avoiding “a frank discussion of one's feelings about one's own success.” For the good of America's soul, as an act of communal purification, he will uncover this loathsome sore and pick at it. Five flourishing years after he assumed high office at Commentary, Podhoretz “experienced an astonishing revelation: it is better to be a success than a failure.”

It may be objected that this notion is not new. In Beyond the Fringe a character proclaimed, “I would rather have the trappings of luxury than the trappings of poverty.” And some time before that Shakespeare's Mark Antony called ambition “the soldier's virtue.” But, as Podhoretz would quickly point out, these were not American sentiments.

A further objection that might be raised is that Podhoretz hardly deals with the passing scenery of his career; his paragraphs on Columbia and Cambridge, on living as an American in Europe, on writing and being unable to write, on the Virgils and Dantes of book-reviewing who are his intimates, are banal in the extreme. He mentions people who furthered or actually fathered his success, and he finds them all either great or the greatest; but he says little about their accomplishments that is not already known or could not be guessed at. To this charge Podhoretz can gently retort that he is not writing about others; that he wishes to present his accomplishments, not theirs, and to do so fearlessly.

A man who reviews books for a living performs one of society's most valuable and intrepid tasks. When he consistently tilts at poor work he must incur hostility. Podhoretz rightly puts this hostility down to envy of his success. Some critics will claim that his enemies do not envy him; they merely dislike him because he is a braggart. Such critics are themselves despicable. In the first place, they envy him his success. In the second place, when Podhoretz does seem to brag he is really endeavoring to arouse healthy controversy about himself and his years as an unflinching reviewer. In the third place, these critics are probably biassed by knowing him personally. I have not had that honor, and I give page space to these sourballs and backbiters only to sustain the cheerful controversy.

My own praise for the book has to do with its language. One expects a document by a rich, famous, and powerful editor to be free of the sociologese that does service in specialized journals and in the “news analysis” columns of the New York Times. Podhoretz neatly confounds expectations. He does not scorn such homely phrases as in terms of, in the context of, and in the sense that, nor such friendly words as relevant, concept, levels, and dimensions. He is not what he considers a snob, a noun he charmingly misuses in the accepted fashion. He likes of course. He delights in ethos. He is as fond of puzzlement as was Oscar Hammerstein's King of Siam. He invents or helps to give currency to quietistic, ethnicity, particularistic, and disreputability. He improves on the verb dismiss by lengthening it to be dismissive of, much as President Kennedy took the uninteresting to hope and dressed it up as to be hopeful that. When he writes, “Bellow was not one of the family's own only because he was a Jewish intellectual,” he switches the not around so that his grammar cleverly contradicts his sense.

And I cannot stop myself from reproducing one of his many felicitous long sentences: “The New York Review [of Books] was edited by a veteran of that most post-middlebrow of all literary magazines, The Paris Review, Robert Silvers, and by Barbara Epstein, the wife of the Columbus of the post-middlebrow reading public, and it was financed by a group of wealthy patrician WASPs whose willingness to back such a venture in itself constituted a measure of the extent to which the influence of the family had spread and the degree to which the traditions of its intellectual style had become chic.”

But no writer could have attained to Podhoretz's success by a display of linguistic skills alone. Looking back at his collection of reviews published in 1964, Doings and Undoings, one finds that he created two striking techniques that have been, and are still being, widely imitated. The first of these is what might be called the Zeitgeist analysis. It consists of treating a work as representative (or unrepresentative) of its historical setting. In Leavis' classes Podhoretz had been “not, perhaps the most ardent of his young epigoni … but, in all truth, the others being a singularly dreary and humorless lot, the most adept.” He had marveled at hearing Leavis “inductively arrive at a judgment as to why a particular stanza or a particular paragraph containing no substantive clue to its date of composition could only have been written around 1730 or 1910.” (Notice the transference of the italicized only so that it now modifies the verb and not the date: another instance of Podhoretz's disinclination to write stuffily.)

Having learned to date literature by the decade, if not the year, Podhoretz went on to apply this method of detection. In his reviews he rarely begrudges the reader an opportunity to regard a novel or book of nonfiction as a product of a second or third generation of immigrants, or of one “ethos” or another. In the first two-thirds of the 1950s, when Podhoretz was most actively in print, the “ethos” was McCarthyism or mid-Eisenhowerism, or “what Irving Howe was later to call ‘The Age of Conformity’ and I myself—somewhat more accurately, as I still believe—called ‘The Age of Revisionist Liberalism.’” Not only somewhat more accurately—somewhat more musically, too.

Placing a work in its time lends the discussion of it an air of importance; it turns a review into an “essay.” Podhoretz's second technique carried his essay-reviews further in the same direction: “They attempted to relate an aesthetic judgment of the book to some social or cultural or literary issue outside the book itself—the strengths and deficiencies of the work being assumed to mean something more than that the author was operating at the top of his bent here and nodding, as even Homer occasionally does, there. This made it possible for me to use the book review in true family style as a vehicle for all my ideas about the subject in question: to show off, in short, how much I knew about this, that, and the other thing.” Today we are hardened to the sentence that bobs up toward the end of a review of an autobiography, to the effect that “there is more at stake here than a mere memoir by a trashy writer” or “we now unavoidably confront an issue that is more serious/crucial/central/salient”—all of these being adjectives that Podhoretz has a taste for. A review of this kind rebukes the author in question for his moral ignorance in not taking account of the reviewer's “ethos.”

In spite of his generous disclaimer about handling a book review “in true family style.” I will come right out and affirm that it was Podhoretz's genius, more than anybody else's, to enlarge—or, as an envious critic might say, to inflate—the review into a statement of lasting political and philosophical consequence. Of Faulkner's A Fable he observes. “I think this book marks conclusively, and as it were officially, the end of an era.” Authoritative but not dogmatic. The I think and the as it were testify to the reviewer's caution in hazarding a general theory of book eras. In dissenting from an article by Philip Roth, Podhoretz locates (another of his favorite words) a discussion of the fiction of Bellow, Herbert Gold, William Styron, and Roth himself within its religious, historical, and mythological perspective, dimension, and horizons, but he leads off with a typically unassertive surely: “Surely what is involved here is an idea about America—the idea that whatever may be wrong with our society is to be understood as the incarnation in modern dress of the flaw in the universe that originated with the expulsion of man from Eden.”

The perspicacious reader will have noticed by now that what Doings and Undoings is dazzlingly doing (and undoing) with its ethoses (or ethoi?) of given periods is assisting at the burial of that colorless and therefore discredited word category. Categories are available to any reviewer in textbooks, whereas an ethos has to be dreamed up. An ethos is connected with a gift for writing rather than with the critical faculties. Podhoretz's description of how a passage of writing takes shape is a magnificent exposition: “What, according to Saint Augustine, the penis is to the body … the act of writing is to the mind. In fact, so closely connected in some obscure way [again the fascinating but cautious qualifier] are the two phenomena, with the ability to write resembling the feeling of a ready sexual potency and the inability to write resembling the experience of sexual impotence, that many men have a strong impulse to masturbate when they are about to start on a piece of writing, as though to persuade themselves that they are in control, that they can get it up and make it come.”

Podhoretz got it up and made it come, over and over, with one fruitful ethos after another. Now he has done it again. We are all grateful to learn from Making It that success is no handicap in the 1960s. And they're still talking about his prowess, thank God. But beyond the title's sexual pun is a virile act of writing, a career expressed as a matchless, 360-page ejaculation.

Gerald Weales (review date February 1968)

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SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Making It Home.” Kenyon Review 30, no. 119 (February 1968): 282-88.

[In the following excerpt, Weales expresses his disbelief regarding the numerous personal “hardships” Podhoretz describes in Making It, noting that the memoir portrays Podhoretz as a paranoid martyr figure.]

A first section of Willie Morris' North toward Home appeared in Commentary (August 1966) and a generous slice of Norman Podhoretz's Making It in Harper's (December 1967). I am not suggesting a conspiracy, a you-print-me-and-I'll-print-you agreement (even though Mrs. Podhoretz is one of Morris' editors at Harper's). I am offering this publication information simply as an illustration of how closely connected the two authors and the two books are—a connection that is finally more apparent than, real, for it is difficult to imagine two more dissimilar books on the same subject. Both are success stories, autobiographies of a kind, accounts of how the author made his way from the fastnesses of Mississippi (Morris) or Brooklyn (Podhoretz) to Manhattan where, still a young man, he assumed the editorship of a magazine with a small (Commentary) or medium-sized (Harper's), but literate, audience, and an influence much greater than the number of readers might imply. Although Podhoretz explains how he took Commentary away from the editors he disliked there, his book is not intended as a chronicle of events (i.e. triumphs), nor, even though he manages a round of applause on almost every page, is it supposed to be a celebration of self. Like Morris, whose book stops before he sits down in the chair that John Fischer presumably vacated voluntarily at Harper's, Podhoretz is writing a self-discovery volume, one that—after the fashion of most of his writing—assumes that what is true for General Motors is true for the country. It is here that the two books part. North toward Home is a book about people and places, and the author almost disappears; Making It is a book in which people and places exist only as extensions of the author, intellectual or emotional constructs that exercise his mind or excite his sensibilities. If I can generalize from the reactions of people who saw me carrying the two books around, North toward Home is a lovable book, Making It, a hateable one. To some extent, these were my reactions, too, but my responses were complicated by the fact that the calculated innocence of Morris' book finally aroused my suspicion and the naïveté of Podhoretz's made me very sad. …

There is no such hiding for Podhoretz—at least not consciously. He sets out to tell all about how he made his way in the world of “the dog-fighting and ass-ripping so necessary to the life of letters in an urban setting” (to use Morris' words), but his “all” is heavily circumscribed by his membership in what he calls “the family,” that band of myopic New York intellectuals who generalize so grandly from their limited experience. Occasionally, Podhoretz recognizes the narrowness of his position, as when he retreats from the possibility of practical politics into his intellectual's ghetto (“a small community in New York which lived by its own laws and had as little commerce as it could manage with a hostile surrounding environment”), but that does not stop him from telling his story as though he were a representative man. His declared purpose in Making It is to celebrate success and its rewards—fame, power, money, social position; to write a brave and dangerous book that cuts through the hypocrisy that pretends there are things worth doing in the world for their own sake. The difficulty lies in his assumption that everyone shares his motivation, longs for his rewards, and lies in pretending not to. A book that might have been interesting if it had been simply confessional becomes pretentious and preposterous as the author fans out from his little self-discoveries into societal generalizations like those that George P. Elliott made such happy fun of in “Who Is We?” (the 1959 Nation piece that ticked off so many of the “family”). Making It is, in fact, a very dull book that comes nastily alive only when Podhoretz quits trying to hide the cry me, me, me behind his long, long thoughts, which are typical “family” common-places.

The story Podhoretz has to tell is that of the bright Brooklyn Jewish boy who made his anguished but triumphant way into the WASPish world of Columbia and Cambridge, found his place in the New York literary scene, became a celebrated literary critic and editor (he sometimes sounds as though his name counted for something in the big world, as though he were Elizabeth Taylor or Sandy Koufax), and learned the temptations of luxury, that expensive is best. The story is repetitively the same: the success of Norman Podhoretz in the face of envy and vindictiveness. In a typical passage, he complains of “being victimized by the aggressive and whining treatment which is always reserved for the newly successful by their less fortunate old friends,” which makes me suspect that he was always sloppy in his choice of friends. His experiences at Columbia, in the Army, at Commentary (before he got the Greenbergs dumped), the ordinary inconveniences that most young men face, become lurid suffering to him because he sees himself always as the center of a vast concern whether it be marshaled against him or for him. I was a regular contributor to the old Commentary and worked easily and comfortably with Martin Greenberg. The writer on the outside, of course, is in no position to know what is going on in an office. It may well have been as tough for Podhoretz as he says it was, but I would like to hear the Greenberg version of that story, particularly since the other parts of the book present such distorted scenes. I was at Columbia when Podhoretz was, in the class ahead of him, and I do not recognize the place he describes. He mentions a Columbia code “which forbade one to work too hard or to make any effort to impress a professor or to display the slightest concern over grades,” one that crippled the serious student who did not have Podhoretz's ambitious willingness to violate it. Perhaps such a thing existed in some small circle on campus, but both it and Podhoretz's reaction to it would have seemed silly to those of us who had come to the campus as veterans. As I remember it, the more serious students among us were preoccupied with subjects not grades, although we liked to get good ones, and we did not need to impress the professors unduly because we had no need for father figures, not even eminent ones like Lionel Trilling. Podhoretz's image of himself, busily piling up his A+'s while a guilty and resentful student body stood around him, is a bit fictional. Those of us who were in classes with him did think of him as something of an ass-sucker (the book still conveys that impression), but for the most part we were indifferent to him, seeing him as a bright and energetic kid given to intellectual conceits and ludicrous gaffes. I still remember the day that gentle George Nobbe patiently let Norman's angry attack on Gibbon run its course and then, softly, suggested that Gibbon's defense of Christianity might be read as irony. To this day, irony is not Podhoretz's shtick; if it were, Making It might be something more than an F. R. Leavis tea party (“The tea parties,” says Podhoretz of those Saturday afternoons in Cambridge, “were Leavis talking about his grievances”).

There is something about Podhoretz that elicits a kind of exasperated amusement. I remember a story that was going the rounds shortly after he began to write for the New Yorker. “Did you hear about poor Edmund Wilson?” “No, what happened?” “He's had a nervous breakdown.” “No!” “Yes, he's going around telling everyone that he's Norman Podhoretz.” That is the kind of story that Podhoretz might see as envy, but there is something almost affectionate in it, a bewildered surprise that anyone could want to make it as badly as Podhoretz did and could be so ponderous in his means. Those parts of Making It in which Podhoretz comes on as the teacher's pet, complaining that the other boys make fun of him in the halls, are trying to read because old grudges, over real or imagined wrongs, are never very interesting even when the complainer tries to transmute them into general principles. Making It, however, is not simply the story of paranoid Podhoretz but of pathetic Podhoretz as well: the young man who became his own high school English teacher, the Mrs. K. who was so bent on his success and so preoccupied with his becoming acceptable. There is something sad about his name-dropping delight, his gurgling “at last!” when he is finally invited to Hannah Arendt's annual New Year's Eve party, his confession that “I had never been so happy in my life” after having had the opportunity to get drunk with the Rahvs and listen to “family” gossip.

Making It is a “Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package,” Podhoretz says at the end of the book, and, the literary market place being as unpredictable as it is, it may succeed. Yet, it is not the brave book it wanted to be. It is simply “the privetized universe” that Podhoretz called current American fiction, “with its narcissism, its self-pitying tones, its constricted sense of human possibility, its unearned wisdoms, its trivial emotional dramas.” There is one impressive paragraph in the book in which Podhoretz describes his discovery that he could edit. As a writer I may distrust editors who fiddle with my copy, but that paragraph implies a vocation, a thing to do, that is a virtue in itself, not a step toward Rahv's approbation or Trilling's applause or lunch with Jacqueline Kennedy. There, for a moment, is Podhoretz doing it, not making it. “The feeling grew upon me,” says Willie Morris toward the end of his book, “that in the great chaos of modern existence it was one's work that mattered, work in the broadest and most meaningful sense—this and being close to the people one loved.” Despite the bromidic “great chaos” and “most meaningful,” it is an admirable sentence, a real place to stand while Podhoretz loses his head all around us.

Edgar Z. Friedenberg (review date 1 February 1968)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2746

SOURCE: Friedenberg, Edgar Z. “Du côté de chez Podhoretz.” New York Review of Books 10, no. 2 (1 February 1968): 11-13.

[In the following review, Friedenberg compliments Podhoretz's “illuminating” recollections of his rise in wealth, fame, and social stature in Making It but notes that the memoir lacks any significant description of Podhoretz's family life.]

“For taking my career as seriously as I do in this book. I will no doubt be accused of self-inflation and therefore of tastelessness,” Norman Podhoretz writes in the Preface to Making It. “So be it. There was a time when to talk candidly about sex was similarly regarded as tasteless—a betrayal of what D. H. Lawrence once called ‘the dirty little secret.’ For many of us, of course, this is no longer the case. But judging by the embarrassment that a frank discussion of one's feelings about one's own success, or the lack of it, invariably causes in polite company today, ambition (itself a species of lustful hunger) seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul.” “Such a book,” he notes in the concluding sentences, “ought properly to be written in the first person, and it ought in itself to constitute a frank bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package; otherwise it would be unable to extricate itself from the toils of the dirty little secret. Writing a book like that would be a very dangerous thing to do, but some day, I told myself, I would like to try doing it.

“I just have.”

The analogy between sex and ambition that Podhoretz makes in this passage seems to me appropriate and, in its context, illuminating. He is quite right in considering ambition to be as ubiquitous—and, in itself, as morally neutral—as lust. The same questions arise with reference to both drives: To what kinds of relationships to other persons does it lead? How does it affect one's perception of the world in which one lives? Either drive may lead to violent and destructive abuse of others or to affiliation and mutual respect—though only sex may lead to love, which does give it a certain edge in human importance. Podhoretz would, perhaps, deny sex even this point of primacy over ambition, for he complains in Making It of “the privatized universe of most American fiction, with its increasingly boring emphasis on love as the be-all and end-all of life”—an emphasis he certainly avoids in Making It. But ambition, though very different from sexual lust, may be almost as effective in involving a person deeply and authentically in the lives of other persons. Both lust and ambition may lead to a heightened interest in and awareness of others—in the spring, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove—or to the dullest and most passive preoccupation with oneself.

Moreover, both lust and ambition may be derivative expressions of anxiety and poor self-esteem rather than expressions of healthy, though ruthless, animality. That much—perhaps most—sexual activity in our society is itself motivated by ambition is a commonplace. But it is equally true that the ambition so served may be as stale and puerile as the sexuality through which it seeks expression. Yet, there are also people whose ambition is informed with so much joy and vitality that their success gives empathic satisfaction even to their rivals, or some of them. John F. Kennedy was perceived as such a man by his admirers while from his writing. I should judge that George Plimpton, who is mentioned briefly in Making It, is another.

The issue Podhoretz raises is therefore both complex and ambiguous, and can only be faced by examining the quality of the relationships he presents in his defense of his bid for literary distinction, fame, and money. The opening sentence of the first chapter of Making It asserts that “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.” Even so, Peer Gynt made a longer one beginning and ending in a small Norwegian village—but Podhoretz, of course, is reporting from midpassage and his may yet be the longer of the two. It has certainly already taken him through territory usually regarded as among the most interesting and inaccessible, in the world. That he could have made it is confirmation that the American promise of opportunity to the industrious and gifted who are realistic about the system in which they operate is kept, and kept lavishly. His journey takes him from Brownsville in Brooklyn through Columbia University, where he is befriended by Lionel Trilling to whom he refers gracefully in his Acknowledgment. While at Columbia he wins a Kellett Fellowship and Fulbright which take him to Clare College, Cambridge—and that is a long way from Brownsville. At Cambridge he is assigned his first manservant, and works with F. R. Leavis. In 1953, at the age of twenty-three and after having returned to New York and again to Cambridge for a short, unsatisfactory period of graduate study, Podhoretz became a monthly contributor to Commentary.

He has been working with Commentary ever since—as editor-in-chief since 1960—except for two years as an enlisted man in the Army, which came just at the time they would have most impact on his life. Podhoretz was drafted on December 15, 1953—the dates of his induction and discharge are, I believe, the only two dates precisely given in Making It though I could have overlooked others—just five months after he had returned to New York and had already begun to experience decided success as a writer and reviewer, and to feel accepted by some of its leading literary figures, like Robert Warshow, the gifted and ill-fated, critic, and Philip Rahv of the Partisan Review. He was discharged on December 14, 1955; and hastened back as from exile to resume the pursuit of his career at Commentary. Here he runs into trouble. Two associate editors with whom he has worked on terms of equality before being drafted are jointly in charge of the operation and make life miserable for him and creative work very difficult. By skillful infighting he shortly becomes an associate editor himself and effectively neutralizes them; and within less than five years he has become the Boss, as he calls his collective adversary, himself. Meanwhile, and since, he has remained continually active as a contributor to Partisan Review, The New Yorker, Esquire, Show, and many other journals; published a book, Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and after in American Writing, and attended virtually every party given in the New York literary world:

Parties were sometimes fun and sometimes not but fun was beside the point for me they always served as a barometer of the progress of my career. There were other landmarks besides my first party at Lillian Hellman's. There was my first weekend at Philip Rahv's house in the country, drinking and arguing about radicalism late into the night; there was my first invitation (at last) to Hannah Arendt's annual New Year's Eve party … there was my first small dinner party at Mary McCarthy's meticulously furnished apartment in the East Nineties; there was my first elegantly peopled cocktail party at Sylvia Marlowe's; there was my first black-tie affair in New York, at Louis Kronenberger's, where legendary figures from the twenties like E. E. Cummings appeared; there was my first summons to the Park Avenue salon of Mr. and Mrs. Kirk Askew, with its dazzling collection of celebrities and titled European ladies. And for the sake of these things too; I drove myself to write.

Only for the sake of these things and fame? Did I not write because I had something to say? This question rests, I believe, on a misconception of the nature of writing—or more precisely, the nature of writers.

But the nature of writers and of their motivations, varies. Podhoretz continues this passage with an astute and quite generally applicable analysis of what happens to the urge to write in its social context, which shows his own motives to have been more professional than this breathless social column suggests. But, conversely, there are more professional reasons why a writer might wish to attend such functions: to observe and comprehend the scene, as well as to enjoy having made it, as Marcel Proust did in the process of living which made him capable of writing Remembrance of Things Past—a more ambitious exegesis of the relation of ambition to passion and nostalgia than Podhoretz has undertaken here. Podhoretz seems to have wanted to attend these often acrimonious parties neither out of gregariousness nor even curiosity, but to check up on his progress. It was necessary to have been there because:

Every morning a stock-market report on reputations 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 … Did so-and-so's book get nominated for the National Book Award? Up two and five eighth's.

In a man who really is a competent—even a distinguished—editor, and who has had a Columbia and a Cambridge B.A.—both, presumably, attesting to some real interest in literature and life, this is not ambition but a perversion of it. Perhaps one might call it aerophilia. What seems tragically limiting about: Podhoretz's vision is that it obscures the fact that it really is sometimes possible for a successful American writer to gain enough fame and wealth to feel free to take his career very seriously indeed. This, I suppose, is what Dr. Spock has done and God knows I envy him for it. A physician who is serious about babies must also be serious about napalm and equally serious about a society in which its use has become cliché; though I should think each successive Vietnamese child must find it novel enough. Those who seriously accept a calling must sometimes alter their manner of pursuing it as reality alters its demands on them.

Despite the statement in Making It with which I have opened this review, what Podhoretz takes seriously, it seems to me, is not his career but, his quest for fame, power, and money. Of this he writes clearly, cogently, and with commendable detachment. But the subject is so limited—in this ease in scope as well as depth, since Podhoretz has had essentially only one employer. There have been many books by self-made men who took their careers seriously to the point of obsession, some of them very bad books—which this is not—by very bad men. But I recall few as lifeless as this. When a man who takes his career seriously writes about it he may be boring—but only by assuming that you are as interested as he is in its sometimes overly technical details and in the issues and people be gets involved with in the course of it; he tells you more about them than you really want to know. Podhoretz, who has been where much of the action is for more than a decade, and has been editor of one of the country's most serious journals of opinion for nearly that long, tells us very little about anything that has happened in his life except as it affects his self-esteem or concerns his quest for class, status, and power. He seems scarcely to have been personally present among the celebrities who so delight him; Podhoretz amid his growing collection of trophies is so impersonal that there are times when it seems that Making It might better have been called Manhole in the Promised Land. There are also times, as the names of the celebrities drop, when one feels that one is reading Leporello's catalogue and that these people mean as little to Podhoretz as the 1003 women in Spain did as individuals to Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni, too, was fond of parties and gave very amusing ones himself; and I found myself hoping, as I neared the end of Making It, that Podhoretz might one day give a dinner party as interesting, and as conclusive, as he did.

But no such event enlivens these pages. The celebrities and literati do not come to life; they remain part of Podhoretz's mise-en-scène. The strongest emotion in the book—unfortunately, frozen haired—is directed toward the high-school English teacher, Mrs. K., whom Podhoretz makes sound as if she were Joseph K.'s wicked stepmother. It is she who arouses Podhoretz's ambition, as well as his permanent resentment, by her patronage; which culminates in an occasion when she takes him, at the age of fifteen, into Manhattan on a shopping trip and, afterward, to his first restaurant meal. She is “visibly pleased by this unexpected—or was it expected?—object lesson when the hostess requires that he put on a coat and tie which it provides; and orders “duck for both of us, undoubtedly because it would be a hard dish for me to manage without using my fingers.” His recollection of Mrs. K.'s perception of him is given in this passage:

Slum child, filthy little slum child. I was beyond saving: I deserved no better than to wind up with all the other horrible little Jewboys in the gutter (by which she meant Brooklyn College).

In a book in which human emotional conflict, external and internal, had played a larger role this memory might be acceptable as the psychic trauma that set Podhoretz's life in motion, and which has remained, and must be accepted, as a part of his permanent core of being. But in Making It, it serves chiefly to establish that Podhoretz was ambitious enough to consent to his own humiliation before he became Mrs. K.'s pupil. For, at fifteen, he must have known that any vision of him as a filthy little slum child was absurd; and if he was beyond saving it was for moral and theological rather than social reasons. Fifteen-year-olds, particularly from bad neighborhoods, don't think of themselves as children. And if I remember correctly from “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” the Podhoretzes didn't live in a slum but in a decaying lower-middle-class neighborhood whose white inhabitants were very uptight indeed about its infiltration by Negroes—a much better ambience for the cultivation of one's anxiety about status than a slum. Finally, in 1945, the academic standing of Brooklyn College was high, not low—not only in Brownsville and the rest of Brooklyn, but all over the country—though its image was shortly to be marred by President Gideonse's spectacular Red-hunts. It provided a very good launching platform for ambitious young men, though not one as good as Columbia did. Mrs. K, was right about that; but it was already Norman Podhoretz who cared enough to accept a dinner invitation from a teacher who must have seemed to him half-cracked, and who he thought didn't really like him, even though she valued his promise.

It would seem to me tragic that Podhoretz's account of this encounter with Mrs. K., which he recalls as purely spiteful and humiliating should express the strongest emotion he records having felt about any human relationship in this memoir—except that the whole book has so much the character of a set piece, almost an allegory, or a public celebration of the American Way of Life. Making It is not really a personal document; it is dedicated, for example, to Podhoretz's four children whom I do not recall being mentioned in it: his wife is, but very briefly. If the book has any personal meaning at all, it is a declaration of Podhoretz's triumph at no longer feeling subject to such humiliations as he believes Mrs. K. once inflicted upon him, and a by-no-means abject apology for being the sort of person to whom such a triumph continues to be important. But Making It may also be just what its author says it is: a bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package. If it succeeds we may surely hope that successive volumes will permit us to follow the career of this remarkable, still young man. And they may be more mellow; sometimes as we age, memory softens our perceptions of reality. In Podhoretz Returns and Son of Podhoretz. the monster may turn out to have a heart of gold.

Daniel Stern (review date 16 February 1968)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2254

SOURCE: Stern, Daniel. “Norman Podhoretz, Distinguished Provincial or Fantasy Person?” Commonweal 87, no. 19 (16 February 1968): 594-96.

[In the following review, Stern asserts that Podhoretz fails to describe himself accurately in Making It, arguing that the memoir instead presents a caricature of the man Podhoretz visualizes himself to be.]

The word was out as long ago as eight months, perhaps longer. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and key figure in the New York Literary Establishment, had written a book that tore the lid off. The buzz was everywhere. An item in the Sunday Times Book Review told what had been joked about at the cocktail parties and the lunches: that the book had been turned down as “outrageous” by a publisher who had already given Podhoretz a large advance. His agent was also rumored to have dropped the book, whereupon another agent took it to Random House; at which point Bennett Cerf entered the picture with enthusiasm and purses of gold. The book's title was said to be indicative of its supremely honest, let-the-phoney-shattered-sensibilities-fall-where-they-may approach. The title was Making It.

Its thesis was also widely known before publication. It was Podhoretz' discovery at the age of 33 that it was better to be a success than to be a failure; that it was better to give orders (i.e. to have power) than to take them; it was better to be famous than anonymous; and it was better to be rich than to be poor. These shattering truisms—or rather half-truths—according to Podhoretz, are accepted by contemporary intellectuals—yet denied by them at the same time. They practice the active pursuit of money, fame and power secretly, while appearing to be solely concerned with knowledge, truth, values and other such ethereal concepts. Just, Podhoretz claimed, as the Victorians secretly practiced their sexual lives with an intensity amounting to obsession, while, in the Drawing Room, denying the existence of a woman's limbs—let alone more provocative areas. They had, in D. H. Lawrence's phrase, their “dirty little secret”—sex. We have ours—success.

Podhoretz is, of course, flamboyantly inventing the wheel. Everyone knows that ours is a society split down the middle in its value-structure. That we are told to venerate honesty and kindness—and at the same time told to get out there and make that buck at all costs. But everyone also knows that this does not eliminate choices between good and bad, between decency and corruption, between honesty and dishonesty, and most importantly between the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Everyone knows it just makes those choices tougher.

Almost everyone, that is. Because here we have Making It by Norman Podhoretz, with all its self-proclaimed chutzpah. I have begun this discussion of it in the style of gossip because gossip is absolutely pertinent here. That is what this kind of book is all about—both in its writing technique and in its expected response. Thus, it will be instructive to take a look at the response that did greet it.

To begin with, nobody was (or would allow himself to appear) shocked. The daily Times treated it as somewhat outrageous but perhaps a little less frank than it promised. The Sunday Times review followed a complex and tortuous path, the conclusion of which seemed to be that none of this literary stuff mattered anyway because everyone of any interest, today, was making movies. But, again, the interesting thing is the absence of the Big Denial. There were no outraged Victorians.

In fact, everyone has been so careful to treat this blazingly honest statement with respect that they have ignored one simple fact. It is at the heart of it a dishonest piece of work. I will try to demonstrate this. First, let's take a look at the story of this “distinguished provincial” in New York.

Making It traces the brilliant career of the young son of a poor Jewish family of immigrants in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, from the not-so-tender ministrations of a school teacher who trains him in the style of the middle-class life for which his intellectual gifts will fit him, to Columbia College (where he gives us his Report Card: A+). Then to Clare College at Cambridge University, where he studies with the great critic, F. R. Leavis—and even writes a piece for Leavis' legendary publication, Scrutiny. From there the tale takes him back to New York, in and out of the Army followed by his introduction to—and adoption by—The Family (the uncrowned ruling circle in the literary and intellectual world; their members ranging from Lionel Abel to Lionel Trilling, from William Phillips to Phillip Rahv—their chief organ Partisan Review and, to a lesser extent, Commentary).

It is Commentary that provides a conflict: the job world, the world of power, as Podhoretz calls it. It is a world he finally enters and in which he succeeds—as editor of perhaps the finest magazine of intellect in the country.

An excellent Odyssey! The contours of such a journey could enclose a life of achievement and integrity. Instead, Podhoretz inadvertently tells us of his failures—and makes a virtue out of the irrelevance of integrity. For example: the earliest dreams he had were of becoming a great poet. These dreams faded and finally vanished under the need to produce work of value in poetic form. (Failure number one.) Next comes the shift to the critical mode. But not only that—he will exalt criticism into the characteristic art-form of his time. And it must be a book. He, like the rest of The Family, has an almost superstitious veneration for books. (At one point he connects this feeling with the Talmudic tradition.) Besides, practically everyone he meets will ask: “Are you working on a book?” They mean a novel, but he knows that the center has shifted from people like Bellow, Mailer and Malamud to Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling and James Baldwin, etc. Thus, a critical book is the thing to write. He accepts a $2,500 advance from a publisher for a book that will “tell nothing less than the whole story of the changing role of the American intellectual in the past 40 years and his changing relation to American society.” He never gets past the first paragraph of Chapter Two. (Failure number two.) Then, in desperation, he decides to write a book, modeled on Axel's Castle (… “an introduction, six critical essays and a “Whither Mankind” type of concluding chapter.”). “This time I got through Chapter One—on Mailer—and almost to the end of Chapter Two—on Bellow—before running out of gas again.” (Failure number three.) At this point, Podhoretz tells us a “writer's block” set in. He was unable to continue at all. (To make matters worse he has vowed that his first book would not be merely a collection of previously published short pieces.) Faced with the need to feed and clothe his family he goes into business with Jason Epstein (briefly) and then back to Commentary, this time as “the boss”—the term is Podhoretz'. Shortly afterwards, he is asked to review for Huntington Hartford's magazine Show—and the block is broken. Some time later, his first book is published: it is, indeed, a collection of his previously published short pieces. (Failure number four.)

Thus, the story of a success. By the end, Podhoretz has achieved “fame, money and power.” For fame read well-known in certain circles. For money it's hard to know what to read, though we can assume he's doing all right—certainly making more than the $20,000 a year he originally asked as the price of taking over and revitalizing Commentary. How much more he never tells us. (His friend Jason Epstein once wrote, in the New York Review of Books, that it takes $50,000 a year to live right in New York. That may be, in some respects an unconsciously comic statement. But at least it's a statement about money, and it includes numbers.) For power, read control—within reason—over an important, small-circulation magazine, with influence far exceeding its readership. But one wonders what J. Paul Getty or Tito would think of Podhoretz' use of their word.

Until now I have evaluated Podhoretz' tale of success and found it a tale of failure by instinctively applying intrinsic standards. What I have left out is all the exciting extrinsic stuff with which he has crammed his book. What does it matter if you are not writing poetry but are writing, instead, a book review which puts down some novelist's work, as long as you are going to parties at Phillip Rahv's where people speak of what Mary said to Lionel about Dwight's piece on Jimmy Baldwin?

And what does it matter if you are not writing the ambitious critical work that will define the intellectual in relation to the American environment as long as you are writing pieces for the O.K. magazines: the New Yorker and Partisan Review. As long as you are checking on the daily “stock-market report” on reputation that comes out every morning in New York … “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 Partisan Review neglect to ask so-and-so to participate in a symposium? Down two.” And, finally, what does it matter if you betray a nagging sense of inner failure by boasting of money, power and fame far beyond your actual achievement—as long as you are drowning it in Bloody Marys paid for by Huntington Hartford while the balmy winds of Paradise Island flutter the curtains at your window?

All this, by the way, could have been forgivable if the book created characters that came to life. Podhoretz' parents and wife are mentioned but left unfleshed. There is no sense of characterization in either the major or minor figures. The sense of pertinent detail is absent. In reading about the author's life in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, for example, I could not help recalling that small masterpiece of autobiography, A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin. There the life of a Jewish son of an immigrant family was presented in such emotional and intellectual concreteness that Brownsville became both painfully real and as beautifully mythical as any poetic landscape. Even more significantly for our American life, the sequel to that book, Starting out in the Thirties (which in its own sense could have been called “Making It”) shows how one can view life with The Family and in the hot center of New York's intellectual, political and literary life with a humane and balanced vision—and, above all, with the irony and compassion that maturity can bring. Kazin, like Podhoretz and the rest of us, wanted attention, success and the money needed to live decently. The difference is that Kazin acts from the start as if there is, or ought to be, a difference between the values that govern a business culture and the values that govern a literary and intellectual establishment. To dwell as Podhoretz does, by implication, on the similarities between the two, i.e. the desire for money, power and prestige, is to tell us nothing. And to accept these values uncritically is to abdicate the function of criticism.

Now, for the final dishonesty of this book that claims in every line to be honest to a fault. It is this: I have read many of the pieces in Podhoretz' collection: Doings and Undoings. I do not recognize in them the author of Making It. (Several people who know Podhoretz have told me they felt the same way.) It seems to me that the hero of Making It who goes by the name of Norman Podhoretz is a fantasy person, a willed creation; a “what-makes-Norman-run,” who leaks sawdust—and who was created (probably unconsciously) for the purpose of making a “bid for literary distinction, fame and money all in one package.” To outrage the community-at-large you cannot present the outrageous figure you would like to be. Your searing honesty must deflate real phony values; not phony phony values. And, above all, you must not uncover a “dirty little secret” that everyone knows and that has been written about in other books about success in America.

Finally, there is beneath such a vision of life an awful cynicism, a sense of the abyss. What an implied criticism of the life of the intellect in America! I can only say that the literary enterprise may be upon hard times—but the stance depicted in Making It is not justified. Has the brotherhood of letters been abolished? Is the republic of thought a fiction? Does the literary life stand in need of a transfusion from the business culture all around us? I doubt that Podhoretz believes this. He strikes me as a man deeply committed to the examined life. This is why his attempt to generalize an empty point of view—to make us all share in his cynicism—does not succeed. It emerges finally, as an extreme personal response to a series of personal problems. The rest of us will go along dropping an occasional name, making an occasional power ploy and trying to increase our income. But, unless we yield to a kind of despair, we will balance all these with a devotion to the ideal of writing and speaking the right words on the right theme at the right time regardless of extrinsic temptations. In the end, rightness is all.

John Romano (review date 5 November 1979)

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SOURCE: Romano, John. “Writers & Writing: Making Politics Simple.” New Leader 62, no. 21 (5 November 1979): 16-17.

[In the following review, Romano debates the wisdom of Podhoretz's intractability and black-and-white view of politics in Breaking Ranks.]

There appeared, recently, on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, a very amusing account of a disease called Sixtomania. The sufferer compulsively refers to the '60s, pines for the '60s, understands the '50s or the '70s only in relation to the '60s, understands himself only in relation to the '60s, etc. Mild cases of this disease are common, but I know just two people in whom the symptoms are far advanced. One works in a record shop, talks compulsively about Eric Clapton and Baba Ram Dass, and has stubbornly held out against the newer, shorter hairstyles; it is a sadness to all his friends, for he was once a prize-winning political science major at Stanford. The other Sixtomaniac—the other man for whom personal identity and social-historical moment mated once and perfectly in that gone time—is Norman Podhoretz, the distinguished editor of Commentary and the author of Breaking Ranks.

Half of this book is a record of how Podhoretz broke from the ranks of liberal anti-Communists to join (a species of) '60s radicalism, leaving the liberal anti-Communists wondering what he was doing so far Left; the second half records his breaking ranks with the radicals to return to a newer, not-so-liberal anti-Communism, leaving the radicals wondering what he was doing so far Right. Yet one merely needs to read those lively pages in which the author recounts his feud with Jason Epstein, a founder of the New York Review of Books and his old Columbia classmate, to feel how sorely Mr. Podhoretz, with his deep and gorgeous thirst for combat, misses the days of good guys and bad guys: “I myself did not take the ‘terror’ seriously for a very long time. I knew it was there, and I detested the sight of it in action, but I suppose I thought that I personally had nothing to fear from it. Certainly I was not afraid of Jason. I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I had never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response. …

“That evening Jason backed down. …”

This is a clear expression of something that is not said directly in Breaking Ranks but persists as subtext: Wasn't it nice when the Left made such overtly stupid, refutable statements? Johnson-as-Hitler is an equation one can attack with an undivided heart and mind. No need to be complex or sympathetic to the personal, psychological, sociological sources of such rhetoric; it's banal and dumb and actually evil. When people talked like that, son—the book is addressed to Norman Podhoretz' son, an undergraduate at the University of Chicago—you could really let fly. The times we had then, and the stories we can tell … Today, you see, people come at you with little, annoying, wishy-washy issues: the profit-margins of the oil companies, the unemployment rate, skin diseases picked up around some damn chemical plant … It's not that we can't answer these, we can and do. But we can't, well, “roar.” Except, of course, about the Soviet Union. Now there's a subject.

I stress this nostalgia for the polarization of '60s politics because through Norman Podhoretz' considerable influence it has become an implicit feature of '70s neoconservatism. And surely it is one of that interesting group's more regrettable features, for not only is the easy division of everything into Right and Left anachronistic, it is also out of step with any authentic American conservatism.

The irony of '60s conservatism—remember the Young Americans for Freedom?—was that it depended as much on the issues and climate of the time as did, say, the music of Phil Ochs. Its own positive hopes came to grief with Barry Goldwater: therefore, hating LBJ from his first moment as President, the Right could hardly feel comfortable simply defending him from New Left enemies, despite a Vietnam policy nearly indistinguishable from Goldwater's. So conservatives defended the War as an abstraction, attacked the Great Society program on principle, but were most vivid, most vocal, most specific in their opposition to the tactics of “the movement.” In the annals of campus radicalism especially, the Right-wing of the late '60s will go down as those who hooted down the hooters-down. At the time, there was dignity in that role: The New Left increasingly broke faith with the ideals of tolerance that inform liberal society.

Of course, this defense of liberal principles magnifies the paradox inherent in all genuine American conservatism. The root difficulty is this: It is hard to think of any distinctively American achievements not marked by an effort to break free of fathers, conventions, dogma, creeds. It's not that we don't have traditions. It's that, at our best, we question them. The finest fruit of the Puritan imagination, for example, is the anti-Puritan fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thus the essence of the conservative's task in America is a delicate mediation, marked by self-criticism and even a vigorous, morally keen ambivalence. To succeed in preserving the American tradition, the true conservative must support those changes that strengthen our society while opposing those that will undermine the framework which makes change possible. In short, what must be conserved is the tentative, unrigorous, self-correcting, nonideological character of our public life—in ways that do not destroy human freedom. Conservatism in America is not, nor should it be, a consistent ideology; the hallmark of its health will always be its liberalism.

The more one has invested in the hopes for true conservatism, the more distressing will be Norman Podhoretz' relentless disdain for its complexities. He wants to be seen as—I can't believe he is really—the kind of man who thinks that to be complex and self-critical is a sign of weakness. To be subtle, to use dependent clauses, to entertain both sides of a question feelingly—he sees these as wavering. This is anti-intellectualism outright; and I don't mean anti-those-intellectuals-who-are-soft-on-Russia, I mean anti-those-people-who-think-too-much. For Podhoretz, liberals are the people who say “On the one hand … but then on the other hand. …” and so come out nowhere, leaving the earth to less ambivalent forces of evil. Yet that, he surely knows, is a clumsy cartoon of liberalism, created (ironically) by the radical Left. Actually, the capacity to acknowledge the justness of competing claims in an open democratic field is a triumph of human seeing; it is always under assault. And it is regrettable that Mr. Podhoretz chooses to join its assailants.

One instance of this in Breaking Ranks is his attack on Lionel Trilling. Mr. Podhoretz does not realize, because his affection for Trilling was great and sincere, what disservice he does the elder critic's memory when he accuses him of “retreat[ing] in the face of the radicalism of the late sixties.” Some of Trilling's remarks during the Columbia troubles of 1968 have stuck in Mr. Podhoretz' craw, particularly the remark that the students' demands “at least begin to make sense.” How can a man admit such a thing, Mr. Podhoretz seems to ask, about the other side? He concedes that Trilling always tended to make matters “complicated” and deplores this habit of mind, but insists that for “most of his life” Trilling managed to “overcome” complexity and take strong stands. (As if intelligence were something to overcome, like dyslexia!) In Mr. Podhoretz' melancholy opinion, though, toward the end Trilling failed to take enough stands, and even when he did, he failed to do so strongly enough. Lacked a little of the ol' John Wayne, he did.

This mistake about the nature of Trilling's genius (yes indeed) reminds us of how difficult it is, under all circumstances and in all times, to be a liberal. Trilling's “doubleness”—a very unfortunate word of Podhoretz', because of its ring of duplicity—seems to me to have derived from a breadth of sympathy—a sympathy with moral promptings even in mistaken movements for social change, tempered by anguish over the costs of change to our moral heritage. The virtue of Beyond Culture, for instance, is its exquisite balance, more useful as a touchstone than the rigidities and attitudinizing that ranged round it in the discourse of those years. But Mr. Podhoretz, in the compulsive polemics of his soul, can only deplore the balance of such a vision as weakness and (an unfair quote from Trilling himself) “fatigue.”

In Breaking Ranks Norman Podhoretz reveals what is perhaps most unsupportable in his present position. He tends to be, alas, mystical about strength. The political emphasis of this is widely known: He is “for” an America that does not vitiate its strength by criticizing itself. Now Mr. Podhoretz says at the end of his book that what he is to himself is a “liberal,” and I think the dictates of a good liberal conscience on the issue of national strength ought to be clear. Power to do good does not increase without power to do wrong increasing apace. Consequently, the stronger America needs to be (and it needs to be very strong just now), the more self-critical it must simultaneously become. If we are to represent Justice and Freedom internationally, the more determined we must be not to compromise them in our own public institutions, not to support tyrannies abroad, and not to allow poverty to deny justice and freedom to our own citizens. Nothing should grow faster, as we rise to the inherent perils of the world situation, than our capacity to say where and how we are in the wrong. But that is just what Mr. Podhoretz will not have.

Hilton Kramer (review date 17 November 1979)

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SOURCE: Kramer, Hilton. Review of Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir, by Norman Podhoretz. New Republic 181, no. 20 (17 November 1979): 32-5.

[In the following review of Breaking Ranks, Kramer admires Podhoretz's bravery for being instrumental in establishing a liberal, anti-Communist political movement and then breaking away from that movement when its ideals became too radical.]

It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.

—Charles Péguy, in Notre Patrie

Among the writers and intellectuals who came of age in this country in the 1950s, Norman Podhoretz's was the first critical voice to sound a public warning about the spiritual temper of the generation—the so-called “conformist” generation—which was just then establishing itself on the cultural scene. “It would be a mistake,” he wrote in 1957, “to accept the sobriety and composure of the young generation at face value.” The admired moral posture of the young intellectual of the 1950s—“a perfect attitude of the civilized adult: poised, sober, judicious, prudent,” as he characterized it—he found hollow and unconvincing. The literature being produced by writers in their 20s, he observed, was “literature of an unearned maturity.” It represented, he said, little more than “the fear of experience.”

Mr. Podhoretz then went on to predict—correctly, as it turned out—what the fate of this intellectual generation would be:

The truth is that this is a restless generation, and as it grows older it gets more and more restless; it is beginning to feel cheated of its youth. … Since this is a generation that has willed itself from childhood directly into adulthood, it still has its adolescence to go through—for a man can never skip adolescence, he can only postpone it.

When the Berkeley rebellion erupted some years later, this postponed adolescence was seized upon with a vengeance by the very people Mr. Podhoretz had in mind, and the ensuing cult of youth that engulfed the entire culture, transforming its politics, its morals, and its whole outlook on life, wrote finis to whatever remained of the 1950s idea of “sobriety and composure.” Mr. Podhoretz had predicted rain—but what we got was the deluge.

It is important, I think, to bear this forgotten history in mind in approaching Breaking Ranks, Mr. Podhoretz's embattled memoir of political and intellectual life since the 1950s. For with his provocative essay on “The Young Generation” in 1957, Mr. Podhoretz had entered upon his vocation as an intellectual with a penchant for breaking ranks—for separating himself from, and openly challenging, the pieties of his own milieu (which, in the 1950s, was the liberal anti-Stalinist milieu of Partisan Review and Commentary).

To challenge one's own group is never a happy task, yet this was the sort of service that intellectuals once had been expected to perform, and were even admired for performing. There was a time (what an age of innocence it looks like now!) when even Mr. Podhoretz was admired for—as Richard Poirier put it in a sympathetic review of Doings and Undoings in 1964—“refusing to settle for the range of choices with which his life seems ready to surround him.” But all that was before the catastrophic evenements of the 1960s introduced a new and more militant mode of conformism into American intellectual life—the reign of radical orthodoxy that, in its fierce intolerance for dissenting views, made the old “conformist” attitudes of the 1950s a model of enlightenment and benignity by comparison.

It was one thing for Mr. Podhoretz to break ranks with the liberal anti-Stalinists who had been his mentors in the 1950s. This, after all, was done in the name of a new radicalism—the radicalism of Paul Goodman and Norman O. Brown that Mr. Podhoretz brought to Commentary, theretofore the very citadel of liberal anti-radicalism, when he took over as editor in 1960. Dissent in the name of radicalism was OK. It was the expected intellectual posture—one might even say, the traditional posture of intellectuals, especially in America.

But it was something else—an alternative regarded as morally reprehensible—for him (or indeed anyone) to question the values of his new comrades on the left. Dissent from radical orthodoxy, not to mention open opposition to the movement—even if derived from a scrupulous examination of “how one's ideas worked out in practice,” as Mr. Podhoretz puts it in Breaking Ranks—came to be regarded as absolutely anathema in the increasingly poisonous atmosphere of the late 1960s. When, therefore, Mr. Podhoretz began to pursue this line of criticism with his characteristic vigor, it was more or less inevitable that he would be denounced as an apostate and a sell-out—and he was.

Breaking Ranks is an attempt to tell the whole story of this initial swing to the left in the palmy days of the Kennedy administration—a movement in which Mr. Podhoretz played a crucial role—and of the author's (but not his alone, of course) subsequent recoil from the kind of politics that this radical movement unleashed upon our entire society. This is a combative book, vivid in its account of people, ideas, and events, and unusually candid in its criticism of celebrated individuals—both living and dead—who have rarely, if ever, been subjected to such shrewd and searching analysis. Certain pages of Breaking Ranks—I think particularly of the broken-hearted account of Lionel Trilling in his decline, and of the blistering portrait of Jason Epstein in his prime—are likely to haunt their subjects, and shape our view of them, for as long as they are remembered.

What is remarkable about Breaking Ranks, however, is the way it moves beyond the quarrels that have divided and embittered the literary intellectuals of Mr. Podhoretz's immediate circle into the larger world of practical politics where so many of the ideas of these intellectuals began, in the heated-up atmosphere of the 1960s, to have an unexpected—and at times, even a decisive—influence. In dealing with this fateful link between culture and politics in the period of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, Mr. Podhoretz has few equals among the writers of his time. Although nobody knows better than he how foolishly myopic intellectuals can sometimes be in their short views of what is politically important—he recalls, for example, a time in the early 1960s when Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell, later to achieve a certain renown for their stand against the war, reproached him for publishing so many “boring” articles about Vietnam—he also understands the deeper current that makes politics, in a society like ours, so extremely vulnerable to cultural challenge.

This, indeed, is the great subject of Breaking Ranks, and Mr. Podhoretz—in this respect a true disciple of Lionel Trilling—handles it with mastery. In the pages he devotes to Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Robert Kennedy—and in the glimpses he gives us of the curious career of Richard Goodwin—we are treated to a dazzling account of precisely how the ideas of cultural radicalism, first adumbrated in journals of intellectual debate, succeeded in reshaping the policies of the Democratic party, and thence the country as a whole.

But there is also a personal story in Breaking Ranks—the story of its author's defection from the new radical consensus he helped to create, and the consequences of which he grew to abhor. No one has written so well about the climate of fear and intimidation that this radical consensus generated in almost every quarter of our cultural and political life, and about the opportunism and cowardice it spawned. By the early 1970s, the “fear of not looking sufficiently progressive” that Péguy spoke of at the turn of the century had turned into what Jean-François Revel, in The Totalitarian Temptation, called the fear “of committing the sin of anti-Communism,” and Mr. Podhoretz was naturally pilloried for standing against it—and for opposing so many other consequences of the radicalism that had now come to dominate the new liberalism.

That this climate of fear has now been somewhat abated—as I believe it has—is due, in no small measure, to the battle, a battle of ideas, that is recounted in this book. In essence, it is a battle for the soul of liberalism—the battle that was joined in Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination long before the events recounted in this book took place, and that has now been eloquently redefined in Breaking Ranks. On the jacket of the book Mr. Podhoretz is now described as a “neoconservative,” but the book he has written tells us another story. It suggests that “neoconservatism” may, after all, be something of a chimera—that, if Mr. Podhoretz can be said to represent it, it may only be a kind of liberalism in exile impatiently preparing for its return.

Paul Johnson (review date 9 February 1980)

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SOURCE: Johnson, Paul. “Shock Troops.” Spectator 274, no. 7909 (9 February 1980): 17-18.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson assesses Podhoretz's political views and his personal insights about prominent politicians, intellectuals, and the social elite in Breaking Ranks.]

New Yorkers, like Parisians, bring to the business of being an intellectual a dedication and seriousness which leaves us English flabbergasted. No Englishman and very few Englishwomen allow their intellectual (or political) views to invade their social lives. We may change our parties, even our beliefs, but never our friends. Our intellectual games are not played, as children say, ‘for keeps’. It is inconceivable that a book like Simone de Beauvoir's Les Mandarins (which celebrates, significantly, her affair with the American intellectual Nelson Algren) could have been written by an Englishwoman, let alone have become a best-seller here; and an English version of Lillian Hellman's outrageous re-writing of history, Scoundrel Time, which caused a sensation in America, would have sunk without trace in London.

Norman Podhoretz yields to no intellectuel de choc in seriousness; in the rabbinical tradition of the New York intelligensia, he has a talent for exegesis and hermeneutics, diligently applied to such ideological publications as Partisan Review. He has turned the old Jewish magazine Commentary into the best monthly review in the world. In 1967, his autobiography, Making It, which his friends begged him not to publish, caused intense fury in New York. The book, in his own words, ‘told the story of how I had moved from a childhood in the slums of Brooklyn to a position at the centre of the New York literary establishment’, but what angered his peers was the suggestion that intellectuals pursue success just as ruthlessly as the businessmen they despise. Since then Podhoretz has, as he puts it, ‘broken ranks’ completely with the Left, and has turned his magazine into what his enemies would call a citadel of neo-conservatism. He uses a different terminology in his new book [Breaking Ranks], which traces his political pilgrimage from Fifties liberalism through Sixties radicalism back into the renewed liberalism of the Seventies.

As such, Podhoretz's account which, like everything he writes, is almost painfully honest, has already caused teeth-gnashing and writ-flourishing in New York. Here, I think, it has a rather different appeal. To those unfamiliar with the details of the New York (and Washington) intellectual scene, it is an excellent introduction to trends and personalities over the last three decades. Ranks broken or not, they are all shown on parade. There is Paul Goodman (‘so self-centred he wouldn't even listen to you even if you were talking to him about himself’), Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (‘in himself the “best” and the “brightest” all rolled into one’), Susan Sontag (‘claimed her anguish over the Vietnam War had given her ulcers’), George Plimpton (‘a very old friend of Jackie's’), Sidney Morgenbesser (‘became so nasty and insulting I stormed out of the restaurant’), Jason Epstein (‘endowed with a very generous expense account’) and his wife Barbara (‘whose weakness for the upper orders of society was even greater than his own’), Noam Chomsky (‘an impression of scrupulous reasoning and meticulous scholarship … served only to legitimise a ferocious assault on anyone who disagreed with his own line’), Sidney Hook (‘the most consistent upholder of the liberal anti-communist consensus’), Daniel Moynihan (‘the target of vituperative abuse from the negro community’) and many other members of what Harold Rosenberg has felicitously called ‘the herd of independent minds’.

Podhoretz carries some bruises from the intellectual punch-ups of the last 15 years, and he strikes me, both in conversation and in print, as nervous and touchy in consequence. But he is not vengeful—perhaps because no editor of a powerful magazine needs to be—and he is a witness of truth. His principal battle has been fought against the New York Review of Books, which he helped to get started, but which then identified itself with the ultra-radical movement by (as he puts it) ‘lending itself to political propaganda’ instead of ‘exercising the critical function’, thus ‘betraying the values of the intellectual tradition in which it implicitly claimed a place’.

Podhoretz, however, is likely to have the last laugh over the Review—or at least the next few laughs, since there is no finality in intellectual fashion. Though the Review achieved an enviable reputation for its literary quality, mainly by poaching English writers, I might say, it identified itself too wholeheartedly and exclusively with particular issues—anti-Vietnam, anti-Nixon, Watergate, etc—for its own long-term good. The same mistake was made by the old L'Express in Paris, which invested all its emotional capital in opposing the Algerian war, and never recovered its buoyancy once the war was ended. Since the liquidation of Vietnam and the Nixon regime, the Review has been a magazine without a cause, and the total transformation of American political emotions by the Ayatollah and Afghanistan has knocked it sideways. Commentary, by contrast, with its commitment to a set of liberal values which can be continuously reinterpreted and reapplied, can ride these seismic shocks easily. Indeed, Podhoretz, who has always retained a rational belief in the ability of America to stand for civilised ends and honourable methods of achieving them, now finds himself in a fashionable posture—patriotism—while the trend-followers of the Review are left goggling on the sidewalk.

Christopher Hitchens (review date 21 March 1980)

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SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher. “Born-Again Conformist.” New Statesman 99, no. 255 (21 March 1980): 437-38.

[In the following review, Hitchens criticizes Podhoretz's political posturing and ignoble descriptions of fellow intellectuals and contemporaries in his two memoirs, Making It and Breaking Ranks.]

Anglo-American commentary on ‘culture and society’ has sometimes been infiltrated by writers who believe they are Orwell but who think like Babbitt. Norman Podhoretz, for example, is to Manhattan what Bernard Levin has become to our commuter belt—a born-again conformist with some interesting disorders of the ego. If this seems an excessive way to begin a consideration of a ‘serious’ writer, then recall what Alfred Kazin wrote in his essay on the brave days of Podhoretz's own magazine Commentary:

There is real madness to modern governments, modern war, modern moneymaking, advertising, science and entertainment; this madness has been translated by many a Jewish writer into the country they live in, the time that offers them everything but hope. In a time of intoxicating prosperity, it has been natural for the Jewish writer to see how superficial society can be, how pretentious, atrocious, unstable—and comic.

There is the measure of Podhoretz's betrayal. Kazin was writing in 1966. One year later, Podhoretz's published Making It, a drooling libation to the bitch-goddess success, in which he made his peace with intoxicating prosperity and abandoned the crisp, even lucid style of his earlier critical writings. Making It was an awful book all right, but it did have certain attractive qualities of the chutzpah sort; a kind of eagerness and a wideness of the eyes.

In Breaking Ranks the eyes have narrowed appreciably. Podhoretz here makes his peace with modern government, modern war and modern moneymaking. Robert Lekachman has described the jacket photograph as ‘The spitting image of a central banker age 70 who has just plunged his country into a depression for its own good’. I think it more closely resembles a man about to unload some underwater real estate. Podhoretz sets down, in the wretchedly affected form of an open letter to his son, the experience of personal assimilation and adjustment; the business of growing up out of ‘radicalism’. Like many letters nowadays, this one gives the impression of having been typed rather than written. It is a torment to read, but it does offer some clues to the mind-set of the neo-conservative—more especially the insecure, name-dropping, self-obsessed and slipshod variety.

The first and most obvious thing to say about Podhoretz is that he is an ex-radical in the same way that Richard Nixon is an ex-President. He never had any real claim on the noble title. His boldest ever essay was written on ‘The Negro Problem’ in 1963, when he advocated planned miscegenation in a style offensively glib. This qualification does not restrain him from a tremendous exhibition of self-regard as the man who single-handedly defied the ‘Left Establishment’.

While it is true that New York publishing has had a febrile tendency to the radical chic (and a parallel tendency to overreact to the egregious Podhoretz, thus confirming him in his conviction of martyrdom) you would not find our Norman querying the local narcissism for an instant. It is indeed, for him, the very breath of life. It's no exaggeration to say that his review of the reviews of Making It gets more space than Vietnam, desegregation, nuclear weaponry, environmentalism and Watergate all put together. But this is not the chief failure of proportion and perspective. If Manhattan is the navel of the world, and if it groans under a marxisant dictatorship, then what does that make Norman? Why, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn combined—what else?

Should this sound like an overstatement, try the following as an example. Podhoretz has already made the straight-faced claim that ‘Making It did more than fly in the face of the radical party line’ and that it made him ‘a traitor to [his] class’. Then Norman Mailer dumped on the book too. Listen:

The fact that Norman Mailer—a founding father and patron saint of the ‘Left Establishment’ and, though not perhaps quite so brave as he thought he was, much less cowardly in this respect than most—should have felt himself forced into a manoeuvre like this was all the proof anyone could have needed that the ‘terror’ had become pervasive and efficient enough to make strong men quake and to leave no one feeling safe.

Sic. This preposterous extract gives a representative flavour of Podhoretz's clichéd and dismal style, as well as of his insulting manner. To compare his salon bust-up with the reality of Stalinist terror—leave alone the reality of McCarthyite persecution about which Commentary was always so equivocal—makes the paranoia of F. R. Leavis (Podhoretz's old supervisor) seem like mildness itself.

But if only that were all. Just as Making It dropped the name of Leavis whenever possible, so Breaking Ranks is larded with references to Lionel Trilling. Trilling was an authentic defender of the ‘reasonable’ and the ‘moderate’, in a fashion which Podhoretz tries in vain to emulate. He is prayed in aid, often in ways he might not have admired, throughout these pages. Only once is he abused—for advising Podhoretz not to publish Making It in the first place. Suddenly, sycophancy is replaced by its twin brother of spite:

I did not understand until much later, and then only in the light of how Trilling would conduct himself in the coming years, how telling a sign it was of his own failure of nerve.

Everything, then, is defined in relation to Podhoretz. He has all the third-rater's loathing for those people better equipped to face high tasks and principles. Gnawed (if we are to be charitable) by this sense of his own paucity, he's driven to a series of ungenerous and inaccurate sketches.

On Noam Chomsky:

Far from reciprocating the support he had received from the American government, Chomsky was later to issue a bitter denunciation of his fellow-intellectuals for being pro-American, though unlike him, many he denounced had never received any government grants.

On Irving Howe:

Yet in view of the fact that the socialism to which he was committed had no discernible content, I began to think that his stubborn loyalty to the word, as well as the idea, came out of the same primitive loyalty that made so many Jews go on calling themselves Jews …

On A. J. Muste:

Whatever else Muste exuded, he looked and talked even less like a winner than [Norman] Thomas.

On Jason Epstein:

Jason felt trapped by the life, I felt trapped by the ideas. Together we made a team.

In the sense that he is incapable of representing an opposing viewpoint, Podhoretz does not really qualify as an intellectual at all. The patronising and low-rent level of those (typical) quotations is depressed still further by Norman's other dirty little habit. He throws off names (Delmore Schwartz, Hannah Arendt, Philip Rahv) as if to suggest—never quite claiming—that they somehow associated themselves with the author.

As a result, everything Podhoretz does or says is on the record. One imagines him tooling off to keep a luncheon appointment with a publisher and mentally intoning ‘It was on 12 March 1976 that Podhoretz went to have lunch at Harper & Row …’ But he gets nervous at the absence of witnesses, and makes them up, too.

So it seems that Making It was not a catharsis. Nor did its title intend any saving irony. Podhoretz really is like that; the child was father to the man. His latest autobiography of an autobiography has the piss and vinegar of the original—only it's gone sour. Even the self-deprecation is now conceited. This finds its corollary, as do his cheap portraits of American radicals, in a certain power-worshipping trait.

For not everyone is insulted here. Lyndon Johnson is held up as a model President, combining agrarian shrewdness with a capacity as ‘one of the great senators of modern times’. Daniel Moynihan, of course, can do no wrong (Podhoretz even tells one of his jokes twice in his excitement; a joke moreover which he would surely denounce as snobbish radicalism if told by anyone else). He weaves in some slightly ambiguous toadying to the Kennedy family. Leslie Fiedler is described in a rather otiose way as ‘the wildly brilliant literary critic’. There's also some posturing around the idea that Podhoretz ‘knows’ England and can synthesise its finest into the pages of his magazine:

There were, for example, R. H. S. Crossman, C. A. R. Crosland and Denis Healey—all future cabinet ministers and all talented intellectuals by any definition of that term (they were all, by the way, past or future contributors to Commentary as well).

Talented and intellectual. Better still:

Machines and factories—those ‘dark Satanic mills’ which as William Blake had said as far back as the late eighteenth century were ruining ‘England's green and pleasant land’.

Oh that Blake.

After all this it's just a weary duty to record that Podhoretz thinks Vietnam was no more than ‘a mistake’ (and never confronts the case of those he slanders for taking the harder view). Or that he only mentions Kissinger once, to accuse him of being too tender-minded in dealing with the OPEC nations. Or that he feels that ‘the underlying belief of American radicalism in the 1960s was that all the sufferings of the human heart were caused and could therefore be cured by laws and kings’. Like all reactionaries who think that they are against the stream, and who appear to believe in his case that American power is controlled by the New York Review of Books, Podhoretz winds up mouthing mainstream commonplaces under the illusion that he is saying the unsayable.

One need not be a ‘liberal’ to object to his desecration of that ambivalent but honourable term. He doesn't even seem to know what he's talking about. On page 117 he speaks slightingly of ‘the liberal idea that any and all technological advances were to be welcomed’. Later he records and overstates Trilling's view that the whole literary tradition (and ipso facto a goodish bit of what Podhoretz defines as liberalism) stands in opposition to industrialism and the industrial revolution. It doesn't matter so much that both statements are misleading as it does that they do not cohere. Podhoretz, once again, is chewing more than he bites off.

His ‘book’ concludes with a hail of badly aimed shafts at the sexual minority movements. This is no more than a grace note to the crashing chords of nonsense and venom that have gone before. Podhoretz, the man who says ‘in 1970, shortly after my growing doubts about radicalism had coalesced and come to a head in a conviction so blazing that it ignited an all-out offensive against the Movement’; this same Podhoretz ends up whining about contraception and homosexuality. Commentary was once flatteringly termed an organ of the ‘military-intellectual complex’. To criticise its editor in his own terms would be to echo Kazin's phrasing—‘superficial, pretentious, atrocious, unstable and (unconsciously) comic’.

Theodore Draper (review date 10 March 1982)

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SOURCE: Draper, Theodore. “The Revised Version.” New Republic 186, no. 10 (10 March 1982): 30-4.

[In the following review, Draper contends that Podhoretz's Why We Were in Vietnam is flawed in both logic and background facts, noting that the author conveniently refuses to fully disclose his past affiliations and comments.]

Norman Podhoretz likes to be the fugleman of the latest political revelation. For this reason, his reconsideration of the Vietnam War [in Why We Were in Vietnam] may be an awful portent. It could be the signal for a corrosive campaign to reopen the wounds of the war and envenom American political life once again. We may not even be spared an American stab-in-the-back legend of the kind that haunted the German Weimar Republic during the 1920s.

Podhoretz's research is almost exclusively research into books by other people. Paragraph after paragraph is constructed out of quotations and citations, fourteen of them from my own Abuse of Power. His book thus comes out as potted history—but potted for a purpose. It is the purpose that makes the book worth more than cursory notice.

As a potted historian, however, Podhoretz leaves much to be desired. It is a thankless task to correct an author's mistakes, for they take longer to correct than to make. An example will show what I mean. It concerns so fundamental a matter as the Tonkin Gulf resolution of August 1964. If Podhoretz after almost eighteen years can still twist it to mean what it was never intended to mean, the time has again come to set the record straight.

Former Senator J. William Fulbright according to Podhoretz, “pointed out that the resolution would indeed empower the President to involve the United States in a major land war.” In fact, Fulbright pointed out no such thing. Without further explanation, a reader would gather that Fulbright and the Senate were culpable of implicitly authorizing and accepting the subsequent involvement of the United States in a major land war in Vietnam.

Podhoretz could not have written this sentence in good faith if he had himself studied or even read the debate in the Senate. Senator Daniel Brewster of Maryland questioned Fulbright about whether there was anything in the resolution that would authorize, recommend, or approve the landing of large American armies in Vietnam. Fulbright replied: “There is nothing in the resolution, as I read it, that contemplates it. I agree with the Senator that that is the last thing we would want to do.” Fulbright also said: “Speaking for my own [Foreign Relations] committee, everyone I have heard has said that the last thing we want to do is to become involved in a land war in Asia.”

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin asked whether the resolution authorized a complete change in the previous policy of refraining from “a direct land confrontation with our army as a substitute for the South Vietnam Army or as a substantially reinforced U.S. Army to be joined with the South Vietnam Army.” Fulbright answered: “I do not interpret the joint resolution in that way at all.” Pressed again to say what the resolution actually authorized, Fulbright said that “when we try to confine ourselves and say that this resolution either prohibits or authorizes such action [to put a large land army on the Asian continent] by the Commander in Chief in defense of this country, I believe that is carrying it a little further than I would care to go.”

Here and elsewhere, the problem arises because Podhoretz did not do his own research. He depended in this case, as his citations show, on a deeply flawed book by Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam, which has misled him more than once. Anyone who had taken the trouble to consult the debate in the Senate would have known that the Tonkin Gulf resolution was presented in an effort to deter the North Vietnamese, not to encourage the involvement of the United States in a major land war in Vietnam. Fulbright later regretted having supported a resolution so loosely worded that he could not even tell the Senate just what it prohibited or authorized. Unfortunately for Fulbright and the country, it opened the way for President Johnson to take exactly the action that Fulbright had assured the Senate he and the entire Foreign Relations Committee opposed. It opened the way by not explicitly forbidding Johnson's action, a rather different matter from expressly empowering it. The debate made absolutely clear what the Senate's intention was and was not. It was not what Podhoretz says it was.

More important than factual offenses, which would take another small book to compile and correct, are some of Podhoretz's ideological fixations. One basic issue concerns the very nature of the Vietnam War.

For Podhoretz, it is important that the conflict should have been a “foreign aggression,” not a civil war. He seems to think that it had to be restricted to South Vietnam in order to have been a civil war. It was not a civil war, he insists, because an aggression from North Vietnam was responsible for it.

This strange theory treats North Vietnam as if it were not inhabited by Vietnamese. Vietnam was one country until it was temporarily divided by the Geneva Agreements of 1954—temporarily, because they provided for general elections in 1956 to unify the country. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem refused to honor that agreement and even created a Committee for the Liberation of North Vietnam. South and North Vietnam never accepted the division of the country; both pledged themselves to reunify it by all possible means.

How, then, could a war between South and North Vietnam not be a civil war? North Vietnam was not a “foreign country.” The control of the southern Vietcong by the North Vietnamese did not make either of them less Vietnamese. To be sure, it was not a “pure” civil war any more than the Spanish Civil War had been a pure civil war; entire Italian fascist divisions fought on the Spanish fascist side without changing the fundamentally Spanish character of the civil war. Yet much of Podhoretz's case rests on the dubious proposition that the Vietnamese conflict was not a civil war.

His case also rests on an equally muddled view of why the United States intervened in the war. One of his notions is that the American motivation was selfless and spiritual. The United States went into Vietnam “for the sake of an ideal.” It was “self-evident that the United States was doing the right thing in trying to save South Vietnam from Communism.”

It was hardly self-evident. Saving South Vietnam from Communism was never enough to justify American intervention, let alone on the scale of 1965-1972. Intervention was justified on much larger grounds. President Eisenhower had had Vietnam in mind when he first propounded the “domino principle” in 1954. That “principle” continued to be the chief rationale for the increasing American commitment, as it is in the case of El Salvador today. Then-Vice President Nixon had even predicted that if Vietnam fell the United States would have to fight a major war to save the Philippines or Australia. President Johnson's dominoes went as far as Singapore and Indonesia. The dominoes, not South Vietnam, provided the raison d'être of the war. There was too little at stake and too much at risk in South Vietnam to make its political fate the self-evident proof that the United States had done the right thing.

Podhoretz also presents another theory. Elsewhere he maintains that the United States originally sought to prevent a Vietnamese Communist victory because it “could be tantamount to an expansion of Soviet power.” Even if this statement were not fanciful, it would mean that the “ideal” had somehow turned into a worldwide struggle for power.

It happens to be more of Podhoretz's fanciful history. Strange as it may seem in retrospect, the official American line was that we were fighting Chinese, not Soviet, expansion in Vietnam. High State Department officials even tried to put across the idea that the United States was fighting in Vietnam to enable “Moscow's doctrine of peaceful co-existence,” as one put it, to prevail over “Peiping's assertion that armed struggle is a more productive Communist course.” We were, according to this reasoning, virtually fighting with Moscow and against Peiping, even though Moscow had become the prime supplier of war materiel to North Vietnam. Almost to the end, U.S. policy counted on the Soviet Union to help pull U.S. chestnuts out of the fire in Vietnam. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger clearly and repeatedly described in The White House Years how he sought to trade an improvement in Soviet-American relations for Soviet cooperation to make North Vietnam settle the war on acceptable terms.

Podhoretz, too, has his own domino theory. “Everyone was wrong,” he believes—except, now, himself. His new theory is that the war was finally vindicated by the later appearance of Cuban troops in Angola and by similar occurrences in the next few years in Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Yemen, and Afghanistan. He makes no effort to explain what the connections between these far-flung events were. His theory implies that the Soviet Union would not have gone into Afghanistan, for example, if the United States had won the war in Vietnam or, conceivably, was still fighting there. Eight years separate the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Whatever the pressures on the Soviets were in Afghanistan, it is hard to see how or why they would have changed in the least whatever had happened in Vietnam. The missing link here is not merely evidence; it is simple plausibility.

Despite his apparent bravado, Podhoretz's vindication of the Vietnam War is curiously restricted and defensive. On all grounds but one, he makes no effort to justify U.S. intervention. The only way, he concedes, “the United States could have avoided defeat in Vietnam was by staying out of the war.” The U.S. Army and Officers Corps were “unfitted for the kind of war they were called upon to fight in Vietnam.” The American people were never “enthusiastic about the war.” The final abandonment of South Vietnam demonstrated that “saving South Vietnam from Communism was not only beyond its [America's] reasonable military, political, and intellectual capabilities but that it was ultimately beyond its moral capabilities as well.” These devastating admissions are scattered throughout the book and make one wonder why, if the were true, anyone would want to vindicate an unwanted, unnecessary, and unwinnable war.

Podhoretz's last stand in favor of the war is restricted to morality. In his most blustering style, he proclaims that “nothing is easier to refute than the moral case against the American intervention in Vietnam.” Or again—“stupid though the American way of war no doubt was in the political context of Vietnam,” it cannot “reasonably be considered immoral.” It was not immoral for him, because, as we have already been told, the United States intervened solely “to save South Vietnam from Communism” and simply “for the sake of an ideal.” His Vietnam War does not exist in a real world, tainted with struggles for power and geopolitical forces. His war exists in an ideal realm of anti-Communism, no matter where by what means, at what price, or against whom.

Yet Podhoretz was let down by the very real Americans who had to live up to his idealization of the war. He laments that the war was ultimately beyond the “moral capabilities” of the United States. The entire enterprise was doomed because we failed to provide a “moral justification.” The political and military arguments of the Johnson Administration “floated aimlessly in a moral vacuum.” In his very last paragraph, Podhoretz concludes that he is “fully, painfully aware” that “the American effort to save Vietnam from Communism was indeed beyond our intellectual and moral capabilities, though it was still, as President Reagan called it, “a noble cause.”

There is something theological in this dualism between the nobility of the cause and the lack of nobility of the human beings called upon to realize it. In the real world, nations should not try to do what they are incapable of doing. In Podhoretz's world nations get the highest marks for trying to do what they are unable to do, despite the evil they may do to themselves and their enemies in the effort.

No one who has questioned the American role in the war, especially its morality, can hope to escape Podhoretz's wrath. Among those who get the roughest treatment are Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Frances FitzGerald. They were gullible and fatuous enough in their treatment of the Vietnamese Communists to merit this ridicule. If an ignoble prize were given for the Higher Inanity, Susan Sontag's account of her pilgrimage to Hanoi would certainly deserve to win it—as she herself has apparently come to realize. About twenty others make Podhoretz's black list, from Noam Chomsky to the late Hans Morgenthau, the latter his once-revered mentor and valued contributor. Despite all the unpaid research I did for him, I earn Podhoretz's displeasure for having alluded to the war's “shamefulness” and “immoral conduct.”

But one sinner is mysteriously missing.

He is Norman Podhoretz. Podhoretz was editor of Commentary throughout the Vietnam War. From 1965 to 1972, the years of America's massive intervention, at least a half-dozen articles on the war appeared in Commentary. Every one of them, without exception, was explicitly or implicitly critical of U.S. policy. As early as May 1965, the late George Lichtheim offered some advice that might still do Podhoretz some good: “No country in the world, least of all South Vietnam, can go on forever subsisting on anti-Communism.” In March 1968, an article by me referred to the war as “a political debacle, a military folly, and a moral disgrace.” In May 1969, Lionel Abel thought “our policy in Vietnam wrong, in both political and moral terms.” In May 1971, Nathan Glazer, now a fellow neoconservative, had an article entitled “Vietnam: The Case for Immediate Withdrawal.” The “moral damage,” wrote Glazer, “has been enormous, greater in some ways than the impact of any war in the history of the nation.” One article sympathetically considered the antiwar tactics of Dr. Benjamin Spock and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin.

Article after article in Commentary in those years questioned the morality of the Vietnam War. Podhoretz did not object to this view at a time when the debate raged and a strong stand one way or the other could have had practical consequences.

But the cream of the jest—if it is a jest—is still to come.

Podhoretz himself began to write a monthly department of comment in June 1970, in the midst of the war. It took him twelve issues to get to the subject of the war, in May 1971. In an article entitled, “A Note on Vietnamization,” he revealed that he had delivered a speech in the fall of 1969 in which he had urged “an immediate American withdrawal,” using arguments similar to those in Glazer's article. But Podhoretz, who never does things by halves, ended his article by going beyond the advocacy of withdrawal. He announced that he now found himself “unhappily moving to the side of those who would prefer just such an American defeat” to anything but complete withdrawal.

As late as 1979, in Breaking Ranks, Podhoretz was still willing to admit that the Vietnam War “could only be fought in ways that were bound to seem, and sometimes actually were, immoral and atrocious.” No reader of Why We Were in Vietnam could possibly imagine that this book was written by a onetime defeatist who not so long ago agreed that immoralities and atrocities were at least sometimes necessarily committed in that venomous war.

Everyone has a right to change his mind. But no one has a right to be so smug and sanctimonious, lashing out at those with whom he had essentially agreed only yesterday—and to keep that a secret from the reader.

If Podhoretz had not kept this secret from his readers, he would have had to accept some personal responsibility for the U.S. failure in Vietnam along with all the other opponents of the war. “The truth is,” he now exhorts ominously,

that the antiwar movement bears a certain measure of responsibility for the horrors that have overtaken the people of Vietnam; and so long as those who participated in that movement are unwilling to acknowledge this, they will go on trying to discredit the idea that there is a distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

We need not discuss that distinction here. But if there is one thing Podhoretz does not do in this book it is to acknowledge his role in the antiwar movement and—to follow his own reasoning—his measure of responsibility for the horrors that have overtaken the people of Vietnam.

He was far from candid about his own role in his previous autobiographical book, Breaking Ranks, but full self-disclosure was demanded of him in this book, in view of his savage denunciations of others, including some who had taken a less extreme position than he had done. In Making It, Podhoretz's “dirty little secret was the lust for fame and success, which he seemed to think it shocking to reveal. In Why We Were in Vietnam, he has another dirty little secret, which he does not seem to think it shocking to conceal.

As history, Podhoretz's version of the Vietnam War cannot be taken seriously. Its significance must be sought in the present rather than in the past. It represents a trend of selective moralistic zealotry which, if permitted to spread, will give both anti-Communism and neo-conservatism a bad name. It opens the door to a viciously dangerous stab-in-the-back legend by inferentially blaming the horrors of the war on those who opposed it rather than on those who waged it. An even more explicit stab-in-the-back type of accusation was made in Commentary in April 1980 by Charles Horner, who was subsequently appointed a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department.

The specter of a German-style stab-in-the-back legend cannot be dismissed. It is being actively propagated by retired U.S. military officers of the highest rank, of whom the most aggressive and blatant is General William C. Westmoreland, former field commander in Vietnam and Army Chief of Staff. In an address at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in April 1979, published in its official organ, Military Review, January 1979, Westmoreland blamed the United States for having “betrayed and deserted” South Vietnam and named “partisan politicians, intellectuals, the media and ‘crusading groups,’” together with “members of Congress and other political leaders,” as most responsible for the betrayal and desertion. Much of Podhoretz's argumentation coincides with the line in Westmoreland's book, A Soldier Reports, and in this address to the Army's school for future commanding officers.

Anyone who wishes to understand what went wrong in Vietnam and elsewhere would do better to take a hint from Edmund Burke. In one of his most famous speeches, delivered 207 years ago, before another failed war, he observed that “a great empire and little minds go ill together.”

Charles Burton Marshall (review date 2 April 1982)

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SOURCE: Marshall, Charles Burton. “Lucky No Longer.” National Review 34, no. 6 (2 April 1982): 363-64.

[In the following review, Marshall agrees with Podhoretz's opinions in Why We Were in Vietnam regarding the lack of popular support for United States military intervention in Vietnam.]

Norman Podhoretz's Why We Were in Vietnam is a sharp disquisition in political pathology. Given my own reactions at the time—as long ago as 1954 I was convinced of the futility of getting into war over the future of a distant and recalcitrant land against close-by forces bent on possession, but once we had entered the conflict I was loath to be seen siding with people who assailed the U.S. for criminality rather than mere bumbling—I am favorably disposed toward Podhoretz's negative answers to these questions: “… did that defeat truly mean what the antiwar movement seems to have persuaded everyone it meant? … Does the United States deserve the moral contumely that Vietnam has brought upon it in the eyes of so many people both at home and abroad?”

Still, his conclusions—epitomized in a final paragraph affirming Ronald Reagan's description of our involvement as “a noble cause” and disparaging Jimmy Carter's allusion to “‘the intellectual and moral poverty’ of the policy that had led us into Vietnam and had kept us there so long”—leave me unsatisfied. Reagan's approbatory adjective echoes Hoover's endorsement of Prohibition—“an experiment noble in purpose.” Conceptual righteousness and operative morality are not the same. Like automobiles or watches, policies have to work to be any good. They must give plausible promise of working to be acceptable. The noble experiment in Vietnam was a colossal fizzle.

Podhoretz traces its vexing course from the standpoint not of military history or diplomatic history, though these enter into account, but of the interplay of ideas in the nation's public life. Little to hang one's head about but much too much to shake one's head about emerges.

The scene is populated by a miscellany of hawks and doves and mutable birds that metamorphose from the former to the latter breed—least respectable among them being sundry of JFK's and LBJ's attendant lords who, once displaced, outdid each other in trying to divert blame for the mess they themselves helped to get the country into and then to aggravate. Turkeys abound in the metaphoric aviary. Owls are few. One is made to wonder whether individual acumen had drained away at higher levels of policy-making, or something had gone wrong systemically—or both, interacting.

Podhoretz depicts a JFK unequal to his responsibilities, “cavalier about difficulties,” and predisposed to will “the end but not the means—just as he had done before at the Bay of Pigs.” In Podhoretz's analysis, the main policy props—Robert McNamara at the Pentagon, “the Secretary of Defense, whose arrogance was a function of his belief that he could devise a system for dealing efficiently and successfully with any enterprise, whether an automobile company … or a guerrilla war,” and McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow on the NSC staff, respectively “a man … whose arrogance was unshakable” and one “who was confident that he knew everything”—supplemented rather than complemented the President's lacks.

Under such guidance, the United States, “… failing to take the measure of the local obstacles both political and military, refusing to face squarely to the dimensions of the commitment that would inevitably be required … for all practical purposes, in all but name, went to war in Vietnam”—but in a piddling sort of way. That the U.S. did so at all is hard for Podhoretz to square with JFK's well-authenticated indifference to the place. The missing clue—I submit this not idly—is that JFK was chafed by the hazing over things in general and Vietnam in particular that Nikita Khrushchev had given him at their Vienna meeting and felt impelled to retaliate with a gesture.

Podhoretz's interpretation of LBJ mentions “flamboyant personality … and hyperbolic style.” More willfulness than gumption, one might say. LBJ's connections with great affairs had been at the Capitol, where policy-making is a matter of laying down the law rather than having to cope with elusive and obdurate external circumstances. Character and experience combined to make him a specialist in policy by jawbone. He started out emulating his predecessor in trying to manage war “on the military cheap” (in Podhoretz's phrase). Forced to a choice of getting out or putting up, he opted grudgingly for incremental inputs of troops and matériel that raised the U.S. from an auxiliary to a principal belligerent role—but “on the political cheap.”

A steadily expanding war was to go hand in hand with an aggrandized version of the general welfare—the Great Society—as well as tax reductions, the whole mix without stimulating inflation. How? Simply by so decreeing. So great was the import of words in Johnson's outlook that he thought he could conceal the impact of the hostilities by downplaying them in speeches and by avoiding the rite of declaring war. No one can yet see an end to the multifarious malign effects of such frivolousness, however foxy or even well-intentioned the man in charge thought himself to be.

One such effect, not handled by Podhoretz, was demoralization of the armed forces, particularly the Army. Projecting troops into the most miserable sort of combat—war of attrition—without appropriate doctrinal preparation has inevitable and serious destructive effects. Even more importantly, enduring harm is done to morale by sending officers and troops into the field to kill without the state's having assumed moral responsibility by declaring war.

In the longer term, extrication from Vietnam following failure of the LBJ surge could not have been creditable, and was not. As inheritor of the task, Richard Nixon, with Henry Kissinger as coadjutor, did try to salvage a measure of success—“on the strategic cheap.” The formula—easing out U.S. forces in phase with building up the shaky indigenous forces to be able to hold their own—probably never had a chance. Fatuously counting on the spirit of detente, Nixon and Kissinger, both practitioners of Realpolitik, even hoped for Soviet diplomatic help in saving something from the wreck.

At the inevitable petering out—in Gerald Ford's tenure, though not his fault—Congress even withheld promised ammunition from America's beleaguered erstwhile allies. I recall my chagrin at the time: none among a couple of dozen newspaper editorial writers in my audience at an American Press Institute seminar saw anything wrong in this betrayal.

In Podhoretz's rueful retrospection, “The people … were never enthusiastic about the war. … For America the war in Vietnam was not a people's war, it was a war of the elites, conceived and executed by ‘the best and the brightest.’” He adds, “… this cannot be said of the decision to cut the South Vietnamese off and leave them … vulnerable to a massive North Vietnamese invasion. Those decisions were made not by a small elite but by a majority of the members of the Congress.” Hence, “… a measure of responsibility for them … also belongs to the people whose representatives they were and whose wishes they believed themselves to be carrying out.”

The kernel of goodness in the enterprise—notwithstanding all the muddling—has been dramatically vindicated by massive barbarities committed following the Communist victory. Podhoretz wrings what satisfaction he can from contrasting the tragic realities with what fabricating scriveners and professors in the antiwar movement said would happen if the U.S. would just stop interfering in Vietnam. Yet one is left to ponder the phenomenon of public indifference. The polls that LBJ was wont to cite, demonstrating major support for the war, may well have been arithmetically right. What the support lacked was not numbers but fervency. Popular enthusiasm is fragile for a war whose goals need a dozen strung-out syllogisms to explicate.

One must counterpose the limits of strategic reach to the appeal of meritorious purpose. Anxiety about triggering interposition by the adversary's sponsors constricted U.S. military operations. The result was an attempt to fine-tune warfare at a level conceptually sufficient to cow the immediate enemy without doing enough damage to impel others to the rescue. No sooner had the U.S. begun stepping up combat during LBJ's Presidency than it was felt incumbent to iterate the modesty of hostile intentions. Threats were offset by reassurances. The message was: We are trying to scare you, but not very much. It is hard to intimidate the kittens while being leery of the cat. In the crosspull between determination and trepidation, U.S. strategic planners got to worrying more about attrition inflicted on the other side than on their own.

Another dour thought concerns hubris. Those in the top policy slots seemed never to doubt the susceptivity of remote realities to U.S. designs. One day in the Senate, as I remember, the younger Kennedy brothers in back-to-back speeches demanded American measures to put an end to corruption in South Vietnam—something Americans find hard to do in New York or Massachusetts. Examples of such overreaching abound in the Podhoretz account—most of all in designs for refashioning another society, low in civic culture, in the midst of a war.

Hubris includes the assumption of having luck on one's side; it has to do with traits that led Napoleon through many triumphs to a final undoing. Our side had lucked out in Korea, more or less. The idea of a declaratory staving-off of Communist conquest in Southeast Asia was a case of playing luck. Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon also counted on luck—certainly not on exacting strategic assessment—once the issue entailed putting up a fight. Johnson similarly counted on luck—surely not on analysis—in seeking to replicate the World War II feat of concurrently conducting external war, stimulating upward mobility within the American society, producing more of everything, and restraining inflation. It recalls Louis XIV's words to Marshal Villeroi returning from the defeat at Ramillies: “At our age we are no longer lucky.” That thought is hard for the nation to get used to.

Stephen J. Morris (review date winter 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4948

SOURCE: Morris, Stephen J. “Second Thoughts on the Vietnam War.” Policy Review, no. 23 (winter 1983): 176-85.

[In the following review, Morris refutes Theodore Draper's scathing criticism of Why We Were in Vietnam—from the March 10, 1982, edition of New Republic—and presents a positive assessment of the work, comparing it to Michael Charlton and Anthony Moncrieff's Many Reasons Why: The American Involvement in Vietnam and Denis Warner's Certain Victory: How Hanoi Won the War.]

By the late 1960s the view that American intervention in Vietnam was morally wrong had become the received wisdom amongst American intellectuals and America's opinion-making elites. This situation did not emerge overnight. It developed gradually throughout the period 1965 to 1968, first in the universities and the liberal-left journals of opinion. Eventually it percolated down through the mass media and schools to the general population and became expressed in the Congress in the early 1970s.

The political attitude towards the Vietnam commitment which had become dominant amongst intellectuals and opinion-makers was not mere pragmatic disenchantment with what was perceived to have been an unsuccessful policy. The attitude was far more profoundly moralistic. It involved cliches referring to this “dirty war” in which “we had no right to be involved” or in which “we were on the wrong side.”

The transformation of American intellectual attitudes to the war reflected the influence of the New Left upon American liberalism. Although American liberals never accepted the total philosophical outlook of the New Left—with its absolute rejection of all of this country's most basic economic and political institutions—they were influenced by many New Left attitudes to major national issues, particularly its morally impassioned stance on race and Vietnam.

This meant, in the case of Vietnam, acceptance of many of the more fantastic New Left assumptions about the nature of the conflict. America's communist enemies were no longer conceived of as totalitarian power-seekers, but rather as nationalists in search of social justice. And the governments the United States was supporting in Vietnam were viewed as highly repressive, dedicated to the preservation of social and economic privilege, and thus incapable of gaining popular support. This view of the situation in Vietnam was total fantasy. But it is important to note that it was also a slightly watered-down version of the vulgar Leninist world-view of the New Left, but with a bumbling, “cold-war” blinkered America, in the liberal version, replacing the calculating, profit-motivated America of the radical version. Both views held that the enterprise in Vietnam was fundamentally iniquitous.

By about 1970 this negative view of American involvement had become something more than the “received wisdom” amongst American intellectuals and opinion-makers. It had acquired the status of sanctified dogma. Dissent from it—any attempt to justify the American intervention—was regarded as a sign of bizarre personal eccentricity or moral depravity. By the early 1970s, the left-liberal intellectual subculture that predominated in the universities and the mass media knew only one response to U.S. policy in Vietnam—rage. The minorities who may have felt differently were intimidated into silence. The majority faith tolerated no heresy.

It is to challenge these sacred orthodoxies that Norman Podhoretz has written Why We Were in Vietnam. His account includes both analytical history and moral argument. He shares the sentiment expressed by President Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign that the Vietnam war was a “noble cause.” But while defending the objectives of the involvement, Mr. Podhoretz is intelligently critical of the manner by which these objectives were pursued. He advances the following related propositions:

  • (1) The United States became involved in Vietnam in order to save South Vietnam from communism, thereby continuing the containment policy of all postwar U.S. administrations.
  • (2) The objectives of U.S. involvement in Vietnam were morally virtuous because:
  • (i) The victory of communism in Vietnam was an intrinsically evil outcome, as the communists were exceptionally brutal and repressive, both in absolute terms and by comparison with the American-backed regimes they succeeded.
  • (ii) The victory of communism in Vietnam was extrinsically evil because it encouraged the subsequent victory of communism in other countries: Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and South Yemen.
  • (3) The U.S. fought the war in a reasonably civilized manner, as in World War II and the Korean War (for example, the proportion of civilian to military deaths was the same as in World War II, and less than in Korea).
  • (4) The noble objectives of the U.S. involvement were beyond the intellectual and moral capacity of the United States to realize. Thus Mr. Podhoretz concludes:
  • (5) The U.S. involvement in Vietnam was moral but imprudent; it was a blunder but not a crime.

The immediate purpose of Mr. Podhoretz's book is to extinguish the feelings of guilt which many Americans have about their country's involvement in Vietnam. America, he argues, has nothing to be ashamed of in what it tried to do in Vietnam. The only shame attaches to its failure. Norman Podhoretz is firmly committed to the idealism expressed in John F. Kennedy's inauguration speech:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

The core of the book deals with the first proposition: why America became involved in Vietnam and persisted in that commitment under three presidents. His book should be read in conjunction with Michael Charlton and Anthony Moncrieff's Many Reasons Why, the edited transcript of a BBC radio series on the history of the Vietnam War. The British book is one of the few vital pieces of historical documentation produced on this subject in recent years. It is entirely built around interviews with a variety of surviving participants in the Vietnam decisions during more than three decades. Those interviewed are British, French, American, and Vietnamese policy-makers, advisers, politicians, generals, diplomats, and intellectuals. They include everybody of significance excepting the presidents themselves (whose memoirs Mr. Podhoretz has used). Interviewer Michael Charlton displays an impressive command of the historical literature, and an intellectual sophistication not found among most academics, let alone his fellow journalists. Although the BBC interviewees confirm the main points of Mr. Podhoretz's historical analysis for the period up to 1973, they provide more of the nuance behind the decisions that are necessarily skated over in his more didactic exposition. For example, Mr. Charlton's interview with Kennedy's ambassador to Saigon, Frederick Nolting, highlights the weakness of the State Department's strategic planning on Southeast Asia, which added to the difficulties in resisting the communist insurgency in South Vietnam:

The American government, in general, really did not view the whole Indo-China peninsula as one strategic area as it should have done. I think on the contrary they looked at the map drawn in 1954 and decided that these were different countries: Cambodia, Laos, North and South Vietnam; and they planned in terms of relations with different countries.
MR. Charlton:
Whereas the Communists of course saw it as unitary?
The Communists saw it as a unit—particularly Hanoi—and they were much wiser to do so. This came out particularly when the Laotian treaty was signed in 1962 after a year of negotiations in Geneva; and that left open the access to some of the vital areas of South Vietnam. We in the Embassy in Saigon became increasingly worried about the lack of safeguards under the treaty, and so did the Diem government which was a party to the negotiations in Geneva. So did the Thai government for that matter. As a consequence of the lack of safeguards in the Agreements on Laos signed in 1962, the 40,000 or so North Vietnamese troops in the Eastern provinces of Laos stayed there; and the Ho Chi Minh trail became what some have called ‘the Harriman Memorial Highway.’

On the question of the moral value of intervention, it is hard to fault Mr. Podhoretz: a communist victory turned out to be a moral disaster for the Vietnamese people, both in itself and in contrast to its anticommunist predecessors. The regime which today rules the south has carried out thousands of executions and created a gulag of prisons and “re-education camps” to which hundreds of thousands have been consigned. It has deported more than a million people to remote barren regions of exile called New Economic Zones. Finally, in the course of a campaign of racial persecution against Vietnam's ethnic Chinese minority, the regime has deported hundreds of thousands of people, many in unseaworthy boats, out of Vietnam. Tens of thousands died in the pogrom. Nothing in Vietnam's history compares to the atrocities of this regime.

In his interview with former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense William Bundy, Michael Charlton gets confirmation of Mr. Podhoretz's basic argument:

MR. Bundy:
The theory of containment was still the dominant way of thinking. We didn't use the term particularly in Asia: curiously it never was used in any government paper I'm aware of; but it was essentially what we were doing. We were seeking to prevent the Chinese version of Communism from expanding in the area of East Asia.

Mr. Podhoretz correctly points out that the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, which the United States did nothing to prevent, encouraged Soviet intervention through Cuban proxy troops in Angola, Ethiopia, and South Yemen, as well as the coup d'etat in 1978 by the Communist Party in Afghanistan. Later, when the U.S. stood idly by as the Ayatollah Khomeini's terrorists kidnapped and humiliated American diplomats, the Soviets became convinced that there would be no serious American military retaliation if they intervened directly in Afghanistan. Thus, the view of America as a “pitiful, helpless giant” was established by her failure in Vietnam, and continued to influence American policy in the Third World, and in turn, influenced communist perceptions of that policy.1

At this point it is worth considering the responses to Mr. Podhoretz's book by some of the “antiwar movement” reviewers whose highly emotional reactions are reminiscent of the moralistic fervor that characterized the antiwar movement in its heyday. The most vitriolic came from Theodore Draper, an anticommunist who was a regular contributor to the anticommunist British journal, Encounter; who wrote for Mr. Podhoretz's magazine, Commentary, until late 1979, and; whom the latter described as a moderate antiwar critic. Mr. Draper's review in the March 10, 1982, The New Republic began by suggesting that Why We Were in Vietnam

may be an awful portent. It could be the signal for a corrosive campaign to reopen the wounds of the war and envenom American political life once again. We may not even be spared an American stab-in-the-back legend of the kind that haunted the German Weimar Republic during the 1920s.

These few lines reveal the reviewer's dogmatic attitude. Mr. Podhoretz's reconsideration of that war is seen as a reopening of “wounds” and “envenoming” political life. It would appear that Mr. Draper has accepted the “antiwar movement's” views as sanctified dogma. Linking Mr. Podhoretz, however loosely, with the antidemocratic right in Weimar Germany, whose “stab-in-the-back” theory of World War I helped legitimize the Nazis, is not criticism but a smear.

Nowhere in his review does Mr. Draper try to deal with Mr. Podhoretz's central, historical argument—that the Vietnam commitment was a continuation of the containment policy. Instead, he attempts to dismiss the author's analysis by disputing his interpretation of a very secondary matter, that is, what Senator Fulbright thought he was doing when he supported the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964. Mr. Podhoretz's case does not stand or fall on this matter, but Mr. Draper's intellectual credibility does when he tries to make it the centerpiece of his rebuttal.

As for his thoughts on the moral nobility of our objectives in Vietnam, the response is depressing. He focuses again on a secondary issue and trots out the tired old argument that the war was a civil war, not a case of foreign aggression by North Vietnam against South Vietnam.

This strange theory treats North Vietnam as if it were not inhabited by Vietnamese. Vietnam was one country until it was temporarily divided by the Geneva Agreements of 1954—temporarily because they provided for general elections in 1956 to unify the country. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem refused to honor that agreement … South and North Vietnam never accepted the division of the country; both pledged themselves to reunify it by all possible means.

How then could a war between South and North Vietnam not be a civil war? North Vietnam was not a “foreign country.”

If Mr. Draper were to be taken seriously here, he would be consigning international law to the wastebasket. North and South Vietnam were separate countries because they were governed by separate states. They were recognized as such by scores of countries (South Vietnam more than North Vietnam). Some countries, such as France, Sweden, and India, recognized both North and South Vietnam as separate countries. States commit international aggression, not peoples. That is why North Vietnam's attack on South Vietnam was as much an instance of aggression as North Korea's attack on South Korea. Would Mr. Draper regard an East German attack on West Germany as a civil war?

As for Diem's refusal to honor the Geneva Agreements regarding the elections to be held in 1956, one wonders why Mr. Draper thinks Diem was honor bound to an agreement he did not sign. Furthermore, he seems not to know that the North Vietnamese who did sign the Geneva Agreements, had violated them as early as 1955 by deliberately obstructing the free movement of peoples between communist and noncommunist zones, which the accords specified would be allowed to take place before the projected elections.

Surely the most noteworthy shortcoming of Theodore Draper's criticism is his failure to refute either of Mr. Podhoretz's moral arguments: that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was morally correct since the victorious communists were far more brutal and repressive than American-backed regimes and that their victory in Vietnam encouraged communist victories elsewhere. In addressing the latter (the so-called domino theory), Mr. Draper asserts:

He [Podhoretz] makes no effort to explain what the connections between these far flung events were … His theory implies that the Soviet Union would not have gone into Afghanistan for example, if the United States had won the war in Vietnam or, conceivably, was still fighting there … Whatever the pressures on the Soviets were in Afghanistan, it is hard to see how or why they would have changed in the least whatever had happened in Vietnam.

Here Mr. Draper is presenting a variant of the “local circumstances” theory of communist behavior, which argues that the Soviet Union intervenes, or local communists seize power in the Third World, only in countries where local conditions are conducive to success. This is true. But what Mr. Draper and others ignore is that the anticipated reaction of the United States is a vital question in deciding whether conditions are conducive for a violent takeover. The United States demonstrated first, by its abandonment of Vietnam, and later, by its behavior in Angola, that the Soviet Union could intervene militarily in the Third World, albeit indirectly, without fear of an American military response.

But what of his more serious failure even to address Mr. Podhoretz's other argument that the evil consequences of the collapse of South Vietnam are sufficient vindication of American intervention? Given his reputation for both political moderation and sound scholarship, Mr. Draper's dismissal of the issue suggests just how morally bankrupt the antiwar movement's case was then, and remains now.

Mr. Draper seems to have stumbled on to solid ground, however, when he deals with Mr. Podhoretz's claim that winning the war was beyond America's intellectual and moral capacity. If the writer is correct on this point, then it is reasonable to ask, (as his critic has done): why should the U.S. have undertaken a goal it was incapable of realizing? Should not the U.S. have abdicated such an impractical ideal? If Mr. Podhoretz is correct, then defeat was inevitable, and all those lives were needlessly wasted fighting the war. The antiwar movement as a whole does not look so bad in this light, regardless of its motives. Judgments about the morality of a political position depend more upon its consequences than upon the moral intentions of its proponent.

But, I would argue, Mr. Podhoretz has not established the truth of this proposition. He has shown how three American presidents made unwise decisions in their approach to the war:

If then Kennedy tried to apply containment in Vietnam on the military cheap, and Johnson tried to make it work on the political cheap, Nixon tried to salvage it on the strategic cheap. All three failed. That these were failures of leadership is certain. Kennedy failed in prudential wisdom; Johnson failed in political judgment; Nixon failed in strategic realism.

He also points out that the U.S. Congress and the American people they represented made a morally wrong decision in cutting back aid to South Vietnam and leaving that nation to its fate in 1975.

However it is one thing to say that the U.S. behaved in an immoral way; it is quite another to say it was incapable of acting otherwise. Such a view would depend upon a theory of cultural determinism, which I suspect the author does not subscribe to.

At the root of Mr. Podhoretz's problem is the fact that he has swallowed the myth, propagated by the so-called antiwar movement, that the war was unwinnable. Indeed what is missing from his book is a satisfactory account of just why South Vietnam collapsed in 1975, and thus why America's just cause was not realized. He is quite equivocal on this key question:

Imprudent though it might have been to try to save South Vietnam from Communism, it was also an attempt born of noble ideals and impulses. The same cannot be said of what the United States did in abandoning South Vietnam to Communism in 1975. Perhaps nothing would have helped by then. Except for a few military men, almost everyone thinks that South Vietnam was defeated by its own internal weaknesses as most dramatically manifested in the ignominious collapse of its army in the face of the North Vietnamese invasion. “Our” Vietnamese had always seemed less motivated, less willing to fight than the Communists, and now after years and years of military training and billions and billions of dollars of military aid, after elections and rural pacification and land-reform programs, the South Vietnamese army was unable to stand and defend the country in the last life-and-death battle it would be called upon to fight. Nevertheless we will never know whether the outcome might have been different if the South Vietnamese had not been forced to fight “a poor man's war” and if their morale had not been so disastrously affected by the sense of abandonment and the defeatism this naturally aroused.

Of course we will never know for certain whether the outcome might have been different if the United States had kept its promises to the people of South Vietnam. But we can make an educated guess. The kind of information relevant to such an educated guess is to be found in Denis Warner's Certain Victory. An Australian with twenty-five years of experience in Vietnam, Mr. Warner was one of the few well informed and objective reporters of this conflict. His impeccable sources—Vietnamese, American, and Australian—make his somewhat disorganized and badly edited book a mine of factual information.

Summarizing South Vietnam's golden age, Mr. Warner describes the years between 1968 and 1972:

The years following the Tet Offensive were good ones for South Vietnam. If the Republic of Vietnam ever had a golden age, this was it. The elections of 1967 were not without their flaws, but they did restore constitutional government, and they brought an end to the insane series of coups d'etat that had plagued the country since 1963. In their determination to disengage, the Americans were only too willing to devote attention now to the long-neglected ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam]. There was still a lack of uniformity about the ARVN divisions, but the best, notably the 1st, had performed as well as any American division in the Tet Offensive.

For the first and only time there was a spirit of relative optimism. The indigenous Southern Communists, pushed into the forefront of the Tet Offensive for ideological reasons, had been shattered. Hanoi lost forty percent of its political and propaganda cadres in the South during Tet, and with them any chance of continuing the sort of quasi-military quasi-political war that the ideology required.

The much abused Phoenix programme, which targeted on the Communist infrastructure, prevented it from recovering its lost ground. From 1968 to May 1971, Phoenix claimed a total of nearly 70,000 members of the communist infrastructure, of whom about 20,000 were killed, about 18,000 surrendered and the rest were captured. Although it had to abandon its ideology in the process, Hanoi was forced to rely now on conventional war, and its purely guerrilla activities, which had made life so uncomfortable in so many parts of the countryside for so long, tapered off, bringing to a virtual end the purely ‘civil’ component of the war. It became a pleasure to go out into the countryside and to see the peasants at work with new tractors and rotary hoes. The road from Saigon to the seaside town of Vung Tau was crowded every weekend with holidaymakers.

When Hanoi undertook its massive conventional attack in 1972, the South Vietnamese units in Quang Tri, lacking air support, gave way briefly. Once reinforced, they held the line eighteen miles south. At the two other main points of North Vietnamese thrust—Kontum and An Loc—the ARVN stood firm and fought courageously.

It was the first major test of ARVN forces fighting without large-scale American forces in support on the ground. The Northern forces made many blunders and found difficulty in coordinating armor, artillery and infantry, but the South, despite some glaring errors, established that with sufficient continuing air support from the United States they had at least a chance of surviving anything the North could throw against them.

Then came the Paris Peace Agreements of January 1973. Eager to relegate Vietnam to a sideshow in the great Soviet-American detente, Dr. Kissinger and President Nixon withdrew all American forces from Vietnam while allowing the North Vietnamese to leave their battle corps in the South. The administration was confident that South Vietnam could survive since the agreement allowed the U.S. to replace equipment damaged or lost on a one-to-one basis and to furnish all necessary fuel and ammunition supplies, plus economic aid. Furthermore President Nixon promised Mr. Thieu, in a January 5, 1973 letter, that the United States would come to South Vietnam's aid “with full force” if Hanoi violated the agreement. Watergate, and a vindictive Congress, were to render these promises meaningless.

So the withdrawal of United States forces from Vietnam was not in itself fatal for the noncommunist cause. In spite of violations by both sides, in the first year of the “peace” the South Vietnamese government retained strong authority over the overwhelming majority of the population. The promise of continuing American aid made South Vietnam appear militarily secure. Mr. Warner tells us:

This was the view of the Hungarian and Polish members of the International Commission for Control and Supervision set up under the Paris Agreement with the impossible, and never seriously attempted task of keeping the antagonists apart. In anticipation of continuing American military aid for South Vietnam, they made no secret that they thought the North would be wise to abandon its attempts to win by force of arms and to work for a political solution based on the Paris Agreement. This was the advice they continued to offer Hanoi long after the old guard revolutionaries there had decided to revert to all out war.

It was the changing attitude of Congress which transformed the situation entirely. Congress refused to support the administration's request for the aid that South Vietnam needed, and was entitled to under the Paris Agreement. What better witness to the real significance of this change than the communist general, Van Tien Dung, who led the North Vietnamese army to victory in 1975, and who commented:

The decrease in American aid had made it impossible for Saigon troops to carry out their combat and force development plans. In the 1972-1973 fiscal year the Americans had given their proteges $1,614 million in military aid. In fiscal year 1973-1974 it was only $1,206 million, and in fiscal year 1974-1975 it fell to $700 million. Nguyen Van Thieu had to call on his troops to switch to a “poor man's war”: according to their own documents, fire support fell nearly 60 percent because of the shortage of bombs and shells; mobility also decreased 50 percent because of a shortage of aircraft, vehicles, and even fuel.2

And, as Mr. Warner adds:

Morale in South Vietnam had also eroded almost beyond the point of no recall as troops found themselves short of ammunition, spare parts, or the gasoline to move all the vehicles they had inherited from the road-bound American military system.

Without sufficient resources to defend the entire country, President Thieu belatedly ordered a retreat from the Central Highlands after the important provincial capital of Ban Me Thuot was overrun by the North Vietnamese in early March 1975. Retreat is an incredibly difficult military maneuver even when properly planned and executed. But neither President Thieu nor his second Corps regional commander, Pham Van Phu, properly planned anything. The civilian population was not informed of the decision, and at the sight of the departing troops, joined them in panic. The flood of civilians and the lack of effective rearguard forces made an orderly military retreat impossible. The communist armies raced in to cut off the retreat, massacring thousands and increasing the chaos of what came to be called the “convoy of misery.” This story was repeated throughout central Vietnam as the northern half of the country fell like a pack of cards.

The rout was halted just north of Saigon where the Eighteenth Division put up a magnificent resistance for more than a week against three North Vietnamese divisions until it was eventually overwhelmed. There, and in the Mekong Delta, the South Vietnamese army did not collapse. This proves the point that it was the unorganized retreat which was the immediate cause of the collapse of the South Vietnamese army, not the lack of “will to fight,” which was the slanderous cliche of those Americans who needed an alibi for their betrayal. Of course, President Thieu bears some responsibility for the debacle, as do some of his generals. But we must remember that he was found wanting in a crisis created by the treachery of the U.S. Congress.

Why did the U.S. Congress decide to renege on the nation's commitment to Vietnam? As stated earlier, liberalism of the late 1960s variety began to gain a foothold in Congress in the early 1970s. It was espoused by Senators McGovern, Church, and Clark, who were joined by younger men such as Senators Dodd and Tsongas and Representatives Studds and Moffett, to name just a few. These “New Politics” liberals had accepted many of the more fantastic assumptions of the New Left concerning the nature of the war. Persuaded by a major disinformation campaign initiated by Hanoi in 1973, they believed in the alleged repressiveness and unpopularity of the government of South Vietnam.3 Added to this was a notion that the “ethics of clean hands” should replace the “ethics of consequences” as the basis of U.S. political decisions. The ethos of the sixties had triumphed.

Thus, what began as a noble cause ended in national disgrace. Congress' decision to abandon South Vietnam (and Cambodia) to totalitarianism was an act of contempt for the 55,000 young Americans who sacrificed their lives. It was also an act of contempt for more than 300,000 brave, young South Vietnamese soldiers, not to mention the tens of thousands of Cambodians, Koreans, Thais, Australians, and New Zealanders who also made the supreme sacrifice in defense of a noble cause. America was quite capable of fulfilling President John F. Kennedy's promise, that it would pay any price, bear any burden, to protect another people from tyranny. By choosing not to keep that often repeated promise, the U.S. Congress stained the nation's honor.


  1. This point has been confirmed to me personally by the testimony of the former U.N. Ambassador of a Soviet client state in the Third World, who defected in 1978. He told me how after Vietnam the Soviets were going around the U.N. telling the Third World nations that the United States was on the decline, and the Soviet Union was on the rise, so it was smarter to align with the ascendant wave.

  2. General Van Tien Dung, Our Great Spring Victory. An Account of the Liberation of South Vietnam (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977), pp. 17-18.

  3. For example when the Senate and House Foreign Affairs committees held hearings in 1973 and 1974 on the situation in South Vietnam, they only called upon people like Bella Abzug, Don Luce, Gareth Porter, and Fred Branfman to testify. The committee members either did not know, or more likely did not care, that these “expert witnesses” were in fact fanatical supporters of Hanoi. Mr. Branfman, co-director of the Indochina Resource Center, was the brother-in-law of a convicted Viet Cong terrorist named Nguyen Huu Thai, whose murder victims included American soldiers in Saigon. It was not surprising that he and his fellow witnesses gave testimony to the Congress which was a colossal series of falsehoods about the repressiveness of the Thieu regime, designed to aid Hanoi's victory.

Barry Gewen (review date 7-21 April 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1658

SOURCE: Gewen, Barry. “Pious Patriotics.” New Leader 69, no. 7 (7-21 April 1986): 3-4.

[In the following review, Gewen offers both positive and negative assessments of the individual essays in The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet. Gewen also admits his confusion with Podhoretz's affinity for George Orwell, noting that Orwell shares many of the same political views as Podhoretz's political adversaries.]

Norman Podhoretz is the most strident of the neo-conservatives. He is the cheerleader of the group, its street fighter and its hanging judge. Although his pronouncements on economic and foreign policy—support for free-market capitalism, opposition to arms treaties of any kind—place him somewhere in the vicinity of Jesse Helms and Jeremiah Denton on the American political spectrum, it is not the positions themselves that set him apart (and others' teeth on edge) so much as his manner in espousing them.

Having turned away from the Left during the 1970s, Podhoretz now fulminates and blusters with all the dogmatic passion of the born-again convert. He is holier than the Pope (a fellow named William F. Buckley Jr.). Those who are not with him are antagonists. In The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet a collection of nine recent essays that appeared in such journals as Encounter and the New Criterion, he takes aim at some surprising targets, faulting, among others, Albert Camus, Henry Kissinger, F. R. Leavis, and the authors of The God That Failed for straying from the straight and narrow as defined by the editor of Commentary. Apparently, Podhoretz subscribes to the Mexican proverb that in politics all friends are false and all enemies are real.

The book is not wholly a diatribe. Along one of its two roads can be found some worthwhile material, since Podhoretz has not forgotten how to be a cogent literary critic. He succinctly delineates Leavis' place in English letters. And not the least of Podhoretz' critical virtues is his willingness to do his homework. In the best essay of the collection, “The Terrible Question of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,” he performs the valuable service of sifting through the Russian's massive, daunting output to cull the essential reading.

It is only when literary concerns cross paths with politics that the going gets bloody. Then the inquisitor takes over, and analysis yields to ideology. An example is Podhoretz' piece on The God That Failed. The writers who put that anti-Communist classic together were not anti-Communist enough for Podhoretz, because they remained Leftists seeking to create a more equitable society. Their choice of democratic socialism was “intellectually insufficient,” and their failure to go beyond warnings about the Soviets to acclaim for the American system foreshadowed the modern anti-nuclear and neutralist movements of Europe. Capitalism, Podhoretz insists, “was one of the indispensable constituent elements of Western democracy”; it “embodies a form of freedom and was on that account alone to be valued by all who valued freedom.”

Those sentiments are familiar. Every regulatory measure of this century designed to soften the brutalities of capitalism—wages and hours legislation, Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection—has been opposed in the name of economic freedom. A vast amount of political territory disappears with Podhoretz' either/or choice—social democracy, Fabianism, the welfare state, indeed, any position that does not accept capitalism in its American variety as a pre-requisite of political freedom. “The anti-Communism of these writers,” Podhoretz declares, “found no moorings in the real world and was cut loose to float in a utopian void.” Whoops! There goes Sweden!

Camus gets much the same treatment as The God That Failed authors. He was cowardly and dishonest for not embracing the Right. Kissinger's sin, by contrast, was naïveté in the face of the Soviet threat. The Nixon/Kissinger policy of détente assumed that the USSR was a state like any other, with traditional aims and interests in international affairs. But “all the evidence,” says Podhoretz, indicates that the Soviet Union is not traditional. It is a Hitlerian power bent on global conquest and presenting the West with “only two choices: resistance or submission.”

Well, “all the evidence” indicates no such thing. More than one academic career has been made by demonstrating the continuity of Tsarist and Soviet behavior; and the Hitlerian maniacs Podhoretz perceives in the Kremlin have gone unnoticed by numerous, probably most, policymakers and commentators. To take two recent instances, here is, first, Helmut Schmidt: “Contrary to much nonsense one can read in ideological papers and books about the Soviet Union, the Grand Strategy of Moscow is 75 per cent traditional Russian strategy and only 25 per cent Communist strategy. … In the Soviet Union the traditional and historical thrust has always, in my view, been the dominant one.” And, second, Octavio Paz: “The Russian intervention in Afghanistan is yet another example of a well-known fact: The Soviet Union follows, in its broad outlines, the foreign policy of the Tsarist regime. As is always the case, this policy is dictated by geography, the mother of history; it is also a continuation of an expansionist imperial tradition.” Opinions of this kind are simply brushed aside, so that Podhoretz can force the complexities and ambiguities of the real world into his either/or straitjacket.

A part from Solzhenitsyn, just about the only figure in The Bloody Crossroads who wins approval is George Orwell. Podhoretz claims him as an ally, arguing that Orwell's repeated attacks on the Leftwing intellectuals of his time and his hostility to pacifism in general would, were he alive today, lead him into the neoconservative camp. Extrapolating from positions taken 40 years ago is a dangerous exercise. Had George F. Kennan and Hannah Arendt died in the 1950s, Podhoretz would be lighting candles for them as well. Nonetheless, it is worth playing the game to correct a few of his half-truths.

There is no denying that Orwell saved his most venomous assaults for the intellectual Left. It is also true, however, that Orwell was always careful to position himself between the fellow travelers and the conservatives. To say, as Podhoretz does, that “Orwell's ruling passion was the fear and hatred of totalitarianism” is a plain distortion. Orwell's ruling passion, assuming he had one, was to stake out a position of decency against the might-makes-right mentality he saw all around him. In 1947, writing in The New Leader, he opposed the idea of suppressing the Communist Party as “calamitous,” adding: “One has only to think of the people who would approve!” When asked to speak before an anti-Soviet group that professed to stand for freedom, he responded: “I cannot associate myself with an essentially Conservative body which claims to defend democracy in Europe but has nothing to say about British imperialism. … I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism.”

A more egregious distortion occurs where Podhoretz, arguing for his image of a hawkish Orwell, states: “He thought that ‘the worst possibility of all’ was that ‘the fear inspired by the atomic bomb and other weapons yet to come will be so great that everyone will refrain from using them.’” Orwell as Curtis LeMay? Not quite. The comments cited here come from an article entitled “Toward European Unity,” written in 1947, when Orwell was at his most despairing about the prospects for democratic socialism. The future seemed to him to offer only three possibilities, all bad: that the U.S. would launch a preventive war against the Soviets, that several countries would develop nuclear weapons and drop them on each other, or “the worst possibility,” that a stalemate among the superpowers would ensue, with societies everywhere evolving along the lines later dramatized in 1984. Civilization's sole—and slim—hope, Orwell believed, was to achieve socialism over a large area that could counterbalance both the USSR and the U.S. “Therefore,” he concluded, “a Socialist United States of Europe seems to me the only worthwhile political objective today.” To turn Orwell into an ur-neoconservative, Podhoretz has wrenched his remarks completely out of context.

In fact, Orwell probably fits most comfortably alongside Camus and the God That Failed authors. The real question is why Podhoretz is so eager to wield a Procrustean ax in his case. Probably a sense of personal identification is a major reason. An essayist at the intersection of politics and literature, Orwell heroically resisted the intellectual fashions of his day, including Europe's perennially trendy anti-Americanism; Podhoretz, who thrives on embattlement, fancies that he is fighting the same Good Fight today—and being equally heroic. Orwell declared himself a patriot, and so, at every opportunity, does Podhoretz. But to grasp the difference between the two men, one need only consider what each understands by patriotism.

For Orwell, it consisted of cherishing the distinctive details of English life—heavy coins, bitter beer, bad teeth—all of those mundanities every Englishman had grown up with and felt in his bones as a matter of instinct and character. At his most extreme, Orwell even defended English cooking (though presumably with his tongue lodged deeply in his cheek). “By ‘patriotism,’” he wrote, “I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life.” What he did not mean was the flag-waving pieties of the Tories. “Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism.”

Piety is Podhoretz' middle name. His patriotism is all abstraction—capitalism, freedom, middle-class values, anti-Communism—an idea existing exclusively in his head, nothing from any tangible time or place. It may serve for Fourth of July speeches; it is not the sort of thing ordinary people die for. In the past, Podhoretz lived closer to the ground, and his best writing—“My Negro Problem—and Ours,” portions of Making It—display a human immediacy, genuine solidity. But since proclaiming his neoconservatism he has drifted higher and higher, like a hot-air balloon. In Orwell's terms, he has become a Blimp. A Podhoretz Doppelgänger, on the other hand, would accuse him of being the worst character in the neoconservative chamber of horrors—an intellectual.

Merle Rubin (review date 23 May 1986)

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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Forthright Essays Reveal the World according to Podhoretz.” Christian Science Monitor 78, no. 125 (23 May 1986): 24.

[In the following review, Rubin argues that, although Podhoretz is often wrong in his assumptions and at times too retractable in his beliefs, The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet is both a stimulating and engaging collection of essays.]

Controversy has always been Norman Podhoretz's element. As editor of the magazine Commentary, he reminds us, he was among the first to publish substantive criticism of American involvement in Southeast Asia, back in the early 1960s. Yet, by 1982, he was arguing in his book Why We Were in Vietnam that our cause had essentially been a noble one.

These days, he castigates Ronald Reagan and his administration for being too “soft.” Although Podhoretz's steady march rightward has occasioned much comment, it is, I think, particularly telling that the event that caused the deepest consternation in his immediate circle was the publication of his memoir, Making It (1967). The book had less to do with ideological politics than with the kind of political in-fighting found in offices, universities, and other institutions. It wasn't considered quite the thing for a writer, especially one who presented himself as an intellectual, to dwell on such matters, or, worse yet, admit he was ambitious for worldly success.

Forthright as ever, Podhoretz continues on his course, burdened by a sense of being the only person (or, at least, one of a small minority) to “tell it like it is”—or, more accurately, to tell it like he thinks it is, although one sometimes wonders if he perceives the difference. Indeed, he has become so unafraid of being labeled an extremist it would seem he has ceased to examine his position in a critical spirit.

The title of this collection of essays [The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet] comes from Lionel Trilling's characterization of cultural criticism as the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet. Podhoretz is one of that diverse group—ranging from Morris Dickstein, champion of the counter-culture, to Podhoretz himself, the adversary culture's adversary—that claims Trilling as its intellectual mentor. Yet it is certainly a long way from Trilling's elaborately balanced, carefully considered cadences to the exponential leaps by which Podhoretz drives a line of reasoning to its “logical,” if not always tenable, extreme.

Podhoretz begins by asserting that it is not enough to be anticommunist: one must also be pro-capitalist. Thus, he explains in the first essay, the ex-communists who contributed to the landmark book, The God That Failed, helped expose what no outsider could quite realize: the seriousness and urgency of the communist threat. But they failed, he believes, in that they did not all go so far as to support American capitalism. Certain that any honest, right-minded person would have to agree, Podhoretz in his next piece advances the proposition that if Orwell were alive today, he would have joined the neo-conservatives. This despite the fact that, to the end of his life, Orwell declared himself a democratic socialist. A similar case is made for Camus, in the course of which Podhoretz grimly notes an insidious spirit of neutralism afoot in recent Camus studies denigrating his most avowedly anti-communist works.

There is a core of value in this, and a truth that bears even the amount of repetition Podhoretz gives it, here and in the remaining six essays on Henry Adams, Henry Kissinger, F. R. Leavis, Milan Kundera, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the “adversary culture.” Yes, there is a choice between freedom and totalitarianism; yes, capitalism has had a better track record than communism in providing freedom and equality.

Yet, to many of us who regard American society as more than capitalism in action, this simplistic identification of the two is disturbing, to say the least. And Podhoretz's special brand of pro-capitalism is alarmingly intolerant: not only of communists and neutralists, but of any criticism leveled against his ideals of the free market, the family, and middle-class values. Feminists, homosexual-rights advocates, even opponents of nuclear power plants and other environmentalists rouse his suspicions. In the world according to Podhoretz, people who worry about conserving natural resources are anti-American doomsayers. Watergate was the handiwork of “the New Class”—i.e., the adversary culture grown up. (Can he seriously mean such apostles of the counter-culture as Sam Ervin, John Dean, John Sirica, and that most crucial figure in the whole drama, Richard Nixon himself?)

There's no denying the power of Podhoretz's vision or the occasional brilliance of his insights. Like a spotlight, he can be dramatic and illuminating, but also like a spotlight, he can be stagey, misleading, and blinkered. Yet to call him misleading may also be misleading. He misleads in all honesty—carried away by the inner force of his own logic. Perhaps this is what makes him, for all his excesses, so compulsively readable.

Jeffrey Hart (review date 4 July 1986)

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SOURCE: Hart, Jeffrey. “The Good Fight.” National Review 38, no. 12 (4 July 1986): 36-7.

[In the following review, Hart compliments Podhoretz's acumen in identifying subversive trends in the literary world in The Bloody Crossroads, lauding Podhoretz's arguments as sound and reasonable.]

Norman Podhoretz studied at Columbia with Lionel Trilling, then won a fellowship to Cambridge and worked with F. R. Leavis. Both of these modern masters are present in this book, at once as explicit subject—the title itself comes from Trilling—and as critical example. Trilling was a superb cultural critic, specifically of the liberal culture of his time, to which he had a peculiar relationship of loyalty and loathing. Leavis was at his best in dealing directly with a literary text.

Podhoretz does both things splendidly [in The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet]. After abandoning literary criticism for many years, he here returns to it, and he performs with great skill its central task: locating the sources of power in a literary text and demonstrating the ways in which they work. There is no literary critic writing today who pursues that enterprise more impressively. In strength of intellect, lucidity, and civilized pertinence, Podhoretz's critical writing is exhilarating, and the more so when one comes to it from some of the … well, some of the material that pours from the academic presses today. Trilling and Leavis are indeed presences here, and behind them the major tradition of humane criticism that stretches back from Edmund Wilson through Arnold and Hazlitt. Read Podhoretz on Camus, on Orwell, on Henry Adams, on Solzhenitsyn, on Kissinger, on Kundera. His assessment of Kissinger as a prose master is utterly persuasive, as is his disagreement with him on important matters of policy. The metamorphosis of Kissinger as a writer between his early academic works and his memoirs is as startling in its way as the change in Yeats. His essay on Kundera sent me at once to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a masterly novel that captures the eerie emotional music of a culture under pressure from totalitarianism.

Podhoretz's skill with a text recalls Leavis; he combines it with a cultural criticism that reminds us of Trilling and may be seen as an extension of Trilling's critical project. Those famous lines from the preface to The Liberal Imagination (1950) about liberalism constituting our sole intellectual tradition have so often been quoted that I will forbear citation here. But set beside some much darker sentences written about a year earlier, they define Trilling's central problem. He observed that “Stalinism becomes endemic in the American middle class as soon as that class begins to think; it is a cultural Stalinism, independent of any political belief.” And he went on to hazard the opinion that the cultural ideas of the liberal ADA would not differ much from those of the Stalinist PAC of the CIO. What Trilling saw to his dismay was that the well-meaning bourgeois in whom the light of thought begins to flicker reaches tropistically for large moral simplicities, for slogans, for immediately applicable cultural and political power, and reflexively sympathizes with the liberals-in-a-hurry of the totalitarian Left.

In his extended critique of such a mentality, however, Trilling was seldom, if ever, confrontational. He did not make enemies. He made the liberal philistines uneasy, but he did not give them the chance to lay a glove on him. Though he inspected the “bloody crossroads” where literature and politics meet, he was not at all eager to do battle there, and he was protected by his urbanity, by a certain elusiveness, and by the good manners of the academy as it then was.

I take it that Podhoretz views our cultural circumstance today as far worse than it was in 1948 when Trilling uttered that “dark thought.” As he sees it, a critique of democracy and capitalism was launched a century or so ago by a small minority of progressives, clergymen, artists, and intellectuals, and this critique, through the agency of mass higher education, has now become a pernicious habit of respectable feeling. The cultural Stalinism identified by Trilling has metastasized and brought us the grotesqueries of the anti-Western anchorman, the Marxist reporter, the countercultural publisher's editor, the ethnophobic advertising man. The academy has become a generator of junk thought.

Indeed, the situation may even be worse than Podhoretz realizes. The contemporary academy is populated by people who believe that they have contributed to the discussion when they bandy about terms like “racist,” “sexist,” “elitist,” and “homophobic.” As Jeane Kirkpatrick said so memorably, this ethnophobic mentality routinely blames America first. Its premise is implicitly suicidal. If, in an impish moment, you assert that we ought to promote democracy in Nicaragua, or that you suspect homosexuality to be abnormal, you are likely to receive the Fascist of the Year Award. The 1950s Columbia of Trilling and his student Podhoretz was a temple of intellect by comparison.

Podhoretz is a skillful diagnostician of this moral disease, and he has a prescription, which amounts to a theory of the Saving Remnant. After all, the mentality of Western suicide was launched in the form of a minority critique decades ago, and then grew to its present proportions. A minority counter-critique, launched today, may eventually likewise grow into a saving force. The minority around Commentary and The Public Interest are engaged in laying down just such a counter-critique, and in time, through force of mind and indeed—old-fashioned word—character, they will return the culture to sanity. It may well work. Let us pray. But meanwhile we do have this magnificent book.

Conor Cruise O'Brien (review date 9 October 1986)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Conor Cruise. “Trop de Zèle.” New York Review of Books 33, no. 15 (9 October 1986): 11-14.

[In the following review, O'Brien utilizes sarcasm and irony to debunk several of Podhoretz's central arguments in The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet.]

The title and subtitle together make up a quotation from Lionel Trilling. [The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet] is made up of nine essays: on the writers of The God That Failed group; on Camus and his critics; on Orwell; on F. R. Leavis; on Henry Adams; on “The Adversary Culture and the New Class”; on Kissinger, on Milan Kundera, and on Solzhenitsyn. All of the essays contain—though in varying proportions—both literary criticism and political comment. In his introduction, Mr. Podhoretz reasserts his belief “that it is possible for a critic to speak openly from a particular political perspective and to make political judgments without permitting such judgments to replace or obscure literary values as such.”

I agree with Mr. Podhoretz that this is indeed possible. I also believe that Mr. Podhoretz genuinely set out to separate “political judgments” from “literary values”; and that he also genuinely believes that he has been successful in this undertaking. I think he has been occasionally successful, and more often not. He tries to be good, but when his “political” blood is up—and it is, much of the time—he can't help forcing a “literary” point (or any other point if it comes to that).

I should, however, at this point, declare interest. I happen to be among Mr. Podhoretz's targets, in his essay “Camus and His Critics.” A short book of mine on Camus, published in the 1970s, is found by Mr. Podhoretz to be a “travesty” offered “in the name of art,” but actually in the service of my “anti-anti-Communist political passions.” So I am accused of having succumbed to the very temptation—that of politicizing literature—which Mr. Podhoretz believes himself to have consistently resisted. And when—as here—I doubt the extent of his success, I fear such criticism may be imputed again to the power of those political passions which he assumes to hold me in their fell grip.

As the reader will already appreciate, argument along those lines could become tiresome. I mention the matter as a kind of “health warning,” in justice to Mr. Podhoretz and to the reader, and leave it there.

Politically speaking, the most ambitious of these essays is “If Orwell Were Alive Today.” This essay ends with the words, “I am convinced that if Orwell were alive today, he would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives and against the Left.” The claim here is, of course, made on behalf of a group of which the essayist is himself a leading member: Mr. Podhoretz is described on the jacket of this book as “America's most outspoken neoconservative intellectual.” How important it is for the essayist to be able to claim Orwell for his neoconservatives may be inferred from a passage near the beginning of the essay “If Orwell Were Alive Today.”

This enormous reputation by itself would make Orwell “one of those writers who are well worth stealing” [a phrase of Orwell's own, about Dickens]. It is, after all, no small thing to have the greatest political writer of the age on one's side: it gives confidence, authority, and weight to one's own political views.

This passage is not, of course, programmatic. That is, Mr. Podhoretz is not here signaling his own intention to “steal” George Orwell; although he may possibly be inadvertently revealing the power of a temptation to do just that. Rather, he is rebuking other people for their efforts to steal a writer who properly belongs to the neoconservatives—Mr. Podhoretz's own group. As a matter of fact, Mr. Podhoretz's point about left-wing efforts to “steal Orwell” has acquired more force since he first made it (in January 1983). In Britain, the year 1984 brought on an influential and misguided effort to depict the book Nineteen Eighty-Four as a satire impartially—from a democratic socialist point of view—directed at both East and West, the Soviet Union and the United States. This effort, backed (or rather, led) by the considerable authority of Professor Bernard Crick—Orwell's biographer, and editor of the annotated Nineteen Eighty-Four—may indeed rightly be described as “stealing Orwell.” Nineteen Eighty-Four is highly specific in its satire of Soviet society—and in its warning to Britain against the danger presented by Soviet sympathizers—and contains hardly anything that can be construed, without twisting and wrenching, as satire on the West.

Mr. Podhoretz's resistance to the Orwell stealers of the left is fully justified. His claim to Orwell, on behalf of the neoconservatives, is another matter. Certainly, Orwell's last two books—Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are (pace Professor Crick) as anticommunist as the stoutest neoconservative could desire. But this doesn't mean that Orwell would necessarily be attracted to neoconservatism. He was essentially a loner, with a marked and consistent distaste for cliques and coteries, and for politico-literary intellectuals hunting in packs, on the scent—usually a distant scent—of power. In Orwell's own day—and especially in his last years—the most conspicuous groups of that kind were active on the left. But I see no reason to suppose that he would have liked these phenomena any better when they turned up on the right, as they have in the last quarter of the twentieth century. For example, one of the intellectual manifestations which Orwell most despised was what he called “back scratching”: the politico-literary coterie practice of puffing the works of fellow members. And as it happens, the jacket of The Bloody Crossroads—in which a number of Mr. Podhoretz's political friends praise him for his literary prowess—is a classic case of politico-literary back scratching. I really can't see George Orwell dans cette galère.

Mr. Podhoretz quotes Orwell on “smelly little orthodoxies.” Without entering into the game of “if Orwell were alive today,” one may point out that while Orwell actually was alive, some of the things he most disliked about the “smelly little orthodoxies” were characteristics—like those mentioned above—which are today salient or sniffable in neoconservatism.

In his essay on F. R. Leavis—the best in the collection, and the most free from polemics—Mr. Podhoretz finds that Leavis (whom he generally admires) in his writing on D. H. Lawrence “sins against the disinterestedness in whose absence literary criticism becomes a species of covert ideologizing.”

Coming from Norman Podhoretz, that is a breathtaking judgment. What is admirable about it is its transparent innocence. Mr. Podhoretz really does believe himself to possess the kind of disinterestedness against which even Leavis could sin. And this disinterestedness which he confidently attributes to himself seems to be felt as a kind of talisman which automatically preserves his criticism from turning into ideologizing. Few readers of The Bloody Crossroads—outside the neoconservative camp—are likely to be convinced that Mr. Podhoretz's talisman is really in working order. Not all the time, but much of the time, he appears to be forcing a critical judgment to make a political point.

This is perhaps most apparent in the essay on Camus. Mr. Podhoretz doesn't annex Camus outright, as he does with Orwell. He is content with having “the best of Camus” on his side. Mr. Podhoretz the literary critic discovers, in his disinterested way, that the best of Camus is to be found in the work by Camus which happens to be most to the political taste of Mr. Podhoretz the neoconservative ideologue. This is Camus's anticommunist essay of 1951, L'Homme révolté (translated as The Rebel). This is an eccentric opinion—since Camus's reputation is based mainly on three novels—but it might be none the worse for that, if Mr. Podhoretz were to establish it by bringing out the neglected excellences of the essay he values so highly, and which other critics (including myself) have considered tedious and pretentious. But Mr. Podhoretz devotes only a few lines, with several laudatory adjectives, to The Rebel itself. His strategy for validating this particular piece of literary reassessment consists of: (a) flat assertion that The Rebel is “the best of Camus”; (b) attacks on the supposed political motivations—failure of disinterestedness—of critics who fail to rate the work so highly as Mr. Podhoretz says is its due; (c) depreciation, on what appears to be random grounds, of Camus's other works, including the best known and most admired.

Camus's sin, in Mr. Podhoretz's eyes, was that he failed to keep going on about anticommunism as he had done in The Rebel. For Mr. Podhoretz to think thus is quite understandable. But Mr. Podhoretz goes much further than this. He has convinced himself that Camus himself felt this way. The sense of guilt that pervades The Fall has nothing to do with Christianity or anything of that kind, according to this critic. No, what Camus's guilt was all about was his own failure to stand up for the United States, as Sartre had stood up for the Soviet Union. “Sartre … chose the Soviet Union and was not afraid to say so; Camus, in effect, chose the United States and was afraid to say so.” That is what made Camus a “penitent.” All that religious stuff in The Fall is just there to disguise and deaden Camus's actual political guilt, for his desertion of Uncle Sam. Religion “provides Camus with a pretentious way to avoid the full and rigorous accounting with himself he so desperately needed and wanted to undertake.” What a pity the novelist did not have a neoconservative father confessor at his side, to get his penance right for him, and see his books got rewritten.

Mr. Podhoretz does not produce any evidence in support of this interpretation of The Fall, but then he can't be expected to, can he? Camus himself—Mr. Podhoretz's Camus—didn't know what he was doing or, insofar as he did know what he was doing, was anxious to cover up the evidence, even from himself. So it is for Mr. Podhoretz, the literary critic, to divine intuitively what Camus was up to in The Fall. And it happens, as so often in these pages, that what Mr. Podhoretz, the critic, is able to divine is very much to the taste of Mr. Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologue.

Mr. Podhoretz's idiosyncratically Americano-centric interpretation of The Fall is I think symptomatic of the main intellectual weakness of neoconservatism, its obsessive reductivism. Everything has to be about us and them, the United States and the Soviet Union, God and Satan. That, for example, a French-Algerian writer, Albert Camus, might have been more interested, in the late Fifties, in the Franco-Algerian war, then raging, and in his own painfully conflicting feelings about that, than in either the United States or the Soviet Union, does not occur to Mr. Podhoretz even as a possibility. Of course the author of The Fall had to be thinking about the United States. What else, after all, when you get down to it, is there to think about? Except the Soviet Union.

The Orwell and Camus essays are, I think, fairly representative of Mr. Podhoretz's politico-critical modus operandi. I don't propose to consider the other essays in the collection in the same way, but shall instead consider a theme that greatly preoccupies the author and runs, in one way or another, through almost all the essays. That theme is the relation of intellectuals to power.

Mr. Podhoretz believes that intellectuals are powerful, whether for good or ill, and whether they know it or not. In “Henry Adams: The ‘Powerless’ Intellectual in America,” Mr. Podhoretz argues that Adams, who felt himself to be powerless, is actually powerful, for evil. “Thus one can say,” says Mr. Podhoretz, “that Adams has been kept alive as an incitement to and a justification of the hunger of the American intellectual class for the power, and especially the political power, that he himself, for all that he denigrated it, could never stop wanting and envying.” Yet in Mr. Podhoretz's view Adams actually attained power, posthumously at least: “The great irony is that the case of Adams—who remains a force when the names of Rutherford B. Hayes or Chester Arthur are scarcely even remembered—demonstrates how much more powerful intellectuals can be in the long run than even the most successful of politicians.” Yet this is a bad thing in the case of Adams, who exercises a “malignant” influence in “encouraging a bigoted contempt for this country and in subtly denigrating and devaluing the life of the mind.”

The bracketing of “this country” and “the life of the mind” in this passage is significant. According to Mr. Podhoretz's view of things, in all these essays uncritical nationalism and intellectual integrity always tend to converge, in the case of America (though not, presumably, in certain other countries). On this view “the treason of the clerks” and treason to the United States are in essence the same thing. I prefer Julien Benda's original version, according to which uncritical nationalism was among the causes which could induce the intellectual to abdicate his proper function and deviate systematically from the truth. But Mr. Podhoretz does not mention the author of La Trahison des clercs.

In his essay on Adams, Mr. Podhoretz, by the context in which he uses the expression “the American intellectual class,” leaves the class in question firmly in the grip of the leftist baddies with their twisted minds. But things brighten up considerably, in Podhoretz terms, in the very next essay, “The Adversary Culture and the New Class.” The baddies are still at work—inside the Adversary Culture and the New Class—but now some intellectuals in white hats have shown up, in the form of “a group of dissident intellectuals, mostly, but not exclusively associated with magazines like Commentary and The Public Interest” and “often called neoconservatives.” Although this group still remains “a minority within the intellectual community,” its influence is not to be underrated, in Mr. Podhoretz's book:

Certainly these intellectual adversaries of the adversary culture were exerting a marked influence by the mid-1970s. Their writings were being read and discussed in many circles, and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 could be, and was, seen as a mark of their spreading influence.

Could it be? And was it? And by whom? Clearly it could be and was, by Mr. Podhoretz and some of his pals; afflicted by galloping swelled heads. But did anyone else see it that way? Possibly some besotted left-wing intellectual, disposed to magnify the importance of his intellectual opponents, may have suggested something of the kind; though I don't happen to know of any such case. But could anyone outside the charmed circle of a few intellectual coteries and countercoteries ever have dreamed of such a thing? How could a couple of magazines, and a couple of dozen individuals of whom most Americans, and most other people, have never heard, possibly have exercised a determining influence over an American national election? Of course you can imagine—if you are a neoconservative—the esoteric influence of Commentary, etc., as spreading out at secondhand, through the media, and so filtering down to the plebs who, when they pressed those levers, were indirectly under the spell of Mr. Podhoretz and his friends without ever having heard of them. But it all seems a mite fanciful to me. Far from thinking of that election result as a mark of the “spreading influence” of neoconservative intellectuals, I think that the only intellectual who clearly exercised a significant influence in bringing about the defeat of Jimmy Carter and the election of Ronald Reagan was that eminent paleoconservative scholar, Imam Khomeini.

In general, the essays in this collection seem to be the work of a writer who knows quite a lot about literature, without any longer being much interested in the subject—and who is passionately interested in politics, without knowing much about them. As I read Mr. Podhoretz, that phrase of Edmund Burke came to mind: “Those who have nothing of politics save the passions they excite.” Such people exist, obviously, both on the left and on the right. But some of those on the right, these days, who fall into that category like to attribute to themselves, with some insistence, the possession of an exceptional and disinterested intellectual rigor: a quality not readily discernible in their writings to those outside the fold.

Politically, I don't suppose the neoconservatives matter all that much. They are not so much turning America around—as Mr. Podhoretz, perhaps in one of his wilder moments, supposed—as sending a message to mainstream America: that not all eggheads are baddies. I don't know whether mainstream America is much interested in that message, but the Reagan administration seems less interested in it than the leading neoconservatives may perhaps have hoped. There has been no neoconservative equivalent to the political career of Henry Kissinger. (Incidentally, Mr. Podhoretz's essay on Kissinger seems astonishingly reverential coming from a writer usually free from that defect. When Mr. Podhoretz meets his old master, F. R. Leavis, in heaven he will have to answer for attributing literary “greatness” to the author of The White House Years. But perhaps what sounds unpleasantly obsequious is just harmless wistfulness. Mr. Podhoretz wrote Making It, but Kissinger really and truly made it. Had Kissinger, the politician, not made it I doubt whether Podhoretz, the critic, would have discerned greatness in anything Kissinger wrote. The literary greatness went with the political job.)

In case there are still any neoconservative intellectuals who would like to be presidential advisers, but have not yet received the call, let me offer a helpful hint or two. First of all, let Talleyrand be your guide. Both Burke and Machiavelli are more interesting as political thinkers, certainly, but for making it, and keeping it, Talleyrand is the man. Burke spent most of his life in opposition, and had only one brief period of junior office. The author of The Prince ended a generally dismal political career by leading a delegation to the Friars Minor at Carpi, and glad to get that tiny job. Talleyrand, on the other hand, achieved the really astonishing feat of remaining close to the centers of political power in France—with only absolutely indispensable intervals—for the best part of forty-five years (1789-1834) and under five regimes. So Talleyrand's worth listening to, if making it is what you want. And it happens that Talleyrand's best-known piece of political advice is also the most relevant: “Surtout, pas de zèle.” (English writers often render this advice, with insular fogginess, as “not too much zeal,” and some of them then put their own amendment back into French: “Pas trop de zèle.” But the actual advice, accurately Englished, remains: “Above all, no zeal.” No zeal; none at all.)

Now this means that a prudent Prince or President will not be inclined to include among his close advisers an intellectual who is publicly known as a zealous champion even of the very ideas to which the Prince or President is publicly committed. For the ideas which that intellectual is out there championing only sound identical to those to which the Prince or President (henceforward PP) is committed. The PP is committed to those ideas as he personally interprets them, and with the knowledge that it may become politically expedient for him, in certain circumstances, to interpret them in ways that may seem peculiar, on the face of it, to some of those who have most admired the PP's commitment to the ideas in question.

For example, a given PP may be widely admired for his determination to resist some Evil Empire or other. But then political necessity may require the PP to sell a lot of grain or something to the EE in question, thereby presumably feeding its capacity to do evil. In such circumstances, the kind of intellectual the PP needs to have around the place is the kind that will help draft the kind of speeches that are needed in the circumstances: not the kind of intellectual that will ask, What the hell's going on around here? or talk about bolting, or even perhaps actually bolt. And the more vehemently an intellectual has published about the ideas to which the PP is thought of as committed, the less reliable that intellectual is likely to be found to be when the going gets rough.

A politic intellectual who wants to get close enough to a PP to wield some PP-derived power must be prepared to serve the PP, on the PP's terms, especially when the going gets rough, rough, that is, on principles, ideas, consistency, and so on. It is true that, in certain circumstances, the politic individual may ditch his PP; Talleyrand ditched no fewer than four sets of his (sometimes by getting himself ditched by them, while they were slipping). But in the nature of things, an American intellectual adviser is unlikely to have many opportunities to ditch his PP, Talleyrand-style. Loyalty to the PP has necessarily a higher place in the equipment of the politically ambitious American intellectual than any such quality had in the case of Talleyrand. Otherwise, Talleyrand remains the exemplar: the service intellectual, without ideology, enthusiasm, or worries about principles.

Henry Kissinger is in the Talleyrand line, although he has had more to say about Metternich, the man of principles. Talleyrand would have approved of that presentation too. Now I greatly fear that Norman Podhoretz yearns—or yearned—to be the Kissinger of the right. Perhaps he does not—I am not in his counsel—but it seemed to me as I read the Podhoretz essay “Kissinger Reconsidered” that that yearning was rising at me from the page, like a feverish miasma. Mr. Podhoretz should stifle any such yearning. He is most unlikely ever to make it that way. He is burdened with ideology, attachment to principles, zeal. He has published far too much, and too pugnaciously, about contemporary politics, and so given too many hostages to fortune. He lacks too many relevantly desirable qualities: patience, good humor, smoothness, masked cynicism. Any PP could see from a mile off that Mr. Podhoretz would be an awkward crew member to have on board. So—for reasons the foremost of which are creditable to his personal honesty and integrity—Mr. Podhoretz seems unlikely to get the call.

Once actual political power is denied, there remains, theoretically, another kind of power. This is the kind that Mr. Podhoretz attributes to Henry Adams: the power of the writer, through his writing, over others, through generations. But I doubt whether Mr. Podhoretz is really much interested in that stuff: Paul Valéry's “horribly laureled consolatrix” is hardly everyone's cup of tea. Mr. Podhoretz's writing seems mainly concerned with the other kind of power. He writes competently, but in an off-the-cuff sort of way, like a man who has a bus to catch. I think his bus is a mirage, and I don't think the things he writes, in that rush to the mirage, are likely to be memorable. In short, Mr. Podhoretz is neither Henry Kissinger nor Henry Adams. And he is not so much an authority on “the bloody crossroads” as another of the romantic and power-infatuated victims with whom that crossroads is bestrewn.

Mr. Podhoretz will no doubt have the satisfaction of ascribing this largely negative review to the “anti-anti-communist passions” which he believes are seething in the bosom of this reviewer. It would be unkind to deny Mr. Podhoretz that satisfaction. About anti-communism and anti-anticommunism, and the general phenomenon of neoconservatism, I hope to have something to say on another occasion.

Mark Gerson (essay date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Gerson, Mark. “Norman's Conquest: A Commentary on the Podhoretz Legacy.” Policy Review, no. 74 (fall 1995): 64-8.

[In the following essay, Gerson traces Podhoretz's rise in political and editorial stature, chronicling how Podhoretz's articles and essays trace his gradual shift from the liberal Left to the neo-Conservative Right.]

In the early 1960s, the great Columbia professor and literary critic Lionel Trilling warned of the impending “Norman Invasion.” He was talking about three brash and brilliant young stars of the literary world—Norman O. Brown, Norman Mailer, and Norman Podhoretz. A generation later, no one recalls Norman O. Brown, and Norman Mailer will be remembered as an unharnessed genius. Of Trilling's invaders, one has conquered: Norman Podhoretz.

William, the great Norman conqueror of 1066, left behind the glorious Bayeux Tapestry detailing the story of his invasion of England. Despite two world wars and countless smaller ones, the tapestry remains with us. Norman Podhoretz has left us not a tapestry, but 412 issues of Commentary, which The Economist once called “the best magazine in the world.” Podhoretz served as its editor in chief from February 1960 until May of this year. These were the years and this was the magazine in which neoconservatism—one of the most important political movements of this century—was conceived, developed, and eventually blossomed.

What hath Norman Podhoretz wrought? Three extraordinary contributions to our intellectual culture stand out. First, Podhoretz and his Commentary writers were the intellectual force behind Ronald Reagan's Cold War battles. Their ideas, harnessed by a gifted statesman and backed by a strong and capable military, helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the intellectual delegitimation of Third World and anti-Zionist politics.

Another legacy of Commentary is evident in today's debate over affirmative action. Podhoretz and his writers, strong supporters of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, have maintained a steadfast opposition to racial classifications or preferences throughout their careers. When the honorable movement of Martin Luther King Jr. veered into a realm of quotas, racial preferences, and social engineering, Podhoretz stood firm. Commentary authors identified the grave moral weaknesses of affirmative action before anyone else, warning that quotas betrayed the promise of civil rights and victimized their intended beneficiaries. Present-day opponents of quotas often sound like they are quoting from Commentary articles written two decades ago.

The same can be said about discussions regarding what Lionel Trilling called the “adversary culture”—opponents of middle-class values whose influence spreads far beyond the college campuses where the critics flourish. While many Americans once tolerated these people, praising their “idealism,” Podhoretz and the neoconservatives saw them as destructive, nihilistic, and ultimately dangerous. Rare for intellectuals, the neoconservatives celebrated the prosaic and unromantic culture of the ordinary American. In so doing, they provided bourgeois culture with the intellectual self-confidence to stand up against those whom most now recognize as cultural barbarians.


Born in 1930, Podhoretz was raised in a lapsed Orthodox Jewish home in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Columbia University. There he became the protégé of Lionel Trilling and distinguished himself as one of the brightest literary minds of his generation. After graduate studies at Cambridge University, Podhoretz served for two years in the United States Army before returning home to assume a position as an assistant editor of Commentary—a job that Trilling had arranged for him. While at Commentary, Podhoretz wrote prolifically, publishing in nearly every New York magazine of note. In present-day discussions of neoconservatism, it is often said that Podhoretz (and the other neoconservatives) are refugees from the Left who, in reaction to the 1960s counterculture, moved rightward. Although Podhoretz was a liberal in that he supported the New Deal and civil rights, his work in the 1950s demonstrates how that observation reveals far more about changes in liberalism than changes in Podhoretz.

While the topics of Podhoretz's essays in the 1950s ranged from William Faulkner to nuclear war, they reveal the skepticism of a serious critic inclined to doubt any simple answers to social, political, and literary questions. Rejecting the rationalist and utopian themes of liberalism, Podhoretz had a great appreciation for the commonplace and the prosaic. In a 1957 essay, Podhoretz indicted liberalism for being unable to “take a sufficiently complicated view of reality.” Liberalism was “a conglomeration of attitudes suitable only to the naive, the callow, the rash: in short, the immature. Its view of the world was seen to be an undignified, indeed dangerous philosophy for the leading nation in the West to entertain.”

In “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” a seminal 1958 essay in Partisan Review, Podhoretz focused his attack on what he regarded as an exceptionally naive, callow, and immature group of leftists—the Beats, a group of literary intellectuals centered in Greenwich Village who were attaining increasing prominence in American letters. Podhoretz charged that the Beats' disdain for traditional, middle-class morality translated into a dangerous nihilism, “the revolution of the spiritually underprivileged and the crippled of soul—young men who can't think straight and so hate anyone who can.” For Podhoretz, the message of their animosity toward private property and the middle class was clear: “Kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause.”


In 1959, Podhoretz was named the editor in chief of Commentary, but he did not take up arms against the nihilists right away. In keeping with the zeitgeist of the times, he flirted with the Left. He opened the pages of Commentary to writers supporting the peace movement and radical cultural critics like Paul Goodman, who wrote of the “beautiful cultural consequences” that would follow from legalizing pornography. Podhoretz upset many people with his movement toward the Left—namely Lionel Trilling and Irving Kristol—but maintained his connections to the traditional liberal community as well.

The Vietnam War proved a pivotal event in the development of Podhoretz's thought, but not in the way it would for so many others of his generation. Podhoretz opposed military intervention in Vietnam, and under his stewardship, Commentary was the first magazine to seriously consider the war and its potential ramifications. His opposition was always on tactical grounds; he maintained simply that it was a conflict from which the United States could not emerge victorious. To Podhoretz, this one error of the United States did not change the fact that communism and the Soviet Union were evil, and did not suggest any fundamental flaws in the American way of life. The Left and the counterculture, on the other hand, used the war to impugn American institutions like the family and the university.

So while Podhoretz opposed the war, his opposition to the antiwar movement was more intense and ultimately more important. His position was barely represented in the intellectual community. He saw liberal intellectuals, colleagues whom he respected and trusted, fail to criticize increasingly militant student protesters. Whatever the students did—even when radicals at Columbia urinated on the carpet in the office of university president Grayson Kirk—liberal professors praised the “idealism” of the students and excused their tactics as the excesses of youthful exuberance. Podhoretz's wife, the noted writer Midge Decter, recalls the student takeover at Columbia University. She was at a party of New York intellectuals, and criticized the students who had overturned files and destroyed a professor's life's work. Dwight MacDonald, a major figure on the New York intellectual scene for 25 years, responded, “Obviously, you care more about material values than human values.”

This incident was emblematic of what Podhoretz, Decter, and their allies identified as a major crisis in liberalism. Though the term “neoconservatism” was not coined until the early 1970s—by the socialist Michael Harrington—it is used now to describe the New York intellectuals and their compatriots who opposed the counterculture and its various permutations. What Podhoretz had called in 1957 “a conglomeration of attitudes suitable only to the naive, the callow, the rash” imploded 10 years later. Unable or unwilling to define and protect its principles against the radical onslaught, liberalism self-destructed as a coherent, governing philosophy—with devastating effects on its key institutional expressions: the university and the government. Though he was not yet a conservative, Podhoretz became as effective a critic of the Left as anyone on the Right. Many arguments that we now regard as staples of conservatism originated in the pages of Commentary 20 years ago. An example is political correctness: Though the term was not coined until the 1980s, it was best described in a 1973 Commentary article called “The New Inquisitors,” written by Podhoretz himself:

The upshot is an atmosphere which is no longer conducive to fearless inquiry or even to playful speculation and which, far from encouraging, positively obstructs the development of independence of mind and of the critical spirit. Thus do our colleges and universities continue their degenerative mutation from sanctuaries for free discussion into inquisitorial agents of a dogmatic secular faith.

Though Podhoretz and several others—especially James Q. Wilson, whose 1972 Commentary article, “Liberalism Versus Liberal Education,” explains perfectly the crisis in higher education today—tried to protect the university, they saw that their task was virtually hopeless. The university was liberalism's home turf, and was the first casualty of the liberal implosion. The issue to which Norman Podhoretz and Commentary dedicated most of their ideological firepower was the legacy of the civil rights movement: affirmative action and quotas.

Originally conceived by President Kennedy, affirmative action was designed to encourage institutions to make a concerted effort to be inclusive of all people. Podhoretz always supported this. In his 1979 memoirs, Breaking Ranks, Podhoretz recalled saying when the debate had begun earlier in that decade that “I supported special efforts to recruit qualified blacks and that I also supported special efforts to help unqualified blacks compete on an equal footing.” But affirmative action had soon become a series of programs and benefits intended to give preference to people based upon their race, and, over time, upon their ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation as well. And, to Podhoretz, this violated a crucial tenet of his liberalism—that an individual should not be judged on the basis of an involuntary characteristic. Consequently, Podhoretz made Commentary the intellectual center of opposition to affirmative action. Throughout the 1970s, Commentary attacked affirmative action from every angle.

Commentary authors were among the first to argue that those who would suffer the most from affirmative action programs would be the intended beneficiaries; that those not slated to “benefit” from affirmative action would react bitterly when a member of a preferred group received an admissions slot or a job on the basis of race or another superfluous category; and that those “minorities” in the institutions would constantly feel the need to prove themselves worthy, to demonstrate that they were not a “quota hire.” As Michael Novak noted in a 1976 Commentary article,

If you grant no responsibility or hope for their own advancement to blacks, but treat their needs as in every respect due to a form of victimization, then no one calls you a racist; you are regarded, instead, as a friend to blacks. “Don't blame the victim” is the slogan of such friendship. But if, on the other hand, you assert that blacks are equal to whites in potency, moral spirit, dignity, responsibility, and power over their own future, and deny that they are mere pawns and victims, then you set off a chorus of alarums and find yourself on treacherous emotional territory.


After the American defeat in Vietnam, Podhoretz saw this same shifting of responsibility that liberalism had come to embody on the international scene. Podhoretz believed the Vietnam War was a major tactical blunder, but America's misfortune should not serve as a precedent. America was the same great, powerful, and responsible nation that she was when she embarked on this mistaken path. And when the United States had to become engaged militarily in the future, she should do so with a clear conscience and with strength of will.

This was not so easily done. The Vietnam War had taken quite a toll on the American people: As Midge Decter explained in a 1976 Commentary symposium,

Defeat (and it is a tribute to something that one should feel impelled to remind on this point) is not good for people. And it is no better for nations than for individuals. It humiliates, raises doubts, heightens acrimony, increases recourse to tricky euphemism, and stirs up all those lurking and treacherously seductive fantasies of escape. Most of all, it paralyzes, and once again does so no less to nations than to individuals.

In the wake of the defeat in Vietnam, Podhoretz worried about what he called “a failure of nerve” triggering “a culture of appeasement.” The Soviet Union was as evil as ever, gobbling up nations and subjecting them to totalitarian terror. As he wrote in Commentary in 1976, the Soviet Union is “the most determined, ferocious and barbarous enemy ever to have appeared on the earth.” Podhoretz resurrected the argument that Communism is morally equivalent to Nazism; in fact more dangerous in one respect—intellectuals and their young charges had never been attracted to Nazism.

How to stop Soviet aggression? Only the United States would have the power to do so, and effective resistance would demand not only substantial resources but a will to win. And in the mid-1970s, following Vietnam, Podhoretz was worried that such a will did not exist. “While the Soviet Union engages in the most massive military buildup in the history of the world, we haggle over every weapon. We treat our own military leaders as though they were wearing the uniform of a foreign power. Everything they tell us about our military needs is greeted with hostility.” Podhoretz savaged anyone who stood in the way of this American effort. That included not only the political and intellectual Left, but the business community as well: Corporate moguls were all too ready to sacrifice anti-communist principle for the profits in trading and dealing with America's totalitarian enemies. Self-indulgence on the Right was, according to Podhoretz, just as bad as self-indulgence on the Left. Two books he published in this period, The Present Danger and Why We Were in Vietnam, sought to establish the righteousness of the anticommunist cause, and the moral and military readiness of the United States to prosecute it.

In addition to his own writing, Podhoretz published many important articles on these subjects. Especially notable were Richard Pipes's work on the Soviet Union and Robert Tucker's essays on the danger posed by the oil-producing states. But the most significant essay he published during that period was Jeane Kirkpatrick's “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” in November 1979. Kirkpatrick wrote that anticommunism should be the priority of American foreign policy, even if that meant making alliances with nondemocratic, authoritarian governments. Communist governments were worse than noncommunist authoritarian governments because the former destroy civil society and ruin the lives of all of their inhabitants.

“Dictatorships and Double Standards” was widely read: One prominent reader was Ronald Reagan, then running for president. He expressed his admiration for Kirkpatrick, and later appointed her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations when he became president. Kirkpatrick used her position as a bully pulpit from which to defend American values and interests and to excoriate its enemies in the Communist bloc and the Third World.

Kirkpatrick was not the first Commentary writer to defend Podhoretz's ideals from the floor of the United Nations. In the 1970s, there was no place where the ideas of communism—or at least the idea that communism was no worse than American democracy—were more prevalent than in the United Nations. Often combined with virulent anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the Soviet Union and its Third World charges passed resolutions blasting the West and the Jews. And the West, by and large, had little to say in response. At least, until Norman Podhoretz gained influence in that body. In 1975, Podhoretz published a remarkable essay by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The United States in Opposition,” calling upon the West to take up the war of ideas with the pernicious forces of the Soviet Union and the Third World. This article also was widely read—Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called to congratulate its author—and President Gerald Ford responded by appointing Moynihan ambassador to the United Nations.

Moynihan took the job in 1975, at the height of the anti-Semitism and anti-Western sentiment in the U.N. The United States could not have found a better man to respond to the virulent ideological challenge being put forth by her enemies. In November 1975, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin took to the floor of the United Nations to deliver one of the most anti-Semitic speeches given since Hitler. Maintaining that “the United States of America has been colonized by the Zionists who hold all the tools of development and power,” Amin called upon the United States to “rid their society of the Zionists,” and for the United Nations to pursue the “extinction of Israel as a state.” The United Nations delegates responded with a standing ovation, and the accompanying resolution that he sponsored—“Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”—passed easily. A majority of the nations of the world had, in the very institution that was once the hope of liberalism in the wake of Nazism, passed a resolution that Hitler could have offered, and did so with a fervor Hitler would have admired. A response was needed, and Ambassador Moynihan turned to his old editor for advice.

Podhoretz drafted most of the speech with which Moynihan responded. It was a moving address, one that sent shock waves through the United Nations and upset countless liberals. That speech, and the events leading up to it, are masterfully recounted in Moynihan's memoirs of his service at the United Nations, A Dangerous Place, which is dedicated to Norman Podhoretz and Leonard Garment. Moynihan became so popular in New York as a result of that speech that he was catapulted to the United States Senate in 1976, with Norman Podhoretz as one of his principal advisors.

By the end of the 1970s, liberalism had, in the mind of Norman Podhoretz, become so corrupted that there was no longer any place for him in it or in the Democratic Party. Although Podhoretz did not resign from the Democratic Party, he voted for Ronald Reagan—the first time he voted Republican in a presidential election. But he had good reason to do so; Ronald Reagan and his staff took the ideas in Commentary very seriously, and The Present Danger was required reading in the Reagan campaign.

While Reagan's stance toward Communism and Israel were the main reasons for Podhoretz's support, Podhoretz had also become more conservative on domestic issues. Midge Decter calls an aversion to capitalism “the last vestige of our liberalism,” and they were supporters of capitalism by 1981 when Podhoretz published “The New Defenders of Capitalism” in the Harvard Business Review. In that article he wrote:

[Capitalism] is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition of freedom; it is both a necessary and a sufficient condition of wealth; it provides a better chance than any known alternative for the most widespread sharing in the wealth it produces.

His support for capitalism deepened throughout the decade, as he published important pieces on the subject by its great celebrators George Gilder and Michael Novak. Podhoretz also saw clearly the failures of the welfare state, and opened his pages to thinkers like Charles Murray, who diagnosed its brutal unintended consequences. He also maintained an assault on affirmative action; indeed, Thomas Sowell's December 1989 essay, “Affirmative Action: A Worldwide Disaster,” may be the best critique of quotas ever penned.

But his prime area of interest remained foreign policy. Though many of his contributors, friends, and relatives (notably his son-in-law Elliott Abrams) served in high positions in the Reagan administration, Podhoretz harshly criticized the president for capitulating to the Soviets. His 1982 New York Times Magazine article, “The Neo-Conservative Anguish over Reagan's Foreign Policy,” makes this case quite succinctly. Podhoretz detected Reagan's tendency, as George Will put it, to love commerce more than loathe communism—and make deals with the Soviets when his corporate constituency thought that doing so would yield a profit. Podhoretz stated boldly that America's most important responsibility was to fight the evil of communism.


After those 412 issues of Commentary, what has Norman Podhoretz taught us? Several important lessons. He has taught us that everything we treasure is fragile, and needs constant attention and defense. The implosion of liberalism in the 1960s is destroying our university system. The ideas of Martin Luther King Jr. were bastardized into support for race-based preferences that are anathema to the central liberal principle that people should be judged on their individual merits.

Leftism took over liberalism because Leftists never forgot, as others did, that ideas—not economic interests, not social arrangements—rule the world. Podhoretz has constantly reminded us of this truth, when he stressed that freedom could only be preserved if America had the will to defend it herself, when he bore witness to the original tenets of the civil-rights movement, when he scored communism and supported Israel. In his valedictory statement in the June 1995 issue of Commentary, Podhoretz quotes Theodore Roosevelt. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.” Podhoretz has spent a long and fruitful career fighting for the right, and we are all indebted to him for it.

Marcus Klein (review date 14 December 1998)

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SOURCE: Klein, Marcus. “A Jittery Outsidedness.” New Leader 81, no. 14 (14 December 1998): 20-2.

[In the following review, Klein depicts Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer as an unoriginal continuation of Podhoretz's previous memoirs which rehashes the same arguments without providing additional insights.]

You have to wonder why Norman Podhoretz wrote this book [Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer]. Twenty years ago, in Breaking Ranks, he told essentially the same story, naming the same names, with the same objective: to explain (or maybe to defend, or at any rate to trace) his journey from “liberal,” as he says, to “radical” to neocon. There is a narrowing in the present work, but with no resulting intensity. Here the principal “ex-friends,” at the rate of a chapter apiece, are Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling (one chapter but separate cases), Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. With each Podhoretz had a falling-out sometime in the 1960s. And in each instance as heretofore, friendship founders exemplifyingly, while from the wreckage Podhoretz rescues literary-cultural-political integrity.

Why again? Is it a repeated need for self-justification, considering where he began and where he has ended up? Uncertainty? Nostalgia? Actually, there is not much in the way of self-justifying argument either here or in Breaking Ranks. In both, the main story is, rather, the failings of the others—this time despite the fact that all but one of them are dead.

Ginsberg really was a careerist vulgarian. (Podhoretz is quite convincing about that. He has the evidence.) Lionel Trilling, when the crunch came in the form of the '60s student revolt at Columbia, was a coward. Diana Trilling, who early on was a “fanatic” (as an anti-Communist), later on had a “wacky” sense of reality and

kept insisting … that she was still, and always had been a liberal, even after that term had long since been hijacked by and become identified with the beliefs of the Leftists and the anti-anti-Communists against whom she had been contending for the past five decades.

Hellman was dishonest—as indeed many have said. Arendt had a “Jewish problem”—and Podhoretz is convincing about that. Mailer craved acceptance from the “highbrows,” and in a notable instance was craven—when he reviewed Podhoretz' first book, Making It, and aligned with what Podhoretz says was the general (highbrow) opinion that the book had problems.

The new work's uncertainty of purpose is reflected in its very prose and tone. Sequences, narrative or logical, are promised and then skitter off distractedly. As for tone, Podhoretz tells us on page 2 that once (in the late 1960s, approaching the age of 40) he had been a fellow merry and “full of fun,” but then that turns out to be the period he is writing about, and in retrospect he goes from sad to wistful to bitter to sneering-defensive. Re Hellman.

The plain truth is that I remain proud of the part I went on to take in the fight against the political ideas and attitudes in whose service she corrupted her work and brought, as I now see it, lasting dishonor upon her name.

Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt Podhoretz when he says he regrets the loss of the circle of friends. The repetition of his story itself provides confirmation, and besides, simple arithmetic would seem to do the same. Although this book features, as it were, six best ex-friends, a good many more are mentioned along the way, here and in Breaking Ranks: James Baldwin, Robert Brustein, Jason Epstein, Herbert Gold, Bernard Malamud, Hans J. Morgenthau, Jackie Onassis, Susan Sontag, to name only a few, alphabetically. Against that reckoning of losses Podhoretz does name current friends—seven, exactly, including Irving Kristol, as one would expect, and William F. Buckley Jr.

Maybe it is all quite simple. Three-score and 10 is a crisis, and Podhoretz, born in 1930, is just about there. In his three autobiographical works, beginning with Making It, he has remarked on his wonder that once he was younger than anyone and was petted by everyone. The root story of Making It was that while in his 20s he “made it” into the circle some would label the New York Intellectuals—which, significantly enough, Podhoretz would designate as the “Family.” (His own proper family was back in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and he was frank in announcing his separation from it.) To be young and a Certified Intellectual, invited to all the parties, sought for prose by Partisan Review (and The New Leader), not to speak of the editorship of Commentary—that was pure bliss.

That Podhoretz was very smart goes without saying (except that he says it). He had been Lionel Trilling's favorite student at Columbia College and received a grade of A+ in the course in Romantics and Victorians. At Cambridge, age 21, he was invited by F. R. Leavis to write for Scrutiny. He was well-liked and brash and, yes, attractive to women.

To Jackie O. he once said, “F—- you, Jackie,” because she had made a condescending remark about his clothing. “She liked that so much,” Podhoretz recalls, “that I realized how tired she was of the sycophancy with which everyone treated her. … And so we became even faster friends than we already were.” Norman Mailer's wife Adele, the one who was the stabbee, “all but openly dare[d] me to go to bed with her,” he reports. Lillian Hellman, he says, “may well have resented the fact that, unlike some of the other young men in her entourage, I never once made a pass at her.” It is further noted, eyebrows raised, that Hannah Arendt was a very “womanly woman.”

On the other hand, it is insisted throughout the three autobiographical books that the personal was not merely personal, that there were broad social, cultural and political implications in the rise of Norman Podhoretz and in what followed. Young Norman Podhoretz might have been the young Benjamin Franklin, now by his own pen offering himself for imitation. Breaking Ranks begins as a letter to his son, and in that respect does exactly imitate The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. But Making It, where the 35-year-old Podhoretz recorded his success by the age of 35, was pitched as a case study of the lust for success in America. The dubiety with which it apparently was received by his new friends became and becomes for Podhoretz another social datum, indicating the hypocrisy of the intellectuals and their contempt for American values.

Yet on still another hand, if there was, and is, pretension in this kind of self-regard, it should be said to Podhoretz' credit that he has carried it off less easily than other members of his old clique. They could be infuriating in their smug provincialism, in the universal authority and significance they regularly imputed to their own experiences, ranging from going to the movies (Diana Trilling, The New Leader, May 6, 1957) to finding a restaurant in New York (Mary McCarthy, Commentary, September 1947).

The novelist George P. Elliott perhaps overshot the mark when in an early '60s essay in the Nation citing the instances above, he proposed the question, “Who Is We?” But (as a temporarily transplanted rural Californian teaching at Barnard, living in a sublet on Claremont Avenue near Columbia, chockablock from the Trillings) he had a point. There were other people out there. “Present-day Americans are engaged,” he wrote, “in a regular tidal wave of a movement to keep on doing what they're doing and not be we—that is, not to contribute intellectual articles to Partisan Review, etc.” “One of the Partisans,” he recalled, “once wrote that nobody who had not been a Communist and then left the party could pretend to understand modern America. Boy, did I ever feel left out of the swim! I was never even a Schachtmanite.”

Meanwhile, the journals regarded as would-be rivals for power were dismissed in a word. Hudson Review, said Podhoretz in Making It, certainly echoing his crowd, was engaged in dark backlash references to the existence of a Jewish Establishment—in other words, it was anti-Semitic. (As a Jew this troubled me. I had published a number of things in Hudson Review. One of the founding editors became and remained a close friend. He did become an ex-friend, perhaps I should add, but only because he died a couple of years ago.) Kenyon Review, it was said, was narrowly pedantic in a New-Critical way, never getting beyond its insistence on the autonomy of art. (As a former occasional contributor to Kenyon Review, I was distressed to learn that. I had published a lengthy essay there on Saul Bellow that mainly stressed his social thinking, or so I thought.)

The coterie could be maddening, if not comic, in its presumptions of consequentiality combined with its ignorance of the day-to-day and the possible and the practical. If I may: Once I was a graduate student in the English Department at Columbia, married and very poor of pocketbook like many of my fellow students. As the years passed we were in more and more of a hole, because academic jobs were hard to come by and there was no other use for an advanced degree in English. I remember Lionel Trilling telling a bunch of us hanging around his classroom door to just quit, there was no future in literature, and go into the State Department.

Podhoretz' various memoirs testify finally that he was different from those he took to be his Family, not only because he went neocon. Making It already marked the difference. The subsequent books constitute a record of his difficulties with the old clique. He thinks its members didn't like Making It because it exposed “the dirty little secret” (his words) that everyone wants success (money, glamour, prestige), intellectuals included. Maybe so. Who can know?

But in Making It he really and obviously was telling the story of the rise of Norman Podhoretz, a lower-class Jewish boy from Brownsville where they wouldn't know Partisan Review from Romanian pastrami, into a place of prestige and authority as acknowledged, whether truly or not, by important real Americans, whether truly that or not. The book was a belated Jewish-immigrant novel, much, say, like Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, if without the irony. It was crowing and vulgar and convincing (moving, even) in the claim of its hero to pride of achievement. It was like many of the immigrant novels, too, in that the hero was to be seen as not without guilt about the past he had left behind. For one thing Podhoretz seems to have been more deeply, studiously and attachedly Jewish than any of the members of his new Family. The book in any event was composed of raw material that remained largely uncooked, and the Family elders were not likely to find it delicious.

Podhoretz has been recording his breaking with those friends, old and young, for a much longer period of time than he had them as friends. In the meantime they have been dying off, leaving him behind and still quarreling. By that evidence alone, no doubt they provided him with something he no longer has. Near the end of Ex-Friends he says, “what made the Family special for me in particular was the regular contact I had with it”—a statement that is either perfectly banal or is a wonderfully eloquent testament to something basic beyond ideas in themselves, and positions. Podhoretz several times repeats the story of a New Yorker editor who asked him if over there at Partisan Review they had a special typewriter key marked “alienation.” Maybe that was it, not the bromide “alienation” but a jittery outsidedness leading to a style of assertion: presuming, self-congratulating, belligerent, scoffing, lofty, defensive, challenging, and quick and alive.

You have to wonder about Podhoretz' feelings for the friends he has retained.

Norman Podhoretz and Jennifer Schuessler (interview date 25 January 1999)

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SOURCE: Podhoretz, Norman, and Jennifer Schuessler. “Norman Podhoretz: Making Enemies.” Publishers Weekly 246, no. 4 (25 January 1999): 67-8.

[In the following interview, Podhoretz discusses his relationship with his “ex-friends,” the reasons for his switch from Left-wing to Right-wing politics, and his feelings regarding the critical reception of his works.]

In a career spanning some 45 years, Norman Podhoretz has stood as an object lesson in how to make enemies and influence people. As the longtime editor of Commentary magazine and the author of such books as Why We Were in Vietnam (1982) and The Present Danger (1980), he has been one of the leading intellectual lights of the neo-conservative movement, building the case since the early '70s for a military buildup and a retreat from Great Society social policy that, according to some, helped pave the way for the election of Ronald Reagan.

But perhaps Podhoretz owes his fame as much to his talent for feuding as to his skill as a polemicist. With Making It, his frank 1967 account of the lust for success that propelled him from an impoverished childhood in Brooklyn to the salons of Manhattan, he scandalized the literary establishment that once hailed him as something of a golden boy. His agent wouldn't represent it. His publisher refused to publish it. And just about everybody hated it. In 1972, Podhoretz's first high-profile personal squabble, with Random House's Jason Epstein, went public when the New York Times Magazine published an article called “Why Norman and Jason Aren't Talking.” By 1979, when Podhoretz published Breaking Ranks, a memoir of his conversion from radicalism to militant conservatism, it seemed just about everybody wasn't talking to Norman.

Next month, Podhoretz will add another chapter to his personal war chronicle with the publication of Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. In this short, sharp, unabashedly name-dropping book, Podhoretz revisits the old battles over communism and the counterculture, not to mention his bad reviews. But for all his talk of continued struggle against the “regnant leftist culture that pollutes the spiritual and cultural air we all breathe,” the book is a frankly nostalgic, even affectionate look back at the lost world of “the Family,” the endlessly quarreling but close-knit group of left-leaning intellectuals that gathered in the 1940s and '50s around such magazines as the Partisan Review and Commentary.

Has Norman Podhoretz, nearing 69, mellowed in his old age? “Some people have said they find the book tender,” Podhoretz told PW on a recent morning in his apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. “I wasn't aiming at tenderness, but with a title like Ex-Friends, I had to work hard to remember what it was I liked, even loved, about these people. I was successful enough that some who see me as a take-no-prisoners polemicist were surprised.”

Given Podhoretz's reputation as a tireless feudist, his down-to-earth charm also comes as something of a surprise. A small man with neatly trimmed remnants of white hair and mild blue eyes, Podhoretz tries to offer PW the seat of authority behind the mission-style oak desk that dominates his impeccably tidy study. Covered with a bank of humming computer equipment and stacks of paper aligned down to the millimeter, the desk could be right out of the office of a successful corporate executive, but the Eames-style recliner in front of it is pure West Side shrink. “Some people still think of me as a West Sider,” he says. “Culturally speaking, I'm still considered part of that crowd.”

Not that Podhoretz, veteran of many a glamorous dinner party, confesses to seeing much of anyone these days. “I've become something of a recluse and a couch potato,” he says. “I no longer have a secretary, but I have one of these”—he pulls out an electronic organizer—“and when I look at a week and see that it's all blank, I say whew! I have a house in East Hampton where I hole up sometimes. Which is also where most of the people I'm not speaking to have houses, of course.”


Podhoretz began the book that became Ex-Friends after stepping down from Commentary in 1995 to devote himself full time to writing. “I'm a big one for symmetries,” he says. “It was 1995, I was 65, I had been editor for 35 years.” While struggling with a third autobiographical volume, which he thought would discuss his evolving commitment to Judaism, inspiration suddenly struck from an unlikely source.

When Allen Ginsberg died in 1997, Podhoretz wrote a memoir, published in Commentary, of the peculiar relationship between the two that stretched back to 1946, when the future author of “Howl” accepted for publication in Columbia's literary magazine a long poem about the prophet Jeremiah by Podhoretz, then a 16-year-old freshman. The centerpiece of the essay was an evening in 1958 when Podhoretz, by then a well-established critic, was suddenly summoned to Greenwich Village to listen to Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac rebut “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” a scathing assault on the Beat writers that he had published in Partisan Review. When Podhoretz left four hours later, unpersuaded, Ginsberg shouted from the doorway, “We'll get you through your children!” Positive response to the memoir gave Podhoretz the idea of doing a series of sketches of his tempestuous relationships with his more famous ex-friends.

Over the years, he has collaborated with such renowned editors as Robert Giroux, Jim Silberman and the late Erwin Glickes. But he calls Chad Conway at the Free Press “as smart and as good as anyone I've ever worked with.” He also switched from longtime agent Georges Borchardt to Glenn Hartley and Lynn Chu (who have represented, among others, Newt Gingrich and Starr Report co-author Stephen Bates) at Writers Representative. Not, he takes care to emphasize that Borchardt is now an ex-friend. “He's a wonderful man and a wonderful agent,” he says. “But I was in a restless and anxious condition when I finished the book and I thought I needed someone younger and more aggressive.”

Even at 69, aggressiveness is still a part of the Podhoretz image. In Ex-Friends, he defends himself against the charge that he once backed out of a fistfight with Allen Ginsberg. He also quotes with some delight a published interview in which Ginsberg recalls taking Ecstasy and thinking of his old adversary. Reflecting on the usefulness of having someone to hate, Ginsberg suddenly saw Podhoretz as “one of the sacred personae in the drama of my own transitory existence.”

As Podhoretz puts it, Ginsberg and the other ex-friends have served a similar function for himself. “It has been invaluable to have them to contend with,” he says. “It has given a special edge in my soul to the wars. And they were wars, make no mistake about it.”

But in a book that seems bent on getting in the last word, did Podhoretz ever worry about the old prohibition against speaking ill of the dead? “As long as I felt I was being true to my affection, I wasn't speaking ill of them,” he says. “Especially with Lillian Hellman, I worked hard to evoke how much fun she was. Besides, doesn't that rule have a statue of limitations?”

In the book, Podhoretz searches in his heart and decides he can't forgive Hellman for her refusal to renounce communism, or Ginsberg for damage done to the youth of America by the counterculture. And as for the man who tried (and failed) to turn him on to pot and group sex, Podhoretz doesn't think there's any chance of reconciling with Norman Mailer, the only one of the ex-friends still among the living. “I don't have the energy to have Mailer back in my life,” he says. “He's old and deaf, but he's still Mailer and I'm still me. Sure as I'm sitting here we'd end up like two old punch-drunk boxers getting back in the ring.”


Like the other Norman, Podhoretz was born “a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn,” though he takes pains in Ex-Friends to point out that while Mailer was from the middle-class Crown Heights, he himself had a double-life as a “bad street kid” in the working-class, racially mixed neighborhood of Brownsville. He was also the archetypal A-plus student. As he describes it in Making It, this son of a $60 a week milkman was a juggernaut headed straight for the top: scholarships to Columbia (where he was a protégé of Lionel Trilling) and Cambridge (where he studied with F. R. Leavis); invitations to write for Commentary, Partisan Review and the New Yorker by age 24; the editorship at Commentary by age 30.

By the 1960s Podhoretz was a full-fledged junior member of the Family, publishing in Commentary such bell-wethers of the emerging counterculture as Paul Goodman's Growing up Absurd and turning out a steady stream of his own writing as well. (Doings and Undoings, a collection of his criticism, came out in 1964.) But all that changed with Making It. The first casualty was his relationship with agent Lynn Nesbit, whom Podhoretz says he “broke with” because she didn't support the book strongly enough when it met with a cool reception by Bob Giroux at Farrar Straus. Podhoretz returned the $25,000 advance, and his new agent, Candida Donadio, resold it to Random House for slightly more.

But for all the spontaneously combusting publicity, today Podhoretz considers the book “a miracle of mistiming.” “It came out at the very height of the counterculture, of which it was very critical,” he says. “It was bound to seem blasphemous.”

As Podhoretz' politics continued drifting right, rumors began to circulate that he had literally lost his mind. Podhoretz prefers to think of it as coming to his senses. “A lot of people like living with contradiction. But there are logical implications of ideas that it is the duty of intellectuals to examine the follow-through on. They go beyond politics to one's entire sense of life—morality, the relations between the sexes, between parents and children.”

Podhoretz has been married to the conservative writer Midge Decter since 1956. As for their own four children, Podhoretz says, “We're very close. All of us are on the same side. A couple of them are even to the right of me.” In the living room, he proudly points out a gift from his son John, associate editor at the New York Post and a founding member of the conservative Weekly Standard. It's a bronze plaque of Teddy Roosevelt bearing the inscription, “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”

Now, this inveterate reviewer of reviews eagerly awaits the next round, as assessments of Ex-Friends start coming in. “I expect the worst,” he says, “and I usually get it.” He mentions being surprised at a somewhat favorable notice in Kirkus—“Are they still on the left?” he asks—and brings up more than once a piece by Nicholas Lemann in the Washington Monthly, which calls the sketches “brilliantly incisive about the weakness of its characters,” not least the “thin-skinned” Norman Podhoretz.

“I'm always being accused of being thin-skinned,” he says with a note of ex-asperation. “But if I were thin-skinned, I'd be dead! Besides, my philosophy is, you don't read your reviews. You measure them. Reading bad reviews is like a case of mild food poisoning. If you can avoid it, you're better off. But of course it's difficult to avert your eyes when your name is mentioned.”

Thirty years ago, Podhoretz ended Making It with a declaration that the book was a “frank, Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package.” But has Norman Podhoretz really made it as far as he dreamed?

“No,” he answers, with barely a pause. “I certainly haven't achieved the kind of fame or the widespread admiration I wanted. But I have no complaints. The turn I took in the '60s saved my life as an intellectual. I think I would've been crippled otherwise.”

Still, Podhoretz wouldn't mind the admiration. “Wanting to be liked is a character trait you never get over,” he says, “and I certainly haven't gotten over it. It's bred in the bone. I would almost define the struggle against that desire as the central motif behind my work, whatever it's subject. My desire to be ingratiating has always had to fight against my desire to tell the truth, and it loses out every time. If I'm trying to ingratiate myself with people, I'm certainly doing a lousy job.”

Nicholas Lemann (review date January-February 1999)

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SOURCE: Lemann, Nicholas. “The Outcast.” Washington Monthly 31, nos. 1-2 (January-February 1999): 37-40.

[In the following review, Lemann examines the evolution of Podhoretz's relationships with his past associates as described in Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer.]

I had a distinctly middle-aged moment when I picked up the galley proof of Norman Podhoretz's Ex-Friends. The publisher's blurb on the inside cover says: “[T]his memoir of some of the key intellectual battles of the last 30 years offers a rare, firsthand portrait of the New York intellectuals—‘American Bloomsbury’ as they have been called—by one of the few surviving members.” The phrase “American Bloomsbury” was coined, I believe, not by the etherous passive-voice-denoted entity of the blurb but by me, in the pages of this magazine, in a review of Alexander Bloom's Prodigal Sons published in 1986.

What I meant was that the New York intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century—or, as Podhoretz calls them, using Murray Kempton's term, “the Family”—was our best example of a tight-knit, complicatedly connected hothouse group of writers and intellectuals whose ideas changed the culture. Since then the comparison has become even more apt: Both Bloomsbury and the Family have spawned a seemingly inexhaustible series of memoirs. The publisher's blurb makes it sound as if Ex-Friends will be one of the last Family memoirs because so few of the members are left. I don't think so. If Bloomsbury is any guide, the death of the original members only frees their children to get started on their memoirs. Surely out of the group that includes David Bell and John Podhoretz and Maura Moynihan and Lizzie Glazer and Bill Kristol will emerge our Nigel Nicolson and Quentin Bell.

As with Bloomsbury, the story of the Family has by now become so familiar and comfortable that reading in it is like slipping into a warm bath. Norman Podhoretz alone has now written at least three Family memoirs (four if you count The Bloody Crossroads) covering essentially the same ground. Here is the broad outline: The Family took form in the 1930s, mainly around the founding of Partisan Review. Most of its members were Jews from working-class backgrounds, and most were ex-Communists. They came together in shared commitment to anti-Stalinist Left politics, but they were really esthetes first and political people second. Indeed, their disillusionment with Communism was over not just the Moscow trials and Stalin's alliance with Hitler, but also over the Party's insistence that its members celebrate mediocre, didactic works of art and literature and condemn great ones that didn't hew to the party line.

Through the '40s and '50s, its glory days, the Family lived a rarefied, enclosed, incestuous life, publishing in such small-circulation journals as Dissent, Commentary and The New Leader in addition to Partisan Review and conducting a never-ending series of complicated feuds and love affairs. It had no use for and little interaction with the main cultural institutions—and yet it produced such enduring works as Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination, and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism.

The '60s brought the life of the Family to an end. Some became faculty fifth columnists in the student revolution, some (like Podhoretz) moved right and started the neoconservative movement, some retreated into comfortable professorships, some went mainstream and wrote bestsellers (Norman Mailer) or ran for office (Daniel Patrick Moynihan). Today there's nothing in America quite like the Family.

With Ex-Friends Podhoretz has re-told the Family story in the odd and provocative form of five mesmerizing, densely interconnected narratives of his feuds with prominent people who were either Family members or figures on the periphery: Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. To present yourself as a feudist is to make it quite difficult to achieve what I would have thought would be every memoir-writer's dream, to come across as a deeply sympathetic character. Does Podhoretz, in what he describes as “my rather reclusive dotage,” just not care what people think of him any more? No, probably not—if he didn't care, then he wouldn't have so carefully constructed each story so as to demonstrate that he was right and the ex-friend wrong. But the stories, though brilliantly incisive about the weaknesses of their subjects, present Podhoretz quite differently from the way he seems to think they do. At the very least they offer a massive temptation, which I won't resist, to armchair-psychoanalyze him.

Each of the ex-friendships began as an alliance that was more advantageous to Podhoretz than to the ex-friend. Allen Ginsberg, his Columbia classmate, was editor of the campus literary magazine and the first person to publish Podhoretz's writing; Lionel Trilling was the leading light of the Columbia faculty; Hellman operated a glamorous literary salon; Arendt was one of the world's great thinkers; and Mailer was New York's hottest young novelist. The narrative arc of each story is the same. First Podhoretz, powerfully eager and charming, wins the person over. A wonderful and well-recounted period of closeness follows (except in the case of Ginsberg, who was never really a friend). Even during this phase Podhoretz, though, as presented by Podhoretz, isn't a terribly appealing character. He expertly catalogues the weaknesses of the friend (without letting the friend know he's doing so) while reaping as much benefit as he can from the friendship. He isn't especially generous, loving, or steadfast; for example he tells Hellman he likes her books when he doesn't, which isn't an act of true friendship.

And then the friendship ends—over politics, as Podhoretz tells it, each of the ex-friends having proved to be more sympathetic to the New Left, less alarmed about the Soviet threat, and less loyal to the Jewish cause than he. Podhoretz's overarching explanation for all this feuding is that it is simply an example of “what life is always like for an intellectual,” because “[s]uch a person takes ideas as seriously as an orthodox religious person takes … doctrine or dogma.” In particular, when there has been a “seizure of enormous power by radical ideas and attitudes over the institutions controlled by intellectuals,” as occurred in the '60s, feuding is practically a moral responsibility. But Podhoretz's writing is too vividly detailed, and too candid, to allow him to get away with his own theory. He provides us with mountains of evidence that unusual prickliness is a personality trait of his, not a characteristic that all members of the type to which he belongs possess in equal measure. In the course of going through his official roster of ex-friendships he also mentions that he has feuded with many other people, from Jackie Onassis to Nathan Glazer, and that as a young literary critic he was known for usually being on the attack. He has that illogical but quite common pairing of human qualities, hypercriticality and hypersensitivity. Read carefully in the ex-friendships, and you often find that what turned things sour was that the other person criticized Podhoretz in a way that he found mystifyingly unjustified and that deeply, permanently wounded him. There's more going on here than just intellectuals differing over politics.

The most hurtful event in Podhoretz's public life was the extremely negative reception that his first memoir, Making It, got when it was published in 1967, when he was still in his thirties. Making It has the same master narrative as Ex-Friends—it's the story of Podhoretz's rise from Brooklyn poverty into full Family membership—but it's packaged in the somewhat forced premise that ambition “seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul.” Making It was a direct attack on the ethos of the Family, which claimed to hold itself proudly apart from the national preoccupation with worldly success, and the Family responded by disliking it. The Trillings advised him not to publish it (Diana correctly calling it “completely humorless”). Hannah Arendt didn't like it. Cruelest blow of all, Norman Mailer, who'd told Podhoretz he liked it, published a negative review of Making It in Partisan Review.

It's evident that Podhoretz had very high hopes for Making It—it would be his version of the kind of daring, candid, splashily successful confession that was making his friend Mailer famous and celebrated in those days. Why didn't it work? Alas, not just because the Family found Podhoretz's truths too uncomfortable. Self-presentation is a delicate art, and Podhoretz has never mastered it. He's so much inside his own head that he can't perform the basic move—essential to the work of actors, politicians, and memoirists—of accurately perceiving how audiences will respond to him. Making It is the functional equivalent of the scene in Trilling's class at Columbia, replayed in Ex-Friends, where Podhoretz's hand is always up and he can't understand why that annoys the teacher. This is a minor flaw of self-presentation and empathetic understanding—I don't mean to make too much of it. Podhoretz was, no doubt, the smartest and best-prepared student in the class; Making It is irresistibly interesting; and he did show courage in being willing to follow his passions where they took him. His tendency to attract mocking criticism is important only because he is the opposite of impervious; if he could have figured out how to avoid being mocked, or not to care when he was, there would have been no problem.

The critical failure of Making It brought to an end a phase in Podhoretz's life—the phase in which he was invited to the best and most glamorous parties in town, such as Truman Capote's 1965 masked ball at the Plaza Hotel. Overnight he became uncool, the kind of person who's made fun of behind his back. Was this treatment unfair, as Podhoretz has complained for years? Absolutely. He got a full dose of the New York literary-intellectual souk at its worst: the refusal to take good ideas seriously if they're not properly packaged, the reflexive liberalism, the disloyalty to someone who strays outside the charmed circle. His fate was especially cruel for being perfectly ironic. Because he wrote a book admitting to his deep attraction to the high life in New York, he was denied access to it.

It's true that the worst excesses of the student revolution and the black power movement occurred just after the publication of Making It, but the impression you get in Ex-Friends is that the painful failure of Making It also helped drive Podhoretz to the right. To explain how, I'll cite another item in Family history, Philip Rahv's 1938 essay “Paleface and Redskin.” This was an update of the old Apollonian-Dionysian distinction, applied to American literature: Walt Whitman was a Redskin, Henry James was a Paleface.

These categories apply well to the young Podhoretz—better than the purely political categories that he uses to explain himself. His soul was a battleground between his Paleface and Redskin impulses, the Paleface determinedly conventional and bourgeois and “good,” the Redskin filled with wild longings (which Podhoretz discusses with surprising candor in Ex-Friends) for sex and fame. This passage, from the chapter on Allen Ginsberg, says it all:

As against the law-abiding life I had chosen of a steady job and marriage and children, he conjured up a world of complete freedom from the limits imposed by such grim responsibilities. It was a world that promised endless erotic possibility together with the excitements of an expanded consciousness constantly open to new dimensions of being: more adventure, more sex, more intensity, more life. God knows that as a young man full of energy and curiosity, and not altogether averse to taking risks, I was tempted by all this. God knows too that there were moments when I felt cheated and when I dreamed of breaking out of the limits I had imposed upon myself. Yet at the same time, I was repelled by Ginsburg's world.

During the '60s, and especially in writing Making It, Podhoretz ventured into Redskin territory: exciting, expressive, unconventional. He couldn't have been more badly burned. So he beat a permanent retreat into the Paleface realm, which, to him, was conservatism, with its toughness, its strict limits, its intense awareness of the perils of liberation. As a writer his subject changed from literature (Redskin), which he loved, to politics (Paleface), which he regarded as a grim duty. If you remove the psychological dimension, Podhoretz's version of his political migration from Cold War liberal to '60s radical to neoconservative, just doesn't scan. For example, in Ex-Friends he explains his move to the right partly by saying that in the late '60s or early '70s he learned that the Soviet Union was much more dangerous than he had assumed; previously, after Stalin had died, he had been a peaceful-coexistence man. But for this to be the whole story requires that what most people think of as the hottest moment of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, failed to pierce the consciousness of Podhoretz, since by his own account he remained a quasi-radical for another five years. Obviously his political development was a blend of responses to events in the world and events in his own life.

The stated aim of Making It was to induce everyone to stop hypocritically denying the omnipresence of ambition in American life. If you take that at face value, then Norman Podhoretz ought to be delighted with the state of things today. Ambition is by no stretch of the imagination any longer a dirty little secret, including in the intellectual world. It's right out in the open. The leading writers and thinkers are the objects of bidding wars among universities, book publishers, and magazines. Podhoretzian engagement in politics has proliferated to the point where there is a whole economy employing “action intellectuals” in think tanks. A situation in which America's most important intellectuals care about nothing so much as what's in four magazines with a combined circulation of under 100,000 seems impossibly distant.

Is Podhoretz delighted with this turn of events? No, he isn't. He misses the old days, his literary-critic young manhood and the heyday of the Family. “I regret the loss of the literary-intellectual world in which I used to live,” he says at the end of Ex-Friends. And: “We now have ‘policy wonks’ by the thousands, but we have only a handful of thinkers who are willing and able to examine and critically debate either the assumptions these legislatively oriented minds do not even realize they are making or the intellectual foundations on which they stand.” And: “[W]hat made the Family special … was the high concentration of writers and intellectuals who not only had superior minds … but whose major passion in life was ideas and the arts, and who could get just as wrought up in an argument over the work of a novelist or painter as they could about political ideologies.” These are poignant words because, as Ex-Friends makes clear, the things Podhoretz now realizes he loved about the Family are just what he personally rejected in the late '60s: the Family's apartness from the commercial mainstream (snobbish and hypocritical though it could sometimes be), its high piety about its mission, its aestheticism.

It would be too much to say that the whole tenor of American culture would be different today if Norman Podhoretz's career hadn't permuted in the way it did. But Ex-Friends left me with the feeling that at least one precious resource, Podhoretz's critical intelligence, was sacrificed on the altar of his own thinskinnedness.

Jeffrey Hart (review date 8 February 1999)

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SOURCE: Hart, Jeffrey. “Family Man.” National Review 51, no. 2 (8 February 1999): 51-2.

[In the following review, Hart characterizes Ex-Friends as an insightful, deftly written collection that is part memoir, part cultural history, part psychology study, and part eulogy.]

It is difficult to find the terms with which to describe all the excellences of this … well, what is it? [Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer] is autobiography, to be sure, but also important political and cultural history, an intense account of battles about ideas, of Norman Podhoretz's arguments with himself as well as with a set of vivid figures whom he portrays with the skill that could have made him a novelist. And like a good novelist, he succeeds in creating a world, yet one that really existed. Beyond its central subject—the epic conflict of his century between decent freedoms and totalitarianism, a collision worthy of Thucydides—this is also a book of high gossip and great anecdotal humor.

At the entrance to this display stands Allen Ginsberg. Podhoretz knew him when they were students at Columbia, and from then on had a peculiar adversarial relationship with him that stretched over decades—peculiar because Ginsberg, in print and gossip, was obsessed with Podhoretz.

I think Ginsberg, whom I knew in his later years, felt Podhoretz was on to him. That is, regarding Ginsberg, Podhoretz correctly estimated that the only thing worth talking about was his doctrine, to which his negligible poetic skills added nothing. This doctrine amounted to the teaching that insanity is sanity, drugs are sacred, crime is justice, and homosexual promiscuity is the road to sainthood. Ginsberg knew that Podhoretz knew this and that he despised the teaching. So he kept trying to get Podhoretz to, I don't know exactly what, somehow accept him. Against Ginsberg, Podhoretz stands with Orwell, who taught the opposite. Wrote Orwell, “The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet be fully alive.”

But Ginsberg, never truly a friend, cannot really be one of the “ex-friends” of this book's title. He was at no point a member of the group of intellectuals and writers attached in various ways to Partisan Review and to respectable circles at Columbia. This group became known, affectionately and with a nod to the Mafia, as the Family. The Family lived by ideas, among them its conceptions of politics. With Lionel and Diana Trilling, with Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer, Podhoretz was indeed close, but broke painfully on the basis of ideas.

It was all enormously intense, at Columbia as well as at Partisan Review, as I can personally attest. Podhoretz came to Columbia from near poverty in Brooklyn; I came there via Stuyvesant High School, from the suburbs in Queens. The only Communist I knew before Stuyvesant was an out-of-work architect like my father, whom my father would invite of a Saturday so as to be able to “share the wealth,” meaning cocktails. At Stuyvesant and around Union Square there were plenty of fascinating Communists, who engaged in doctrinal disputes as complex as any in the Talmud. The Communists at Stuyvesant had never met an intelligent gentile and regarded me affectionately as a sort of unicorn. At Columbia, though we both experienced the intellectual power of the Family, I remained rather outside the intensities that roiled it. At the end of this book, looking back, Podhoretz writes with a sense of poignant loss, despite the personal agons, and I can certainly understand what he feels.

At Columbia we met Lionel Trilling, who is beyond all others the book's central figure, and tantalizingly enigmatic. Both Lionel and Diana, briefly fellow-travelers during the Thirties, soon turned against the muralistic simplicities of the “progressive” mind. Trilling's early literary criticism is energized by his rejection of these simplifications in the name of “complexity” and the fully human. Both Trillings were liberal anti-Communists. As a student and young critic, Podhoretz embraced this position.

But as the still-young editor of Commentary during the Sixties, he veered left both politically and culturally (e.g., anti-nuke, C. P. Snow, Paul Goodman, Mailer). The Trillings strongly disapproved.

When for political, cultural, and moral reasons, however, their erstwhile student moved to the right during the Seventies, they disapproved much more strenuously. Lionel, very uncharacteristically, was moved to shout at Podhoretz that he was “going too far.” Amazingly, the usually reserved Lionel actually employed a Yiddish word: By consorting with Republicans, Podhoretz had “be-schmutzed” himself.

What did Trilling mean by this? Podhoretz doesn't speculate, but I think I know. Despite their cultural sophistication, both Lionel and the Family were exceptionally provincial. In the Family, Republicanism was outlandish, unthinkable. Republican? What would Meyer Shapiro think? That Lionel was great in many ways there can be no doubt, but he was also smaller than we, his students, thought.

One gives thanks that he never really ended up an ex-friend. Podhoretz writes:

When I visited him in the hospital [where he was ill with cancer] for what turned out to be our very last meeting, I mentioned that I had been rereading Thomas Mann, that I had been especially bowled over by Doctor Faustus, and that I had come to the conclusion that Mann might well be the greatest novelist of the 20th century. … From his bed of excruciating pain Lionel smiled a sweet smile and said (as best as I can remember his words). “How very interesting. You know we always found it hard to forgive him for becoming something of a Stalinist in the Forties, and probably we underrated him because of it. But what you say about him now is so intriguing that I would love to take another look at him myself.”

Compared with Lionel Trilling, the other intellectuals described here are pretty small change. For all their “brilliant” talk about politics, as well as about everything else, the Family really did not grapple with actual politics much at all. To borrow William Barrett's phrase, they were truants from reality. Podhoretz broke with Lillian Hellman (news: she was good company and an exquisite cook) over her hatred of America, her duplicity, and her Communism. He broke with Arendt over her deep hostility to Israel and her weird lack of sympathy for the murdered Jews of Europe. He broke with Mailer, of whom he had hoped for much as a novelist, over his anti-Americanism and his wacky admiration for “existential” criminality.

Serious politics has to do with actual and almost always imperfect choices. When Podhoretz and other former Democrats (Kristol, Kirkpatrick, Perle, Abrams, Bennett, Nisbet, Berns, et al.) moved toward the Republicans and became “neoconservatives,” they made a choice that the Family could not abide. For their choice they were rewarded with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet empire, to which results they had made serious contributions.

Podhoretz, breaking on principle with former friends, had put away childish things. Now, as time moves on, the Family grows still smaller in its historical importance. Who reads Philip Rahv anymore? Delmore Schwartz was supposed to be The Poet, but turned out to be decidedly less than that. To anyone who can distinguish between ambition and achievement, Mailer has come to nothing as a novelist. Mary McCarthy's fiction was always arid and unreadable. Dwight Macdonald? Nice prose, but otherwise give us a break. Clement Greenberg wrote astutely about art, but over a very narrow range. “See, they depart, and we go with them.”

In the final reckoning, the Family—fun while it lasted—may have generated within itself only two works of lasting interest: Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950) and Norman Podhoretz's Ex-Friends (1999).

Carl Rollyson (review date March 1999)

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SOURCE: Rollyson, Carl. “After the Fall.” New Criterion 17, no. 7 (March 1999): 62-5.

[In the following review, Rollyson commends Podhoretz's provoking remembrances in Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer and highlights how “The Family” influenced the cultural and political scene of the late twentieth century.]

Ex-Friends is volume three, so to speak, of Norman Podhoretz's voyage through and out of the world of the New York intellectuals—or “the Family,” as he prefers to call them. Podhoretz did not realize that he was on the road to apostasy when his 1968 memoir, Making It, fomented so much controversy. What caused so much fuss? Well, the book revealed a young man's ambition, his lust for power, his straining ego—the stuff of novels, not of a serious intellectual who should be concerned not with his position but with principles and ideas. Podhoretz put his personality forward, fusing it with the campaign for literary success shared by a whole generation of writers.

But wasn't 1968 rather late in the day to be outraged by a New York critic's confessions? What dirty secrets did he reveal? The greatest poets of the day, starting with Robert Lowell and his Life Studies (1959), were adopting the autobiographical approach. And Norman Mailer had paved the way for literary self-revelation and aggrandizement with Advertisements for Myself (1959). Certainly these forays into the confessional had their critics, but for the more advanced literati (nearly all of them on the Left) Making It could hardly have come as a shock—except it did.

The mystery deepens. Podhoretz showed an advance copy of Making It to Mailer, a friend, who praised it highly. Of course, Podhoretz meant to be provocative. His conception of the intellectual required a style that roiled readers. But the realization that his book could be regarded as shameful or as demeaning to the literary/intellectual world that nurtured him proved quite a blow, as he watched allies like Mailer—who withdrew his endorsement—back away from the book.

Podhoretz chronicled his disenchantment with the Family in volume two of his voyage, Breaking Ranks (1979), another brave book that exposed the bankruptcy of the Left and its literary and political projects. He attacked the hypocrisy and hegemony of a group which deplored American power even as its members jockeyed for position, their hostility to Podhoretz a product not merely of his shift to the Right but of his all-too-knowing rejection of their values. If their animosity towards him seems out of proportion it is because as a member of the Family, coming under its protection and encouragement, contributing to its health and influence, turning on it made Podhoretz, in the Family's view, an ingrate and an apostate.

The target had to be Podhoretz, not Mailer, for example, who, because of his quirky politics, never fit nearly into the Family anyway. Mailer could be shunned when necessary but never really ostracized, for he occupied several positions at once: he was, as he called himself, a “left-conservative.” Depending on Mailer's mood and the intellectual fashion of the day, he could be seated just about anywhere. Not so Norman Podhoretz. He took positions and did not waffle. He could change his mind, of course, if persuaded by an argument better than his own. Thus Hannah Arendt invited him to her apartment and spent over five hours trying to get him to withdraw his criticism of her famous argument about Eichman and the “banality of evil.”

Even more curious is the crusade by Allen Ginsberg, not a true member of the Family, to convince Podhoretz of the beauties of the Beats. The two had been first connected as students at Columbia. As editor of The Columbia Review, Ginsberg had printed one of Podhoretz's poems. But the critic had never warmed up to what he considered the “know-nothing,” anti-intellectual Beats. Ginsberg invited Podhoretz to a consciousness raising session with Jack Kerouac, but the treatment simply did not take. The Ginsberg chapter in Ex-Friends is worth quoting from because it stunningly documents both Podhoretz's argument that the Family never forgave him, and his contention that it also never stopped trying to reclaim their bad boy. Here is Ginsberg in an interview from 1987, simultaneously condemning and courting Podhoretz:

So then … Norman realized that … he wasn't [a poet]. So he had to go some different way for power, and he got very perverse thoughts and started taking revenge on poetry power. … Gee, good old Norman, we went to college together. … And why hate him? He's part of my world … But did I ever really hate him or was I just sort of fascinated by him? … In fact, he's more honest than I am because he attacks me openly. So I should really respect him as one of the sacred personae in the drama of my own transitory experience.

The words practically leap off the page: “So he had to go some different way for power.” In the same interview, Ginsberg called Podhoretz his opposite—but in a very special sense: the dirty secret that Podhoretz began to reveal in Making It was just how much Leftist intellectuals cared about power, power per se. Ginsberg accused Podhoretz of grasping for the very thing he too wanted, and it took Ginsberg decades to admit—albeit in a roundabout way—that what revolted him about his old friend was Podhoretz's very public pronouncements about the necessity, even the desirability, of power. And then what really clinched matters was Podhoretz's support for Ronald Reagan, who was unembarrassed by the need to exercise American might. Because the American Left—literary and otherwise—never candidly confronted the nature and uses of power, Podhoretz felt he had no choice but to move toward the Right. Of course, conservatives did not always use power wisely but at least they were not ashamed about our democracy's need for an arsenal. How could Podhoretz remain friends with literary power brokers who acted as though only those outside their realm were concerned about power?

As a student at Columbia, shepherded by the fastidious Lionel Trilling, a literary critic possessed of the most measured cadences, the young Podhoretz was started by his mentor's question: What kind of power was he after? Podhoretz remembers piously replying that he “had no interest in power at all.” Trilling scoffed: “Don't be silly, everyone wants power. The only question is what kind. What kind do you want?” This is the crux for Podhoretz: “Making It was an extended answer to that question which at the same time explored the reasons the whole issue had become the same kind of ‘dirty little secret’ that sex had been to the Victorians.” Trilling taught Podhoretz that both ambition and honesty were admirable values. A faithful student, Podhoretz, more than any other disciple, took his master's teaching to heart.

Podhoretz does not write as a self-pitying victim or as a moral exemplar pronouncing anathema on his former friends. He regrets, rather, that they were not more open about their motivations; he is amazed when one of them. Allen Ginsberg, indulges in moments of candor. What saddens Podhoretz is that the Left did not strengthen the elements within itself that fought against Stalinism and fellow traveling. Vietnam, in Podhoretz's view, is an especially sad episode in the history of the Left because the Family adopted a view that promoted moral equivalency between America and the Soviet Union—and worse—and attacked the U.S. for perpetrating some special kind of evil.

Ronald Reagan, Podhoretz points out, not only started out on the Left, he also served as a union president who battled Communists firsthand, experiencing real-world encounters that many intellectuals on the Left could never have. Reagan could sound simplistic, Podhoretz readily admits, but he had a grasp of power and of institutions that members of the Family and of the Left sorely lacked. He compares Reagan to Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign secretary and former union leader. In 1945, Bevin was asked about his trip to Potsdam to negotiate with Stalin. Had it been difficult? “No,” Bevin answered, “I know those Russians; they're just like the Communists.” Reagan, responding to a concern that perhaps he trusted Gorbachev too much, said: “Oh, don't worry about that. I still have the scars on my back that I got fighting the Communists back in Hollywood.”

Podhoretz still has his own scars, of course, and he cannot find it in himself to be as affable as the truly remarkable Ronald Reagan. Yet he has good things to say about his ex-friends, many of whom he still holds in tender regard. The relationship was never easy with Ginsberg, yet Podhoretz speaks well of some of his early work and of his great facility as a poet. Lionel Trilling remains a revered figure, and even the tetchy Diana Trilling gets grudging respect for her often passionate involvement with Podhoretz's early career.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the book is Lillian Hellman. She is an unlikely object of affection. When Podhoretz first met her at the Trillings', he knew she was a Stalinist and wondered why she was there. The Trillings had defended Whittaker Chambers, and, in addition, Hellman was precisely the kind of middlebrow playwright the Family scorned. But Hellman was a charmer and a master manipulator. She understood all about power. She could fill a room with her sexy, flirtatious personality. She had approached Lionel and Diana, wanting to know them better, implying they should make amends for the political differences that kept them apart. (I know from interviewing Diana Trilling that Hellman bowled her over, that she seemed, at first, exactly the kind of big personality that Diana had been searching for all her life.)

With Podhoretz, timing was everything. Hellman's overtures to those on the anti-Stalinist Left came just as Khrushchev was attacking Stalin, when it seemed that perhaps Communism could reform itself from within. Perhaps there could be a new Lillian Hellman, too, and she could rewrite history in a series of memoirs largely skirting her own sorry political record until, that is, the publication of her third volume of memoirs, Scoundrel Time (1976), when Hellman's overweening pride and sense of power overrode her tactical sense. She attacked the Trillings and Partisan Review (bastion of the Family) for not fighting McCarthyism or defending those like herself who found themselves testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although Podhoretz says he was never taken in by her memoirs, which he deemed written in a degraded Hemingwayese, he certainly fell for Hellman's charm and admits that he still misses his “playmate.”

For all his criticism of the Family, Podhoretz has written an elegy for its demise. He deplores the current state of the intellectual world, which is dominated by careerist academics mouthing execrable jargon. The Family, however, was a vibrant community of intellectuals who honed their skills by speaking to a literate but general audience. They promoted as many bad ideas as good ones, he avows, yet “without such a community, we lack a center around which we can gather and in which, whether through collaboration or competition, agreement or dissension, we can deepen and refine our thinking.” Such sentences honor a lost kingdom of the intellect, one in which Podhoretz journeyed as a collaborator, competitor, and, finally, a dissenter. “I miss my ex-friends,” he says simply, “[their] major passion in life was ideas and the arts, and [they] could get just as wrought up in an argument over the work of a novelist or painter as they could about political ideologies. And what made the Family special for me in particular was the regular contact I had with it.” We are now without such a Family, and it is the moving distinction of Podhoretz's memoir that he makes us feel his loss as our own.

William F. Buckley, Jr. (review date 8 March 1999)

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SOURCE: Buckley, Jr., William F. “Counting Ex-Friends.” National Review 51, no. 4 (8 March 1999): 58-9.

[In the following review, Buckley—the founder of the National Review—extols Podhoretz's narrative skills and comments that the readers of Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer are privy to invaluable insights of the political and intellectual elite during the 1950s and 1960s.]

The title of the new book by Norman Podhoretz stops you dead. You wish, fleetingly, that you had written a book with that zingy title: Ex-Friends. Well, maybe not—maybe we'd prefer just to forget ex-friends. Podhoretz is a serious man engaged in serious pursuits, and along the way in a full career as editor and author he concluded that a continuing friendship with these folks, on the old basis, wasn't any longer possible, or desirable. And he gives us the names of his ex-friends right on the cover of the book: Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. That's on the order of naming Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as your ex-friends. The departure from that congeries of heavyweights requires the closing of a massive door.

Roughly speaking, they were the primary literary/political figures in New York, which was (and is) the cultural capital of the country. Ginsberg won't (I'd guess) live very long posthumously, but he howled a lot in bigtime salons. Lionel Trilling was the dominant literary critic in the United States and his wife was an accompanist of titanic dimensions. Hannah Arendt was thought by some to be the profoundest political critic in the world. Lillian Hellman was a dazzling figure who defied the House Committee on Un-American Activities, wrote smash Broadway plays, and nursed her sodden lover Dashiell Hammett through his long, unproductive years. Norman Mailer is still with us, probably the best-known man of letters in America, a workhorse writer chasing always after a resolutely fallen star. What happened in the lives of these men and women, as they crossed paths with the author, immediately engrosses the reader who has any interest at all in well-told tales, gossip, cultural and literary insights, and just plain fun.

Podhoretz went to high school in Brooklyn in the early Forties and there received a very cosmopolitan education: He actually ran into one teacher who was a Republican. He won a scholarship to Columbia and did brilliant work, focusing not on politics but literature. There he sat at the feet of Lionel Trilling, the author of The Liberal Imagination, followed by three years of graduate study at Cambridge. He then reported to the draft board and was sent to Germany with the occupation forces. A second lieutenant who was supposed to conduct the “indoctrination course” (the Army word) on the Cold War was hit by terminal stage fright. Podhoretz, the young corporal with all those college degrees, was tapped and delivered a series of lectures on the differences between them, the Communists, and us.

The day he got back to New York he reported for duty to the editor of Commentary magazine. In due course he became the editor of the most rewarding monthly journal of thought and criticism in America. Thirty-five years later he retired, having served as editor-in-chief and as the dominant figure in infusing into the culture of New York the catechism of neo-conservatism. It taught that 1) the Soviet Union was engaged in a winner-take-all conflict for the world; and 2) in almost every situation, the private sector is to be preferred to the public sector as an instrument of progress and prosperity. The Trillings were anti-Stalin and anti-Communist, but could not stand to risk association with the American Right. Hannah Arendt lost her perspective in writing about Israel, ignoring the singularity of the state and its meaning for Jewish culture, and could not shake herself free of the anti-Americanism so vibrant in American life. Lillian Hellman was an enduring apologist for Stalin; and Norman Mailer just got it wrong for so long, one finally gave up on him.

These figures come to life. The Family—the term given to the cultural leaders in New York, mostly Jewish—were great socializers. They partied all the time and everyone knew everyone and everyone was everyone's brother. When Norman Mailer tried (unsuccessfully) to kill his wife, he went to Norman Podhoretz to talk about it. Lillian Hellman was constantly inviting the Family to Martha's Vineyard, where she complained of her poverty and served kangaroo eggs. Podhoretz, in the Sixties, began to view two things through the haze. The first was the hostility to America that was feeding cultural attitudes and criticism; the second, the real consequences of geopolitical mistakes. A war in Vietnam; the jeopardy of Israel; the alienation of an elite; the demoralization of Woodstock.

We have a cultural history told through illuminating studies of six very big figures. Podhoretz does this with the deftness of Lytton Strachey writing about his eminent Victorians. He is steadfast in his narrative, so that the reader travels with him engrossed by the story, and by the wonderful flawed characters whose thinking dominated the cultural world through which Norman Podhoretz traveled toward a light many will think brilliantly illuminating.

Arnold Beichman (review date April-May 1999)

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SOURCE: Beichman, Arnold. “Jolly Ex-Friends for Evermore.” Policy Review, no. 94 (April-May 1999): 82-8.

[In the following review, Beichman applauds “Podhoretz's sensitively and beautifully composed autobiographical” narrative in Ex-Friends and nostalgically describes the atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s when Podhoretz was a member of “The Family.” Beichman also comments that his perspective is potentially biased because he is “mentioned favorably three times in” Ex-Friends.]

There are plenty of reasons why I should disqualify myself as a reviewer of Norman Podhoretz's sensitively and beautifully composed autobiographical chapter [Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer]. I am mentioned favorably three times in this book. I've known the author for some four decades. During that time I have been friend, ex-friend and friend again. I knew him before and after he became editor of Commentary magazine. We became ex-friends because of his lamentable lurch to the left in the late 1950s. We then became friends anew when he saw the light some years later in the late 1960s. I have favorably reviewed several of his political books but not his earlier autobiographical volumes, Making It and Breaking Ranks, which cost him a lot of friendships but not mine. We dine regularly when I am in New York and are devoted e-mail correspondents.

I have no problem writing about Podhoretz now because at 68, he is not just a friend but an historic figure as well. He was and still is one of the most influential intellectuals of our time, comfortable in letters as well as politics and a scourge of left-liberalism. He is probably one of the most accomplished politico-literary polemicists of modern times; he takes no prisoners.

In 1982 he published an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Neo-Conservative Anguish over Reagan's Foreign Policy.” He was critical of what was perceived by some conservatives, neos and paleos alike, as the president's softness toward Soviet policies in the pre-Gorbachev period. So concerned was Reagan about this “anguish” that he phoned Podhoretz to discuss the article.

Now what was there about Podhoretz and his little magazine (Commentary's circulation never topped 80,000) that would impel the president of the United States to phone and argue with this particular critic of his foreign policy? Perhaps President Reagan, a one-time New Deal liberal, saw in Podhoretz someone with a similar history of progress from left to right and, therefore, a kinsman. Or perhaps it was because in the ideological wars of the 1970s and 1980s, Podhoretz had become an intellectual force who by himself and through his magazine contributed mightily to the global victory against communism. (I would include among other contributors Midge Decter, his wife, for the salience of her writings in this period and for her leadership of the Committee for the Free World.)

Richard Gid Powers recognized Podhoretz's distinction a few years ago in his book, Not without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. It was Podhoretz in the post-Nixon, post-detente era of the mid-70s who “summoned the will, the strength and the imagination to commence the giant task of rebuilding the anti-communist coalition,” Powers wrote.

Podhoretz was for 35 years editor of Commentary, then a publication of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which promised its editor full independence. In that time he took Commentary and made the monthly an integral part of the American socio-political scene, building on the work of its founding editor, Elliot Cohen, before his tragic death. The AJC, however, was not always pleased with Podhoretz's unyielding brand of anti-communism or with his cultural ideals. In fact, some AJC board members were so displeased that they plotted to remove him from his editorial post. I took pleasure at the time in describing these plots in a long article in William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review.

The six ex-friends he writes about here, all Jewish (at least ethnically) and all residents, on and off, of New York City, are: Hannah Arendt, the philosopher; Allen Ginsberg, the poet; Lillian Hellman, the playwright; Norman Mailer, the novelist; and Lionel and Diana Trilling, politico-literary critics. With the exception of Mailer, now 76, his other ex-friends are all dead. Along with other literary intellectuals, they were members of what Podhoretz calls “The Family,” a loosely defined assemblage of New York intellectuals, more or less anti-Soviet, pro-Freud (Arendt, inter alia, excepted) and grouped around three magazines, Partisan Review, New Leader, and, of course, Commentary. The main requirement for admission to the Family, says Podhoretz, was “brilliance.” Through his friendships with these and other “ex-friends” like Hans Morgenthau, Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, Podhoretz has given us a view of the “bloody crossroads,” where literature and politics meet, at least in Manhattan.

When I finished reading this memoir I asked myself: how could Podhoretz have sustained a friendship with someone like Ginsberg, fine poet though he might be, but also sex pervert, druggie, probably a pederast, and an impassioned America-hater? How could Podhoretz have remained such a devoted friend of a bitchy Stalinist like Lillian Hellman—who, despite the ghastly revelations from Conquest to Solzhenitsyn and even Khrushchev of what Stalinism meant, never recanted? While I can think of some redeeming quality in Ginsberg, I cannot think of a single one for dear old Lillian; nor, it seems, can most of her biographers. For me, the injunction de mortuis nil nisi bonum does not apply to unrepentant Stalinists.

In some ways, Podhoretz's relationship with Lillian Hellman is the most difficult to understand. He acknowledges his guilt over the “unsavory trick” of pretending in private conversations with her to admire the playwright's work, something he says he would never have written in the public prints, for that would have been self-betrayal. Whenever he praised her work to her face, he says he felt “ashamed and more than a little disgusted with myself.” He says that he misses Hellman, “an incomparable playmate with whom I had so much fun—more than perhaps I had with any of my other ex-friends—that I was able, for what seems an amazingly long time, to overlook the flaws in her writing and to forget about the evils of her politics.” I never thought I would ever think of Podhoretz as a toy-boy.

The answer to my own question about Podhoretz's friendships is this:

In bildungsroman (or “young man from the provinces”) novels, the hero (or anti-hero) knowingly abandons the moral life. He dishonors himself by going in for drugs or notorious women or big money swindles or connections in high places—whatever—so as to reach some desired pinnacle that will perhaps make his sickening behavior all worthwhile. Rousseau's Confessions details some contemptible behavior on his part; the philosopher meant to tell all about himself and he did. Podhoretz has taken as a model Jean-Jacques' tell-all intellectual journey. Thus his painfully honest description of his spooky friendships with Ginsberg and Hellman—and his even more instructive friendship with Norman Mailer. As George Orwell once said: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” And that is what makes Podhoretz's memoir so engrossing and even refreshing: he snatched victories from the “series of defeats” Orwell talked about because of impeccable timing: Podhoretz knew when to get out, when enough was enough.

Somewhere I remember from my own Talmudic studies the story of how the devil, assuming the pleasing shape of a beautiful woman, so tempted a rabbi that he began to undress. As he doffed his shirt, his tzitzes (or “fringes,” an undergarment worn by orthodox Jews) began miraculously to slap the rabbi's face. He immediately came to his senses and drove away the devil in disguise. Some may say that Podhoretz's tshuba (or return) was opportunism. I don't think so. I think his luminous intelligence and his reasserted moral sense, derived in part from years of Jewish religious studies, served as Podhoretz's tzitzes.

Podhoretz describes with a bruising candor his “sexual restlessness” in his early marital years. Despite Mailer's attempts to involve him in sex orgies, Podhoretz writes, “by the early 1970s [I had] decided that the radical ideas in the sexual realm with which I had been playing around were no less pernicious than their counterparts in the world of politics and I had now returned for good to my old set of beliefs in marital fidelity and everything that went with it.”

But it took time before he found his way back from Mailerite mores to his currently treasured “old … beliefs.” When Mailer, having stabbed Adele, one of his many wives, went into hiding from the police, he came to Podhoretz, his “foul-weather friend” (Mailer's phrase), for help. But not to escape arrest. Oh no. When he surrendered himself, Mailer wanted to avoid institutionalization via a probable court-ordered psychiatric examination. After all, to be declared blameless in a felonious assault by reason of insanity would—heaven forfend!—hurt his reputation as a writer. That was as much a matter of concern, if not more so, than the life of poor Adele, recuperating in a hospital from the wound. But long before he stabbed Adele, Mailer was already defending juvenile murderers in his essay, “The White Negro,” with the statement that by committing murder “the hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown.” Fortunately for Adele, Mailer didn't have the courage of his “hoodlum” convictions.

“Of all the elders in the Family, there were none for whom I had a higher regard than Hannah.”

So writes Podhoretz about Hannah Arendt's brilliance, which he defines in these words: “the virtuosic ability to put ideas together in such new and exciting combinations that even if one disagreed with what was being said, one was excited and illuminated.”1 For him, Arendt and her “agile synthesizing mind” achieved the attributes of brilliance and originality with her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which as a 21-year-old he found in 1951 and read with ever-growing excitement. The book theorized that communism and Nazism were, in Podhoretz's words, “brothers under the skin.” Arendt was trying to establish the moral equivalence of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

It was only years later when Arendt published “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” (first as a series of five articles in the New Yorker and later as a book) that he learned, says Podhoretz, that “originality was not so great an intellectual virtue as I had once thought … [and] there was nothing admirable about brilliance in itself.”

The Arendt chapter is clearly the most important to Podhoretz because Arendt's writings and public positions, as well as the anti-Israel New Left, forced him to address his own doubts about his Jewishness and the state of Israel. He once expressed these doubts in a single, jarring question:

In thinking about the Jews I have often wondered if their survival as a distinct group was worth one hair on the head of a single infant. Did the Jews have to survive that six million innocent people should one day be burned in the ovens of Auschwitz? It is a terrible question, and no one, not God Himself, could ever answer it to my satisfaction.

Readers of this confessional, which might just as easily have been titled “The Many Lives of Norman Podhoretz,” will single out one “friendship” as more interesting than another. I, for one, found the chapter on Lionel Trilling, Columbia University's famed literary critic, and his wife, Diana, most absorbing, especially the report of a highly charged dinner party at my New York Upper West Side apartment in the mid-1960s. In a bridge-building endeavor, I had invited the Trillings and the Podhoretzes to see if I could make peace between them. Woe unto the peacemakers, indeed. Despite Lionel's soothing post-prandial remark that at least we all had common assumptions, the party ended with Podhoretz's denial that they had any “common assumptions.” Those were indeed heady days.

Podhoretz was a Trilling protege and it was Trilling who first brought him to the attention of the Commentary editors. The Trillings themselves had been mild fellow-travelers in the late 1920s but had then turned and become hard-line anti-communists. It was Mrs. Trilling, however, who throughout the 1950s and 1960s was the clamorous anti-communist activist in the Family. It was she who, in a mordant essay on J. Robert Oppenheimer, wrote that “a staunch anti-communism was the great moral-political imperative of our epoch.” It was a commanding and courageous precept from an American intellectual, written at the zenith of Soviet power and in defiance of America's seemingly omnipotent anti-anti-communist adversary culture.

As chairman of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, she publicly protested a 1956 British magazine article by Bertrand Russell in which he denounced the United States as a dictatorship (run by J. Edgar Hoover, no less). The parent organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, reprimanded her for daring to attack Russell, since the philosopher was an honorary chairman of the congress. It was then that Mrs. Trilling fired off to the parent congress a brutal question: “How untruthful about America may a man be and still be useful to an organization which is pledged to truth and which numbers among its affiliates an American branch?” (None of this is in Podhoretz's book. I include these episodes here simply to demonstrate how far in later years the Trillings retreated from their hard-line position.)

The Trillings flinched when they looked into what they saw as the abyss and realized where their “staunch anti-Communism” might lead them: away from soft, mushy Jimmy Carter anti-anti-communist liberalism2 to what under the captaincy of Irving Kristol became not merely neoconservatism but which, programmatically, led inevitably to support of Ronald Reagan against Carter. Had Carter been re-elected in 1980 the world today would be far different.3 The Trillings turned back from the brink.

The break between the bildungsroman Podhoretz, the “young man from the provinces,” and the Trillings came over the first volume of his biography, Making It. This book, as Podhoretz describes it, “unapologetically told the story of my own hunger for success, and it was he [Trilling], after all, who had first taught me that ambition, far from being the shameful ‘bourgeois’ passion that so many literary people professed to believe it was, actually testified to a commendable spiritedness of character.” What infuriated the Family was that Podhoretz was spilling their “dirty little secret” to the whole world.

Now this reaction sounds balmy, but there it was. I was present at a salon where some leading intellectuals agreed that the Podhoretz book, which was yet to be published but which had been gossiped about for weeks, proved that the author had suffered a nervous breakdown and it was now only a question of whether he would ever recover his sanity. To top it all off, the original publisher who had given Podhoretz a hefty advance now refused to publish the book.

What the change finally came down to was that Podhoretz in the 1980s saw the welded relationship in the larger world between moral ideas and practical politics, particularly as the Cold War became a hot war and there seemed no end to Soviet expansionism. It was then that the once left Podhoretz became the “ex-friend” of the new Podhoretz. Unlike such liberal leftists as Irving Howe, Podhoretz saw when the McGovernites took over the Democratic Party in 1972 that it was time to enter the real world of decision making—not, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, to cheerily adopt “the strategy of fleeing from difficult problems by taking refuge in impossible solutions.” Podhoretz's 1976 Commentary article “Making the World Safe for Communism” was an attack on liberal foreign policy and Republican proponents of detente that came just in the nick of time.

For one shining moment, there was the Family, though not quite a Camelot of knightly intellectuals. I, too, have a sense of nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s, where in Manhattan you could always find a parking space on the very street on which you lived, where there were weekday cocktail galas for just published novelists and weekend dinner parties for visiting British intellectuals. For me, visions of Camelot ended in late 1969 at a crowded Trilling cocktail party, when I heard in a far corner of the living room a loud voice cry out, “Dammit, I can't sell, I'm locked in, the capital gains would kill me.”

But it was great while it lasted, and we can thank that “nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn,” as Podhoretz sardonically describes himself, for having recorded it in such Balzacian detail.


  1. Podhoretz may have admired Hannah Arendt, but it turns out from her published correspondence that she may have been pretending to admire his writings, just as he pretended to admire Lillian Hellman's.

  2. It was at such a time that President Carter proudly announced that thanks to his efforts “[the American people] are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear.” And there was the memorable idiocy of Carter's secretary of state, Cyrus Vance: “Leonid Brezhnev is a man who shares our dreams and aspirations.”

  3. I have always regarded it as a measure of God's grace towards the American people that Harry Truman was nominated at the 1944 Democratic presidential convention to replace Vice President Henry A. Wallace. Had that substitution not occurred and assuming that FDR would have won a fourth term, Stalin would have had his man in the White House on April 12, 1945, the day FDR died.

H. J. Kaplan (review date summer 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3624

SOURCE: Kaplan, H. J. “Homage to Norman Podhoretz.” Partisan Review 66, no. 3 (summer 1999): 431-38.

[In the following review, Kaplan characterizes Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer as an insightful and thoughtful memoir.]

“I have often said that if I wish to name-drop,” says Norman Podhoretz in the opening sentence of his new book, “I have only to list my ex-friends. The remark always gets a laugh, but, in addition to being funny, it has the advantage of being true.” And thus does this well-known curmudgeon go straight to the heart of his matter. Although now in his “reclusive dotage,” he warns us, and no longer as “merry” as he used to be, he produces his Podhoretzian flourish, this time with a dash of melancholy, and we're off and into his latest offering, Ex-Friends.

It is worth noting at the outset that these memoirs, together with his earlier work in literary criticism and his remarkable performance as editor of Commentary, have quite filled his life and become—in their very personal approach to public issues—a distinctive and recognizable part of the American scene. Which is not to suggest that his work has assumed its final shape—on the contrary. He provides much that is new in this book, and if he reverts to some of the themes and stories we have heard before, he does so in a different key.

It's still the same partition, however, the one which came to such a crescendo in 1979—with the Cold War still on and no end in sight. At that point he was deeply worried about The Present Danger, as he called it in a pamphlet published the following year, but Breaking Ranks was essentially about his decision to part company with the so-called “Movement,” and the effect of this move on his relations with the New York intelligentsia and his career as a critic and editor. Earlier, he had recounted his boyhood in Brooklyn, his remarkable literary training, and how he had put aside his misgivings and taken control of Commentary. There his mentors had been two 'almost legendary New York figures, Elliot Cohen and Robert Warshow, who together with Irving Kristol, Clement Greenberg, and Nathan Glazer, had already begun to realize their dream of transforming Commentary from an essentially Jewish organ to a significant factor in our national culture—inscribing first a sweeping movement toward the Left during that turbulent period of social and political change, with Vietnam increasingly concentrating our minds; and then an even more radical movement toward the Right in the following decades. In short, ever since 1967, Podhoretz has been looking at our intellectual history through the prism of his career, telling his story and ours with remarkable candor, intensity and wit—and notoriously letting the chips fall where they may.

At sixty-nine, after thirty-five embattled years, Podhoretz has now turned Commentary over to Neal Kozodoy, whom he chose and trained for the job—and, apart from worrying about his grandchildren's future in America and Israel, he has nothing to do presumably but cultivate his garden in East Hampton and write at the top of his bent. In Ex-Friends, he is remembering old passions and discovering new ones on what would appear to be a predictable trajectory. In seven striking books and hundreds of magazine pieces his work has achieved density and coherence, become part of our landscape. In Ex-Friends, however, the tone has mellowed—and this is palpable at the outset, in his account of how the “Family” of his friends and colleagues in New York has broken up. Without diminishing the clarity of the prose or diluting the liberal (or neo-) conservatism he defined so memorably in Breaking Ranks, he is striking a new note, looking back more in sorrow than in anger. Even the wretched Allen Ginsberg at his most coprophiliac ends by bemusing him rather than stirring his wrath; and, if his mood has changed, even verging on the elegiac at times, I find it hard to believe that it is merely because so many of his interlocutors, friends and ex-friends alike, are dead or departed from the New York scene. The heritage of the sixties, so-called, has hardly diminished since he published his essay on the “adversary culture” in The Bloody Crossroads in 1986. But the “present danger” seems less threatening, the situation in the Middle East less catastrophic, if no less deplorable; there are new and different intellectual wars raging, as always, some of them being waged by our children, but they do not seem to call our very survival into question, as they used to do; and Norman Podhoretz is too lucid not to see that all this must impart a new direction to his life's work, although the latter continues to be no more nor less than the apologia pro vita sua he has been constructing since he crossed the river from Brooklyn to Manhattan more than half a century ago.

The “bloody crossroads” was—in the phrase of his teacher, Lionel Trilling—“where literature and politics meet.” And this continues to be his turf. But now, for the first time in years, his literary side and his personal feelings come to the fore, since—if he is ever to fill out and retouch the picture he has given us thus far—the time must be now, before it is too late. And this, among other things, is what imparts a new and moving quality to Ex-Friends, which should be read and meditated by anyone, friend or foe, who cares about the life of the mind in our country.

The plot of Ex-Friends is laid out in its subtitle: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. Each of these familiar names evokes a rich and complicated personality with which Norman Podhoretz had to come to grips at some level, at whatever degree of friendship and intimacy or (as in the cases of Allen Ginsberg and ultimately Diana Trilling, for example, antagonism and distance) before they could “fall out” for whatever reason. This would seem on the face of it to be a recipe for a potpourri of essays, served with wry toast, and with only the author's nostalgia or lingering rancor for a center, but these are not just occasional essays, they are chapters in the Work, which unfolds like a legend—the archetypal tale of the youth who sets out to seek his fortune and learn the world, with nothing but his native wit and a thorough grounding in our culture to guide him. He finds the going tough in the big city, suffers reverses and disappointments, but by dint of talent and courage and perseverance he is bound not only to succeed but also to inspire us all with his example.

This is the kind of story which speaks to us most deeply because we've heard it before and keep wanting to hear it again, especially as we grow older. Personally, I am much older than Norman Podhoretz and the last thing I want to hear is a new story, if such a thing exists. It would only add to the ambient confusion and remind me that societies have a terrible tendency to fall apart; whereas this new book of his about falling out with various people ends by beautifully falling together, as part of that trajectory he has been tracing in his own way, bringing his characteristic mix of qualities to it—his ardor, his dogmatism, his humor and style—so that it continues to hold us in thrall and we remain (as we always do when we listen to a really good storyteller) at once gratified as the plot thickens and in suspense, not to say worried, about whether it will end as we wish.

Perhaps the wish is father to the thought, but the direction in which Podhoretz is moving is apparent, it seems to me, not only in the first and last chapters, “How Our ‘Family’ Broke Up” and “Requiem for a Lost World,” but also and especially in the evocations of Lionel Trilling, who never really became an ex-friend, and Lillian Hellman, who did; and above all of Norman Mailer, who “comes alive” for me in these pages as never before—perhaps because Podhoretz has continued to feel a regretful empathy for the man whose work he now sees as having so dismally failed to keep its promise. In any event, we are constantly reminded that, while Podhoretz has learned and told us a great deal about how the world works, he has given us very little literary criticism as such since The Bloody Crossroads fifteen years ago, which included his brilliant studies of Camus, Orwell, Leavis and Henry Adams.

Not that, for the author of these studies, literary criticism has ever meant or could ever mean anything reminiscent of the New Criticism, or any other form of textual analysis excluding or scanting the social, moral, or political factors which form the living magma—so Podhoretz has always insisted—out of which literature and art are fashioned. This was the all-but-unanimous view of what he calls the Family of New York intellectuals among whom he found his earliest mentors and models—during his years of apprenticeship with the gentle Lionel Trilling at Columbia and the ferocious F. R. Leavis at Cambridge, and ever since. The Family, as it emerged from the Great Depression, was famously modernist in the arts and radical (meaning Marxist, albeit increasingly anti-Communist) in politics—a combination which immediately appealed to the young Podhoretz. He was very poor, very bright, and very Jewish; and the literature he loved not only for its own sake but also because it promised to take him so far was necessarily something more than a canon, a collection of great texts—it was a social activity, and therefore a public discourse. It would always involve conversation, not to say argument, and it would engage him so totally that there could never be any question of reducing it to aesthetic analysis or even (in the broader French conception) to explication de texte.

In this view of life and letters there would be nuances and variations, some of them important, but the effect of it for Norman Podhoretz was that the former has tended to eat up the latter. He has lived perforce through “interesting times,” and his political passions have tended to monopolize his attention, so that his Work rarely shows him at work on contemporary literature or among the monuments of the past through which our lives are contemplated, savored and—excuse the expression—ennobled. And this is why I find this little book so entrancing. He is speaking as an insider, exercising his wit, dishing out gossip not only about the people listed in his subtitle but also about Jackie Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, William Phillips, Philip Rahv, and too many others to mention here; and all the while he is finding his way back to an earlier time, when he dreamed of becoming a distinguished writer and “making it,” which required first that he assimilate the great books of our language and literature, and those of other dead white European males as well, and then learn the ways and gain the esteem of those glamorous people in Manhattan. The latter were mostly Jews of Eastern European origin like himself, but—unlike himself—as disaffected with the Jewish community and its heritage as they were with the America of the depression; and of course there was a considerable sprinkling of WASPs and other non-Jews among them, e.g., Murray Kempton, who was the first to designate them as a “Family.” They were poets, artists and intellectuals, former Communists, Trotskyists, once and future radicals, descendants or holdovers from Greenwich Village who sometimes indeed behaved like the talented, aggrieved, and self-regarding members of a quarrelsome family; but their quarrels were about literature, art, and ideas, and this passion was the one thing they had in common. It made them a rather exotic group at that time—“alienated,” they liked to say, even though America was unique among the nations for having been originally founded on ideas. But since the business of our country was supposed to be business, not ideas, the New York intelligentsia—the very word was borrowed from Eastern Europe—seemed to be pretty much off in left field, as they say in Brooklyn.

By him, as Podhoretz's parents and mine might have put it, they were not off in left field. In fact, they were at the top of the lineup. All his life he has had an uncanny knack for reading where the country was headed. So, having won a scholarship to Columbia and another to Cambridge, then done his military service with our occupation forces in Germany, and had a brief look around Europe, he was not surprised when he got back to New York to find that the Family, which had been grouped largely around Partisan Review, Commentary, and two or three other “little” magazines, was already pushing outward into the wider culture. World War II had left our country in a new situation, with new responsibilities; and its business could no longer simply be business. This meant that the arguments of the New York intellectuals were no longer so remote from the concerns of ordinary Americans, and that the channels of communication—the media, the publishing houses, the universities—would be open to them as never before. So it was for Podhoretz until he wrote his first memoir, about his Brooklyn boyhood and how he had joined the Family with undeniable brio and effect, publishing a first book of essays, reviewing books for The New Yorker and other prestigious magazines, and editing an increasingly influential magazine—only to discover, when Making It appeared in 1967, that many if not most members of the Family took the dimmest possible view of his allegedly “vulgar” pursuit of fame and fortune.

This was a shock; and Norman Podhoretz has never quite gotten over it. Among other things it led eventually to the end of his friendship with Mailer, which had been close and important to them both. It led to a break with Jackie Kennedy, of all people, and a change of publishers, since the original one refused to bring the book out even though he had provided an advance for it. It cast a shadow over his relations with Trilling, who had warned that it would take years to live this thing down; and with Partisan Review, which published Mailer's attack. In short, a shambles—although reading the book today, I find it difficult to understand what the fuss was about.

For all that Podhoretz had been warned that Making It would create a scandal, if only because of its pushy way of exposing a “dirty little secret” (which wasn't one, really) to the effect that he and other Family members were not ethereal creatures and had ambitions, including material ambitions, like everyone else, he was deeply wounded by the virulence of his critics. And yet, characteristically, there was never any question of backing down; he has continued to assert the outrageous idea that success is preferable to failure and self-interest to self-immolation—propositions so obvious to ordinary people that (to paraphrase a remark he loves to quote from Orwell) only the intelligentsia could be dumb enough to deny it. Of course there is Family humor in all this, convoluted in the Yiddish manner, but at bottom Podhoretz is quite serious about it, as he has told us repeatedly, perhaps most memorably in the article he wrote on the relations of blacks and Jews after a quarrel with James Baldwin. Other things being equal, he insists, the best way to clear the air in a society like ours is to understand and openly declare our self- and group interests. This is not to reduce the moral law and human motivation to a caricature, or to exclude a concern for others, but simply to think seriously about these matters as Podhoretz must have done at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he studied at night for five years (while simultaneously attending Columbia by day). “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” said Rabbi Hillel—the same Hillel who taught that the essence of Torah, the commandment which included all the commandments, was to deal with our neighbors as we would be dealt with. The New York intellectuals who gave Podhoretz such a hard time over Making It had (like me) little Torah and less Talmud. They were the intelligentsia—defined, he liked to say at that time, as “people who live by, for, and off ideas.”

The quotation, he tells us, is from one of many ex-friends who figure here in subordinate roles, the sociologist Nathan Glazer, a member of the brilliant pleiad who worked for Elliot Cohen's Commentary in the early days—including staff members like Clement Greenberg, Robert Warshow, and Irving Kristol; and contributors like Harold Rosenberg, Hannah Arendt, Leslie Fiedler, Sidney Hook, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, Mary McCarthy, and others also destined to play a role in the culture wars which, having begun in the thirties, would go through phase after phase in the ensuing decades, now smoldering, now flaring up again, with new combatants to replace the fallen from year to year, and the battle-field shifting from New York and Washington to the entire country and then to the rest of the world. This will help to explain why, although he lives now in “reclusive dotage,” or so he claims, a French publisher recently quizzed me earnestly about his position with respect to our current distempers in Washington. Like Raymond Aron, he has been—from the Cold War through Vietnam and civil rights to Bill Clinton's sex life—a spectateur engagé of our foreign and domestic problems; and these have preoccupied people everywhere, not merely because of our sheer bulk and power as a nation but also because they involved ideas articulated by the friends and ex-friends of Norman Podhoretz.

Remarks are not literature, as Gertrude Stein remarked to Ernest Hemingway; but this book with its beautifully textured prose is so enlivened by great obiter dicta—instant portraits, vignettes, jokes, insights into the way the world works, the sort of stuff a reviewer knows he will never have room for but jots down in his reading notes anyway because it is so striking, sharp, funny, or wise—that one is reminded that our oracular Gertrude often talked through her hat. Literature is not only poetry and fiction, or some other as yet uninvented form of art, as she and her coterie might have wished. It is also (for example) Montaigne. My father's house has many mansions.

I was in Vietnam when Making It was published, and never caught up with the uproar it provoked until it was out of print. In any event, the scandal seemed attributable to Family inhibitions and dissensions rather than to the book itself. By the time I was back reading Commentary again, it had ceased, as far as I can recall, to evince a culpable infatuation with the “Movement.” But how could Norman Podhoretz, without even the excuse of a love affair, have maintained so close and affectionate relationship with Lillian Hellman that he blinked at her Stalinism, her prevarications, her anti-Semitism and her Amerika-phobia—even going to the point of pretending to admire her writing and, worse, making a general principle of it? “It is a truth universally acknowledged in the literary world that the only way to remain on good terms with a writer whose work one does not admire is to pretend to admire it.” So he tells us in Ex-Friends; a joke, alas, from which he hastens to distance himself—but the damage is done. All this makes me groan, and so does the news that he once took Staughton Lynd's views on the Cold War seriously and played a key role (with the help of ex-friend Jason Epstein) in foisting the loopy pedagogy of Paul Goodman and the “polymorphous perversity” of Norman O. Brown on the children of our country, including mine.

So it is only now, thanks to Ex-Friends, that I realize that we too would surely have come to a parting of the ways (perish the thought!) were it not for the fact that we lived so far from each other and were in different lines of work. By the time I retired from the foreign service and found a place in New York (not far from his, as it happens), the world had changed markedly, and we had practical things to do together, like making sure that Pat Moynihan and not Bella Abzug would represent us in the United States Senate. But the point is not who was right and who was wrong during the missing years, nor that it doesn't matter. Obviously it matters—but in a very different way as we grow older.

Out of our quarrels with others we make politics, said Yeats, and poetry out of our quarrels with ourselves. This may be a bit of a simplification, but it strikes me as essentially true. Having begun as a literary critic, Podhoretz became increasingly political during the Commentary years. He was “merrier” in the old days, he tells us in this latest book—but his poetic renditions of Ginsberg, Mailer, Trilling, Arendt, and yes, even Lillian Hellman, bring to mind another thing they say in New York: It ain't over until it's over. So let us hope he will continue in the vein of Ex-Friends—and become merry again.

Sanford Pinsker (review date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Breaking up Is (Sorta) Hard to Do.” Virginia Quarterly Review 76, no. 1 (winter 2000): 183-88.

[In the following review, Pinsker notes that, though he disagrees with Podhoretz both political and ideologically, Ex-Friends is a finely crafted and illuminating memoir about the authors's past friendships amongst the post-World War II New York intelligentsia.]

Norman Podhoretz's latest effort at blending memoir and cultural commentary [Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer] reminds us of just how long and protracted his leave-takings have been. Hence, the rather shameless spin I've put on the rock 'n roll tune that gives this piece its title. For Podhoretz, parting company with all manner of people and ideas has always been difficult, but in an ambivalent, “sorta” way. But what else might one expect from a critic who early on developed a knack for placing himself at the contentious crossroads where 20th century literature and politics meet, and who made no bones about wanting to become a cultural player whose judgments would be talked about and taken seriously?

As children of the Depression and then as young Marxist intellectuals who rallied around Trotsky rather than Stalin, the older generation of New York intellectuals naturally assumed that to be on the side of the Utopian angels meant being a member in good standing of the adversarial culture. Small wonder that they regarded anything that smacked of the mainstream with deep suspicion (this, despite the fact that their postures of alienation were often so much posturing) or that they took a certain amount of satisfaction in blending a commitment to radical politics with a celebration of radical art. In this hothouse (some would say, “parochial”) world, an intellectual was defined as somebody who subscribed to Partisan Review—or even better, who wrote for its pages.

By contrast, Norman Podhoretz belongs to a generation that came into its own during the 1950's, a time when certain postwar realities forever changed the intellectual landscape. For one thing, World War II turned out not to be the capitalist misadventure that Socialists claimed it would be, but, rather, a clear instance of democratic values standing up to Fascist bullies. Furthermore, the affluence that followed our victories in Europe and the Pacific had a way of trickling down even to intellectuals who had long regarded Bohemian poverty as a badge of independence and of honor. By insisting that success (rather than sex) was the “dirty little secret” of his time, Podhoretz's Making It (1967) made a striking, and controversial, point. What he—and, in truth, many others of his generation—wanted was marriage, family, and at least a share of the materialistic goodies that presumably came with the territory. But who (other than Podhoretz) was willing to say this in print? Small wonder that many older readers bristled when they read his account of this cultural sea change—not only because it shamelessly chronicled Podhoretz's rise from Wunderkind to editor of Commentary magazine (this, at the tender age of 30), but also because he had more than a few kind words to say on behalf of responsibility, respectability, and bourgeois values in general.

Many wrote him off as a “young fogey,” but as his subsequent books made clear, they hadn't seen nothing yet. As the countercultural 1960's so muddied the political waters that even a man with solid credentials on the Old Left such as Irving Howe found himself being shouted down by New Leftists with short memories and little feel for the nuances of social history, Podhoretz was slowly preparing himself to jump political ship. The public announcement came in Breaking Ranks (1979), but evidences of his change of heart were clear to anybody who had eyes and used them to chart Commentary's movement from a position on the liberal left to one on the neoconservative right. Nonetheless, seeing Podhoretz lay out his disaffections between hard covers was something of a shocker—only because of his candor or even because (as always) he wrote brilliantly, but (gulp!) because his cultural analysis often made good sense.

After more than 30 years at Commentary's helm one would think that Podhoretz had long ago consigned his former life as a man on the left to the memory bin, but this is hardly the case. Indeed, he keeps finding new ways to sing the words of the old Jimmy Durante tune, “Ever have the feeling that you wanted to go / Still had the feeling that you wanted to stay?” That's why Ex-Friends is such a sad and revealing book. In the concluding pages of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the novel's bewildered protagonist makes this bittersweet observation: “About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. … It's funny. Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everyone.” Granted, Holden Caulfield, Salinger's hypersensitive (anti-) hero, suffers from an acute case of adolescent malaise and, as such, hardly seems worth mentioning in the same breath with Norman Podhoretz, an aging New York intellectual who finds himself “missing” old friends even as he is out to settle their hash. With the notable exception of Norman Mailer, all his targets are now safely dead, and thus unable to present their side of the story. The result is an insider account of intellectual life among the New York intellectuals, one that cuts no deals and takes no prisoners.

Nonetheless, one hears more than faint echoes of Holden's plaint in Podhoretz's concluding pages: “I regret the loss of the literary-intellectual world in which I used to live … [And so] In spite of everything that I have said against my ex-friends here, I believe that the absence today of a community like the Family constitutes a great loss for our culture.” Thus is Ex-Friends wrapped in several contradictory mantles—at once a valentine of self-congratulation and a chronicle of regret. Even readers unfamiliar with the names that drop easily onto his pages (e.g. Lionel and Diana Trilling, or Hannah Arendt) need not worry because they appear as case studies that, taken together, are meant to show how long-standing Podhoretz's neoconservative instincts in fact were, and how right he was, and is, about American culture.

Take, for example, his complicated relationship with poet Allen Ginsberg, a fellow Columbia student and ersatz mentor. That Ginsberg had accepted a long Podhoretz poem for the undergraduate literary journal he [Ginsberg] then edited was a coup of the first water—even if many of his original lines ended up on the editorial room floor. And no doubt Ginsberg's chaotic, outlaw life once exercised a certain romantic attraction; but over the years Podhoretz found himself increasingly uncomfortable with the unhealthy direction that his popular image had taken, especially when its baleful influence on the young became alarmingly clear:

Now, in the mid-1960's, as before, the major difference between us had to do with our wildly contrasting ideas about America. Ginsberg's anti-Americanism of the 1950s had been bad enough, but the form it took in the 1960s as it exfoliated (or perhaps metastasized would be a better word) was even worse. His disciples and friends now extended way beyond the relatively narrow circle of the Beats to encompass the entire world of the counterculture—from rock musicians like Bob Dylan to hippies and yippies like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to a variety of “gurus” peddling one form or another of Oriental mysticism. What they all had in common was a fierce hatred of America, which they saw as “Amerika,” a country morally and spiritually equivalent to Nazi German. America's political system was based on oppression; and its culture was based on repression, to which the only answer was to opt out of middle-class life and liberate the squelched and smothered self through drugs and sexual promiscuity.

Even at his most radical, Podhoretz had always loved America, and that unapologetic patriotism only deepened when, in 1960, he became editor of Commentary and turned its direction toward the neoconservative Right. Celebrating America was an important item of the new agenda, as was making an intellectual case for the economics of the free market that, for better of worse, would be the Reagan administration's legacy. About these matters (and many more) Podhoretz not only numbered Allen Ginsberg among the “know nothing bohemians” (as his famous put-down of the Beats would have it), but also came to feel that his ex-friend's 1958 boast/prophecy that “We'll get you through your children!” had, only a decade later, come nightmarishly true. For this, Podhoretz cannot, even now, forgive, despite the fact that an older, mellower Ginsberg was willing to forgive him: “But it was because of them [the “children” Ginsberg helped to corrupt, and sometimes to kill, with drugs and sexual promiscuity], as well as all the others waiting in the wings, that I could not bring myself to forgive him, not even now that he was dead.”

By contrast, Podhoretz's realization that even brilliant social commentary might, in the long run, be worse leads him to a chapter-length rumination about why the social philosopher Hannah Arendt took a terribly wrong direction in her controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964), and why their friendship cooled considerably after Arendt's study of Jewish complicity in the Holocaust was published. For Arendt to cast blame on the helpless victims of Nazism, and then go on to argue that Eichmann represents the “banality of evil” rather than Evil incarnate was more than Podhoretz (and many other Jewish intellectuals, for that matter) could bear.

Much the same beat goes on in Ex-Friends as one debunking profile blends almost seamlessly with another. Thus we learn how difficult it was for Podhoretz to remain on friendly terms with his Columbia mentor, the magisterial literary critic Lionel Trilling—especially as Lionel's left-leaning wife, Diana, poisoned the atmosphere between them—or how he had no choice when his journal was among the first to air the truth about the systematic lies Hellman had told in such nonfiction books as Pentimento (1973) or Scoundrel Time (1976). Podhoretz readily admits that, in Hellman's case, he still feels a certain nostalgic tug as he remembers the lavish meals and parties she regularly served up, but politics is, well, politics—and Hellman was always on the wrong side of the aisle: “The plain truth is that I remain proud of the part I went on to take in the fight against the political ideas and attitudes in whose service she corrupted her work and brought, as I now see it, lasting dishonor to her name.”

In the final analysis, however, Ex-Friends is about people who, in Nathan Glazer's famous definition of the public intellectual, live “for, by, and off ideas.” True enough, the usual aspects of friendship can also play a part, but they will, perforce, always be secondary. What matters—and matters passionately—are ideas and their public consequences. The Family, as Podhoretz described his circle in Making It (1967), was at once a roll call of the very bright and extremely talented, as well as a recipe for personal disaster. No doubt oversized egos account for part of the friction Ex-Friends describes, but acts of ideological betrayal were far more serious, and much more damaging.

Breaking Ranks (1979), Podhoretz's effort to explain why he abandoned the left liberalism of his youth, had repercussions that even its author did not fully imagine at the time. True enough, the neoconservative Commentary crowd he assembled had more than its fair share of luminaries such as Irving Kristol, but things, as they say, were never the same—either for those who rallied around Podhoretz's vision of a better, more conservatively inclined American politics or those who continued the good fight for such liberal causes as welfare or affirmative action. Indeed, everything seemed different from the mid-60's onward: socializing wasn't as exciting or as good as the hard-drinking, free-wheeling parties of the 1950's were. A meaner spirit, fueled by heavy doses of political correctness, gradually replaced the intellectual world in which Podhoretz had once scrambled (some would say shamelessly) to make a place for himself.

At this point I can imagine some readers muttering that what Podhoretz really misses is his youth. Perhaps, but as with most generalizations (and labels) affixed to the New York intellectuals, this commonsensical view is, at best, a partial truth—for what Ex-Friends finally comes to is cultural history as it filters itself through Podhoretz's consciousness. No doubt others will provide their own perspectives as to why he kept “falling out” with former friends, but even they should find Ex-Friends fascinating. More important, general readers will get a taste for the way that certain ideas, ones that brought intellectuals together, and then pulled them apart, have trickled down to the public square. Like many others, I have my quarrels with much that Podhoretz now stands for, but that did not diminish my admiration a whit. Ex-Friends is that readable, that good, and most of all, that important.

Jacob Heilbrunn (review date May-June 2000)

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SOURCE: Heilbrunn, Jacob. “Rebel on the Right.” New Leader 83, no. 2 (May-June 2000): 45-7.

[In the following review of My Love Affair with America, Heilbrunn addresses Podhoretz's patriotism and his political evolution throughout his career.]

When conservatives set about fashioning the Reagan revolution, they could hardly have realized that some of their ideas would be used to remake the Democratic Party. This paradox nevertheless occurred thanks to President Bill Clinton, who despite the Right's hatred of him, has been the functional equivalent of a Republican mole. From embracing school uniforms to signing the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, Clinton has wiped out the last vestiges of the McGovern wing of his party and firmly established his own New Democrat orthodoxy. If elected to succeed him in November, Vice President Al Gore would most likely do little to alter that. Although Gore may not be as politically ambidextrous as Clinton (though his re-reversal on Elián Gonzalez suggested new depths of opportunism), his instincts have always been firmly centrist. You might even call them neoconservative.

As conservative pundits continue to lash themselves into a frenzy over Clinton's iniquities, one of the few commentators to recognize his transformation of the Democrats has been Norman Podhoretz. In a recent piece in the National Review, Podhoretz made the obligatory noises about the President's moral failings, but the thrust of the essay was to detail his achievements. They are not insubstantial. Gone are the confiscatory taxes on businesses and individuals. Gone is the anti-Americanism that prompted lockstep party opposition to foreign intervention. As Podhoretz noted, today it is the GOP that has begun to return to isolationism.

The primary tussle between John McCain and George W. Bush showed the result of Clinton's actions: a rift among Republicans. It mirrors the '80s struggle pitting Old Left Democrats against the fledgling Democratic Leadership Council Clinton and Gore helped found. On one side is the Old Right; on the other, the boisterous young conservatives clustered at places like the Weekly Standard, vigorous McCain supporters who seek to revive neoconservatism inside the GOP.

Podhoretz' latest installment in what has come to comprise an autobiographical series thus arrives at an opportune moment. In his first book, Making It (1968), arguably a work that pioneered the revelatory memoir, Podhoretz ruffled the feathers of the New York intellectuals by confessing his white-hot ambition to penetrate their ranks.

Contrasted with the wildly self-indulgent, not to say pornographic, memoirs that have been appearing in recent years, Podhoretz' original book seems like a model of restraint. He isn't interested in recounting salacious details from his personal life; his consuming interest is the power of ideas. But the editor-essayists of his generation may be nearly extinct.

So uninhibited has our journalism become as it chases after “buzz” that My Love Affair with America has a slightly old-fashioned feel. To be sure, Podhoretz dredges up a few old scores and displays his legendarily rebarbative temperament at several points. (His attack on Saul Bellow's Augie March is less than persuasive.) Overall, though, the tone is more valedictory than combative. The author moves from his childhood to his current differences with leading social conservatives to describe his own political evolution from radical Leftist to neoconservative. He ends on a generous note, concluding that America has weathered difficult times in the past and that the sense of panic among some of his fellow conservatives about the state of the union is unwarranted.

Podhoretz' account of his childhood is deft and humorous. He ascribes much of his success in life to a remedial speech class he was forced to attend. “Nothing … will ever persuade me that I would have won the scholarships I later did to Columbia and Cambridge Universities if even a residual trace had remained in my speech of the little boy who told a teacher that he was ‘goink op de stez’ when he was going up the stairs.”

Accent-free English helped Podhoretz overcome social anti-Semitism, but it also attuned him to the nuances of poetry and literature. Columbia further Americanized him. Its Great Books program, Daniel Bell has observed, jolted students into “a new appreciation of the dimensions of thought and feeling.” Podhoretz himself recounts that “before Columbia, I had never truly understood that, as an American, I was the product of a tradition, that past ages had been inhabited by people like myself, and that the things they had done and the thoughts they had thought bore a direct relation to me and to the world in which I lived.” He astutely singles out Jacques Barzun as one of Columbia's most eminent scholars—contradicting the disdain Barzun was held in by the New York intellectuals.

Audaciously, Podhoretz seems to suggest that perhaps the New York crowd has received attention out of proportion to its true significance, a theme previously touched upon by Sam Tanenhaus that deserves more exploration. The rather parochial studies of the New York intellectuals until now have scanted, if not altogether ignored, the international character of the liberal anti-Communist movement formed by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Encounter, a Congress magazine whose editors included Irving Kristol and Melvin J. Lasky, played an important role for European intellectuals.

Podhoretz does not ignore the hot water Encounter landed in when its CIA funding was disclosed. That club will forever be wielded against it. Recently, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda devoted an entire column to lamenting the CIA's having decisively influenced the monthly's contents. But this charge has always seemed overwrought; given the agency's dismal track record, Encounter may have been one of the few useful things that the CIA funded during the Cold War. Certainly it was far less dogmatic than most American journals that independently shared its worldview.

Podhoretz is not slow, either, to chastise some of the New York intellectuals for their obtuseness when it came to the fight between the Western democracies and fascism. He reminds us that in mid-1941 Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald produced an essay claiming fascism could be defeated only if a “social revolution” took place in England and America and “working class governments” dedicated to Socialism were installed. William Phillips and Philip Rahv, in their essay entitled “Ten Propositions and Eight Errors,” rejected the notion that supporting the “Roosevelt-Churchill war regimes” was a mistake. Podhoretz evokes these intestine struggles to show how both the Left and the Right succumbed to anti-Americanism. If there is a theme winding through his memoir, that is it.

Podhoretz own patriotism was strengthened by his encounter with British snobbery toward the United States. During his fellowship at Cambridge, he, like many Americans, became enraged by the facile contempt the British and other Europeans expressed.

Even in The God That Failed, Podhoretz notes, Stephen Spender and Arthur Koestler qualified their denunciations of the Soviet Union by taking a whack at the U.S. as well. Spender declared: “The effect of these years of painful experiences has only been to reveal to me that both sides are forces producing oppression, injustice, destruction of liberties, enormous evils.” Koestler was not much better: “The choice before us is merely that between a gray twilight and total darkness.” Merely!

On the contrary, Podhoretz quite convincingly argues, the 1950s were a time of cultural efflorescence. Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Robert Lowell, and many others were doing some of their best work. Podhoretz attacks Irving Howe for stating in his 1954 essay “This Age of Conformity” that intellectuals were being seduced by “a commercial civilization.” According to Podhoretz, Howe saw himself “as a lonely upholder of the true faith against the mass apostasies occurring around him.”

Podhoretz says he spurned Howe's bleak view, but he himself lurched into infantile Leftism in the 1960s. An early opponent of the Vietnam War, he denounced the Cold War and urged the U.S. to recognize that the world had become, as the political scientists were fond of saying, polycentric. It was the Black Power movement's descent into anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel that rattled him out of his Leftism and headed him in the direction of what would come to be called “neoconservatism.”

At first that was an epithet coined by Michael Harrington. But before long Podhoretz and Co. would acknowledge its appeal. (Though he is often grouped with Irving Kristol as a movement elder, Podhoretz actually belongs to a younger generation. Kristol had already made his name with an attack on liberals in Commentary that might be termed anti-anti-McCarthyite when Podhoretz started to contribute to the journal.) In retrospect, an important distinction has to be made: To be a neoconservative in the 1970s was quite different from being one in the 1990s. By the 1970s, the Left had become the new establishment. If you wanted to be a radical, you moved to the Right.

Yet that was true only in the context of the 1970s. Warnings about the Soviet threat and Communist human rights abuses have ended up becoming conventional wisdom. To remain a rebel—what he is at heart—Podhoretz had to keep moving farther to the Right. And he did, all the way into the arms of Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition.

Still, Podhoretz makes much of his angry denunciation of a symposium in First Things where Richard John Neuhaus and other contributors speculated that the failure to halt abortion might mean the “American regime” was coming to an end. Such apocalyptic rhetoric, Podhoretz and others noted, was all too reminiscent of the fulgurations of the '60s Left. True, but it was also a reminder of the conservatives' penchant for going back to first principles. It is hard to conceive of today's liberals getting involved in a similar dustup. Perhaps that's why Democrats like Clinton are busily swiping ideas from the GOP.

Jim Sleeper (review date 2 July 2000)

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SOURCE: Sleeper, Jim. “Yankee Doodle Dandy: Making It in America While Breaking Ranks and Settling Scores.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 July 2000): 6-8.

[In the following review, Sleeper recognizes that Podhoretz is attempting to illuminate a plan for America's ideological future in My Love Affair with America but argues that Podhoretz's message is overrun by his own small-mindedness and inflexibility.]


The truculent conservative writer and editor Norman Podhoretz “did not … fight his way out of ‘political leftism’ to abide ‘the anti-Americanism of the Right,’” writes Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the cover of this new book: “It is America he loves, not ideology.” Thus encouraged, any reader might well open My Love Affair with America expecting to hear a voice of civic conscience that has been missing in this country's ideologically riven, and increasingly inane, politics. Having broken ranks with what he called the “hate America” left in the 1960s and ended up on the right, mightn't Podhoretz indeed break ranks again, this time to strengthen an America that has made amply, if quietly, clear since the Clinton impeachment effort that it loathes ideologues on both sides of a discredited divide? To appreciate what a let-down Podhoretz's book actually is and why that matters, it helps to know what besides Moynihan's encouragement might have raised expectations in the first place.

The Podhoretz who decamped prophetically, if bombastically, from liberalism had begun his career as a public intellectual with the credibility of a poor boy from immigrant-Jewish Brooklyn who'd made what he called “the brutal bargain” of assimilation to Western high culture on scholarship at Columbia University and Clare College in Cambridge, England. It had been brutal, he reported, because to be accredited one had to have cut off one's proletarian roots. Podhoretz had done this but not without misgivings laced with muted shame: He would recall years later that upon ascending to Cambridge at 19, he was ushered into the first bedroom he'd ever had to himself, where, as the door shut behind him, he burst into tears.

Winning distinction as a student and critic just as American liberalism strode forth to change the country and the world, he found he had license to renegotiate the deal he'd made with high culture at Brooklyn's expense. As the new, young editor of Commentary magazine after 1960, he mid-wifed a then-unknown Paul Goodman's Growing up Absurd and introduced liberals to James Baldwin, who was writing The Fire Next Time. In 1965, he published the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin's argument that although black riots in Watts and other urban ghettoes were immorally and self-destructively violent, they were tortured calls for what amounted to democratic socialism.

At the same time, however, Podhoretz helped spark a role reversal in how conservatives and liberals would address race. The former had long said, in effect, “Every group in its place, with a label on its face,” while liberals had fought to transcend race legally and even culturally. Podhoretz's 1963 essay, “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” was the much-noted bellwether of the coming conservative rebellion against a patronizing, race-drunk liberalism. Although the essay (reprinted most recently in Paul Berman's anthology “Blacks and Jews”) ended with a then-characteristically liberal call to transcend race through miscegenation, it unloaded a quiver of barbed, proletarian truths, drawn from Podhoretz's recollections of growing up among poor blacks, that punctured some hot-air balloons of liberal optimism about busing and other racially obsessed, quick-fix, “integration” schemes then floating across the land.

A few years later, he would help conservatives claim that in a true free-market society, the only color that mattered would be dollar green; it was liberals, he charged, who were squandering the civil rights movement's moral capital by advocating racial preferences and other social color-coding that abdicated the struggle to rise above race.

Podhoretz was a bellwether in other ways, as well. In 1966, he edited The Commentary Reader, whose more than 50 essays confirmed the magazine's acuity and sheer range of well-grounded interests. Because many of the essays had appeared before Podhoretz was editor, he rightly credited his predecessor Elliot Cohen with “an uncanny sensitivity to what may be called the representative issues—that is, the problems preying on the minds of a great many people at a given moment … he invariably knew where the relevant areas of discussion lay and by which writers they might be illuminated.” Podhoretz could also quite rightly have written the same about himself.

Not quite so rightly, he did just that a year later, in Making It, a premature memoir-cum-advertisement for himself whose purported revelations about New York literary life angered many of his admirers. Making It virtually celebrated what Cohen's work had seemed to discredit: the “dirty little secret,” as Podhoretz called it, that every American writer lusts after fame, fortune and power and lies about such desires. Chronicling his own literary ups, downs and aperçus with the self-infatuation of an infant discovering his toes, Podhoretz seemed to expect the kind of adoration he'd gotten from his mother and her friends. Instead, he was dismissed by “the family” of New York intellectuals who'd admitted and even anointed him a promising young critic only a few years before.

Podhoretz emerged from what he considered New York liberals' mug and hypocritical disdain with 20-20 foresight about their conceits and a rage to drive home hard truths they'd suppressed. He would keep his “brutal bargain” with high culture by acknowledging the importance of ambition and political power. They would continue to betray the bargain, not least by disguising their own ambitions with support for “the oppressed,” whose lives he understood far better than they. For the next three decades, Podhoretz would cry that his liberal ex-friends were betraying ordinary Americans' best hopes by indulging fantasies of Third World revolution and by romanticizing, then institutionalizing, racial and sexual identity politics that cheat their intended beneficiaries while projecting the intellectuals' own thwarted power lusts. They were wrecking an America whose prosaic capitalist and constitutional strengths had liberated more people than all “progressive” efforts combined.

Podhoretz has kept demanding vindication of his claims so obsessively that he's nearly made himself the Rodney Dangerfield of public intellectuals. My Love Affair with America is his fourth book about his conversion from liberal pietism to self-proclaimed defender of the American Truth. (The others, after the clamorous Making It, were the bitterly tendentious Breaking Ranks in 1979 and the endlessly self-justifying Ex-Friends in 1998.) Increasingly, and not a little vindictively, he has always counterposed his new political family of the “patriotic” right to the “hate America” left.

But now such distinctions are blurring in another great role-reversal, this one involving conceptions of American national identity itself. And Podhoretz seeks to be prophetic again, this time against an anti-Americanism among his friends on the right that, mirabile dictu, bears an unnerving resemblance to what he denounced on the left. In this book his warnings are less credible, though, because over the years he has let the enemies of his old liberal crowd become such good political “friends” that he's in harness to their conservative movement, however uneasily. This matters, because the devil's bargain he made with the right out of disgust for the left is typical of many ex-liberals who followed him. Yet it would be unwise for liberals to gloat over the many false notes and incoherencies in My Love Affair with America. The book is a sad testimony to how an ideological temperament, no matter what its doctrine, drains the political culture it claims to advance and saps the civic virtue of the ideologue himself.


Every month brings new indications of the nationalist role-reversal that is prompting Podhoretz's unease: This year's presidential primaries saw conservative leaders of a Republican Party long associated with a flag-waving patriotism scramble to discredit an American war hero who charged that a global capitalist “iron triangle” of big money, bad lobbyists, and undemocratic legislation is debasing his party and his country. Liberals, meanwhile, found themselves casting shy, admiring glances at John McCain's insurgency: On National Public, Radio, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich marveled that McCain had electrified, apathetic citizens, many of whom didn't want patriotism left to Pat Buchanan and Oliver North. In Seattle during the meetings of the World Trade Organization, demonstrators protested the fact that Third World regimes oppose the very environmental and worker protections found in American laws. Our country has many things well worth protecting, and most … are social inventions, not individual factories,” commented Robert Kuttner, editor of the liberal American Prospect. “If this idea makes me a protectionist, I wear the Made-in-USA label with pride.”

These aren't stadium shouts of “U.S.A.I,” nor is there racism or imperialism in such stirrings of national pride. McCain tapped a hunger for what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls the “constitutional patriotism” of Americans who joined the civil rights and anti-war movements to oppose the government on behalf of an American civic nation transcending “blood and soil” and profits. Similarly but more recently, the philosopher Richard Rorty unnerved some fellow leftists by arguing, in “Achieving Our Country,” that national pride is as important to struggles for social justice as self-respect is, and that the left has abdicated its responsibility to keep American self-respect on the sound footing set by Eugene V. Debs, Franklin D. Roosevelt, A. Philip Randolph and others who were anything but conservatives.

What better time, then, for an ideologically conciliatory “love affair with America?” Surveying the ruins of a century's world-saving schemes. Rorty, Michael Lind (in The Next American Nation), the historian Benjamin Barber (in Tihad vs. McWorld) the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset (in American Exceptionalism) and others find the United States pretty exceptional, after all. Not that the country is divinely blessed or racially superior; it's an extraordinary experiment in post-national civic nationalism, perhaps even in democratic world citizenship. The European Union is such an experiment, too. But the United States, founded on liberal Enlightenment terms and peopled too dynamically for ethnic corralling, has become the very progenitor of the very globalism and cosmopolitanism that nudged even the European Union into being. Our flaws are ghastly, yes; but compared to whom?

Another way of making the argument would be to show that even as global forces outstrip old national identities, we still need nations. Individuals can flourish only in societies borne of distinctive narratives, customs and principles—societies in which each of us has a voice and which sometimes we must be nudged, by law, to support. Because men aren't angels, as James Madison famously warned, they need legal and civic structures strong enough to vindicate their rights against impassioned factions and to train the young in the arts and graces of public trust. Only civic nationalism can do that for populations as diverse as America's. Ethnic, racial and religious sub-groups can't. The European Union, the United Nations and the World Trade Organization can't. That leaves American citizenship the promising microcosm of a larger world project: to nourish enough social benevolence and bonds across lines of race and class to offset self-fulfilling prophecies of group mistrust that rationalize all sorts of oppression.

Ideologues, by creating the “factions” against which Madison warned, deplete civic breathing space; the leftists among them sacrifice Madison's constitutional balance to a “cosmopolitanism” so abstract it rationalizes global enterprises fleeing environmental and worker protections. Conservatives, defending even global investments that accelerate the social decay they decry, sacrifice Madison to Madison Avenue. Each side has fought the other to a sterile peace: The left has lost the economic wars to the right, and the right has lost the culture wars to the left, making the more fortunate among us the bourgeois bohemians of David Brooks' recent Bobos in Paradise. Many Americans whose lives are less charmed are left with a sinking feeling that the old decencies driving the McCain and World Trade Organization insurgencies are little more than doomed, wistful gesturings of a lost civic love.


Over to you, Norman Podhoretz! Alas, My Love Affair with America is oddly esoteric and thin, or hopelessly self-referential, oblivious of recent discourse on America's national identity. His acuity seems played out, and in its wake, there is only maundering: Every page or so, he changes the subject to follow some other old war story that has just occurred to him—and to duck a more important insight he'd rather not follow through.

Podhoretz opens (and closes) by remarking on an “outburst of anti-Americanism” among some conservatives whom he had thought were immunized against it. “I should have known better,” he writes, “than to be surprised, familiar as I was with the traditions on which the conservatives were drawing,” such as elitism, racialism, anti-Semitism, and sometimes para-military or terrorist-like opposition to liberal constitutional government. Seeing all this, he recounts, “I fell into a despair … over the possibility that I was now about to earn myself a new set of ex-friends on top of the ones I had made thirty years earlier in breaking with the Left. Fast approaching the age of seventy, I was too old to seek yet another political home.” Fortunately, he claims, right-wingers' “passions cooled” just as he wearily buckled on his armor to defend America again.

The truth, more likely, is not that Podhoretz's right-wing allies calmed and redeemed themselves, or that he feels “too old” to seek another home, but that his enduring resentment of the left has driven him too much into the conservative movement to permit his discovery of the real, less-ideological, America. In this, he shares the sad fate of other northeastern Jewish intellectuals—Irving and William Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb and, in the younger generation, David Brooks and David Frum—who awoke amid the Clinton impeachment campaign to find themselves standing beside “blood and soil” mystics, racists, religious hysterics and aristocrat-wannabes, people as “un-American” as Communists were.

Alas for his colleagues' enlightenment, Podhoretz relives personal triumphs and hurts as if they were templates of the national political culture. Only if you were his biographer or a literary historian would you want to know, for example, how his love affair with America was shaped and shadowed by reactions to a negative review he wrote, in Commentary, in 1953, of Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, which Podhoretz's liberal intellectual “family” saw as the first novel to stake a compelling Jewish claim to full American identity. For Podhoretz, “this unquestionably desirable, and even noble, project failed as literature because it was largely willed … not the natural, organic outgrowth of a state of being already achieved, but rather the product of an effort on Bellow's part to act as if he had already achieved it.” Fair enough, perhaps, but do we really need a chronicle of every major literary figure's whispered or imagined reaction to his review, and of Podhoretz's reactions to the reactions, and of his second-guessing of even his supporters' motives?

What drives these ruminations about everyone else's past failures to celebrate them with full throats and whole hearts? Perhaps it's Podhoretz's discomfort at finding himself yoked, or at least driven, to do some of the right's dirty work in punishing apostates like Michael Lind (who exposed conservatives' enthrallment to televangelists) and Glenn Loury (who exposed their Bell Curve racism) with graceless “good riddances” and insinuations that amount to character assassinations. Podhoretz has done this, even though he knows far better than younger colleagues who behave similarly that, whatever the renegades' eccentricities, many of their criticisms are as valid as any he made of the left.

Worse, he has fronted for positions that intellectual and moral integrity wouldn't abide, and this, too, must have made him uneasy. For example, he keeps circling back to anti-Semitism, gently cautioning conservatives about it. But Commentary has temporized long and tellingly about anti-Semitism on the right, from penning tortuous apologias for Jacobo Timerman's Argentine-junta tormentors to excusing the theocratic conspiracy theories of Pat Robertson, who so loves Israel that he wants American Jews to be there for Armageddon. Podhoretz would never explain away leftist anti-Semitism so sinuously. Surely, every Brooklyn Jewish bone in his body is telling him to slam anti-Semitism wherever it shows its countenance.

Podhoretz has fronted, as well, for a sham less dramatic but more dangerous: Some conservatives' pretense that free markets alone liberate the country's best strengths. He writes, fairly enough, that “radicals were being driven half crazy by the refusal of America in the 1950s to fulfill their predictions of a postwar depression that would generate a new wave of social protest and discontent.” But conservatives, driven even crazier by America's refusal to rise up against Bill Clinton during the impeachment campaign, concluded that social decay and personal irresponsibility had gone farther than they'd realized. What they can't conclude without the help of someone as perspicacious as Podhoretz is that moral decay has advanced behind their own corporate triumphs. For Podhoretz, racial preferences and group labeling are part of the decay of personal responsibility. Worse then is the fact that what had been a liberal agenda is now being usurped by CEOs. When, for example, Washington State's 1998 referendum against public affirmative action passed, the big defenders of preferences were such capitalist combines as Boeing and Microsoft, a fact that made some on the left wonder whether the color-coding of American identity is really so “progressive” after all, and some on the right to wonder whether private-sector bureaucrats can be just as stultifying as public ones.

In another circle of Podhoretzian hell, mass marketing has so shuffled our libidinal as well as racial decks that it's comfortable peddling sexual degradation. The Calvin Klein-cum-kiddie porn ads that showed up a few years ago on New York City buses were put there by private investors in the free market not by liberals. Podhoretz says nothing about any of this. But if it's wrong for the left to demonize as conspiratorial and even fascist the many mindless free-market disruptions of social life, it's wrong for conservatives not even to question corporate priorities.

Podhoretz claims that he left the left for the right because he'd seen “radicalism” through to its ugly bottom. He says he was a “radical” and a “utopian” in the early 1960s, the unwitting bearer of a social “disease” whose flushes of apparent optimism conceal the carrier's ripeness for disillusionment and then complicity in cruelty and oppression. He writes that he naively believed that America could end the Cold War and arms race, abolish poverty and racism, loosen and liberate sexual relations without destructive effects on marriage or the rearing of children (this is the closest the book comes to discussing the feminist movement) “and so on and so on into the blinding visions of the utopian imagination. … I was also convinced that all this could be done through reforms ‘within the system’ and without revolutionary violence.”

Never mind that because many intelligent people did believe such things, we've inched closer to realizing some of them. Did Podhoretz himself truly believe them? Not if, as he also writes, he was seduced by utopian siren songs into an “infidelity” to America that has required his “repentance,” a “painful self-examination of what it was in the ideas I had held and helped to disseminate that could have given birth to the monsters [of anti-Americanism] I now hated and feared.” Had this one-time disciple of Lionel Trilling and F. R. Leavis never considered Edmund Burke or Thomas Carlyle's accounts of the French Revolution? Did he publish Goodman and Baldwin because he was naive, or because they rode the zeitgeist and he wanted to be “with it”—“A critic with a good pair of ears once wrote that he could hear in some of Podhoretz's essays ‘the tones of a young man who expects others to be just a little too happy with his early eminence,’” he tells us. And, “I discovered that … the ideas we had been shaping and disseminating spread faster and further than I had ever dreamed possible”—even to the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses, he recounts. Nothing utopian there. Was Commentary, by any chance, being mailed to the West Wing from Podhoretz's office?

Fortunately, he now says of such disseminations, “[T]here were protections in America against a seizure of power by utopians” such as himself. This would be comforting if there were no other evils or sicknesses imperiling America. But the most likely peril isn't the left's utopian-totalitarian impulses or the right's fascist vagaries but the bread-and-circus decadence, reminiscent more of the late Roman Empire than of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, coming your way relentlessly via the tube, the Internet, the casino, the sex shop and now the psychiatric clinic, where even irreducibly moral crises are medicated away. It's driven less by the left than by the quarterly bottom line and by the marketing division. Against this, Podhoretz's protests aren't even feeble; they're nonexistent. “The economic system [liberals] were denouncing was itself a form of freedom,” he writes. Calvin Klein is with him there.

There's yet another cautionary tale in the book, this one for the chattering classes: While there are times for every new group and talent to make its noisy claim to American acceptance, a full love of a country or culture needn't be “glorified with a full throat.” The Jews' time to do that came (and went) in the first half of the last century with Mary Antin, Israel Zangwill, Emma Lazarus and Alfred Kazin, or, more uproariously, with Bellow and Norman Mailer. By now, more Jewish writers ought to have joined Lincoln in evoking mystic chords of a larger national memory and aspiration. The best such writing (Philip Roth's American Pastoral, for example) is a dance of fewer words and more telling silences. Patriotic bombast and ethnocentrism cheapen civic love.


The literary historian Daniel Aaron describes three stages in the maturing of a fully American writer in “The Hyphenated Writer,” an essay in his collection American Notes. There is the outsider who demands acceptance of his or her group; the more confident interpreter who builds bridges between that group and others, in an idiom all can share; and the seasoned writer who makes a fully American, if ethnically inflected, contribution to some vision of the whole. Aaron is being diagnostic, not prescriptive, but it's hard not to think of Podhoretz as stuck somewhere between the second and third stages, which My Love Affair with America shouts he's attained but which every passage, straining for vindication or ingratiation, shows he hasn't.

Podhoretz knows this. Lamenting years ago, in Making It, that his “family” of Jewish Intellectuals “did not feel that they belonged to America or that America belonged to them,” he fretted that their prose “had verve, vitality, wit … but rarely did it exhibit a complete sureness of touch; it tended instead to be overly assertive or overly lyrical or overly refined or overly clever”—unlike the writing of older-stock Americans such as Van Wyck Brooks and Edmund Wilson, whose “sense of rootedness gave a certain music to their work.” In the 1966 Commentary Reader, Philip Rahv warned that “any attempt to enlist literature in ‘the cause of America’ is bound to impose an intolerable strain on the imaginative faculty.” Far better, Rahv argued, was quieter writing like the lovely closing paragraph of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which, by allusion and understatement, traces the gossamer threads of bafflement, nostalgia and keening in Nick Carraway's dreams of America.

What a long way from demanding that America be “glorified with a full throat and a whole heart.” If Podhoretz truly loves America, where's his contribution to a common narrative? Why these endless, pointless recyclings of old miscommunications and affronts? Why can't he make it to Aaron's third stage?

The answer is clearest in his closing chapter, “Dayyenu American Style,” whose Hebrew word—“Enough for Us”—is the refrain of a Passover song affirming that any one of God's many gifts to the Jews leaving Egypt would have been more than enough. In that spirit, Podhoretz means to count his blessings, but he begins by complaining that gratitude to America has been replaced by whining, citing “the ugly hostility” that greeted William F. Buckley Jr.'s 1983 memoir, Overdrive, in which the author surveys his opulence and feels “obliged to be grateful.” This prompts a digression of a couple of pages on Trilling's misapprehension that conservatism like Buckley's was a collection of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Next, Podhoretz returns to his theme of ingratitude: He touches on old-stock aristocrats' alienation from a society that has sidelined them; the affinity between Southern agrarian conservatives' resentments and what Podhoretz regards as Gore Vidal's anti-Semitism; the difference between Richard John Neuhaus' call for conservative non-compliance with immoral Supreme Court decisions and Podhoretz's own strident anti-Court rhetoric (concerning racial preferences).

A reader wonders where all this is leading. So, apparently, does Podhoretz. Reviewing these contretemps, he sighs, “I was not about to make any predictions as to what lay in store for this country with which I was madly in love. Having entered even by today's standards of longevity into old age, I found it, as the elderly always have, more comfortable (and less threatening!) to look back than to look ahead.” At last, he says what he's grateful for—the distinctively American philanthropic ethos that gave him scholarships, and, more profoundly, for “a system in which, for the first time in history, individuals were to be treated as individuals rather than on the basis of who their fathers were. …”

“I know, I know,” he adds defensively, “This principle was trampled upon by slavery …” There follows a new round of regrets about race and Vietnam, more pieties, and, “looking back as a septuagenarian on my life as an American, I am again reminded of something Jewish. …” Funny thing; so am I. Over the centuries, the old refrain “dayyenu” has taken on an impish inflection—“Enough, already!”—as merry seder-goers tire of the liturgy and demand to eat. But Podhoretz can't stop his recitation. He tells us that if America had given him only the English language, then dayyenu—that would have been enough.

Had it sent him to great universities in New York and England, dayyenu—surely that would have been enough. And on and on: his chance to mingle “with some of the most interesting people of my time”; to run a magazine with complete freedom for 35 years “even when I was spending ten of them ungratefully attacking … America itself”; his country home, where he is “writing these very words … behind an unpainted wooden door that … snaps shut with the very same satisfying click that so mysteriously broke the dam of tears in the nineteen-year-old boy I was more than fifty years ago.”

Dayyenu, Norman. Enough, already. It's more than 30 years since you first wrote about those tears. One of your nemeses and a mentor of mine, the late Irving Howe, didn't room at Cambridge or sup at its high tables, but when his garment-worker father's union won a strike, there was meat on the family table in the Bronx more than once a week for the first time in years. Right though you are about some things Howe got wrong, why not thank an America where, even today, Los Angeles janitors have rights enough to stake their own modest claim on opportunity and where your fellow septuagenarians who couldn't win Fulbrights had the GI Bill? One needn't be a socialist to do that; a good civic Madisonian could. Open your door a little to an America beyond both ideology and egoism, and stop giving patriotism such a small, sad name.

Seth Lipsky (review date 31 July 2000)

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SOURCE: Lipsky, Seth. “The Patriot.” National Review 52, no. 14 (31 July 2000): 45-6.

[In the following review, Lipsky offers a positive assessment of My Love Affair with America, agreeing with several of Podhoretz's major themes.]

When Norman Podhoretz stepped down as editor of Commentary, the Forward, which I was then editing, published a Podhoretz Sampler. To compile it we read all of the pieces he had written for the magazine he edited for 35 years. It would have been possible to garner a memorable paragraph from nearly every one of them, though limitations on space permitted us to quote only two dozen. We wrote a brief italic introduction that described the sampler as a “salute to a giant of Jewish journalism.” This point stopped a few of the editors momentarily, and we worked the phrasing around a bit. Maybe, we thought, we should call him a giant of American journalism. Out of deference to the Forward's beat, we stuck with Jewish, though Podhoretz is, of course, a giant of both.

This fact is underscored by his slim memoir, My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative. He opens with a little disquisition on patriotism, quoting Bertrand Russell as saying, “Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess,” and explaining that he, Podhoretz, feels much the same way about America. He says he only plumbed the depths of that feeling in the course of being driven, almost against his will, to defend the country against its ideological enemies on the Left. He then sketches the arc of his ardor, starting in elementary school in Brooklyn, on through his years at Cambridge and his service in the army, and then the editorship of Commentary. This encompassed ten years during which he fell in with the very left-wing critics against whom he would appear in intellectual arms during the climactic years of the struggle against Soviet Communism.

Many have followed the trajectory Podhoretz took from Left to Right. Millions of Jews, immigrants themselves or, like Podhoretz, the children of immigrants, have found that America—its freedom and opportunities and decency—awakened in them an affection that is almost religious in its fervor. I have been struck by the number of Jewish intellectuals who are infatuated, even obsessed, with the American Founders and their written campaign on behalf of American constitutionalism: Podhoretz, one can see here, is among them. What is different about him is the fidelity with which he has maintained a focus of Jewish particularity throughout his career, a record that has inspired a lot of us who have followed, to one degree or another, in his wake: this, and the shrewdness with which he has been able to discern the Jewish interest through the fog of the wars of ideas.

Podhoretz obviously came from great stock. Among the many diverting asides here is one about his mother's reaction to the discovery that the other winner of Columbia's Kellett scholarship the year Podhoretz gained it was a lad named Emmanuel Chill. Mrs. Podhoretz correctly deduced that it must be the son of Ida Chiel, who came to America with Mrs. Podhoretz and, during the crossing, taught her how to greet in English her father whom she would meet when they landed. The women had drifted apart and lived as members of the working class. “Yet,” Podhoretz marvels, “America had found two of their sons there, plucked them up, and deposited them into a great university in which Jews were still only grudgingly welcomed.”

Podhoretz's early travels abroad quickened his feelings for America. A visit to Israel sealed the deal. “Six weeks there finished what a year in England had inaugurated,” Podhoretz writes. “No doubt the Jewish people had been in exile, but not this Jew, not me. My true homeland was America, and the Jewish homeland was, so far as I was concerned, a foreign country.” While he was happy that Israel had been established as a sovereign state to which persecuted Jews could flee, he could not imagine such a thing happening to him or the Jews of America. But “if, God forbid, it ever did and I was forced to settle in Israel, I would almost certainly feel that I was now in exile.” These sentiments shocked and offended his Israeli friends, none of whom, he observes, could have imagined “in their worst nightmares” that their “post-Zionist” children and grandchildren would one day question “the very legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.”

The issue of carrying criticism of one's country too far is where Podhoretz parted company with the Left in what, for me, has always been the most mystifying chapter of his life: Vietnam. Podhoretz was one of the earliest opponents of American intervention, on the ground that it was, in Gen. Maxwell Taylor's phrase, “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” This view was sharply different from that of more radical opponents of the war. “In that alternative view,” Podhoretz writes, “the American intervention in Vietnam was not a mistaken extension to Asia of the strategy of containment that had worked so well in holding the Soviet Union back in Europe; it was a criminal act of imperialism aimed at suppressing the legitimate national aspirations of a downtrodden dark-skinned people.”

I have come to view America's expedition in Vietnam as having been directed precisely to the right place (where the Communists attacked) and at the right time (when they were attacking). Nonetheless, I found Podhoretz's reprise of this passage in his career not only illuminating but satisfying. His patriotism was sorely tested. But his love of America remained “strong enough to withstand more than a dozen years of deep disapproval over its ever-escalating involvement in a war that I thought it should never have entered.” It also survived a close association with people who did not hesitate to compare America to Nazi Germany. The first time Podhoretz heard such a comparison, over dinner with a good friend, he stormed out of the restaurant, shouting that if he himself felt that way, he'd consider emigration the only honorable course. His friend “responded with a smirk and cut himself another slice of steak.”

The tendency to liken America to the Nazis has shown itself not only on the Left, but occasionally also on the Right, and Podhoretz is vigilant there as well. Hence the “cautionary” aspect of his title. He recounts one notorious such incident, when pro-life advocates, furious over judicial imperialism, asked in the conservative magazine First Things whether revolution was “morally justified” by these abuses. Podhoretz responded by lighting out after a number of his friends on the Right—demonstrating why so many of us have come to rely on his judgment, his shrewdly drawn distinctions, and his patriotism. He gives voice to this sentiment in a moving closing he calls an “American-style dayyenu”—inspired by the Hebrew hymn, recited at Passover, of thanks for God's blessings. Here Podhoretz lists the many blessings America gave him, any one of which would have been enough.

James Bowman (review date September 2000)

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SOURCE: Bowman, James. “Patriotism of the Heart.” New Criterion 19, no. 1 (September 2000): 72-4.

[In the following review, Bowman applauds My Love Affair with America as an “impressive emotional and intellectual autobiography,” particularly commending Podhoretz's ideas regarding American patriotism.]

Why, I wonder, does Norman Podhoretz subtitle the latest installment of his impressive emotional and intellectual autobiography [My Love Affair with America] a “cautionary tale”? Against what are we cautioned? Why should we be warned, like Belloe's naughty children, by a touching account of the education in “Americanism” of a son of Jewish-Galician immigrants, or by the unabashed celebration of American patriotism it gave rise to? Is there a slight ironic joke here? Be careful, or you might find yourself becoming a patriot?

The real story of the book is not so much that of how patriotism was produced by Mr. Podhoretz's experience of this country but of how that experience, or something pretty close to it, engendered both patriotism in him and its opposite in so many of his near-contemporaries. It wasn't long ago that writing a book in praise of patriotism would have been thought an exercise in a class with preaching a sermon, as in the famous anecdote of Calvin Coolidge, against sin. This began to change during the youth of Norman Podhoretz, who, having been born the year after Coolidge left office, was not old enough to have been among the young men who heard the siren song of the Communist left in the 1930s. By the time he came intellectually of age, the Cold War was beginning and patriotism, as earlier generations would have understood it, was having an Indian Summer before the killing frosts of the ideological Sixties made it what it has since become: namely, a partisan sentiment.

There is always some danger to anti-Communists of becoming merely the mirror images of their opponents. If the Communists are against patriotism, then we are for it. But both make the same assumption that it is something you can be for or against, like a rise in interest rates or more money for defense spending, rather than something you are born with, like blue eyes or left-handedness. In the course of Mr. Podhoretz's useful and concise summing-up of the ideological wars of which he is so doughty a veteran, it is not always entirely clear that he escapes from this trap. It is a fine thing, to be sure, that he thinks so highly of the bounty and the security that the United States of America has afforded him, particularly when so many others have been so ungrateful for the same things. But if an even more bountiful and welcoming polity were to rise up out of the sea, would he then transfer his loyalties to it?

The book begins with one of the most famous of the many famous quotations from Dr. Samuel Johnson—the one about patriotism's being the last refuge of a scoundrel—but one that is curiously misunderstood as a lapse in Johnson's usually sound judgment, as several correspondents of The Wall Street Journal pointed out when the confusion was repeated there. Here is the quotation from Boswell, for 7 April 1775:

Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.

Boswell's surprise shows that patriotism understood as “a real and generous love of our country” was even then the primary meaning of the word, but his gloss on what he imagines Johnson really meant does not tell the whole story either. As The Oxford English Dictionary tells us, “patriot,” for the first century or so after its first appearance in English (in 1605), was generally accompanied “with ‘good,’ ‘true,’ ‘worthy,’ or other commendatory adjective” because the word was “often applied to one who supported the rights of the country against the King and court.”

In other words, in Johnson's time it would still have retained some of its connotations as the sophistry of choice for those—many of whom were at that very moment beginning a revolution in North America—who insisted that their hatred of the sovereign was motivated by their love of the country over which his sovereignty was exercised. The fourth edition of Johnson's dictionary, perhaps influenced by the American rebellion, which he opposed, noted that the word was “sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government”—a use which must have been more than occasional, since, as Macaulay tells us, “Horace Walpole scarcely exaggerated when he said that,” in the mid-eighteenth century, “the most popular declaration which a candidate could make on the hustings was that he had never been and never would be a patriot.”

In this respect, therefore, the Johnsonian patriotic scoundrel could be regarded as the direct ancestor of the Communists and fellow-travelers to whose discomfiture Mr. Podhoretz devotes so much of his memoir, men and women who would defend their betrayal of America by pleading a higher, nobler loyalty—originally to the international proletariat and subsequently to mere humanity. Perhaps it should not be surprising that, in America at least, the patriot of the 1770s could be seen as having elided into the anti-patriot of the 1930s. But if Mr. Podhoretz's book has a fault it is that in loudly and commendably hymning the author's sense of his country's virtues, won in the teeth of intellectual fashion, it does not look more deeply into the case of Johnson's scoundrel, who is not really the patriot as such but the man who sets himself up as the only judge of where his loyalties lie.

Nor is this by any means an academic question, as Mr. Podhoretz himself recognizes in his discussion of a controversy sparked by the monthly magazine First Things in 1996. When several contributors to that magazine's symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?” allowed themselves to be construed as suggesting that they no longer owed any obedience to their country's judiciary, which had proved itself adamant in condoning abortion (among other things), Mr. Podhoretz rightly saw it as exactly the sort of thing that the Left had got up to in the 1960s. He wrote to the magazine's editor, his friend Richard John Neuhaus, that “I did not become a conservative in order to become a radical, let alone to support the preaching of revolution against this country.” In this as in other cases where his fellow conservatives have been tempted to despair about the country's moral decline, he has remained resolutely and reassuringly optimistic—which is a sign both of patriotism and of Americanism.

Perhaps, after all, there is more in him than Mr. Podhoretz realizes of his grandmother Esther Malkah whose sense of elemental loyalties was somewhat more primitive. When her son, the author's uncle, was drafted into Uncle Sam's army in the Second World War, her reaction was one of utter fury: Ver iz er, der Uncle Sam? Im bob ikh extra in dr'erd! “Who is this Uncle Sam? Him I would especially like to see six feet under.” Mr. Podhoretz comments that, even had she known what the fate of the Jews in Europe was,

she was altogether incapable of minding anyone's business but her own, which extended to her children and grandchildren and not a micromillimeter farther than that. Compared to their welfare, nothing was of any importance; and anything that harmed them (a category that self-evidently included being drafted into the army) was bad, period, with no discussion or elaboration needed or even allowed.

Like other forms of unreflective organic attachment, Esther's devotion to her family seems morally rather dubious these days. Its patriotic equivalent is in Stephen Decatur's famous toast at Norfolk, Virginia, in 1816. “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” No one nowadays holds up such patriotism as any kind of a model to follow. That way, we think, lies “ethnic cleansing” and the ovens of Auschwitz. (Though it would be interesting to know how far, in fact, “Hitler's willing executioners” were motivated by their love of country.) But Norman Podhoretz's charming and readable book implicitly suggests that the patriotism of the heart, for the most part overshadowed in it by that of the head, is not so unlike Stephen Decatur's as we have all grown used to thinking.

Ellen Willis (review date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Willis, Ellen. “Buy American.” Dissent 47, no. 4 (fall 2000): 108-11.

[In the following review, Willis disagrees with Podhoretz's overly affluent view of patriotism in My Love Affair with America.]

In a recent issue of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz pronounces American Pastoral Philip Roth's best novel, while confessing his uncertainty that this is a disinterested aesthetic judgment, because the novel's political implications resonate so well with his own views. At first this scruple struck me as misplaced. Though I agree with Podhoretz on little else, I was blown away by American Pastoral, which taps into the potency of the American dream—and the poignancy of American naiveté—on a level that transcends ideology. Contemporary fiction has offered few characters as compelling as Roth's protagonists, the New Jersey-Jewish star athlete and successful businessman, whose blond good looks inspired the nickname “Swede,” and his Irish, ex-beauty-queen wife, who raises cattle. (Their daughter, who destroys their lives by becoming a Weathermanesque radical and bombing the local post office, is less well realized; by the end she is something of a caricature, leaving the impression that Roth understands her no better than her devastated parents do.) Yet after reading My Love Affair with America, I can more easily believe that Podhoretz would reduce Roth's complex and unsentimental vision to a political message, for this memoir-cum-polemic is shockingly one-dimensional and smug.

On being asked to review Podhoretz's book, my first reaction was that I had already reviewed it, twenty years ago. And indeed, much of it is a rehash of earlier works: once again we meet the poor Jewish boy from Brownsville, taken in hand and “sivilized” by an aristocratic WASP high school teacher, Columbia, and Cambridge; once again, the magazine editor who is seduced by the utopian chimeras of the left, then does battle against them. Though the introduction promises something new—a discussion of anti-Americanism on the right—the delivery turns out to be brief and perfunctory.

What is new about this book is signaled in the subtitle: “cheerful” aptly describes Podhoretz's demeanor, where in previous writings words like “contentious.” “embattled,” and, at times, “resentful” sprang to mind. Despite enlisting the likes of Henry Adams, Henry James, and Alexis de Tocqueville as interlocutors, his narrative is less a meditation on patriotism than an inspirational tract. Though Podhoretz's first and best memoir-cum-polemic, Making It, was also about his love affair with America, it was an affair with ambiguities and tensions. Now such complications are recalled fondly, as the early struggles of a long and prosperous marriage might be; the journey toward assimilation is invoked mainly as proof that Podhoretz has earned the right to be as earnest, not to say corny, in his patriotism as any character out of Our Town. Similarly, he likens his short-lived veer to the left in the sixties to an episode of infidelity whose resolution has left the marriage stronger than ever (as often happens in such circumstances, he displays a suspicious need to constantly reaffirm his passion). Self-consciously seventy, he embraces the persona of mellow elder statesman, even making some conciliatory remarks about the culture war, which he sees as having reached an armistice, or what others less cheerful than he might call a stalemate.

Along with Podhoretz's new mood comes a marked disinclination to focus his argument; he rambles and free associates on subjects ranging from his immigrant relatives to anti-Semitism to Saul Bellow, punctuating his text with long, footnoted asides. He seems to want to entertain his readers into agreeing with his point, which is that we live in the best of all possible worlds. His love affair with America and his more recent love affair with capitalism ultimately converge in a love affair with his own good fortune, which he apotheosizes in a chapter called “Dayyenu American Style.” The reference is to the Passover song that recites the many blessings God has bestowed upon the Jews, ending each verse with “dayyenu” (it would have been enough). “America is not God,” Podhoretz graciously stipulates; yet America, as he sees it, has bestowed analogous blessings on its citizens. After calling on us all to give thanks for the Constitution and its fruits, he gets to what, for him, is the heart of the matter: “If America had only granted me the inheritance of the English language, that would have been enough. But America then sent me to a great university,” and so on. He ends the chapter, and the book, by thanking America for his apartment in Manhattan and his house in East Hampton.

Although this stuff verges on unintended satire, Podhoretz does not ignore the existence of Americans less well off than he. Rather, he repeats the standard conservative response to attacks on increasing inequality: no problem, because capitalism generates so much wealth that virtually everyone has enough; even the poorest American is rich by the standards of Bangladesh. In this vein Podhoretz invokes a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, according to which 40 percent of families below the official poverty line own their own homes, 92 percent have color television, and sizable majorities have microwave ovens, air conditioners, and cars. “What most Americans care about,” he declares, “is what they have, not what Bill Gates and George Soros have.” The left, in contrast, is mired in the complementary sins of ingratitude and envy.

I'm not in a position to assess the statistics, but the argument misses the point. What's wrong with economic inequality is not simply that one person owns more than another—it's that some people have the power to subordinate others by doling out or withholding the means of subsistence. The poor are those who have the least control over their fate and are effectively excluded from participation in a social world defined by access to material goods and cultural opportunities they don't have. From this perspective, the relevant frame of reference for discussing Americans' standard of living is not the third world but other advanced postindustrial nations, or better yet, our own recent past—the genuine mass prosperity of the fifties and sixties. And the impact on most Americans of the last two decades' dramatic upward redistribution of wealth is best measured by people's declining control over the conditions of their work and their lives. I don't care about Bill Gates's personal possessions. I care about the power of the rich to dominate politics and policymaking, to defund public goods, to resist regulation, to deny workers job security and benefits, to enforce long hours of work for low wages, to bid up the price of land and housing, to reshape all social institutions on the model of the hierarchical corporation. I care, in short, about democracy.

Podhoretz recognizes that dedication to as-yet unrealized ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution might, as he puts it, “present itself as a higher form of patriotism.” Though he can't quite bring himself to acknowledge that this brand of patriotism always competed with Amerika-hating third-worldism for the soul of the new left, he attributes his own left turn to “a limitless faith in the perfectibility of this country.” But since this very faith implied dissatisfaction with America as it was, Podhoretz sees it as bearing the seeds of anti-Americanism. He makes the familiar argument that utopianism is bound to turn into hatred of a world and a people resistant to utopian aims, which is why utopians who gain power end up committing mass murder. It follows that America's best defense against this fate is democracy “as it presently exist[s] in the real world.” This theme also informs Podhoretz's critique of various elements on the right. Paleoconservative nativism, the symposium in the “theocon” journal First Things that suggested revolution might be justified in view of the Supreme Court's refusal to overturn legal abortion, and Paul Weyrich's call for the Christian right to abandon politics because the American people refused to support Clinton's impeachment are all cited as unacceptably hostile to real-world American democracy. Here Podhoretz sounds almost like a liberal. After all, the left today has thoroughly marginalized its utopians, arguing that democracy as it exists is the best we can do (give or take a little tweaking to curb the worst excesses of the market). Yet it has clearly never occurred to Podhoretz that the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism is itself utopian—in that the free market is an abstraction that has never actually existed—or that its triumphal pursuit on a global scale poses a more formidable challenge to American patriotism than the delusions of nativists, theocrats, and third worldists combined.

The present status of the United States as “the world's only superpower” and headquarters of the world economy tends to obscure the fact that the American government must operate within bounds strictly circumscribed by the agenda of the world's economic elite. The new economic order entails a massive transfer of power from nation states to transnational corporations, from elected officials to unelected managers, and from national business classes with a stake in their countries' well-being to global conglomerates concerned only with securing the cheapest possible markets and ruthless about moving around their capital to discipline governments or buy them off. As a result, America is governed less democratically than it was thirty years ago, is further from fulfilling what to most people is its promise—which is not that the poor will own their trailers but that everyone, or almost everyone, will be middle class—and is no more a genuinely independent entity than the New York Stock Exchange.

What does it mean to be a patriot under these circumstances? I use the word “patriot” loosely, to cover those of us who believe that our formation as Americans and our attachment to America's abstract ideals, its concrete culture, or both are relevant to our political aspirations. But in truth I find patriotism a problematic concept. Although it is not exactly the same thing as nationalism, it does imply an a priori loyalty to the nation (as in “I pledge allegiance to the flag”): one can count oneself a patriot, in the strict sense, and oppose American policies, even call for revolution—but only if one's assumed framework remains the sovereign state. And though I accept that framework for many practical purposes—I see myself as a citizen in an American polity, I vote, I would defend the United States if it were attacked by a foreign power—I resist it philosophically. In a larger political and cultural sense, I am for globalization, which is to say cosmopolitanism. It's globalization without representation, globalization on corporate terms that I abhor. In any case it is no longer a serious option to concentrate on preserving or extending democracy in one country, and the economic nationalism espoused by some on both the right and the left would be a futile as well as reactionary move. Politically it really is one world, ready or not.

This in no way means that an American left can ignore the country that remains our immediate context and, for most of us, a crucial aspect of identity. How then can our “Americanness” contribute to a democratic politics that transcends the American nation-state as such (assuming, as I do, that desires for freedom and equality are not intrinsically American, or Western, but human)? The possibilities cannot even be imagined, in my view, without recourse to that ecumenically maligned and dutifully repressed requirement of political creativity: a utopian vision. There's no denying the devastation that utopian thinking gave rise to—or became an excuse for—in this century; yet to pronounce it, in Podhoretz's words, “logically and psychologically inherent in utopianism” is a narrow reading of history. For if democracy as a utopian ideal can be said to have produced its negation in communist totalitarianism, it has also inspired our own long and continually unfinished struggle to put its principles into practice, as well as similar struggles throughout the world.

The ideal of democracy as something more than just “what is” is not purely abstract for Americans. It is a dynamic, if often submerged, element in our culture, reflected in the irreverence toward authority and toward one's “betters,” the expansive optimism, the urge to transcend limits, the penchant for self-invention, the belief in material pleasure as a human right for which Americans are justly known. That these very impulses, especially the last mentioned, have often been enlisted in the service of corporate power and profits is also true. The point, though, is this: perhaps America's distinctive contribution to a global democratic politics is the idea of an immanent utopia—a vision of freedom and equality constructed from those democratic tropisms already embedded in our bones, a movement propelled not only by dissatisfaction with what is, but by appreciation of what is incipient. For me it's the wife in American Pastoral, with her fierce battle against being forever defined as “the former Miss New Jersey,” who best embodies America's utopian strain—not the “revolutionary” daughter.

Right now, of course, the momentum is with the Podhoretzian view of America as a magnificent flagship that will capsize if too many people demand access to the first-class deck: can't they shut up and be happy they're along for the ride? For Podhoretz, though, even this is not enough; he wants everyone to be as happy for the first-class folks as the latter are for themselves. He deplores, for instance, the “ugly” response of liberal book reviewers to a memoir in which William F. Buckley Jr. describes “in almost lubricious detail” his luxurious life, from his “big house on the water” to his “outsized limousine driven by the perfect chauffeur (one of a host of equally perfect servants),” and concludes that “we are obliged to be grateful” for America's bounty.

Why Podhoretz is so insistent that people like Buckley—or himself—deserve to be applauded for kvelling over their assets is a question better addressed by psychoanalysis than by social commentary. But the poverty of his origins may explain his incomprehension that hostility to such recitations has less to do with envy, or even with P.C. moralism about consumption and greed, than with a more primitive bourgeois reflex: what middle-class mother has not warned her children that it isn't nice to brag about what they have? It's a nicety designed to preserve the myth that we have no classes in this country.

Podhoretz may imagine that he is speaking for all who have caught some corner of the wave of twentieth-century American prosperity, but what he's actually doing is spilling the beans. Does a patrician with a retinue of servants really fit the image of what America is supposed to be about—even if he's grateful?

There's an item in Podhoretz's “Dayyenu” litany that younger members of his own urban upper-middle, knowledge-producing class—surely a sizable portion of his readership—are likely to find particularly tactless: of course it's that Manhattan apartment, “much like the one in which the affluent parents of some of my classmates at Columbia had lived.” After all, he must know that these days—as the price of housing in Manhattan has gone the way of tulips in sixteenth-century Holland, abetted by the gutting of rent regulation—no one but the truly rich can acquire such a place. Unlike the myriad poor displaced by rent inflation, the artists, writers, teachers, students and other assorted middle-class Americans now being pushed out of the heart of the city will not thereby lose a decent roof over their heads—“merely” the convenience and cultural amenities of a downtown way of life.

The irony is that with the escalating transformation of Manhattan into a plutocratic monoculture (and similar developments taking place in other “desirable” cities, from Boston to San Francisco), this very way of life, whose essence is social and economic variety, is on its way to being destroyed. How, amid the statistics debunking the importance of equality, are we to assess the loss of a version of America in which people of all classes and many cultural sensibilities must share the same space, non-drivers and other misfits can survive, bohemians and intellectuals and dissidents can find each other, and those of us with no taste for suburbia can feel at home? This land may be your land, it may be my land, but it is indubitably their real estate. Would that Podhoretz and his fellow cheerleaders knew the difference.

Michael Potemra (review date 9 December 2002)

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SOURCE: Potemra, Michael. “Voices of the One God.” National Review 54, no. 23 (9 December 2002): 46-8.

[In the following review, Potemra lauds Podhoretz's study of biblical realms in The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are, asserting that the author intelligently and delicately explains the history of religious prophets, their lives, and their messages.]

Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el.” The time is the late 8th century B.C., and the speaker is Isaiah the prophet; he is telling Ahaz, the king of Judah, about a sign of hope that will soon be manifested in his war-threatened kingdom. This, at least, was how the verse was understood for the centuries before the birth of Jesus; but since the advent of Christianity, exegetes eager to find confirmation of the story of Jesus' virgin birth have read “virgin” for “young woman.” Surely, they say, the Church—as the inheritor and thus the new “copyright holder” of the Hebrew Scriptures—has the right to amend the traditional understanding in the light of the new, greater truth.

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This passage appears in both the prophecy of Isaiah and the book of Isaiah's contemporary, the prophet Micah. Its actual author and date are unknown, but its context in the Scripture is clear: It refers to a future situation of peace and prosperity, which will obtain after Israel has defeated its enemies and won a global victory for its God. This, at least, is how the passage was understood until the emergence of liberal agnosticism—which saw in this prophecy the outline of a peaceful and just human society that can be brought about by human hands. Surely, they say, liberalism—as the inheritor of the Hebrew ethical system—is right to build its institutions according to this prophetic blueprint, and equally right to discard anything in the blueprint that smacks of theology or tribalism.

To the Christians in the first example and the secularists in the second, Norman Podhoretz says: Not so fast. The prophets have their own message, which deserves to be heard and understood in its own integrity before being appropriated in the service of other agendas, no matter how apparently noble. Podhoretz is famous as a combative political essayist, but in this excellent new book [The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are] he leaves his habitual arena for the dramatically different world of impartial religious scholarship—and ends up making a very strong contribution to public understanding of the Hebrew prophets. They were, he concludes, not chiefly interested in predicting Christianity, or in propagandizing for secular social justice; they were, rather, engaged in a very this-worldly struggle against the particular challenges of idolatry in their own time and place.

Podhoretz's training as a literary critic is evident in the seriousness and sensitivity with which he examines the Biblical texts. His response to those who see the “Immanu-el” passage (Isaiah 7:14) as a prophecy of the virgin birth is a case in point. He notes that the Hebrew uses the word ha-almah, “young woman.”

The problem is that the word for virgin in Hebrew is b'tulah, and since that very word appears twice within the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah (and twice more in Chapters 40-66), it seems highly unlikely that the author or editor of 7:14, whoever he may have been, would not have used it here if what he had wanted to say was “virgin.”

Similarly, in arguing against the secular messianists who seek to build the peaceable kingdom without reference to God, Podhoretz pays close attention to the Scriptural contexts from which their favorite passages have been ripped. The swords being beaten into plowshares, the lions lying down with lambs, and so on all coexist with the harshest of rebukes to idolaters and the bloodiest analyses of real-life power politics. The same chapter of Micah that tells us about the nations never learning war again (4:3) also proclaims, a few lines farther down, that God “will make your horn iron and your hoofs bronze; you shall beat in pieces many peoples, and shall devote their gain to the Lord, their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth” (4:13).

Combining the two passages—as Micah or his editors actually did, by putting them so close together in the first place—we see a prophetic vision of a world at peace because bloody war has been fought and won on behalf of the Lord. It is a vision of peace through strength, one Podhoretz goes so far as to call a “pax Israelitica.

Podhoretz's thesis is not, it is clear, designed to be palatable to universalists of various stripes. He writes that the message of the prophets has not been appropriately “transcended” and universalized in the religious sphere by the Christians, nor in the geopolitical sphere by the secularists; it has, rather, been misunderstood and mangled in both cases. But it would be wrong to view this important work as primarily a polemic against these adversaries. In the case of the Christians, Podhoretz explicitly disavows any intention of “engaging in a dispute with anyone who believes that Jesus was the Messiah”:

As a Jew, I am by definition not among [the Christian believers], but the last thing in the world I want to do is challenge [their] faith. What I do feel it necessary to challenge, however, is the idea held by many pious Christians throughout the past two millennia that the Book of Isaiah foretells the coming of their faith.

As for today's liberal secularists, he reserves his strictures against them for his final chapter, to which I will return momentarily.

What this book is, above all, is a call for honesty—and modesty. Podhoretz's foremost concern is that the prophets be allowed to speak in their own voices; this is therefore a scholar's work, an attempt to understand the prophets as they understood themselves.

And in this task, Podhoretz succeeds admirably. The bulk of the book is a reading of the Hebrew Bible as the chronicle of a highly unusual struggle within a people, the Israelites, who have somehow, mysteriously, been chosen by God. This people bears a specific message—a code of both ethics and ritual—that has the stamp of the divine upon it, and that is copiously authenticated by the various wonders performed by its Author. And yet: No sooner has this people witnessed its liberation—by God—from an enslaving power than it suddenly decides to attribute the glory of this miraculous act to the statue of a calf. This will become the pattern for Israel throughout its canonical history: It will reject, again and again, the one true God for various pagan idols. And, again and again, the chief force calling the people of Israel back to the true God will be the navi or prophet.

The prophets—from Abraham, Aaron, and Elijah, through Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, down to the post-exilic Malachi and Second Zechariah—have been animated by the single key goal of waging war on the idolatry rampant among the Israelites. They viewed themselves as fighters for an ancient and particular faith that happens to have been revealed by God.

Podhoretz makes a convincing case, based on many hundreds of Biblical citations—so many, indeed, that the book has a value entirely independent from its thesis: It can stand as a balanced, intelligent, and excitingly written history of ancient Israel. Adding to the story's immediacy, source notes—including Scriptural chapter-and-verse numbers—are relegated to the book's back pages. This makes a greater difference than one might expect, because it underscores the fact that the prophets did not think of themselves as writing a canonical Scripture; what they were doing was defending their ancient faith in a very specific religio-political situation. It is only because they did so with great power and eloquence that their words later became Scripture.

Podhoretz's subtitle promises to tell us not just who the prophets were but also “what they are.” And that brings us to the book's last chapter, which tries to discover the meaning of the prophets' message for contemporary society. Podhoretz has set himself an unenviable task here, because he has just spent a few hundred pages arguing that others have obscured the truth about the prophets in order to further their own agendas; if he were to reveal, in his final chapter, that the Hebrew prophets were actually American neoconservatives avant la lettre, he would run the risk of being attacked for doing precisely the same thing.

It comes as quite a relief, therefore, when the final chapter turns out to be an exhortation to moral engagement, accompanied by a warning against the temptation to self-righteousness that is inherent in moral passion. It is here that Podhoretz takes on, mildly but firmly, the contemporary utopians whose “tumultuous moral and political ambitions … wipe out all doubt about their own virtue and about the wickedness of any who might be misled by ‘moral realism’ into entertaining so much as a smidgen of skepticism.”

Skepticism as the proper attitude toward ambitious schemes: This is a very Burkean concept. No less Burkean is Podhoretz's observation that “in moral idealism … there is little if any tolerance for human weakness.” Both of these observations betoken the true modesty of the genuine monotheist, who recognizes that, in God, there is an authority beyond himself. But this modesty has two sides. In addition to the first—an unwillingness to judge harshly the failings of others—there is a willingness to stand up for divine truth, as one understands it, at the risk of being defeated and humiliated.

And even at the risk of being wrong: Podhoretz details with bracing honesty the predictions of the prophets that did not come true. This is in fact one of the most eloquent arguments for the overall veracity of the Bible: If the Bible were a purely human invention, wouldn't its editors have been smart enough to correct its failed prophecies, to delete its self-contradictions? (Similarly, if the Bible were just a pro-Israelite geopolitical tract, wouldn't the editors have left out the mountains of detail about Israel's sins and crimes?)

But the prophets—many of whom were understandably reluctant—knew that their mission was not in the service of their own egos. They were not standing athwart their time because they themselves were superior to its shortcomings; they did so, rather, because God was superior to those shortcomings, and He told them what to say. In the recent controversy about the U.S. intelligence failures concerning 9/11, it has been observed that some agencies have the self-protective rule, “We may not always be right, but we are never wrong.” The prophet is not allowed this mantle of self-protection; his ego must be sacrificed.

Podhoretz locates today's central idolatry in the worship of self, and the consequent social antinomianism. But even here a genuine prophet's modesty is visible. Podhoretz is speaking as a monotheist, one who emerges from a particular tradition, but he does not require that one accept his religious premises:

We need not believe in heaven and hell—or even, if it comes to that, in God, let alone the God of the Hebrew Bible—in order to accept that our lives are governed by laws whose “terms” we all know in our “inmost hearts”; that people who obey those laws will be blessed; and that people who disobey them will be cursed. … One can serve God without being aware that He exists; one can even do so (if, as with the ancient empires, it suits His plan) through wickedness. And if one can all unawares serve God through wickedness, how much more so can one serve Him through virtue—even while denying Him?

Podhoretz acknowledges that his views on these matters are “heterodox.” But there is a truth at the heart of them that the canonical prophets would have acknowledged: that there is a “still, small voice” in the human soul. Is this voice a divine mandate, or is it the natural law of the philosophers? These questions will be asked until the end of time. In the meantime, let us ask—as Norman Podhoretz has done in this marvelous book—what that voice has said, and continues to say.

Hadley Arkes (review date January 2003)

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SOURCE: Arkes, Hadley. “The Prophets Today.” New Criterion 21, no. 5 (January 2003): 62-7.

[In the following review, Arkes examines Podhoretz's theological theories and beliefs in The Prophets, noting that Podhoretz presents the material with humility and respect.]

Norman Podhoretz approaches the prophets of the Hebrew Bible with all the care that scholarship can bring to the project [in The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are]. But his purpose in the end is to administer a jolt—to bring out the challenge that classical prophecy would pose against the orthodoxies of our own day. Those new orthodoxies have commanded their deepest allegiance among the political class that rules now in the academy and the media, in the schools of law and the courts. That the outlook of this class has come to be seen as so intertwined with “modernity” is not to establish the futility of classical prophecy or the irrelevance of what the prophets had to teach. It may only confirm that the ancient vices of idolatry have taken a shape more suited to our own times. When they are recognized in their various modern guises they may seem tame in their familiarity, but Podhoretz urges us to take seriously the notion that they hold for us, today as in the past, the same evil that the prophets had the wit to see and decry in their own age.

And yet, the classic Hebrew prophecies came to us at times in parables, with some layers of meaning discretely hidden from the vulgar. Uncovering those layers of meaning has given rise to a whole industry, or vocation, of biblical scholarship. Podhoretz has disclaimed the authority of the most accomplished biblical scholars, some of whom were his own teachers. That disclaimer might have been too modestly made, for his learning here is considerable. When he majored in English at Columbia in the early 1950s, he also worked toward a degree of Bachelor of Hebrew Literature at the College of Jewish Studies, then a division of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Abraham Joshua Heschel was on the faculty then, and Podhoretz came to know other scholars in this field when he published them in Commentary magazine. He took on the editorship of Commentary in his late twenties, after a stint of study in Cambridge, and his editorship ran for nearly forty years.

Some reviewers have been so struck by the biblical scholarship that they have fastened on that character of the book; but in that reading, I think, they miss the point. What is at work in the book are the same perspective and concerns that were described in his editorship. His understanding was furnished by a serious study of literature and theology; and in growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s he had cultivated at least that urbanity of one anchored in the world, able to see it as it was. From this background of study and experience, he brought his intelligence to bear on the issues that vexed our politics. His concern is to read the prophets seriously, but to read them with a sense of what they may genuinely have to say about those issue of moral consequence that trouble our politics right now. In this sense, as Podhoretz notes, he brings to the task the character of an “amateur” in the most literal sense, as one who loves the subject and approaches the prophets with love and reverence.

To take in the full sweep of the prophets, from Joshua to the Second Zechariah, from the death of Moses to the end of the sixth century B.C.E., is to take in a history of the Jews that is worthy of Hollywood, in its scenes of miracles and mayhem, of picturesque slaughter along with romance and martyrdom. There are warriors collecting foreskins of their enemies and aggressive wives, like Jezebel, egging on their pusillanimous husbands.

After Joshua's breathtaking performance at the battle of Jericho, he does an encore no less striking. He confronts a coalition of Amorite chieftains, and God comes to his aid again, raining hailstones down on the Amorites, and granting yet another miracle: He will have the sun stand still until Joshua finishes off the Amorites. After the death of Joshua, an angel appears, delivering yet another in what would be, over the years, a string of familiar complaints and charges: The children of Israel are denounced for failing to fulfill their part of the covenant with God, the God who brought them out of Egypt, and even now promises not to abandon them. But the Israelites have mingled with the inhabitants of the surrounding lands, and picked up their habits. They set up altars in groves, and some fall into the worship of Baal. The saga of the prophets becomes an ongoing series of recriminations and warnings, of dooms foretold, to a people that have fallen away from the “laws and statutes” of the one God. For it is precisely those laws and statutes that have defined the people of Israel and their mission as a people “chosen.”

Samuel warned the Hebrews that if they chose to be governed by a king, they would experience all of the corruptions that come with monarchy. Kings would deploy their sons and their property as though they were their own. Still, the people shunned that advice, and what followed were the kingships of Saul (c. 1020-1004 B.C.E) and David (c. 1004-965 B.C.E). Podhoretz characterizes them as “relatively benign,” but they were attended with rough times and high costs. After the death of David's son, Solomon, the united kingdom broke into two, with a kingdom in Judah in the north and in Israel in the South. From that point follows a string of disasters, which might have borne out the presentiments of Samuel.

Jewish scholars have been moved, of course, to puzzle about a God who would dispense a rough justice on the people He had chosen, punishing them, say, for the sins of David. But as the story unfolds we see other incidents, as harsh or astounding. The celebrated Elijah offers a challenge to the rival prophets of Baal, collecting about four hundred and fifty of them in a contest to see whose sacrifice could be consumed with fire from above. Elijah's sacrifice is consumed, along with everything in the immediate vicinity, and his adherents then proceed to kill all of the prophets on the other side for the sake of rooting out the idolatry in their midst.

Just from these ingredients, in a story richly unfolding, the record describes a God not at all reluctant to intervene in history and take sides. Elishah exhibited the power of bringing a child back from the dead, and his power did not desert him at his own death, for he managed his own resurrection. And Elijah, after a life filled with incident, had the distinct honor of being borne directly to heaven with a fiery chariot. With these ingredients in place, the story of Christ's advent and resurrection is striking, but not novel. The awareness of that record may only confirm Paul's observation that the account of God-become-man was, for the Jews, a difficulty, but for the Greeks an absurdity.

For the Greeks, and the cultivated pagans of Rome, there were the things that were permanent and the things that were ephemeral and contingent. The God of this scheme was part of the permanent things, but in that event, as Aristotle suggested, God would not have moving parts, for God could not be material. Material things decomposed, and they could not be part of the permanent things. From that understanding one could derive the God who was the First Cause in the universe, the unmoved mover, though not the God who negotiated with Abraham over Sodom and Gomorrah, or the God who died on the cross. The kind of God who could direct Elijah to cross the lines of different polities, cashier the rulers in one place and install rulers in another—that had to be a God with a universal jurisdiction. And it figured: the God who authored a universal law of physics would not have authored a moral law confined to Damascus or Jersey City.

Podhoretz catches the logical core of the matter when he observes that “If only one God exists, then it is axiomatic that He is the God of all people.” The classical philosophers could reason back to a First Cause that is not merely contingent, and Augustine, using his wit to expose the incoherence of the Roman polytheists, suggested that reason itself could work its way back to that one God. Nevertheless, Jews and Christians take, as a distinct teaching of revelation, the God who disclosed himself as the Creator. From that point, Podhoretz engages, as he says, the axioms of reasoning, to extract the God who covers all—and whose laws then are universal. Spinoza had taunted the Hebrews: they would be “no less blessed,” he wrote, “if God had called all men equally to salvation, nor would God have been less present to them for being equally present to others; their laws would have been no less just if they had been ordained for all.”

As Podhoretz argues, however, there was no hypocrisy, because the universal sweep of the teaching had been present from the beginning in the awareness of the God who was One. And for that reason Podhoretz sets himself decorously, but emphatically, against the biblical scholars who seek to argue that there was a shift, somewhere around the time of Amos, from the God tied to a “particular” people, exacting rituals of obedience, to a more universal God, available to all, with “moral” principles that swept now, more broadly, beyond the written statutes and the prosaic, daily rituals. “There is,” Podhoretz writes,

no problem here [of God covering all people with his laws and concern]. A question arises only because God has entered into a special relation with one people alone, the people of Israel.

[H]e affirms that, for inscrutable reasons of His own, God has chosen the children of Israel as the human instrument through which to reveal Himself and to promulgate His laws and His commandments. But in order to spread those laws and those commandments throughout the world, the people of Israel first have to fight against their own attraction to idolatry, which is always standing in the way of their divinely ordained mission.

Podhoretz explains here the puzzle among some commentators as to how early the Jews had been committed to monotheism. Had they not been committed to monotheism from the beginning, from God's covenant with Abraham? Well, yes and no. For as Podhoretz points out there was a lingering “monaltry,” an inclination to worship one God, but to acknowledge other, lesser gods. The continuing war against this paganism defined the mission of the prophets. The record confronting them, in the daily lives of the people, was grim by any reckoning: there were Jews practicing cannibalism at the time of Micah and apparently persisting with the sacrifice of children even at the time of Jeremiah.

Perhaps with a sense of the baseness still unmeasured, still not experienced in its bottomless depths, Amos was moved to declare, with a certain anguish, that even murder may be better than idolatry. What could not be ruled out, in the murders and villainies yet to be licensed when people had detached themselves radically from any sense of the laws that cast up restraints? Later, Zephaniah would insist that God had to concentrate now on Judah and Jerusalem because, as Podhoretz writes, they had been “so thoroughly infected by idolatry of every kind—Baalism, astral worship and child sacrifice dedicated to the god Molech.”

Podhoretz candidly notes that, as political seers, the prophets had a dismal record. Neither Zephaniah nor Nahum foresaw the rise of Persia. Neither Habakkuk nor Jeremiah anticipated that the Persians would take the ascendance over the Babylonians. But Podhoretz argues that acuteness in prediction is not the standard against which the prophets should be measured. By the end of the period of classical prophecy, idolatry had been discredited and virtually purged from the understanding of what defined a Jewish people. By any measure of things, that was a massive achievement, and without it, it is hard to imagine the new sect of Jewish-Christians taking on the task of bringing that rigorous monotheism to the rest of the world.

But at the same time, that achievement could not have been managed by prophets who were willing, in the modern style, to recede from “judgmentalism” at every sign of moral slippage. Nor by men who fancied that they could bring peace to the world by refusing to confront the evil before them. It would be a grave mistake, as Podhoretz says, to identify the prophets with the fuzzy liberalism of our own day, ever ready to turn swords into plowshares (citing Isaiah) and hope that, if the wicked went unopposed by arms, the lion would lie down with the lamb. Podhoretz reads the prophets as men never taken in by that kind of utopianism. They leave to God, and only God, the office of performing miracles. In the meantime, they would call the Jews to look seriously at the evils before them, including the evils of their own making.

As Podhoretz understands the lessons of the prophets, the evils they sought to resist were not confined to Jews. It was just that the Jews had to confront them among themselves before they could rightly take up their mission of bringing the laws to the rest of the world. By the same measure, the things the prophets had to teach would instruct the people who were not of the Jews, and even the atheists. But as he makes this move, he appeals to “the terms which, in his own heart, each man knows.” That is a classical formulation of the “natural law,” the law that is accessible to people even when they do not know, or follow, the laws or the rituals among Jews and Christians. With that move, Podhoretz can encompass figures as diverse as Saul Bellow, a Jew quite detached from the religious tradition, and George Orwell, a professed atheist. In Orwell's courageous opposition to murderous totalitarian regimes, Podhoretz finds a man “doing God's work.” In this vein, appealing to the natural law, Podhoretz appreciates the American Founders with their appeal to “Nature and Nature's God.”

In one form or another, the central vice, as Podhoretz sees it, is antinomianism, the rejection of lawfulness and the moral restraints that the law prescribes. In the ancient world, it came along with paganism and polytheism; in our own world, the detachment from moral restraints comes from moral relativism in all its familiar forms—cultural relativism, nihilism, post-modernism, and even radical feminism, with its denial of “nature” and of moral truths springing from that nature. In our own time, the malady expresses itself most vividly in the release of sexuality from the framework of marriage and commitments sustained by law. The vast wave of divorce has brought wreckage in the lives of children, including rising rates of suicide among the young. With the ethic of easier divorce came a new rationale to justify sacrificing the needs of children to the interests of their parents. As Podhoretz suggests, this may be the form that “child sacrifice” has taken in our own time, and the results have hardly been less deadly.

Podhoretz cites here the Palestinian intifada, where the Palestinians were willing to incite their own children to challenge Israeli tanks, and in that way make martyrs of their children. Yet when it comes to the willingness of parents to sacrifice children to their own interests, and even to see the lives of their children snuffed out, America over the last generation has surely given the world a far more dramatic example. I take it as an example of Podhoretz's delicacy that he says nothing here of abortion, though there could hardly be an example of his point more evident or lethal (with about 1.3 million deaths each year, carried out for nearly thirty years). As the philosopher Robert George remarked, “an infallible sign of [idolatry, or the worship of] false gods is the demand for innocent blood.”

In other instances, the record of universalism and particularism was also politically rather mixed. Was the “wrong” of genocide a universal wrong, to be resisted in all places? Or would the Holocaust be regarded mainly as a crime committed against Jews, with no proper analogue anywhere else? Jews have been resolved that it was a grievous fault of political leaders in the West that they turned away from the prospect of rescuing the victims in Hitler's death camps. But there was no notable movement among American Jews in the 1970s to mobilize American arms to resist the genocide carried out in Cambodia, as the Khmer Rouge slaughtered about two million out of a population of eleven million. Jews showed a reluctance to seem parochial, in defending their own interests, when it came to self-described American Nazis seeking to march through Skokie, Illinois and taunt survivors from Hitler's camps. In this case, organizations like the American Jewish Committee identified the interests of Jews with the interest in preserving a regime of the First Amendment. To my mind, there was a grave mistake in assuming that the First Amendment would be oblivious to an assault in the form of speech, or that it made no distinction between the victims and the assailants. But was this reaction, on the part of the Jewish community, a move to forego the narrow interests of Jews for the sake of becoming the bearer of a broader ethic to a wider community?

Podhoretz argues that the particular is not lost in the universal, that the insistence on ritual does not mark a deafness to a moral world extending beyond the Jews. But as he candidly acknowledges, he has not exactly been Orthodox himself in his adherence to the rituals, with their insistent, daily demands. As he moves to the natural law, written on our hearts—as he moves, that is, to an understanding that encompasses the Jews who have drifted into atheism, along, one might say, with righteous gentiles, he would seem to be moving quite decisively to the side of the moral ethic rather than the particular ritual, to the universal law rather than the rules of the tribe. And he is anchored there even though one enduring question remains unanswered. That is the question of theodicy or God's justice: Why does God permit the wicked to prosper, while the righteous and the innocent suffer? Podhoretz takes it as a cardinal point in favor of the honesty of the Bible that this question is recorded persistently, as a charge against God, even though the answers are never finally satisfying. Habakkuk (c. 586-610 B.C.E.) confronts God on the question, and laments at one point, “Oh Lord, how long shall I cry and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save? Why dost thou show me iniquity and cause me to behold grievance?”

It is surely no answer to the question to retort, as God does to Job, Where were you when I “laid the foundations of the earth”? The problem may not be so acute if one doubts that God intervenes in history, and that a Himmler is receiving his punishment even now, and everlastingly, in the life that comes after death. But the problem remains nagging for the Jews, for as Podhoretz notes, nowhere “does the Hebrew Bible unmistakably and unambiguously hold out the prospect of an afterlife in which rights are wronged and wrongs are righted.” For the Orthodox, these things will be taken care of in “the world to come.” But in the meantime, Podhoretz settles in with the mysteries of God. The doubting, but reverent man, will finally “bow his head, accept in all humility that there are questions he cannot and never will be able to answer, and he will rely on faith to carry him through.” And yet, Podhoretz's faith here seems to be undergirded with the conviction that there are moral laws anchoring our world, laws that instruct us in the ways of duties manfully accepted, and of liberties forborne. With all of the sober doubts there is a conviction that God will keep his promises, that He will say, as He did through Isaiah, “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.”

Publishers Weekly (review date 19 January 2004)

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SOURCE: Review of The Norman Podhoretz Reader: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the 1990s, by Norman Podhoretz. Publishers Weekly 251, no. 3 (19 January 2004): 68.

[In the following review, the critic argues that The Norman Podhoretz Reader: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the 1990s offers a comprehensive selection of Podhoretz's political writing and recommends the collection to “anyone who is interested in reading or writing about ideas in a way that is meaningful.”]

Norman Podhoretz used to say, “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan.” Podhoretz's journey to become one of America's most prominent intellectuals is remarkable: from Brownsville, Brooklyn, where he was the son of immigrant Jews, to Columbia University, Cambridge and finally, the editorship of the important intellectual journal Commentary. During the past five decades, Podhoretz has produced notable books and essays on a variety of topics including literature, politics, Jewish thought and culture. This reader [The Norman Podhoretz Reader: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the 1990s] brings together a collection of these essays and book excerpts, tracking Podhoretz's journey from young literary critic in the '50s (“The Adventures of Saul Bellow”) to leading provocative thinker in the '60s (“My Negro Problem—and Ours”) to prominent and influential neoconservative in later decades (“From Breaking Ranks: Prologue: A Letter to My Son”). Whether he writes about Saul Bellow, Vietnam or Larry Flynt, Podhoretz produces essays that share a common strand: in addition to their general perspicacity and good writing, they are highly personal. Not only do these essays reflect the ideas of the time in which they were written but they also illustrate how those ideas have affected Podhoretz as a thinking person and as a human being. To confine Podhoretz, as many do, to a political camp is to misunderstand the man and his intellectual journey. While faithful conservatives will certainly appreciate this collection, anyone who is interested in reading or writing about ideas in a way that is meaningful should consider reading at least a sampling of Podhoretz's work.

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