Mugged By Reality
Tea with the grandfather of Neo-Conservatism
Joan Crawford’s adopted child famously published a book after the movie star’s death, revealing her to have been a monstrous person and even worse parent. It was titled Mommie Dearest. Norman Podhoretz’s daughter Ruth has pledged to write her own book called Daddy Dearest. “Not say how horrible I was, but to say that I hated Israel, the Jews, conservative pieties, family values and all of that,” he explains. It’s a rain-sprinkled afternoon in early May, and the legendarily cantankerous grandaddy of neoconservatism is in jovial spirits. “I said, ‘You can write it, nobody will believe it’.”
Podhoretz started out a classic Jewish liberal, writing barbed book reviews on the pages of Commentary, the hugely influential publication brought into being by the AJC with the aim of reconnecting assimilated Jews to their cultural and spiritual heritage. In the late 1960s, partly in response to the emergence of the New Left, which he regarded as no less of a threat to democracy than totalitarianism had been, he moved to the right. He was joining a group of thinkers known as neoconservatives, led by Irving Kristol, their so-called ‘godfather’ who famously defined a neocon as “a liberal who was mugged by reality ”. One of the movement ’s founding tenets was the conviction that democracy ’s primary task is to defend itself against those who seek to destroy it. Podhoretz was the first to apply this to US foreign policy, and he did so with the convert’s legendary zeal, deploying the pages of the magazine (he was by then its editor) and his extensive personal influence.
In a career spanning more than half a century, a dozen books and innumerable articles he has helped shape the tenor and terms of America ’s political debate, antagonising and inspiring in equal measure. During the Cold War he served as an adviser to the now defunct US Information Agency, and later he became a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a noted think tank. In 2004, George W. Bush awarded Podhoretz America’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York City, launched his short-lived presidential campaign and made him his foreign policy advisor.
Looking back, Podhoretz ’s influence—bolstered by Commentary, which became a crucible of neocon policy during his 35-year-editorship—could be said to have peaked around the turn of the millennium. If the 9/11 attacks vindicated his warnings about Islamofascism, the global economic crisis swung the focus firmly back to domestic battles, where the battle lines between right and left are drawn over social welfare, immigration and taxation. Despite neoconservatism offering Americans a clear position on these questions, its greatest impact has been upon foreign policy.
As America prepares once more to go to the ballot box, Podhoretz still has plenty to say, not least on the subject of Jewish liberalism, which offends his sense of logic as much as anything. The Jews have thrived in the US like no place else, yet they continue to support a party that, to Podhoretz’s mind, seeks to alter or discard the very social, political and moral system that has facilitated this same flourishing. Bucking the immigrant trend—increasing prosperity generally leads to greater identification with the Republican Party—liberalism has become a religion in its own right, he says, quoting a wag who quipped that Reform Judaism is the Democratic Party with holidays thrown in. “It’s a witticism that has the advantage of being true,” he notes. “They sincerely believe that this is what was commanded by Judaism, whatever the liberal agenda happens to be.” That they know nothing about the Talmud is borne out, he adds, by the fact that Republican candidates do sometimes win votes in Orthodox enclaves. Secularists, meanwhile, confuse Judaism with liberalism.
In the Upper East Side apartment he shares with the writer Midge Decter, his wife and comrade of nearing 60 years, the corridors are lined with music and literature. There are volumes by Poe and Bashevis Singer, and copies of his own works, too, among them one of his favourites, Ex-Friends: Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer.
It’s possible to get from almost any subject to someone Podhoretz knows. Or used to know, since his talent for feuds means it’s more often a case of six degrees of ostracism than simple separation. Take George Soros, for example. Initially, Podhoretz wanted to like him. This was during the Cold War, when the Hungarian- born tycoon was helping to support dissidents in Eastern Europe. Yet when they finally met, Podhoretz took an instant dislike. “I tried to suppress it—he was a good guy then—but that instinct turned out to be sound. There’s a rumour that he’s converted to something or other, I don’t know if that’s true,” Podhoretz pauses, gazing past me to a window that illuminates the room’s washy greens and creams. “Anyway, he despises me and I despise him. We don’t even say hello if we cross paths, it’s a question of who’s going to cut whom first. He’s a little faster than I am recently.”
To the haters on the Left, Podhoretz is a traitor whose boisterous calls for military action against Iran and insistence that he’d rather Sarah Palin were sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama make him all too easy to mock. Yet his background and his life’s journey leave him well-placed to critique the state of American Jewish liberalism.
Moments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the doorman building in this legendarily Waspy neighbourhood is a $30 cab fare and a million miles from Podhoretz’s Brownsville childhood home, in which Yiddish was the first language. As he tells it in his evocative memoir, My Love Affair With America, he spoke English like a little greenhorn. When he enrolled at P.S. 28, his teachers were so perplexed they put him in the remedial speech class for a year. The result is an accent whose cadences are impossible to place. They helped him, he says, win a scholarship Columbia and then Cambridge, setting him on the path that would lead to Commentary. Founded in 1945, the magazine provided a platform—initially nonpartisan—for a series of young Jewish intellectuals. Irving Kristol himself wrote for it; Clement Greenberg, Hannah Arendt and Irving Howe, too. Woody Allen has referenced it in several of his films, including Crimes and Misdemeanours, where it’s to be spied on a bedside table. By the mid-70s, Podhoretz had made it into a sanctuary for disillusioned liberals, and used it to argue that the New Left was a menace akin to Communism, undermining American from within, illiberal and anti-Semitic to boot. As historian Richard Pells puts it: “No other journal of the past half century has been so consistently influential, or so central to the major debates that have transformed the political and intellectual life of the United States.”
There’s a photograph of Podhoretz taken at the magazine’s offices in the 1960s: his tie slackened and his brow furrowed, a lit cigarette between his lips, he stares hungrily into the camera. If those eyes appear to glance back more than forwards these days, the appetite lingers. Though he handed Commentary ’s editorship to his son John in 1995, he remains editor-at-large. As a conversationalist, his answers are precise and yet so full that we both forget which question he was responding to. “I think I’ve written about this somewhere” becomes his refrain as he roams from Kierkegaard’s scandal of particularity to the Orwellian inversion by way of at least one story too blue to print here. His speech is peppered with colloquialisms—the ‘wows’ and ‘whews’ and down-home phrases so redolent to the British ear of a certain kind of literary Americana. Unsurprisingly, he’s not much given to equivocation. What does he think of Isaiah Berlin? “The most wonderful company you could imagine, but he was a coward.” And J Street? “Well, I think they’re a bunch of leftist anti-zionists.”
His last book, published in 2009, was written in response to a question he ’d been asked often: Why Are Jews Liberals? “I would generally say, ‘Well, it’s a long story.’ It turned out to be a hundred thousand words long,” he tells me. It’s not a phenomenon that’s about to cave any time soon, either. Come the election, he predicts that while Obama’s share of the Jewish vote will be less this time round, the President will still scoop a majority. “My guess is that there’s just enough buyer’s remorse and disillusion to knock it down from 78 to 60 which is something, but if this pathology were less intense it ought to be 40, 30. Of course, there are always unforeseen things happening that could push it one way or the other: Israel could attack Iran, who knows.”
Israel, he believes, remains an important factor at the ballot box, despite pro-Israel John McCain’s poor showing in 2008 (among Jewish voters, Obama beat him by a whopping 57 points). “That said, there are a lot of American Jews who are basically indifferent to Israel, and these indifferentists are more likely to accept the default liberal or leftist position.” That position is fundamentally anti-Israel, he believes, even if it claims to be ministering tough love. He takes the long view, setting such feeling in context of a tradition of Jewish anti-zionism that preceded the state of Israel’s establishment—the Orthodox who were waiting for the Messiah, the radical intellectuals who saw it as reactionary bourgeois nationalism and the Reform movement.
“Now, when the state was founded and it became clear that there was an intention to drive all those Jews into the sea, anti-zionism became discreditable because it was tantamount to advocating the wiping out of the Jewish community. Although there were some Jews who didn’t shrink even from that, it got repressed. I’m not a Freudian, but the return of the repressed becomes clear every once in a while,” he says, gesturing to organisations like Peace Now and Breira to suggest we’re currently mired in such a moment. Not that things are as bad as they are in Britain, he concedes. Three years of reading English at Clare College, Cambridge, left him with an enduring affection for the UK, sharpening his anguish at sundry Israel boycotts signed by ex-friends like Aaron Klug, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist. “He was one of my closest friends in the world for many years. Wonderful guy. Was, anyway,” Podhoretz adds. “He was a passionate zionist and a very loyal Jew. I don’t know what happened; I think his kids got to him. I wrote him some nasty letters and—well, that was that.”
Back on American soil, he views the dismal reception that’s greeted Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism as a sign that the tide might be about to turn. “It shows that there are limits, there are some invisible red lines and he certainly crossed them. But when it came out, I really wasn’t sure. It’s now unquestioned conventional wisdom that Israel is an evil place. What’s it got to do with the reality of Israel? Not only nothing, but less than nothing. And I’m not a great lover of Israel,” he adds. In fact, his daughter just might be on to something. As he puts it: “I yield to no one in my disgust with my own people. The Jews are lucky that I am Jewish. Thomas Jefferson once said ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,’ and I’ve often said the same thing about my people. They’re infuriating.” As for Israel, he’d die for it but he could never live there.
The Jewish identity of the neoconservative movement has been exaggerated—just one of the mischaracterisations that it would take hours to straighten out, he promises, after I’ve already taken up nearly two. Under protest, Podhoretz attended a Hebrew high school alongside regular school, progressing to the Jewish Theological Seminary while simultaneously earning his BA at Columbia. To the extent that any of the other neocon leaders were Jewish, most knew far more about Marx than Rabbi Akiva. Nevertheless, the movement is rooted unknowingly in a deeper Jewish ethos, he says, cautioning “We’re going to get into deep waters here,” before pressing determinedly on.
“Look, it’s absolutely vulgar and ignorant to identify Judaism or Christianity for that matter or Islam, with some political programme. I mean, it’s ridiculous—the bible tells you nothing about whether national health insurance is a good idea or a bad idea and so forth. But there is such a thing as an ethos or a spirit. What the Jews were commanded to do was to survive as a people. ‘Choose life’ is the key command that persists from Abraham all the way to Bibi Netanyahu. But I wouldn’t push it too far.”
Dressed in pressed chinos and a shirt almost as blue as his eyes, Podhoretz rests his feet on the coffee table with the casual physicality of a younger man. He was 82 last January. “I don’t dare start a long book,” he confides of his reading habits. “If I see a book that’s longer than 200 pages, I figure it’s a race between it and the grave.” He has been a neoconversative for so long, he says, that he ought properly to be called a paleoneoconservative. “I really feel that for the last 40 years I’ve been more or less making up for the damage I did in the previous 10 or 15 years, and just like Saint Augustine says, the damage I did was only limited by the weakness of my limbs. So there I am,” he sighs. “Well, I’m a much-hated figure even still. I’m an old man, venerable, but they still say very nasty things about me. It’s a price I’m—I won’t say happy to pay, I’d just as soon not pay any price at all—but it’s worth it.” The damage he is referring to is broken friendships but could also be his pre-neocon writing.
“He’s not hated,” an American journalist of similar vintage to Podhoretz tells me later that afternoon, “He’s just irrelevant.” That seems inaccurate. His shaping of the neoconservative agenda laid the foundation for today’s political culture—in which untold dollars are directed towards programmes designed to prise American Jews away from their traditional affiliation to the Democrat party. And, regardless of your views on his views, he is a man whose ardent engagement with the world of ideas and willingness to defend a position represents something lost in a journalistic world of ever-shrinking readerships and a Jewish world of increased affluence and secularism. After walking me to the door, Podhoretz sends me on my way with two things: a kiss blown gallantly into the hallway, and a signed copy of one of his books. Which? Ex-Friends, of course.