The Washington Times
When Norman Podhoretz retired in 1995 after 35 years as editor of Commentary magazine, it was only after having lived one of the great American intellectual lives. The story will be familiar to his readers over the years, since he often found in his own experience a direct route to the heart of the American experience. “One of the longest journeys in the world is from Brooklyn to Manhattan – or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.” So begins “Making It,” his 1967 autobiographical account of the progress that took him from childhood poverty in Brownsville to Columbia University and Cambridge, then on to the editorship of a magazine that he would establish first as the leading intellectual voice of the New Left, later as the leading voice of the “neoconservative” attack on New Left radicalism and defense of the principles and civilizing ideals of the “Free World,” unambiguously and unironically so-called.
The result was a monumental intellectual edifice, reflected not only in his own writing but also in his magazine and the group of writers that came to be associated with it. I have a personal stake in this, I should say. When I moved to New York after finishing college at the University of Chicago in 1982, I had one overriding ambition, which was to prove that I was good enough to write for Commentary, then arguably at its neoconservative peak and the most exclusive intellectual club anywhere. I once calculated that I may have been the first person to write for the magazine who hadn’t been born when Norman Podhoretz became its editor. This utterly insignificant fact in the scheme of things served in my mind to legitimize a generational succession. It told me who I was and what I was a part of.
In 1995, when Norman Podhoretz retired, the world was a very different place from the one we were reading and writing about in the early 1980s. Whereas we had once foreseen the prospect of a “long, twilight struggle” with Soviet totalitarianism, now the Warsaw Pact was gone; democracy and liberal capitalism were taking root in Central Europe; and the Soviet Union itself had broken up. Whereas once we had worried about the prospects of liberal capitalism against its socialist-leaning detractors at home and against its (supposed) internal contradictions, now the market had discredited all competing “models” as a method for the allocation of goods and services and the generation of wealth. Whereas the “logic of collective action” once suggested a permanent government paralysis because of the relations between interest groups, bureaucracies, Congress, etc., now the political world had produced a “revolutionary” Republican Congress and a “New Democrat” in the White House.
Norman Podhoretz was gone. And I, for my part, had become less interested in intellectual matters – the play of ideas – than the application of conservative ideas to the real political world. The period from 1993 to 1996 was, for the right, what the 1960s were for the New Left. Here was the exuberant radicalism of youthful spirit set to the task of changing things once and for all, remaking the country and the world. Somehow, what had begun as a rarefied argument principally among an older generation of intellectuals about the legitimacy of certain American or Western ideas and institutions had become the “Contract with America.” And while I missed the theorizing – or more particularly, while I thought that there was little in the way of theorizing left to be done – the practice had a thrill all its own.
Things did not turn out exactly the way we had hoped. That story is a longer one than I have space for here (see my article, “Gingrich Lost and Found,” Policy Review No. 94, April & May 1999, available at www. policyreview.com). But as to what happened and where we stand, what the condition of our country is, what its position in the world is, and what we are to make of it, it strikes me that those questions call once again for some serious rethinking.
Which is where Norman Podhoretz comes back in. Or rather, where it becomes quite apparent that he never left, that his retirement from the editorship of Commentary wasn’t an endpoint in intellectual engagement but a beginning.
In a number of essays in Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, National Review and elsewhere, he has shown himself to be as keen an observer and analyst of politics as anyone else working these problems. His analysis in National Review of Bill Clinton stands as the most contextually rich portrait of the complicated politics of this complicated president to appear anywhere, period. I say this with some chagrin, since I am in the business of writing such portraits myself.
And now, published today, the Fourth of July, comes “My Love Affair with America,” a remarkable document in celebration of the American idea from the time of the Great Depression through today, and a defense of that idea against all comers, from the communists of the 1930s to those conservatives of the 1990s who were losing faith in the legitimacy of their own country and its institutions. There is no better guide to the interplay, for better or worse, of the ideas that have dominated and defined the politics of this century. In telling the tale, Norman Podhoretz offers a personal account, but one that leads inexorably to a deeper appreciation of how a great country and a good country became also a triumphant country. There is no better account available of the making of this American empire of ideas.
So it is that at the age of 70, in his “retirement,” Norman Podhoretz remains at the center of the country’s intellectual life. More than that, he seems determined to reinvigorate that life by sheer force of argument and example.