Learning from Mr. Podhoretz

In the hurry to post a link to Norman Podhoretz’s most recent meditation on Israel and America (“Bush, Sharon, My Daughter and Me”), forthcoming in the April issue of Commentary, I neglected even to say a word about Podhoretz himself. Last year Podhoretz was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bush in a White House ceremony that also honored Pope John Paul II, Robert Bartley, Vartan Gregorian, Estee Lauder, Rita Moreno, Walter Wriston, Edward Brooke, Arnall Patz, Arnold Palmer, Gordon Hinckley, and Doris Day. There can’t have been an American among that distinguished group who was more deserving of the award than Podhoretz. In his remarks, President Bush observed:

Norm Podhoretz ranks among the most prominent American editors of the 20th century. And he’s doing pretty well in the 21st. (Laughter.) Never a man to tailor his opinions to please others, Mr. Podhoretz has always written and spoken with directness and honesty. Sometimes speaking the truth has carried a cost. Yet, over the years, he has only gained in stature among his fellow writers and thinkers. Today we pay tribute to this fierce intellectual man and his fine writing and his great love for our country.

Norm? Paying tribute to Podhoretz for his love of country at least met him on his own terms. Among the books he has reeled off sinced retiring as editor-in-chief of Commentary ten years ago is one devoted to the subject of Podhoretz’s love of country: My Love Affair With America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative.
Podhoretz was a student of Lionel Trilling at Columbia University and then of F.R. Leavis at Cambridge. He turned away from a life in literature, however, to spend a career in politically oriented journalism. In his capacity as editor-in-chief of Commentary from 1960 to 1995, Podhoretz moved from the left to the far left to right and chronicled his intellectual migration in a series of classic autobiographical books beginning with Making It in 1967, continuing with Breaking Ranks in 1980 and concluding (I think) with Ex-Friends in 1999 and My Love Affair with America in 2000.
Podhoretz forged an almost unbelievably consequential career as the editor of a small intellectual magazine. After Podhoretz made the transition to (neo)conservatism, Podhoretz made Commentary its foremost expositor. It was Commentary that brought Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick to public prominence in the 1970’s and 1980’s, for example, by publishing essays of theirs that reverberated throughout the country with special resonance.
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When Podhoretz spoke in his own voice in Commentary, his essays themselves became important events. Take, for example, “J’Accuse,” his 1982 essay on the return of anti-Semitism among the respectable precincts of American life. My own favorite of his essays is the brilliant “Kissinger Reconsidered” (reprinted in The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet). In form the essay serves as a review of Kissinger’s second volume of memoirs; in substance it considers the merits of Kissinger’s realpolitik. The essay masterfully blends Podhoretz’s literary and political interests, as does The Bloody Crossroads as a whole. See Jeffrey Hart’s NR review: “Grand return.”
Around about the time of Podhoretz’s “J’Accuse,” Commentary offered subscribers the opportunity to give away one six-month subscription if they resubscribed. I gave mine to Rocket Man, who began reading it and thought to himself (so he told me), “Now we’re talking.” Commentary was instrumental in moving both of us solidly into the conservative camp.
Most recently, Podhoretz has recapped his career in The Norman Podhoretz Reader: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s Through the 1990s. The book elicited especially fine appreciations from Charles Kesler in National Review and from William McGurn in the New Criterion.
May he go from strength to strength!
DEACON adds: Commentary, and especially Norman Podhoretz, were instrumental in my movement into the conservative camp, as well. I started reading Commentary in 1980. I wasn’t the fastest learner, but I did learn.

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