After 25 years of editing Commentary magazine and inviting the wrath of the left, Norman Podhoretz can safely say that "name-dropping for me is just a matter of mentioning former friends."
There are a few friends left, but not many of the old ones. At a dinner given in Podhoretz's honor tonight at the Rainbow Grill, Henry Kissinger, Ed Koch, Bayard Rustin, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick and George Shultz all rose and toasted the dean of the neoconservatives. "His analyses and agonies and visions and revisions have conincided with reality itself," Kirkpatrick said, and Kissinger, for his part, said, "My capacity to admire people is not my most highly developed trait but over the years I have known Norman, I've grown to admire and, indeed, to love him." Koch praised Podhoretz as "a liberal with sanity."
But there is something about Podhoretz, something about his politics, his tone, that scrapes on the nerves of so many who still consider themselves liberals or radicals.
"Oh, it's nothing new," Podhoretz said earlier in the day at his office on the Upper East Side.
He is a small, balding, conservatively dressed man, this ex-enfant terrible, talking in great bundles of thought and anecdote. The office is modest. A copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and bound volumes of Commentary fill most of the shelf space and copies of the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic and the New York Post form an eclectic pile on the desk.
"My wife writer Midge Decter and I vacation in East Hampton during the summers," he said, speaking of the ire he has aroused. "Sometimes I'll be on the beach or in the supermarket or at a restaurant and I'll recognize someone from the old crowd. Sometimes they'll just ignore me or pretend they don't even see me."
Podhoretz certainly has an identifiable circle of writers and friends for Commentary including Moynihan, historians Lucy Dawidowicz, Robert W. Tucker and Richard Pipes, and social and literary critics Cynthia Ozick, Irving Kristol and Hilton Kramer. But when he was first a rising star in the New York intellectual world, known for his early pugnacious essays on Saul Bellow and the problem of integration, Podhoretz counted among his friends Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, publisher Jason Epstein and dozens of others on the left.
No more. Long after the high-flown battles have subsided, the barricades are still in place. Perhaps reconciliations are more common among politicians than polemicists.
"It's no fun. A lot of the people I broke with I really liked," Podhoretz said. Further, "I was a member of a third generation of New York intellectuals and I suppose there is a fourth generation, but nothing as salient and cohesive as the first three generations were. But I do think the tradition of New York intellectualism is still alive at places like Commentary and The New York Review of Books ."
The changes at Commentary are partly responsible for Podhoretz's position in the parlors and cabanas of the intelligentsia.
Critic Edmund Wilson once remarked that most literary ventures have an average life of 10 years or so. Last year, Partisan Review celebrated its 50th anniversary (an occasion which Podhoretz did attend), yet most readers of that quarterly, so vital in the 1950s and 1960s, will admit that it is but a pale version of its old self these days.
Commentary, however, has changed in ideology a number of times, and that has helped keep it alive.
When it began in 1945 under the editorship of Elliot Cohen, Commentary was on the left, but decidedly anticommunist. Its influence waned in the late 1950s but revived when, at 30 years old, Podhoretz became editor and began publishing major works such as Paul Goodman's "Growing Up Absurd." In the late 1960s, Commentary became extremely critical of the New Left and publications, such as The New York Review of Books, that were sympathetic to the movement. In recent years Commentary has drifted even farther to the right, all but giving up hope on the Democratic Party. Since then, the magazine has reflected a conservative agenda for both foreign and domestic policy. Indeed, Podhoretz voted for Reagan in both 1980 and 1984.
But it was not merely politics that set so many against Podhoretz; it was his ambition and his description of that ambition in the memoir "Making It" (1967) that made everyone's teeth ache. Mailer himself wrote about literary ambition in "Advertisements for Myself," but that was another matter. Mailer is Mailer, a kind of court jester and pest. His excesses and errors are part of his literary persona.
But here was an editor of a highly respected intellectual monthly admitting to the world his uncontrollable desire for publication, for praise and, in intellectual terms at least, for power and fame.
Podhoretz confirmed the suspicions of those who had believed in the grubby, ferocious status-striving of those in the inner circle of America's intellectual elite, and became the nightmare of those who feared he would fulfil a crude stereotype for anti-Semites.
"Ambition," Podhoretz wrote, "seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul." Close friends advised him against publishing the book, but Podhoretz, who saw no reason not to mention his A-pluses at Columbia or the praise he had received as a young critic from the heavyweights at Commentary and the Partisan Review, would not apologize for his own "dirty little secret" of ambition.
And the reviews . . . Lord, the reviews!
In a piece for the Atlantic Monthly, Wilfred Sheed called Podhoretz "an apple-polisher," an "arriviste," a "sell-out."
And those were the valentines.
"Norman is no longer the boy wonder," Sheed wrote, "no longer the promising young man that all the other men are gruffly impressed with, but another writer who didn't do anything last year or the year before; a good enough position to be in, but not if you've tasted glory; not if you ran the hundred in 9.5 in high school."
"I should have made him a dentist," Norman Podhoretz's mother used to say.
Mrs. Podhoretz didn't know the half of it.
He grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. His father was a milkman.
Brownsville was a racially troubled area in those days; it later became the backdrop of one of Podhoretz's most controversial political essays, "My Negro Problem -- and Ours." Writing of his experiences "in an 'integrated' slum neighborhood where it was the Negroes who persecuted the whites and not the other way around," Podhoretz caused a sensation when the essay came out in Commentary 21 years ago. He went on to excoriate "the sentimental nonsense that was being talked about integration by whites who knew nothing about Negroes and by Negroes who thought that all their problems could be solved by living next-door to whites."
Podhoretz was called a "racist" in some circles and praised for his "courage" in others. He was dismayed, perhaps, but the attention could not have pleased him more.
Podhoretz enjoyed a kind of dual education. From childhood throughout his college years he studied at Jewish parochial schools and seminaries and at public schools and Columbia University. In "Making It" Podhoretz related that he used to tell girlfriends that if he did not become a great poet by his 25th birthday, he would kill himself. His goals changed, but the ferocity of his ambitions (save the histrionic threats) remained quite the same.
Columbia was a great center for writers and critics and Podhoretz managed to study with nearly all of the best-known teachers: Mark Van Doren, F.W. Dupee and, above all, Lionel Trilling, author of "The Liberal Imagination." Podhoretz excelled as an apprentice critic, but he did discover himself lacking as an artist next to more talented Columbia classmates such as Allen Ginsberg (who was later a victim of Podhoretz's pen in an essay trashing Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation).
"Even Mark Van Doren, who admired everyone's poetry, clearly thought little of mine," Podhoretz recalled. "The only B I ever got in English at Columbia was in a creative writing course I took with him."
Trilling was an invaluable mentor to Podhoretz at Columbia. When he went to Clare College, Cambridge, in England for three years of graduate study, Podhoretz was fortunate once more to find extraordinary teachers. F.R. Leavis, the critic who did much to promote the reputations of George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, helped Podhoretz publish his first article, an appreciation of Trilling for the British journal Scrutiny.
During a trip to New York in the summer of 1952, Podhoretz visited the offices of Commentary, which had been founded in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee. Commentary's editor, Elliot Cohen, regularly published the work of a wide, diverse circle of New York intellectuals known to Podhoretz as "the family." Most, like Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Trilling, Clement Greenberg and Delmore Schwartz, were Jewish and a few, such as Mary McCarthy and Dwight MacDonald, were not.
Although he returned to England for further study, Podhoretz was unhappy.
"What I wanted was to see my name in print," he wrote in "Making It," "to be praised, and above all to attract attention." The article that provided the appropriate attention, the sort of buzzing at Upper West Side cocktail parties that Podhoretz so desired, was a brutally unfavorable review of Saul Bellow's first major novel, "The Adventures of Augie March."
"I guess I've always had my problems with Bellow, but over the years I've gotten to really admire him," Podhoretz said.
In his second volume of memoirs, "Breaking Ranks," Podhoretz described his political transformation. He wrote the book as an "explanation" to his son John, now a critic for The Washington Times, of how he encouraged the swing to radicalism in the 1960s and then turned so decisively against it.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ben Wattenberg and others were invited to the White House to talk with President Carter.
"It was on the way out of that meeting, in which we voiced reservations and he answered us very defensively, that I said, 'That's it, I can't vote for this man.' It seemed clear to me that he had no conception of what Jeane and Ben and I had been talking about. I left feeling very depressed."
Podhoretz, after so many years of resisting it, said he now accepts the term of neoconservative. But, he added, "I'd be happier with the term neonationalist. Being an American nationalist, especially on the left, was not exactly popular for a long time. I remember being on a talk show and they were all talking about Gary Hart and 'new ideas.' I had to laugh. I said for most young Americans the idea of praising America was a new idea. They hadn't heard much of that in their young lives."
Podhoretz's top priority for Commentary these days is to describe the Soviet Union "as a totalitarian system which wants to create an international order, much like Nazi Germany did."
"And domestically," he said, "the main change for me in the '80s is that I no longer believe in any kind of democratic socialism at all. I'm more enthusiastic about capitalism than I ever was."
Its critics say that Commentary is becoming predictable once more as it did in the late 1950s, that it is in danger of losing the editorial freshness that Edmund Wilson described. Here it comes again, they say: another brutal article on the Soviets, another attack on feminism, another defense of Israeli interests and actions.
"I don't think we're predictable," Podhoretz said. "What we have is a perspective, and once a month people pick up Commentary and see how we have made sense of the world."
It seems that the lost friends and bad scenes in East Hampton are a small price for Norman Podhoretz.
"I don't regret any of what's happened, the enemies or any of that," he said. "I have new friends. And I'm allowed to say what I think. That's my greatest blessing."