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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2012
Number 76
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Changing the Course of a River

Norman Podhoretz: A Biography by Thomas L. Jeffers, New York: Cambridge University
A review essay by Steven Windmueller

Thomas L. Jeffers has done a masterful job in capturing the intensity and impact of the life and mindset of Norman Podhoretz.  In one of the most carefully documented biographies that this reviewer has been privileged to read, the author uncovers the elements that helped to shape Podhoretz’s thinking.  We are introduced to the key players that were and remain a part of Norman’s distinguished career, along with the central ideas and events that would shape his political thinking.

Podhoretz would come to his conservative positions during the Vietnam era, as he increasingly became disillusioned with the Democratic Party, and more directly, the New Left. He felt this fringe of American society had rejected “the middle class way of life.”  For him the melting pot theory simply was not the appropriate framework, “what was needed was a new metaphor for America.” Similarly, for Podhoretz and his cohort, the anti-Israel polemics of the New Left represented another reason to separate himself from his former fellow travelers.

As editor of Commentary for 35 years (1960-1995), Podhoretz would represent an instrumental figure in the shaping of neo-conservative thought, as the pages of his literary magazine reflect his political agenda and perspectives.  One of the signers of the “Statement of Principles” produced by The Project for the New American Century, Podhoretz joined with William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and others in drafting a protocol defending the proposition that “American leadership is both good for America and good for the world".

Two themes seem consistently interwoven within the pages of this book, Podhoretz’s attachment to America and his life-long commitment to Judaism.  He frames the first principle around the idea that America must be seen “‘the last best hope of mankind,’” and the second, that Judaism represents for him “an absolutely firm loyalty.” As Jeffers concludes, “For Podhoretz, surely, Judaism helped to determine his way of looking at the world.”

In some measure, we are introduced to two different personalities. With family, Jeffers suggests that Podhoretz is “utterly tender with family and friends and gentlemanly with casually met strangers.”  Yet, the more public persona, especially through his encounters with his enemies, has been described as “aggressive, difficult, sometimes solipsistic…”

Through his articles and editorials within Commentary and his books, Norman articulated strong and defined views on American foreign policy and civic affairs.  Ready to critique presidents, statesmen, and fellow writers, Podhoretz would even launch his criticism toward Ronald Reagan for failing early within his Presidency to recognize the Soviet threat.  Having access both through the power of the pen and through personal connections to the political and intellectual elites within this nation, he had occasion to convey his views to such luminaries as Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush.

Two decades later, Podhoretz would write that "there is no doubt that Saddam already possesses large stores of chemical and biological weapons, and may... be 'on the precipice of nuclear power.' ... Some urge that we ... concentrate on easier targets first. Others contend that the longer we wait, the more dangerous Saddam will grow. Yet whether or not Iraq becomes the second front in the war against terrorism, one thing is certain: there can be no victory in this war if it ends with Saddam Hussein still in power." As early as 2007, Podhoretz wrote that the United States should attack Iranian nuclear facilities, arguing that "Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran are merely different fronts of the same long war.”

Among his various books, My Negro Problem and Ours (1964); Making It (1967); World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism (2007) and Why are Jews Liberals? (2009), these four would appear to be particularly significant in defining his ideology. 

The last of these writings, his work on Jewish liberalism, allowed him to restate his core political message. “…During the many centuries when the Left seemed their only ally against persecution from the Right, of course Jews were liberals. But why do they—and others—remain committed to liberalism in an era when both their best interests and the interests of America and the West generally are under attack from the international Left?”

On an array of domestic issues, Podhoretz entered the fray offering commentaries on radical feminism, homosexuality and gay rights, and pornography. He addressed these subjects from a perspective that America’s cultural elites were seeking, in his view, to impose their will on the polity by establishing behaviors and norms that were often not embraced or supported by this nation’s citizens.

In more recent times, Norman has remained active and engaged within the national political debate. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial titled "In Defense of Sarah Palin," Podhoretz wrote, "I hereby declare that I would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party, and I would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama.” In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In paying tribute to Podhoretz on the occasion of his retirement from Commentary, a number of writers and politicians offered their specific insights. Ruth Wisse suggested the following: “He had made himself an aggressive ‘watchman’ precisely because, collectively, Jews have so great a ‘stake in the fantasies of tolerance’ that they ‘have a hard time facing political reality.’” Benjamin Netanyahu offered a tribute: “Changing the course of a mighty river used to be considered a mythological feat, yet this is precisely what you have done in your long and remarkable career as the guiding intellectual light of American conservatism.”


Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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