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Norman Podhoretz in Black and White

Posted on Aug 20, 2010

By Norman Birnbaum

(Page 5)

No small number of the Jewish intellectuals depicted themselves as authentic latter-day saints, a prophetic minority bringing arcane truths to those who would otherwise have wandered blindly in the wilderness. Many of them not only experienced but avowed a bewilderingly rapid and acutely contradictory sequence of beliefs, from one or another variety of Marxism to aesthetic modernism to philosophical existentialism, before ending either in American progressivism with its idea of a continuing, if contained, revolution, or American conservatism with its insistence on an achieved one. Some shared with their more mundane brothers-in-law skills at marketing—above all, themselves.

Balint provides us with a learned guidebook to the intellectual and political travails of successive generations. The book is rich in excerpts from correspondence, and telling in citations from articles and books. The author takes no one quite at face value, and yet dismisses none of the protagonists as entirely dubious, although some were. He is especially informative in describing the alliance between the present generation of Commentary editors and authors and the Republican Party, a much closer one than the jagged connection between the earlier journal and the Democrats. Despite being an alumnus, Balint is straightforward in noting that Commentary’s editing for a long time has had the ideological consistency and rigor we once associated with what was termed the party line.


book cover


Norman Podhoretz: A Biography


By Thomas L. Jeffers


Cambridge University Press, 408 pages


Buy the book


book cover


Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right


By Benjamin Balint


PublicAffairs, 304 pages


Buy the book


At one point he may err on the side of generosity, repeating the late Irving Kristol’s denial that he knew of CIA funding of the monthly Encounter, of which he was founding editor. I was in the United Kingdom in those years and was greatly helped when confronting the claim by recourse to the history of medieval Catholicism, with its doctrine of two truths, one for the ordinary believers and one for theologians.

I read the book as I was half celebrating, half struggling with, my 84th birthday. I was reminded of 1976, when Podhoretz published an article sternly critical of President Ford and Kissinger for weakness toward the Soviet Union (“Making the World Safe for Communism,” in the April 1976 Commentary). I was well able to restrain my enthusiasm for Kissinger. We had been fellow teaching assistants at Harvard. Indeed, for a long time I dined out in the American suburbs and European provinces on the claim (which has the merit of being true) that I was the chief assistant in the course in which he began his teaching career. However, I thought in 1976 and think even more strongly now that he (and Nixon and Ford) were quite right to seek coexistence with both China and the USSR. In 1976, I was on the editorial board of Partisan Review and quite friendly with William Phillips. William phoned and suggested that we do something about the piece. You mean, William, I replied, that I ought to write something? He did and I wrote a response (“Norman Podhoretz’s War,” Partisan Review, No. 2, 1976).

At the time, I must have been one of the few old friends of opposed political views still in touch with the Podhoretz family. I phoned Norman to tell him that I was sending him an advance copy of the article, and to assure him that it was a criticism of his views and not of his person. He expressed considerable skepticism on this point, instantly, but I urged him to wait until he had read what I wrote. Midge Decter, at the time was an editor at Basic Books and had invited me to a party at their apartment in honor of an author, their upstairs neighbor on West End Avenue, the gifted psychoanalyst Leslie Farber. It was a year during which I was in Princeton, and I scheduled a lunch at New Brunswick in New Jersey with Phillips at Partisan Review before the Podhoretz reception.

Just before I left, Midge telephoned. Her voice was such that the old land lines seemed unnecessary, and from its tonality I instantly guessed what was coming. “I am tired,” she said, “of these attacks on us and I am uninviting you from the party.” Norman was, apparently, not consulted since he later made the gesture of asking me to contribute, for the last time, to a Commentary symposium. I went to New Brunswick to recount the episode to Phillips. “Outrageous,” he declared. “They did not invite me so they can’t uninvite me.” Years earlier I had asked my Hampstead neighbor, George Lichtheim, what he thought of New York intellectual life after a year at Commentary. It reminds me, declared the very well mannered son of a wealthy Berlin family (rather like the ones Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse came from), of nothing so much as an especially quarrelsome East European Jewish family. One sees what he meant.

Norman Birnbaum is university professor emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center, and on the editorial board of The Nation. From 1971 to 1983 he was on the board of Partisan Review, and he contributed regularly to Commentary between 1956 and 1976. He is writing a memoir, “From the Bronx to Oxford—And Not Quite Back.”

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By michael wreszin, July 7, 2011 at 6:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is not just hagiography it is sychophantism

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By kobe8lal, August 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In the 60s I led a double life as an Off-Broadway actor and a nightclub comedian.

In the former I went to a symposium at The Negro Ensemble Company where Norman was on the panel.

In the latter, some weeks later, I saw him in the Atlanta airport. I chatted him up and it turns out we both had gigs in the city. His was in a fancy synagogue, mine in a roadhouse.

As we were waiting for our luggage he asked,“You’re a comedian. Do you get laid a lot on the road?”

“No”, I said.

“Me, neither”, he replied.

Swear it’s true.

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By Druthers, August 22, 2010 at 3:25 am Link to this comment

What you describe is less a thought process than a constant endeavor to come up with ideas to justify the idealogy that was the starting point - mental gymnastics.
Each person is also “different” from the others, most just afraid to admit it, so eager are humans to be part of a “community, so they can then claim “theirs” is the best, the top gun.
I think I prefer the Ghandis of the world - but where are they?

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By David Ehrenstein, August 21, 2010 at 8:11 am Link to this comment

Podhoretz, like the pseudo-state he promulgates is a primary source for Evil in this world.

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By balkas, August 21, 2010 at 7:19 am Link to this comment

In many ways, people of mosheic cult or some connection to it, have a struggling life.

It is often called struggle to understand one’s jewishness or an essence or being being like no other.

Yes, people may also struggle with godishness, catholishness, fetishness, foolishness, etc. We all do!
In case of mother Theresa, she ended her struggle to make sense of the nonsense like godishness and catholishness.

Robert Novak gave up his useless burden of trying to make a sense of what it means to be a jew.
Jewisheness like any other ishness is but a foolishness.

Or trying to be with other fools but not of them. But i say, all fools shld get together and say: let’s stop chasing the snark! tnx

caveat about “godishness”. It is, to me, a fetish as long one preaches it,instead of actually believing in god;leaving it undefined. I say, do not add one word to word “god”!

And would we get along so much better and loose so many fetishes! Otherwise the craze continues!

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By Abbott Gleason, August 21, 2010 at 2:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Immoral and criminal acts—the seizure of other people’s land, for instance—can achieve a certain grandeur when clothed in the ideological mantle of Leo Strauss—or Karl Marx. But we need to look at them more directly. The demolition of houses and the seizure of Palestinian lands are at bottom no more than ordinary crimes. In this region they also defy common sense, as well as common humanity. How can Jews insist (rightly) on recovering property taken from theem by Germans, while putting Palestinians and their furniture out in the streets of Jerusalem and taking their houses? This seems to me like the Judeazation of John Dillinger’s America, not Thomas Jefferson’s.

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By nubeewon, August 21, 2010 at 12:18 am Link to this comment

Sounds like another change freak who’s left things pretty much as they were.

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By Pmanso, August 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Norman Podhoretz in Black and White”? Com’on, there’s very, very little white

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By jkehoe, August 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A brilliant review Mr. Birnbaum. Many thanks.

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By GoyToy, August 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment

Poddy (as Gore Vidal likes to call him) the Putz. I really like that!

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By Hammond Eggs, August 20, 2010 at 11:52 am Link to this comment

“Vacuous sentimentalism”?  WTF! Podhoretz is the champeen of that.  Someone should tell that paskudnyak that the Sharron Angles, Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the Republican party - his great Heroes - would shove his Jewish backside mach schnell into a gas chamber once they assume power. The Bolshevik and Nazi Revolutions were both full of people like him.  Very quickly, they found themselves standing over a drain in a dungeon somewhere, hearing someone tell them not to turn around.  And then the bullet in the back of the head.

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By miroslav, August 20, 2010 at 10:22 am Link to this comment

Commentary appears to have had an interesting beginning and have a calcified present. Ditto for Mr. Podhoretz who once upon a time knew that he was a clown. The wages of making it, of money.

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By Pmanso, August 20, 2010 at 9:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Norman Podhoretz in Black and White”? Com’on, where’s the white here?

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By Anarcissie, August 20, 2010 at 6:32 am Link to this comment

Sounds like the book could be very damaging to Podhoretz by distilling and concentrating his views, making them more explicit.  But it’s probably not very interesting unless one comes from the same particular milieu Podhoretz comes out of.

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By Jaded Prole, August 20, 2010 at 4:28 am Link to this comment

Podhoretz is a putz but though many Jews have become more conservative, the “Jewish right” is a minority within a minority. Most Jews are still relatively liberal and yes, there is still a “Jewish left.”

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