By Norman Birnbaum
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.
Norman Podhoretz: A Biography
By Thomas L. Jeffers
Cambridge University Press, 408 pages
Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right
By Benjamin Balint
PublicAffairs, 304 pages
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.”