Further Commentary

by Saul Rosenberg
Norman Podhoretz: A Biography
By Thomas L. Jeffers
Cambridge University Press, 393 pages, $35
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After Podhoretz’s 1970 epiphany, Commentary became more consciously political, always arguing the essential goodness of America, most consequentially in its conflict against an expansionist Soviet Union. Until the fall of the Soviet empire, Podhoretz set himself squarely against all forms of accommodation with the USSR, from radicalism to détente, and felt himself vindicated when it collapsed.

The world might, by 1990, have been safe for democracy, but it never felt that way for Israel, a country Podhoretz had already been defending energetically for years. He never tired of defusing the charge that American Jews put Israel’s interests before America’s. Israel’s fight was America’s fight; the same principles were at stake, so any right-thinking person loyal to America would ipso facto be dedicated to Israel’s cause. Those such as Gore Vidal — who insisted in a particularly vicious literary exchange Jeffers retells that “Poddy” went on about the evil Soviet Empire in order “to plump the defense budget, a goodly chunk of which went to ‘the support of Israel in its never-ending wars against just about everyone’” — were, by Podhoretz’s reckoning, the anti-Americans at the party.

With the attack on the twin towers, however, Podhoretz entered the broader lists once again, calling urgently to his compatriots to recognize the implacability of an Islamist totalitarianism no more susceptible to negotiation than its Soviet or Nazi predecessors.

If Podhoretz’s career lived up to the “high expectation” Trilling foresaw in his inscription to Podhoretz on a copy of The Liberal Imagination, it came at a considerable cost. Podhoretz’s pugnacity masks a warm heart. His rightward shift had, he acknowledged, “cost me the friendship of most — well, not most, more like all — of those interesting and amusing people.” This is distancing language, but it is doubtful that Podhoretz’s “new friendships and new associations” ever quite filled the void.

All this and much more is for the most part well told in Jeffers’s steady, workmanlike biography. But Jeffers is not without his faults. Toward the end, he bluntly inserts rather than integrates a set of occasional essays. Odder yet, striving perhaps for originality, Jeffers suggests that Podhoretz’s political shifts were illusory:
Podhoretz stood still while the world moved left. Yet Podhoretz wrote repeatedly of his change of direction, and to suggest that the odyssey never occurred is to undervalue his recognition of the destructive utopianism of his own early commitments, and his courage in coming flatly out against them.

Another problem is that, where Podhoretz’s signature polemics always elegantly anatomize his opponents’ arguments before demolishing them equally elegantly, Jeffers has so thoroughly identified with Podhoretz’s conclusions that he sometimes merely dismisses people and positions Podhoretz argued so trenchantly against. This is presumably also the reason Jeffers’s and Podhoretz’s voices merge at a number of points in the book, so that it is sometimes frustratingly unclear who is speaking.

As a result, Jeffers, preaching to the choir, will win no new converts, and may even annoy some of the choristers, who may justly feel that the book could more fully have articulated Podhoretz’s achievement by taking his interlocutors more seriously. That achievement was to have cured himself of the maladies of the Left, and successfully to have devoted himself since to inoculating the largest possible number of literate Americans against them.

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