The conventional wisdom of the prewar Jewish left, which regarded America from a critical distance at best and with disdain at worst, had been upended by global conflagration. The intellectuals who clustered around Commentary proposed a way forward. America—mainstream, middle-class America—deserved affection after all. As Leslie Fielder, a Commentary regular, so memorably put it: “What a lot of us said in the depths of our hearts was, ‘If the system has been this good to us, it can’t be as bad as we thought it was.’ ” Patriotism went from vice to virtue, and communism, with which the Jewish left had always been on at least nodding terms, became a bête noire.
Yet if the seeds of a chest-beating, jingoistic neoconservatism were planted in those heady postwar days, they were soon uprooted. Cohen suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually committed suicide. The irascible, unpredictable Norman Podhoretz took over, and swerved the magazine leftward. “Podhoretz’s most sweeping change involved dismissing hard anti-Communism,” writes Balint. The magazine also campaigned against the Vietnam War, published anarchist writer Paul Goodman, and even featured an interview with Stokely Carmichael.
Commentary, it should be noted, was never of the New Left. In the end, the magazine remained skeptical of what it considered an illiberal movement. And it turned its swords on those who opposed Israel’s behavior in the 1967 war, scoffing at the utopian “universalists who avoided allegiance to any nation-state,” as Balint puts it. In fact, the pigeonhole-proof complexity of Podhoretz’s Commentary and the dynamism of its debates are what placed it at the vital center of the publishing scene. Even the Nation’s publisher (and now CJR’s chairman), Victor Navasky, conceded that, in the mid-1960s, “Norman was publishing the most interesting magazine in America.” For political and intellectual movers and shakers, its unpredictability made it a must-read.
Irving Kristol famously proclaimed that the neoconservatives were “liberals mugged by reality.” But it’s never been clear when, exactly, the mugging occurred. There was the left’s hostility to Israel following the Six Day War; there was the Brownsville teachers’ strike, when black parents were pitted against white, mostly Jewish, teachers; and there was the general climate of insanity that prevailed on the left in those days, when Abbie Hoffman expressed (only half-jokingly) his desire for children to kill their parents. But taken together, or examined individually, none of these factors sufficiently explain the one-hundred-and-eighty-degree shift in thinking. One minute Commentary was publishing Norman Mailer, mixing it up with both the right and the left, and the next it was the house organ for neoconservatism.
Balint isn’t entirely clear on what explains this shift. But he does seem to have a villain in mind, if we are to judge from his spectacularly unflattering picture of Norman Podhoretz. The arrogant young editor of the 1960s, who was prone to downing thirteen (!) martinis at lunch, becomes a cranky older man. And something of a crackpot. At one point, he all but accuses Thomas Friedman of anti-Semitism. At another, he insinuates that homosexuals deserve AIDS.
The reader imagines Balint hunched over Podhoretz’s public pronouncements of the last forty years, eagerly pouncing on the most preposterous. The author is also extremely generous to Podhoretz’s critics. He features, for instance, Isaiah Berlin’s priceless reply to Podhoretz’s argument that the philosopher should have stiff-armed The New York Review of Books, which published the dreaded Noam Chomsky. “I see,” replied Berlin. “You are accusing me of being a fellow-traveler of a fellow-traveler.”
Balint hangs the failures of conservatism around Podhoretz’s neck. This is an indictment by implication—but an effective one, especially when Balint lets Podhoretz make his case for him. Surely he must have relished using this quote from a piece Podhoretz wrote for The New Republic in 1965: “A sense of alienation from political power may be good, even necessary, for the health of magazines based in New York.” This is rich. The same writer who wrote those words soon came to view the imprimatur of the establishment and political classes as the ultimate prize, as striving for approval came to define Commentary’s later period.
Grand thinking gave way to the pursuit of short-term influence, as Podhoretz and his cohort prodded Reagan to oppose the Soviets more vociferously, formed committees in favor of a stronger national defense, and sought White House appointments. Intellectual coherence was forgotten. Ultimately, the same men and women who doubted liberalism’s ability to remake America had no doubt that America could remake the world—a catastrophic inconsistency that led to the Iraq War.