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.
Podhoretz’s tireless march to the top of the political order was completed in 2004, when George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By then, the deterioration and collapse of his magazine had been under way for decades. Naming a great writer who’s gotten his or her start at Commentary since the 1960s is a chore. A recent cover piece by Jonah Goldberg, “What Kind of Socialist Is Barack Obama?”, would have been better as self-parody than what it was: further evidence of the magazine’s long slide into inanity. At the very least, the saga of decline in Running Commentary suggests that the thirst for power—the desire to plunge into the mainstream—has a toxic effect on the intellectual’s capacity for doubt and introspection.
Balint mournfully concludes with Elliot Cohen’s thoughts upon founding Commentary. “We may well see the Jewish intellectual-religious tradition flower in ways that will stand comparison with Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere,” the first editor wrote. One wonders if Cohen’s successor ever read that high-minded charge. The gap between Commentary’s ambitions and what it has become is too large to measure. For when Podhoretz stopped thinking, conservatism did too.