Around the Bend

A new book charts Commentary’s slide into irrelevance

Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right | By Benjamin Balint | PublicAffairs | 304 pages, $26.95

In April of this year, a small crack emerged in the usually monolithic conservative movement. Julian Sanchez, a fellow at the libertarian CATO Institute, diagnosed today’s right wing with “epistemic closure”—an unwillingness to consider new ideas and new evidence. Inspired by this intramural ankle-biting, Jim Manzi, an editor at the National Review, soon took to that magazine’s blog The Corner (normally a bastion of party-line conservatism) to blast author and radio host Mark Levin’s denial of global warming. The reaction to this sortie only proved Sanchez’s initial point. Within twenty-four hours, two fellow Corner bloggers attacked Manzi and stridently defended Levin, on mostly personal, not policy, grounds.

To those of us on the outside, the “epistemic closure” of the right wing has been obvious for some time. The vibrant conservatism of the postwar period, one defined by argument and the exchange of ideas, is a distant memory. Candid debates about America’s place in the world, the welfare state, and religion’s utility have been replaced by the endless parroting of talking points and unquestioning worship of the Republican Party’s electoral interests. How and why did conservatism stop thinking?

Benjamin Balint knows at least part of the answer. In Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right, he masterfully charts both the history of the little Jewish journal that could and the ensuing rise and fall of conservative intellectualism. The success of Balint’s book is especially remarkable given his close proximity to his subject. Now a Jerusalem-based fellow of the Hudson Institute, Balint was earlier a junior Commentary editor, and obviously retains some affection for the magazine. Yet his book is no mash note. Instead, it is a surprising account of how Commentary steered neoconservatism to the height of power while leading it intellectually astray.

The beginnings of this tale are familiar enough. Spurred on by the dynamism of the City College cafeteria—where the anti-Stalinist left famously mixed it up with those more friendly to the Soviet dictator—as well as by the gale-force winds of history, Jewish intellectual life during and after World War II was in upheaval. Jews were at once outside mainstream American culture and striving to break in. Some of this was plainly the fault of that culture: quota systems and (mostly) latent anti-Semitism kept many Jews out of the elite precincts in politics and academe. Yet Clement Greenberg, later a Commentary managing editor and an influential art critic, could plausibly proclaim that “[n]o people on earth are . . . more provincial” than the mass of middle-class Jews.

When the American Jewish Committee founded the magazine in 1945 and appointed Elliot Cohen its first editor, there was hope that the publication could change all this. “American Jewry more and more must stand wholly on its own feet,” mused Salo Baron in the first issue. An essential thesis of the magazine in its early incarnation was that, through the refinement of their ideas, Jews could move beyond the devastation of the Holocaust and achieve a coherent sense of themselves as a people in America.

For the first twenty years of his stewardship, Cohen was a wildly successful editor, winning Commentary the sort of influence that had never before been wielded by an explicitly Jewish publication. (One of the many joys of Balint’s story is his description of the Jewish magazine that preceded Commentary, such as the Menorah Journal, which more or less have been lost to history but were enormously important in their time.) The only comparable precedent, the Yiddish-language (and socialist) Jewish Daily Forward, was read in Roosevelt’s White House. Yet the Forward’s achievements pale beside those of Commentary.

Between 1945 and the early 1960s, Commentary was the first English-language periodical to publish excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary, and it gave early exposure to both Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. The magazine also offered a voice to the Jewish intellectual left—one more religious than, say, the Partisan Review, but no less substantive. Perhaps most importantly, the idea that Jews should feel at home in America began to gain salience in Commentary’s pages. The magazine’s writers, Balint notes, “no longer assumed that a sense of belonging endangered the free exercise of critical intelligence.”

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.

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.

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Ethan Porter is the associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.