Grand old man of Neoconservatism: Norman Podhoretz

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Conservative America still vibrantly upholds the cause of Western civilisation


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The death of Midge Decter, at the age of 94, marks the passing of a golden age of intellectual journalism. Having witnessed all the vicissitudes of the American century from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, and challenged progressive orthodoxies from Lyndon Johnson to Joe Biden, Midge was still battling to the last. 

When I last met her and her husband, Norman Podhoretz, at our regular rendezvous — Antinucci, the Italian restaurant a few yards down the street from their apartment on the Upper East Side — Donald Trump was still in the White House. And on the merits of the 45th President, the grande dame and the grand old man of neoconservatism did not agree. 

Midge Decter

Norman saw the 2016 election as providential, with Trump taking a stand against the forces of evil, while Midge felt that the only miraculous thing about the Trump presidency was that he had not yet handed power back to the Democrats. They argued with their accustomed courteous repartee, before agreeing to disagree. Had they mellowed with age? Not likely. These two had been monstered by their opponents throughout the 66 years of their marriage. 

It was true that Midge took no prisoners. When Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, who resented the number of Jews on the Right, commented: “And not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States,” Midge Decter did not hesitate to call him an anti-Semite. 

And she took on both feminism in The New Chastity (1972) and the counterculture of the Sixties in Liberal Parents, Radical Children (1975). Not many women in those days dared to duel with Gore Vidal, but Midge never flinched — even when he accused her of “outdoing” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while sneering at her for being a Jewish parvenu with a “nasal whine”. 

above all, she was a Cold Warrior of the first order, co-chairing with Donald Rumsfeld the Committee for the Free World during the years after the Vietnam war when many Americans lost faith in the cause of anti-Communism. She did a good job, and a necessary one, of reminding Americans who the real enemy was.

Both of these grandees took me out to lunch

For Midge was defined by the experience of the Second World War. In a 1998 essay for Commentary, “What Are Little Boys Made of?”, Midge lamented the loss of masculinity since the 1940s. “One cannot in decency say that it was a joy to be alive at that hour — too many millions of innocent lives had been snuffed out — nor was it very heaven to be young (in truth, it never is). But Americans were having a rare and precious national experience in which for a time most things were felt to be in the right place and for the right reason.”

She went on to describe one of her daughters’ first experience of Israel. It was 1969, when America was losing its war while the Israelis had just won theirs: “Do you have any idea what it feels like to be in a place where everybody loves the soldiers?” “Yes,” Midge told her. “I do.” 

It must feel like that in Ukraine right now. 

How did I come to know Midge Decter and her milieu? It could only have happened in the 1980s. Bliss was it in that dawn to be a conservative. And if everyone’s dream is to go to America, for a young man of a centre-Right disposition, the presidency of Ronald Reagan was the time to be there. The transatlantic symbiosis between the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions was irresistible to anyone who had reached adulthood in the era of progressive disillusionment. Both countries fizzed with the effervescence of new ideas.

And so I found myself in New York in the mid-1980s. I had practically no money, but my airfare had been paid for by Princeton (for a job interview and seminar). I slept on a sofa in a kind uncle’s Manhattan apartment. What I did have going for me were the phone numbers of two editors: Bob Silvers of the New York Review of Books and Norman Podhoretz of Commentary. 

Both of these grandees took me out to lunch. Such flattering attentions from what had once been called the higher journalism had never happened to me in London, but Americans have indomitable faith in the promise of youth. The encounter with Silvers, at a fancy restaurant, was enjoyable but led nowhere. That with Norman, who brought along his equally gifted deputy Neal Kozodoy, was less expensive — but it changed my life.

Besides his renown as the combative editor of the hardest-hitting journal of ideas of the day, Norman was also the author of two memoirs: Making It and Breaking Ranks. The first is a classic tale of the ascent of a child of poor Jewish immigrants among the gladiatorial intellectuals of postwar America. Breaking Ranks covers more contested ground: how Podhoretz defied both the 1960s New Left and the liberal consensus. Together with his friend Irving Kristol, he founded and led the neoconservatives.

What was neoconservatism? Neither a movement nor an ideology, it is better described as a reassertion of faith in America. If Europe is the repository of the values of Western civilisation, the U.S. has long been their main champion.

It is easier to define a neoconservative, as Kristol famously did in his resonant phrase, as “a liberal mugged by reality.” Today, when conservatives and liberals don’t even agree on what reality is, such a definition might seem problematic. But in 1980s New York and Washington DC, reality was unambiguous: in the shape of violent crime, family breakdown, drugs and promiscuity, it confronted you on the streets. 

Irving Kristol cut his teeth as co-editor of Encounter

Kristol intended the word “mugged” as more than a metaphor. Ronald Reagan’s rise was fuelled by a revolt of the masses against liberalism. The sleep of reason had indeed brought forth monsters. The patient, having witnessed the nightmare of urban America and the collapse of Western resolve in the aftermath of Vietnam, was having none of it, replying instead: “Physician, heal thyself.” Reagan, no neoconservative himself but fortified by their support, offered a stronger medicine than the placebos offered by Democrats Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. 

On this side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, I had joined the Telegraph, participating in and reporting on the culmination of the postwar era: the fall of the Berlin Wall. While tearing from one revolution to the next, I also contributed to the quintessential Cold War magazine, Encounter, under editor Melvin Lasky. The immense contribution Encounter made to transatlantic culture over four decades has been overshadowed by the scandal of its shadowy connections with the CIA. In retrospect, however, the question of funding seems insignificant compared to the high quality of the writing. Mel, to whose encouragement I owe much, deserves credit for that.

Irving Kristol cut his teeth as co-editor of Encounter and his path from youthful Trotskyism to godfather of the rebirth of American conservatism mirrored that of Norman Podhoretz and my father. Even after a quarter of a century, the impact of Irving and his brilliant wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, the author of a dozen pioneering works of intellectual history, remains deep. I took his advice to heart: “If you have a good idea, start
a magazine.”

It would be many years before that ambition could be realised. Having moved to The Times,
I kept up my connections with the American intelligentsia, then in triumphalist mode. By then the bloody wars that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia were already raising the question of intervention, which has beset conservatives and liberals of all stripes ever since. In the absence of the Soviet threat, what were the conditions for a just war? Was democracy sufficient cause to fight? Neoconservatives tended to justify intervention in more pragmatic terms than liberal internationalists, while so-called realists were less hawkish than either.

A metastasis of recrimination began which has yet to run its course

Yet it would be a mistake to exaggerate the differences between these camps. What strikes me in retrospect is that the 1990s and early 2000s was still a time when it was possible to appear in very different organs across the US political spectrum. I wrote essays, reviews and reportage not only for conservative magazines such as Commentary, National Review and The New Criterion, but for the left-leaning New Yorker. This was a rewarding time to be a transatlantic player: the quality of editing on US periodicals was exceptionally high and I unconsciously absorbed the lessons I had learned as a contributor in my work as an editor, first at the Times and Telegraph and later at Standpoint, the magazine I founded in 2008, and TheArticle, the platform I now edit.

One should not exaggerate the mutual respect of conservatives and liberals at what Lionel Trilling — one of the few gurus revered by both — called “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet”. All sides cordially loathed one another, but they felt an obligation to uphold the values of Western civilisation, including the freedom of the press. 

I was too young to have witnessed the 1968 television debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley (now dramatised by James Graham), but that kind of intellectual duel was still just about possible 20 years ago. At what point this readiness to tolerate dissent started to change, I am not sure, but in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the atmosphere in America rapidly became more sulphurous. George W. Bush was demonised more than any previous president, even Reagan. 

So, too, were the “neocons”, as they were now known — blamed for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by critics on both Left and Right. A metastasis of recrimination began which has yet to run its course. And so, in the liberal monoculture of East and West coastal America, to be a conservative of any kind has become a badge of honour.

These blithe spirits will uphold the noble cause of Western civilisation.

So intolerable did the leftward drift of the mainstream media become that another fine editor, Seth Lipsky, founded an excellent new daily newspaper, the New York Sun, for refugees from the New York Times. I wrote its weekly “Letter from London” for several years until 2008, when it ceased print publication in the week Lehmann Brothers collapsed. I also came to know the “Theocons”: the Catholic conservatives led by Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak and George Weigel. Their journal First Things, now edited by R.R. “Rusty” Reno, continues to span Judaeo-Christian thought like no other.

Eventually, the conservative baton passed to a younger generation. In 1995 Bill Kristol started a new journal, The Weekly Standard, under the auspices of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Remarkably, it endured until 2018. About the same time, Norman Podhoretz handed over the editorship of Commentary to Neal Kozodoy, who ran it with conspicuous success until 2009, when John Podhoretz took the helm. 

Bill and John, both gifted writers and public intellectuals, had the same task I faced: carving out a distinctive journalistic persona in the shadow of parents who were larger-than-life and very much alive. Midge Decter summed it up in her inimitable way at one of our regular lunches. “It’s a hell of a burden to carry, Daniel,” she said, patting my hand. “And I don’t know how you do it. But I’m sure you boys will all be just fine.”

Roger Kimball

A similar changing of the guard took place at The New Criterion, a jewel in the crown of American cultural journalism. Hilton Kramer, the New York Times art critic, had founded the monthly in 1982 in protest against the postmodernist cultural nihilism that had superseded the continuity with tradition he had valued in modernist art. 

In the 1990s, Kramer was joined as managing editor by Roger Kimball (above), the audacious young author of Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. Like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Kimball’s book identified the depredations of the far Left on its long march through the academic institutions of America. Today we are all aware not merely of how they have driven out conservatives from the university, but how the universities are turning out the footsoldiers of the progressive revolution. The title of a 1997 volume of New Criterion edited by Kramer and Kimball, The Future of the European Past, encapsulates their true attachments.

This year, as The New Criterion celebrates its fortieth anniversary with a splendid series of essays, I am glad to look back on many years of contributing to both the journal and its conferences on both sides of the Atlantic. I count all the editors mentioned here, as well as others — notably Bob Tyrrell of The American Spectator and Charles Kesler of the Claremont Review of Books — as friends and colleagues. 

Conservative America, their America, has not forgotten its roots, the cultural origins of the New World, now so endangered here in the Old. As long as the press remains free, these blithe spirits will uphold the noble cause of Western civilisation.

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