Book Reviews

All in the Mespoche

America may have succumbed to Commentary magazine's exhortations, but most Jews never did.

By Peter Steinfels

Tagged JudaismNeoconservatism

Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Turned the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right  By Benjamin Balint • PublicAffairs • 2010 • 304 pages • $26.95

As an undergraduate in the early 1960s, I was an irregular but enthusiastic reader of Commentary, the monthly magazine published by the American Jewish Committee and edited then and until 1995 by Norman Podhoretz.

Several years later, as a graduate student at Columbia and a junior editor at the liberal Catholic weekly Commonweal, I was a devoted reader of Commentary, considering it an essential street guide to New York City’s intellectual life.

By the time I wrote a book on neoconservatism, published in 1979 with many references to Commentary, I was pretty much sick of it.

Since then, I have read Commentary haphazardly, to check out some especially notorious article or enjoy an essay or review by someone I particularly admired. Benjamin Balint, a member of Commentary’s editorial staff from 2001 to 2004, has written an enlightening and sympathetic history of the magazine that largely confirms my impression that, from the mid-1970s onward, most issues of the magazine were basically interchangeable with one another. Explaining why he abandons chronological order only a little more than halfway through the book, Balint puts it politely: “On the fundamental questions, Commentary’s cast of mind was now full formed.”

By which he means that Norman Podhoretz had completed the turn that, to quote the book’s subtitle, “transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right.” This is hyperbolic nonsense, to be sure, and whoever is responsible for it–publisher, author, or both–did an injustice to a serious and sober book. But it tells you something about the ambitions of Podhoretz, his magazine, and the neoconservatism they helped create.

Neoconservatism was one of the most interesting ideological movements to emerge from the Sixties. It defined itself, to be precise, against the radicalism of the Sixties, but its starting point was the centrist liberalism of the 1950s, anti-Communist but not scornful of containment, incrementalist and more enamored of political compromise than social change, but embracing the New Deal within the national “consensus” it so often celebrated. For a time, neoconservatism offered a potentially bipartisan alternative to the unleash-the-market, unleash-the-military, and leash-the-federal-government enthusiasms of the Goldwater to Reagan wing of the Republican Party.

But the moment passed. Instead of a rivalry, there was a marriage. Indeed, neoconservatism was soon attacking Reagan from his right, declaring new “world wars” with a zeal that would have done credit to Curtis LeMay. What had been a loose family of New York literary intellectuals became a well-connected network of Washington wonks. Whether among the outs or the ins, whether riding the wave of post-9/11 fear to embroil the United States in Iraq or suffering the embarrassment of that war’s descent into quagmire, they are now deeply entrenched in policy circles, primarily as tireless advocates for the unilateral assertion of American power in international affairs and especially in defense of Israel.

Balint is not writing a history of neoconservatism itself, which has been done every few years, in either triumphal or prosecutorial mode. Commentary preexisted neoconservatism; and though it eventually subordinated everything to political ideology, it also dealt extensively with literature, art, and Jewish thought and culture. Balint’s text mentions many of the literary and political intellectuals who appeared in Commentary and their most noteworthy contributions, and his endnotes fill in with more. He focuses on the two Commentary editors who were truly formative, Elliot Cohen and Podhoretz; but many other staff members who independently created distinguished careers, like Robert Warshow, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Harvey Shapiro, Susan Sontag, Midge Decter, Irving Kristol, and Nathan Glazer, make appearances. Al Pacino, at 18, sorted mail there for awhile, until, as Balint says, “he, too, went on to greater things.” (He left the mail and took the cannoli.)

Balint goes lightly on the financial and circulation sides of the magazine. Its circulation went from fewer than 5,000 copies at its launching in 1945 to 20,000 in 1960, when Podhoretz took over as editor, and to 64,000 in 1968, with a tenfold increase in advertising in only a few years. By 1995, however, when Podhoretz retired, paid circulation had fallen to 25,000, where it has remained today. Not that the absolute numbers tell the whole story. Magazines like Commentary have an impact far beyond their circulation and are subject, in addition, to the winds and tides of the economy and postal rates. But the trend may tell us much of what we need to know.

Balint gives credit to the remarkable freedom that the American Jewish Committee (AJC) provided Podhoretz throughout his sharp swings, first to the left and then to the right. I would have liked more behind-the-scenes details about the cutbacks that forced Podhoretz to seek funding from right-wing foundations and donors in the early 1990’s, and then the magazine’s total separation from the AJC in 2006. As a former editor of a journal, Commonweal, that survived without organizational sponsorship or major funders since 1924, I was curious about what writers and editors were paid, how circulation was promoted, and even who paid for a three-year investigation and 17, 000-word article attacking the late Edward Said. But Balint was probably prudent to go easy on that kind of shoptalk. He knows that larger issues are at stake.

Balint subordinates all this to two concerns: Commentary’s role in the nation’s life and in the Jewish community. Nathan Abrams once described Commentary, in two consecutive sentences, as “a crucible in which neocon arguments, especially on foreign policy, were annealed and honed” and “the womb in which neoconservatism was conceived and gestated.” That is a rather frightening mix of metaphors, but it sums up a story that is well known and that I would qualify only moderately.

“Neoconservatism was not an ‘ism’ at all,” Balint writes; “it was less a set of doctrines than a constellation of political instincts, a mentality.” I wrote much the same thing in 1978, but Balint adds an insight that synthesizes the original neoconservative campaign against the radical movements of the Sixties, its later fixations on Soviet power and, more recently, the threat of violent Islam. “To be a neoconservative,” he writes, “meant most of all to mount a muscular defense of one’s own.”

Balint illustrates this “muscular defense” with telling quotations on everything from feminism to Iraq and Iran. Many seem so over-the-top as to self-destruct. “I can’t remember when I last tasted such exhilaration,” Podhoretz said upon learning of the 1991 bombardment of Baghdad. Or again, in 2006, noting that Iraq had been liberated, three elections held, a constitution written, a government put in place, and “previously unimaginable liberties are being enjoyed,” Podhoretz went on to ask: “By what bizarre calculus does all this add up to failure?” Without even trying to sum up success or failure, it seems obvious that a calculus including more than a glancing reference to massive death, maiming, vengeance, destruction, displacement, and recruitment for terrorism is not exactly bizarre. There were moments when I wondered whether Balint, despite his sympathies for Commentary and admiration of Podhoretz’s genius, wasn’t really trying to explode the whole thing. But what I see with the eyes of a critic, Podhoretz’s neoconservative followers may very well see as entirely fair.

Balint is less fair in his description of the political and cultural environment against which Commentary was battling. To its discredit, neoconservatism has too often lined itself up against the opposition at its weakest or most rhetorically extreme, rather than at its strongest and most carefully couched. Balint tends to takes Commentary’s view of the world around it at face value–a world of student radicals glorifying violence and denouncing “the very idea of intellectual standards,” of Black Panthers praising armed action against “Israeli Pigs,” of Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy reporting from North Vietnam for The New York Review of Books. You would hardly know that Podhoretz’s scorched-earth campaign against radicalism took place in the years of Nixon, when the civil rights movement was foundering, the student New Left had cracked up, and Spiro Agnew was publicly singing the magazine’s praises.

Balint, who plays with the theme of Jewish exile and return, currently works from Jerusalem, where he is associated with the Hudson Institute, serves on the editorial staff of The Jerusalem Post, and contributes essays and reviews, most of them dealing with religious topics, to publications like The Wall Street Journal, First Things, and The Claremont Review of Books. He is deeply interested and knowledgeable about the religio-cultural side of Commentary’s history, far less known than its political trajectory. Precisely by insisting that Jews should be at home in America as Jews, he argues, the journal could feature “the best writing in English on Jewish literature, history, sociology, and theology.”

Over time, Commentary managed to move in several directions at once, simultaneously bringing Jewish intellectuals steeped in secular European radicalism closer to both Jewish and American identities.

The magazine traveled an intriguing path from early coolness toward Zionism to a warm embrace of Israel and finally to a hard line. In its early years, the magazine also felt pressed to rescue Jewish writing from middlebrow sentimentality and narrowness, something unimaginable to someone who came of age, as I did, when American fiction seemed dominated by a Jewish first string starring Mailer, Bellow, Roth, Malamud, and Singer, as well as outstanding critics like Trilling, Howe, Kazin, Rahv, and Fiedler.

Alas, Balint overreaches. Certainly Commentary’s story is indeed part of a larger “tumultuous Jewish love affair with America.” But apart from some New York intellectuals, that love affair would have proceeded just as easily without Commentary.

And he similarly overreaches, as he half confesses, in regard to Commentary’s neoconservatism. In the estimation of many people, some of whom Balint quotes, the Bush administration was neoconservatism come to power. This was partially true–truer than the claim that the Bush administration was the Religious Right come to power. But what exactly was the role of Commentary in neoconservatism’s dramatic rise to power?

Commentary, never alone in its efforts, was one powerful actor among many. Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell had founded The Public Interest in 1965 as a font of neoconservative “anti-ideology.” Kristol went on to convince corporate and conservative money that it was time to defend their own by funding conservative groups and publications on campuses and founding new Washington think tanks as well as reenergizing old ones. After 1980, having helped Ronald Reagan win blue-collar votes by running less as a small-government partisan than a kind of patriotic and culturally conservative heir to FDR, neoconservatives enlisted in the Reagan administration with surprising ease.

When I wrote my book on neoconservatism in the late 1970’s, I devoted separate chapters to three of its leading thinkers: Kristol, Bell, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Ten years later, Moynihan, once known as the “Senator from Commentary,” had effectively been excommunicated from the group for suspiciously dovish criticism of U.S. foreign policy, and Bell, always resistant to the neoconservative label, had taken leave of his friends, quietly but with regrets at their aggressive tone and growing incivility. In a 2003 letter to The New York Times, Glazer wrote, “There is very little connection between those called ‘neoconservatives’ 30 years ago and neoconservatives today, who are defined entirely by their hard stance on foreign and military policy.”

By the time Dick Cheney, hardly a graduate of neoconservative circles himself, started installing neoconservatives in the George W. Bush Administration, he could draw on a considerable network of seasoned Washington figures and fresh young blood for whom Commentary was just one among many possible way stations on the path to an influential post. No doubt young conservatives are still grateful for an invitation to review a book for Commentary, but it is no longer the passage to the intellectual big leagues that it was for a young Podhoretz or many other writers in the Fifties and Sixties.

Balint is well aware of this decline. “Once a magazine’s mind is settled, once it brooks fewer challenges to its certainties, its momentum flags,” he writes, although he seems reluctant to admit just how long ago that happened for Commentary. He admires the editorial skills of Podhoretz, and of Cohen, his predecessor, and of Neil Kozodoy, his successor; and no one who knows how demanding editing can be issue after issue will deny the heroic persistence with which these editors toiled for years to realize their vision. But Balint indicates that this editing was not done with a light touch. He reports David Brooks’s remark that he no longer recalled when his first book review ran in Commentary but “he remembered his third, because that was the first time a sentence of his had appeared in the magazine.”

Critics of Podhoretz get their say in Balint’s history; for example, Leon Wieseltier’s observation that Podhoretz “has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation.” Balint keeps a discreet distance from these criticisms, as from the complaint that Bush-era neoconservatives had lost all sense of limits, exhibiting a confidence about remaking other societies that they had warned about in regard to our own. But Balint is clearly pained by the way a party line was enforced not only in political matters but in art and literature as well. He bristles at the way book reviews turned censorious or sweetheart depending on political alliances–Mailer, James Baldwin, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Alice Walker, Grace Paley all had their knuckles rapped, while glowing phrases were bestowed on books by Conrad Black, a Commentary funder, and Susan Hertog, wife of funder Roger Hertog. The magazine’s conservatism, Balint laments, finally curdled into a fear of artistic imagination.

A magazine like Commentary is more than its black-and-white pages and its crew of editors; it is an invisible community of writers and readers. Invisibility is a problem for a historian, and Balint solves it by using the image that Podhoretz employed in Making It, the first of his autobiographies. Podhoretz referred to the mostly Jewish, constantly scrapping New York intellectuals as “the family,” which Balint now capitalizes. The Family is indeed a useful term for a core group of intermarried, intergenerational neoconservatives. The notion that neoconservatism was a family enterprise gained strength when Bill Kristol, son of Irving and Gertrude Himmelfarb (sister of Milton, who worked for the American Jewish Committee) founded The Weekly Standard, and Elliott Abrams, son-in-law of Podhoretz and Midge Decter (and once a student tenant of Nathan Glazer), was appointed to foreign policy posts under Reagan and George W. Bush. It reached a kind of comic culmination in 2008 when John Podhoretz, son of Norman and Midge, was named Commentary’s latest editor. “I was absolutely amazed,” Balint quotes Norman as saying. “It would never have occurred to me in a million years.” I am sure he didn’t mean that the way it sounded.

Apart from those inner circles, however, the device of “the Family” implies a unity, continuity, and significance over time that Balint doesn’t even try to document and that is, if anything, rebutted by his many examples of people who jumped ship. Yet that unity and coherence are what lie behind his subtitle’s fantastic notion that Commentary “transformed the Jewish Left” or had any major impact on a Jewish community that, after all, continues to vote Democratic, root for the underdog, and wax and wane in its Jewish identity for reasons having little to do with Commentary or neoconservatism. Certainly, most American Jews rally to a “muscular” response whenever Israel’s security can be seen at risk, but they do not need Commentary to cue them on this. In fact, by linking Israel’s security to the war in Iraq, neoconservatives have probably unsettled Israel’s supporters by raising questions about where Israeli and American interests diverge.

As long as the anarchy of the international system and capitalism’s quest for profit call for the “muscular defense of one’s own,” neoconservatism in its present form will retain its appeal, to say nothing of the institutional base in which it has implanted itself over four decades. I am not impressed by reports that the movement is badly split between those who continue to advocate a foreign policy built around the spread of democracy and those who advocate a “realist” focus on national interest. Under the pressure of events, it is quite possible to integrate the spread of democracy into national interests and realistic qualifications into the spread of democracy. The more telling issues have to do with confidence in the unalloyed goodness of projecting American power and appreciation of the full costs and unpredictability of waging war. Neoconservatives, however they dither about “realism,” remain high on the former and low on the latter.

So the neoconservative character will remain in demand. But the promise that neoconservatism had as a new current in American politics, chastened about human ambitions for improvement and skeptical about bureaucratic programs–yet accepting of the welfare state–died long ago. It lives on only in the more contrarian moments of The New Republic and in individuals like David Brooks. And it is sorely missed in a season when conservatism is being hijacked by the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.

Commentary, alongside its achievements in fostering Jewish literary and cultural consciousness, can take credit for helping to create that new current. From John Stuart Mill to Lionel Trilling, liberals had lamented the absence of an intelligent conservatism against which to sharpen their own ideas. In 1978, although I was a critic of neoconservatism, I thought that their wish had finally been granted. I never suspected that in little more than a decade after helping to launch such a promising variant of American conservatism, Commentary would do so much to kill it off.

Read more about JudaismNeoconservatism

Peter Steinfels is co-director of the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture. An editor of Commonweal in the 1960s and 1980s and a religion reporter and columnist for The New York Times until this year, he is the author of The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America's Politics

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