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The Jewish Encyclopedia

In the postwar era, no magazine has matched the breadth of ‘Commentary.’

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Cyril Connolly—himself editor of Horizon, a splendid English intellectual journal that ran from 1939 to 1949—distinguished between dynamic and didactic magazines. Dynamic magazines published the best material they could find with no further motive than providing superior literary entertainment; didactic magazines published with a larger program or plan in mind. They had, as we should say today, “a line,” which didn’t of course preclude providing superior intellectual entertainment, without which the program or plan would of course never have had a chance to succeed. Connolly’s Horizon was dynamic, and Cohen’s Commentary, as would be true of the magazine under his successors, was didactic.

Elliot Cohen was very much what we should today call a “hands-on” editor. He instructed his contributors about what their articles should contain and how they should be organized and with what emphasis—and then, when the articles arrived, often rewrote them. The tradition of heavy editing continued well after Cohen’s editorship. The advantage of heavy editing carefully done is that no Commentary articles fell below a certain standard; the disadvantage was that much of the magazine read as if written by one person.

Balint, who admires Elliot Cohen’s achievement, characterizes the articles and reviews in Commentary “under Cohen’s steady hand” in the following admirable formulation:

Commentary treated politics with a literary sensibility. It balanced treatments of Jewish and general subjects, journalistic topicality with large-bore analysis. Neither pretentious nor patronizing, it joined the rigorous with the personal, passion with intelligence, brainy heft with fluency. It clamored to go beyond the immediate subject to larger questions of culture. It brought religious intensity to secular expression. It was writing con brio. 

In 1959, at the age of 60, Elliot Cohen, who was a manic-depressive, took his life by tying a plastic dry-cleaning bag around his head. The American Jewish Committee briefly considered Alfred Kazin, Daniel Bell, and Leslie Fiedler for the editorship of Commentary, then offered it to Irving Kristol, who turned it down. The job was then offered to Norman Podhoretz, who, disregarding his friend Kristol’s advice also to turn it down, accepted the job. The precocious Podhoretz, who was 29 at the time, had been a contributor to the magazine under Elliot Cohen, and worked there as an assistant editor under difficult conditions during the interregnum between Cohen’s illness and death and his own appointment. No one expected him to be a dull editor; but then, no one could have predicted, either, on what a wild ride he would take the magazine.

Anyone interested in intellectual life in America over the past half-century cannot be neutral about Norman Podhoretz. I am certainly not myself; I admire him greatly, for his intellectual courage, his logic and clarity, and—a quality less known to his readers than to his friends—his kindness and generosity, of which I have had ample evidence in my dealings with him as both editor and friend. Yet most of Norman Podhoretz’s life has been spent in intellectual combat. He is the last man to run away from a fight, which has earned him many enemies.

When younger, Podhoretz was a magnet attracting envy. When I lived in New York in the early 1960s, the contemporaries of Norman Podhoretz whom I knew were all envious of him. Not only had he made that longest of trips, as he once described it, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, traveling from the working class (his father was a milkman) to the educated—let us make that the bien pensant—class; but he seemed, at least from the middle distance, to have done it so easily. As an undergraduate at Columbia he became known as Lionel Trilling’s favorite student. Off to Cambridge on a Kellett Fellowship he studied under F. R. Leavis and published at any early age in Leavis’s magazine Scrutiny. After he returned to the United States, his literary criticism appeared in Partisan Review and in all the other okay places. He was a younger member, but one in good standing, of the group of New York intellectuals he himself has called “the Family,” a term suggesting the coziness yet argumentativeness of an actual family, and the potential for internecine viciousness of a Mafia family.

Once he had attained the editorship of Commentary, Podhoretz gave it a violent lurch, ending the magazine’s celebration of America under Elliot Cohen and steering it, as Balint puts it, “sharply leftward into a decade of antiestablishment iconoclasm.” He began by publishing three lengthy excerpts from Growing Up Absurd, a book by Paul Goodman arguing, essentially, that America was not a country worthy of young men to grow up in. Staughton Lynd, a kind of domestic Noam Chomsky, found welcome in the new Commentary; and so did H. Stuart Hughes, a Harvard historian who argued for America’s taking up a position of unilateral disarmament. Norman Mailer, then a close friend of Podhoretz’s, wrote, quite incomprehensibly as I recall, on Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim as if he were a secular version of a Hasidic rebbe, which he clearly was not.

These leftist years at Commentary, from 1960 through roughly 1968, may have been the only phase in the career of Norman Podhoretz, who has been a lifelong nonconformist, when he traveled with the horde, or herd, of independent minds. Leftism was at that time nothing if not fashionable, and the only question among intellectuals on the left was how to out-radical one’s fellow intellectuals. A proof of the fashionableness of leftism is that at no time was Commentary’s circulation higher (rising to 62,000, according to Balint) than during its most leftist period.

While still in his leftwing mode, Norman Podhoretz published his memoir, Making It (1967). The book argued the case for ambition, for exposing “the dirty little secret” that having power, money, and fame was much to be preferred over not having them. These are things that, however obvious, are not supposed to be averred publicly, especially by liberal-left intellectuals. Nor was Podhoretz permitted to get away with averring them. I don’t recall a book having been so thoroughly lambasted by reviewers in my day as was Making It. The subtitle for an attack on the book in Esquire read, as I recall: “Norman Podhoretz’s dirty little secret may not be all that dirty but it sure is little.”

Some people have suggested that the crushing reviews Making It received helped push Podhoretz politically rightward. Perhaps. But the more decisive element in turning Norman Podhoretz were the events of the late 1960s and early seventies. Even in his leftist days, Podhoretz found the writers of the so-called Beat Movement—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, et al.—third rate and, in their dedication to immaturity, not finally to be taken seriously. The drugging and political wildness represented by the coalition of students, old lefties, and liberal hangers-on that went by the name of the Movement he found even less congenial. Some of the menacing utterances about Israel on the part of the Black Panthers must have reminded him that the one thing the extreme left and the extreme right can always agree upon is hatred of the Jews.

Benjamin Balint has a Norman Podhoretz problem. He appears not to have been able to decide if Podhoretz is a good or bad hombre. The only clearly unequivocal thing he says about him is that he has “a marvelous baritone voice,” which in fact he doesn’t: He has the raspy voice of the ex-smoker, Camels, unfiltered, four packs a day. Balint’s portrait of Podhoretz is of a figure of aggression: He uses words such as “hard-charging,” “brusque,” “pugnacious” to describe him. What Balint cannot quite make up his mind about is whether Norman Podhoretz is a main-chancer looking to promote himself through his magazine or, instead, a man of high principle devoted to his country, to fellow Jews round the world, and to staving off barbarians who, often during the years of his editorship of Commentary between 1960 and 1995, seemed not at but well inside the gates.

Podhoretz never disguised his ambition; Making It is proof of that. The question—a question Balint never gets around to answering satisfactorily—is what has been behind that ambition? I believe the right things have been behind Norman Podhoretz’s ambition. Time after time, as editor of Commentary, he has taken up strong positions that went against the grain not of mainstream America but of mainstream American intellectual life. In “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” an essay of 1963, Podhoretz pushed against black psychological bullying, which was to grow much more rampant and intense in the years ahead, and claimed that the most likely solution to the country’s race problem was miscegenation. (Lo, today we have not a black but a biracial president; and indeed biracialism—not only of the black-and-white but of the Asian-Caucasian varieties—looks to be the order of the future.) He took on Hannah Arendt and her heartless book about Jews in the Holocaust, when sentiment among the New York Review of Books crowd went strongly the other way—and again he has been proven correct. He held Commentary to a strong anti-Communist line so long as communism—a truly evil empire, in case anyone failed to notice—continued to exist, even though so many among the old liberal anti-Communists gave way to the plague-on-both-your-houses politics of anti-anticommunism. He was early to label the current Western conflict with Islamic fundamentalism as World War IV (World War III was the Cold War), and in this, as we are learning, he was not wrong, either.

One of the striking changes in Commentary under Norman Podhoretz was that the magazine became more political and less cultural in its interests. This is all the more noteworthy since Podhoretz began his career as a literary critic. Irving Kristol, in his warning not to take up the editorship, told him that if he continued writing literary criticism, “you’ll end up replacing Edmund Wilson in our pantheon.” (Others warned that he would be the next Clifton Fadiman.) But of course, not even Edmund Wilson could have replaced Edmund Wilson, for literary culture has been slowly dying—choked off by academic idiocy, by politics, and by the blurring of high culture generally. Podhoretz’s ambition required the larger arena of politics in which to exercise itself.

Not that Commentary was devoid of cultural interest. Robert Alter published serious literary criticism in the magazine; so did Ted Solotaroff and Cynthia Ozick (whose general importance to the magazine Balint overrates). For a brief while, a dazzling writer named Alfred Chester wrote memorable attacks on J. D. Salinger and John Updike and other pieces. Sam Lipman wrote brilliant music criticism for the magazine, Richard Grenier wrote in an insiderish way about the movies. Hilton Kramer wrote less regularly for the magazine but always powerfully about the visual arts.

Yet at a party at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, marking Norman Podhoretz’s 25th anniversary as editor of Commentary, those who spoke about the significance of the magazine included George Shultz, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ed Koch, and Henry Kissinger. At this party I found myself at a table with Hilton Kramer, John Gross (editor of the Times Literary Supplement), Cynthia Ozick, Gerard Schwarz (conductor of the Seattle Symphony), and Sam Lipman. Midway through the dinner, with several Secret Service and other security men against the walls and near the entrances, Sam Lipman leaned over to me and said, “I see we are seated at the children’s table.” By which witty remark he meant, among other things, that culture was no longer central to the magazine.

Commentary remained very much a Jewish magazine. Of course, the plight of the Jews in America had changed radically from Elliot Cohen’s editorship to Norman Podhoretz’s—from the days of concern about anti-Semitism and assimilation in America to those of worry about too great assimilation ending in loss of Jewish identity through intermarriage. Elliot Cohen and many of the intellectuals who wrote for his magazine in its earliest days were not in favor of a Jewish state, Balint reports, though once Israel became a fait accompli they rallied to its defense. Under Norman Podhoretz’s editorship, and later Neal Kozodoy’s, the defense of Israel became a major priority.

I write “under Norman Podhoretz’s editorship, and later Neal Kozodoy’s”—but in fact the two were nearly coterminous. In 1966, at the age of 24, Kozodoy, who had been a graduate student at Columbia, had been hired as a sub-editor at Commentary. He soon developed a nearly perfect rapport with Norman Podhoretz such that, during all my years as a Commentary contributor, who dealt chiefly with Neal Kozodoy, I thought of the two men as co-editors. Kozodoy had the authority to make assignments and decisions on manuscripts as if he were himself the principal editor. If one disagreed with him, one never thought to take the matter to a higher authority because it didn’t feel as if there were any higher authority. True, because he wrote more—Neal Kozodoy published little—and his name appeared atop the masthead, Norman Podhoretz receieved most of the glory the magazine attracted, and also most of the not inconsiderable contumely that came its way. In the late 1960s, I can recall more than one person asking me why I wrote for Commentary, “that vulgar magazine.” “Vulgar” is the word intellectuals use when they really mean “vile,” by which they actually mean in disagreement with their own views.

Neal Kozodoy was the principal editor of Commentary for 13 years. During that time, the magazine’s line did not much change: Defense of Israel from its enemies (not all of whom bore Arab names), criticism of anti-Americanism and anti-Americans, attacks on thin culture passing itself off as serious, remained the order of the day. Plenty of room remained in the magazine for the nonpolitical: I was myself permitted to write in its pages during Kozodoy’s editorship about Montaigne, John R. Tunis, life at the National Endowment for the Arts, and other not centrally political subjects. Kozodoy brought on board new contributors—David Gelernter, David Berlinski, Arthur Herman, Michael J. Lewis notable among them—and used some contributors (Terry Teachout, Hillel Halkin, Joshua Muravchik) more than Podhoretz did.

During Kozodoy’s editorship, Commentary joined corporate independence to editorial independence by breaking away from the American Jewish Committee, and this imposed an additional fundraising burden that Kozodoy worked at sedulously and successfully. The chief difference between the Podhoretz and the Kozodoy editorships—under the latter the former continued to be a featured contributor—is that Neal Kozodoy retained his amazing, I would say heroic, self-effacement. He kept the magazine to the highest standard of seriousness and literary scrupulosity, and required no public recognition for his achievement.

In Running Commentary, Balint notes that I have published one hundred and thirty essays, stories, and reviews in Commentary. I would add that I never sent one of them off to the magazine without worrying about its acceptance, for under the editorships of Neal Kozodoy and Norman Podhoretz having been a frequent contributor or sharing their politics, or having a famous name, was never sufficient to guarantee publication in Commentary. The quality of what one wrote was always the chief element.

As the fourth editor of Commentary in its 65-year history, John Podhoretz, the son of Norman, is under the curse of what a friend of mine called the Brooks Robinson Factor. Robinson was the greatest fielding third baseman in the history of baseball, and his successor at third base for the Baltimore Orioles was an excellent ballplayer named Doug DeCinces. DeCinces might dive into the dugout in a superhuman effort to catch a foul ball; but if he missed, one Orioles fan was sure to turn to another and mutter, “Brooks would’ve had it.” Whenever John Podhoretz attempts something new or different in Commentary many of the magazine’s old-line readers are likely to mutter, “Neal [or
Norman or even Elliot] would never have permitted it.”

My sense is that John Podhoretz, the only editor of Commentary who comes to the job after working as a professional journalist, intends the tricky balancing act of making the magazine livelier without draining it of its seriousness. The magazine, let it be said, could become dour under its earlier editors—we have, after all, lived through some dark times—and the injection of a brighter note, if its current editor can bring it off without diluting the content and high editorial quality of the magazine, has to be viewed as a good and right thing.

The times make magazines more than magazines make the times. John Podhoretz takes up his editorship at a period when many of the old working assumptions of intellectual magazines no longer hold. One of the important tasks of the old intellectual journalism was, through its criticism of the arts, to serve as a stern gatekeeper, keeping out all that was shoddy, thin, ersatz. In 1958 Dwight Macdonald wrote an essay in Commentary called “By Cozzens Possessed” that put a dent in the literary reputation of James Gould Cozzens from which it has yet to recover. I remember being with Saul Bellow and Harold Rosenberg as they agreed that Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was passable as blue stand-up comedy, but had no real standing as literature. How useful it would be today to have critics who might let it be known that what passes for great writing, serious art, beautiful music, shouldn’t be allowed to pass at all. Without strong intellectual journalism, the culture is all the more likely to lapse—actually, it long ago lapsed—into what Santayana called “a second-class standard of firstness.”

As the bar for High Culture has been taken down, so has the old intellectual journalistic approach to politics changed. When he began his intellectual journal the Criterion, T. S. Eliot said that it was committed to a conservative program but would be hostage to no party. Many years later Dwight Macdonald, in describing the two major American parties, called them Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber. American politics seemed too trivial for the capacious minds of the intellectuals of Macdonald’s generation; American politicians were mainly crooks and clowns—case closed. The intellectuals of that day dreamt of socialism and dabbled in revolution. Of course, it came to nothing more than dreaming and dabbling, but it gave a feeling of grandeur.

“In general,” Balint writes, “an imaginative impoverishment seem to set in [at Commentary] as Podhoretz led the magazine deeper into neoconservative sensibility.” Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozodoy probably had less choice than they might have realized in taking Commentary further out into the heavy political waters that led the magazine to become one of the spearheads of neoconservatism. With America under intellectual attack at home, Israel under military threat abroad, anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe, educational and intellectual and artistic standards slipping everywhere, where else could the magazine honorably have gone but into the defending or conserving mode that has been at the heart of neoconservatism.

The chief problem facing John Podhoretz in his editorship of the current-day Commentary, I would say, is not the distraction of the Internet or the isolation of neoconservatism, but how to run an intellectual magazine without genuine intellectuals. For it is far from clear that we even have intellectuals any longer—at least not in the old sense of men and women living on and for ideas, imbued with high culture, willing to sacrifice financially to live the undeterred life of the mind. Intellectuals of the kind that T. S. Eliot sought as contributors to the Criterion—Ortega y Gasset, Paul Valéry, E. R. Curtius, Arthur Eddington—no longer exist. Nor do the intellectuals, of lesser fame and distinction, who helped fill Elliot Cohen’s pages.

Instead, we have so-called public intellectuals, a very different, much less impressive, type, whom I have always thought should be called Publicity Intellectuals. Public intellectual is another term for talking head—men and women who have newspaper columns or blogs or appear regularly on television and radio talk shows and comment chiefly on politicians and political programs; they tend to be articulate without any sign of being cultured, already lined and locked up politically, and devoted to many things, but the disinterested pursuit of the truth not among them. Frank Rich is a public intellectual, so too are Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza.

At the end of his book, Balint describes the neoconservatives “gathered around Commentary [as] both chosen and reviled, both vanguard and anomaly. For all their prominence, they found themselves isolated, a minority of a minority.” I should put it rather differently. The neoconservatives gathered around Commentary are a minority among the majority of standard Jewish liberals, they are reviled by leftist bien pensants, and they are an anomaly in not caring about being in intellectual or political fashion.Not the least dishonor that I can detect attaches to any of these conditions.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff And Other Stories.

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