by Thomas L. Jeffers
Cambridge, 408 pp., $35
Biography is more of a trade than an art form. And while the troubles of the trade are legion they are usually squared when the subject of a biography is alive. There are even subgenres with (at the lower end) “unauthorized” blazoned across the jacket, and (at the higher) books like the one Ian Hamilton was forced to write once J.D. Salinger kiboshed his research.
Fortunately for him, Thomas L. Jeffers has not been forced to do a search for Norman Podhoretz. First because the man himself has, for more than five decades, put his opinions out as widely and publicly as anyone—via Commentary, which he so successfully edited, columns in numerous other papers, and celebrated books. Jeffers has an advantage in that his subject is not only alive and still quarrelling, but has made himself available to his biographer in interview and by email. Evolving out of his 2004 compendium The Norman Podhoretz Reader, Jeffers is here able to flesh out the narrative of the boy from Brownsville who, through ability and sheer determination, made it finally to be recognized with (among other accolades) the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Jeffers is a thorough and comprehensively knowledgeable guide to his subject. He is also a devotee and, in addition to having access to his subject, has spoken to Podhoretz’s family and surviving (in every sense the term is applicable) friends. The resulting work is a tribute and an argument for Podhoretz.
And yet there are problems with arrangements like this. Obviously, there is in Podhoretz a huge amount to admire: Over the course of a lifetime he has held steadfastly to convictions and arguments which made him unpopular with all the right people, and he emerges well from most of these exchanges. In particular we should be grateful to him for making the essential arguments for the West, Israel (particularly through Daniel Patrick Moynihan), and Western culture during a period when efforts to snuff out all three were not only a professional, but a professorial, pursuit.
Yet this book—and, indeed, Podhoretz’s reputation—would have greatly benefited from some even mild friendly criticism. Part of the point of successful biography is to view a subject in the round. This is a very hard thing, indeed, when the subject is not merely a hero but alive and cooperating. But it is no disrespect to author or subject to say that there are parts of Norman Podhoretz that could have done with a more critical approach.
Allow me a couple of examples. One hundred and twenty-or-so pages in we are told of an event in January 1970 which is, to say the least, odd. Podhoretz is drinking heavily and one day, martini in hand, sees a vision—a kind of diagram—in the sky. Attempting to explain it afterwards he says that, among other things, one realization from it “was that Judaism was true.” He claims that, in the aftermath, he possessed the power “like a fortune-teller” to “look at you, and tell what was bothering you and what you should do about it.” He says later, “I couldn’t do that now, by the way.” Nevertheless, “I realized that that was what it must have meant to be a saint or a prophet: someone who never lost the capacity to see into people’s souls.”
Which must have been nice for him. But what on earth are the rest of us to make of this? Are we to take it at face value, as though magazine editors often have supernatural visions? If it were not for the fact that the incident directly influenced Podhoretz’s subsequent beliefs one could, perhaps, pass over it. But leaving it unaddressed in detail (as Jeffers does here) is a disservice to reader and subject.
Another problem emerges with Jeffers’s approach to Podhoretz’s political stances. Again, not mere acceptance but total agreement strikes me as being, though undoubtedly sincere, a critical mistake. As with anyone who has been so prolific, a few of Podhoretz’s writings are now wince-making. The writings on homosexuality, in particular, cannot be taken simply in the manner of their time. Podhoretz appears to believe that there is a class of male who is at great risk of being, as it were, seduced into becoming homosexual while not being inclined that way. Now, one must grant that Fire Island (where Podhoretz had a holiday home and made his observations) in the 1970s would not have been the best place to get a view of a rounded homosexual life. It would be like basing observations about heterosexuality on the behavior of men in strip clubs. Nevertheless the fearfulness, as well as the viciousness, on this subject seems worth exploring. But Jeffers lets it stand.
I don’t raise these matters simply to object. And I recognize that writing a biography of a hero, let alone a living one, is tricky. But Podhoretz as a subject deserves to be treated in the round. Warts and all. If one grants that Norman Podhoretz is not literally a prophet (and Jeffers seems to be out on this one), then he is still certainly big enough to cope with a more critical treatment.
On the substantial subjects he dealt with, as this book helpfully reminds us, Norman Podhoretz stands at the summit of political writers of his generation. Yet even to say this is to say something which, by the end of Jeffers’s work, one suspects might be thought grudging. If there is a reason, it may, I think, come down to a restless streak in Podhoretz which has clearly formed part of his extraordinary drive, and which should have been examined. Writers, intellectuals, thinkers, and artists have always been challenged by the man of action. Either they accept the limitations of their chosen role, or they aspire to something more. On any analysis of his literary and personal style, it seems clear that Podhoretz was never quite happy with simply being a writer—even a great one. Those who just missed out on the First World War often felt this, and Podhoretz was not alone in expressing the feeling after the Second.
However self-aggrandizingly some like to exaggerate the fisticuffs of intellectual struggle, writing is only metaphorical warfare. Only soldiers experience the real fighting. Podhoretz’s christening of the war against Islamic fascism as “World War IV” somehow gets to the core here. If there is a reason that calling the Cold War “World War III” has never caught on with the public it is not because, or not in all cases, they do not believe the Cold War to have been real and a threat, but rather because (as with the hotter conflict in which we are now engaged) they sense that the sacrifices in the earlier wars are diminished by such comparisons. Writers of greatness should, of course, take part in the struggles of their time, and it is understandable that many have the instinct to wage kinds of war of their own. But one should, I think, pause and think on the eagerness on finding oneself a couple of World Wars ahead of everyone else.
Norman Podhoretz’s life has been not just admirable but important. Not only through his lucid and forceful interventions did Podhoretz help guide some of the political events of his time, he also (principally at Commentary) played an important part as a kind of intellectual anchor. By holding fast against the counterculture he managed to sustain values and loyalties which will survive him and, hopefully, us. Against the current of his generation and most of his early friends, Podhoretz thought for himself. And in doing so he made one of the most difficult realizations of his generation.
I was educated to believe that the last thing one ought to be defending was one’s own, that it was more honorable and nobler to turn one’s back on one’s own and fight for others and for other things in which one had no personal stake or interest. This has been a very hard lesson to unlearn, and I am proud to have unlearned it.
It was a lesson which he learned not just for himself but for others: an achievement which, on its own, would put him among the American greats.
Douglas Murray is the author of Bosie:A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas and Neoconservatism: Why We Need It.