All in the Mespoche
America may have succumbed to Commentary magazine’s exhortations, but most Jews never did.
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.
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