THE NORMAN PODHORETZ READER: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the I 990s

THE NORMAN PODHORETZ READER: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the I 990s

Andrew J. Bacevich
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2m 24sec

THE NORMAN PODHORETZ READER: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the 1990s. Edited by Thomas L. Jeffers. Free Press. 478 pp. $35

Described by Paul Johnson in the introduction to this collection as "the archetype of the New York intellectual," Norman Podhoretz has enjoyed a career as varied as it has been long and distinguished. In addition to his 35 years as editor of Commentary, he has achieved prominence (or notoriety) as a literary critic and prolific memoirist. As a young man, he courted fame and flirted with radicalism; in old age, he reinvented himself as an exegete, recently publishing a book on the Hebrew prophets. Throughout, Podhoretz has remained a patriot, a fierce anticommunist, and, since the 1960s, a relentless combatant in the culture wars.

This hefty tome, a five-decade sampler of Podhoretz’s writings, provides a useful opportunity to take stock of his career and achievements. The book touches on all of the abiding preoccupations of Podhoretz’s life: literature, totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, the well-being of Israel, the frequent dishonesty and fecklessness of his fellow intellectuals, and the dangers of anything suggesting appeasement, isolationism, or pusillanimity in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

Because Podhoretz is above all a sophisticated polemicist, the result makes for consistently lively reading. There is much here of lasting value. Yet the collection as a whole lacks balance and ultimately disappoints.

As an avowed enemy of the New Left and all its works, Podhoretz wielded his greatest influence in the years after the Vietnam War, when American politics and culture were still acutely afflicted with the fevers of the 1960s. Somewhat surprisingly, the book slights that phase of his career, offering only two essays from the 1970s. By contrast, the 1990s, a decade when ideological fevers had largely subsided (or perhaps migrated to the Right), are accorded 10 pieces, six from 1999 alone. Instead of inviting an evaluation of the man in full, The Norman Podhoretz Reader offers a somewhat skewed version of his intellectual legacy.

This is unfortunate. However insightful his reflections on Mark Twain, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Norman Mailer (all included here), Podhoretz matters because of his contribution to the reshaping of American politics after Vietnam. One of neoconservatism’s most influential exponents, he helped create the conditions that elevated Ronald Reagan to the White House, revived American power, and eventually ended the Cold War on terms favorable to the United States.

Though this book includes Podhoretz’s "eulogy" for his movement, neoconservatism did not expire with the Cold War. Instead, it today provides the impetus and intellectual justification for policies—the war in Iraq not least among them—that much of the world and more than a few Americans have come to view with dismay. The neoconservative persuasion deserves a more searching examination than it gets here.

—Andrew J. Bacevich


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