Norman Podhoretz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Battle over Ideas: Conversation with Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary; 4/6/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Before we talk about the particular issues that you focused on as your thinking changed about the great issues, I want to focus on the fact that you weren't just making this transition as a writer but also as an editor. I want to talk about that role, because you were the editor-in-chief of Commentary magazine, which throughout the period was very influential. You write in one of your books about being an editor: "It was as though the peculiar pleasure of getting inside someone else's mind and yet managing to keep a firm enough hold on one's critical sense to prevent oneself from being swallowed up by that other mind once inside had been a lifelong craving of my soul, which at long last found its object and been satisfied."

Where did I say that?

In Making It.

Again, I didn't remember it. Well, I agree with it.

Editorial talent is one of the rarest of all talents. Much rarer than literary talent, for example. Because it requires two qualities that rarely go together in the same person. On the one hand, it requires great arrogance, because the editor has to assume he knows better than the author about things that the author knows more about, usually. At the same time, it requires great humility, because it means subjecting your own skills to the ideas of someone else. If you are the kind of editor I tried to be for nearly forty years, what you are trying to do is to make this manuscript as good as it possibly can be in its own terms. You are not imposing on it. You are trying to realize what it is trying to say more perfectly than the author was capable of doing. There are very few people who are both supremely arrogant and supremely humble, not to mention possessed of some of the other skills that it takes to be an editor -- that is, the literary skills. And also the sense of the climate out there. What's interesting? What's important? So all these qualities are necessary to make a really good editor. There are very few people who possess them all. Many people possess one or the other but not all of them in combination. I was a natural.

When I went to work as an assistant editor of Commentary in my late twenties, I was handed a manuscript written by someone who had been born in Germany and who did not write English very well. A very famous person. First of all, the fame did not intimidate me. And secondly, no one told me what to do. They just said, "Put this into English." And I knew exactly what to do with this piece. I don't know why or how, but I did. And what's more I did it, and it succeeded, so I realized then that this was something I was born to do.

And that became an important tool for finding the ideas that would shape the public debate?

The last quality I mentioned was a more important tool than that. The sense of what was moving out there in the culture. As an editor -- again, this is the arrogrance expressing itself in a slightly different context -- I took the view that what was interesting and exciting to me was interesting and exciting in general. That I was not in fact idiosyncratic or eccentric, though I might be a bit ahead of the zeitgeist that was shaping up. I had great confidence in my sense of the movement of ideas and attitudes. So in finding writers and in finding subjects and marrying the two together and then rewriting what they gave me, Podhoretz with Henry Kissinger, New York, 1988 I was indeed able to exert a kind of influence. If I had not been in control of a magazine, I would not have been able to do it just by writing.

We had a team. I was the general of an army. Later, when I broke with the left, we were very few again, just as it had been at the beginning when I moved to the left, and I used to compare it to those movies in which you have a thousand Indians -- I guess you are supposed to say Native Americans now -- attacking six cavalrymen, and these six cavalrymen are behind a bunch of rocks and they run from one rock to another and they are firing so that the Indians will think that there are more of them than there are. And that was a little bit the way it was for us, both when I began as a radical and when I began as an anti-radical. But the armies grew as the other detachments of cavalry began to show up. You raise a standard, especially with clarity, and there are people who will rally around, and there are also what I call Marranos. Marranos were Jews forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition in medieval Spain, but who secretly practiced Judaism down in their cellars, and I used that term for people who secretly agreed with me but didn't dare to say so. I would give a lecture somewhere; it might be the University of California, and the audience would be very hostile but afterward a bunch of people would come up to me and they would whisper, "I really agree with you," and then slink off before somebody caught them.

You really were, in these two roles as writer and editor, both a patron saint and a leader of the neo-conservative movement. I want to touch upon the core ideas that were at stake here. This was an argument about U.S. - Soviet relations on the one hand, and secondly, it was an argument about attitudes toward America. Let's talk about that.

Podhoretz Neo-conservative means new conservative. We neo-conservatives were new in the sense that we had all begun somewhere on the left -- radical, liberal, whatever -- but somewhere on the left. So we were new to conservatism. But we also brought something new to conservatism. It was a different kind of conservatism. I want to get that clear, though I can't go into what was new about it as conservatism. But the two issues you mentioned were key. The U.S. - Soviet conflict -- we took the position, which I still hold, that the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was as close as you can come in human history to a conflict between good and evil. All good in the human realm is relative. There is no such thing as absolute good. But we have learned in our century that there are things that are very close to being absolutely evil -- totalitarianism, as Hannah Arendt, one of my ex-friends, taught me. She used the term absolute evil to describe totalitarianism, of which the two main mutations were Nazism and Communism, under Stalin in particular.

So some of us came to regard the U.S. - Soviet conflict, the Cold War, as a battle with the same political and moral weight as the war against Nazism. Podhoretz and William F. Buckley, mid-1990s; photo by Helena L. Martemucci We were on the American side, passionately, and we were anti-Soviet. Most of the left, by the late sixties, was anti-American, and were certainly not Cold Warriors of any stripe. So that was one very important point. The second point, which was organically related, had to do with the nature of American society. If I had my way, this movement -- it wasn't really a movement, it was more like a tendency -- would have been called neo-nationalism because what it really represented was a rediscovery of the values and virtues of American society. And I was and am an American nationalist, an American patriot, whichever word you like to use, and so were all the other neo-conservatives. We loved this country and we came more and more to believe that the traditional attitude of our fellow intellectuals, which ranged from mild disdain to outright hatred, was wrong and dangerous. That this was a society worth defending and that it embodied a precious institutional heritage that was under assault, externally from the power of the Soviet Union and internally from ideas such as some of the ideas that we ourselves had been propagating and that our fellow intellectuals been propagating for at least one hundred years or more. So we took to defending America and we became pro-American and anti-Soviet, and we considered most of our ex-friends on the left as anti-American. We didn't just consider them, they were; that is, they said that America was not only rotten itself, and could only be saved by a revolution, but that it was the main cause of evil in the world at large and the main enemy of the aspirations of the poor and the downtrodden everywhere. We violently disagreed with this view, and so we were pro-American or anti-anti-American, as you might say.

After this amazing life of shaping ideas, what is your view of the role intellectuals should properly play in political life?

People are free to choose whatever view they wish to hold. As I just said, if it were up to me, all intellectuals would be defending our kind of society. Let me add to this. I think American civilization is one of the high points of human achievement as a socio-political system. I compare it to fifth-century Athens. Not in the cultural sense; though we have not done too badly in the creation of artistic monuments, we don't rank with fifth-century Athens or nineteenth-century England or Elizabethan England; but as a socio-political democratic system we will be seen, if there is a future and there are future historians, as one of the highest points of human achievement, because we have created a society in which more people enjoy more freedom and more prosperity than any human community ever known to human history. And that is not nothing, to put it mildly. I wish everybody recognized that. Many people still don't.

I am going to answer a question you didn't ask me. What should be the role of ideas? What should be the role of intellectuals? I am the opposite of a Marxist, as it won't surprise you to hear. I don't believe that "it's the economy, stupid." James Carville, of course, said that. It is a Marxist idea that the economy shapes events. On the contrary, it is ideas that shape events. They are the moving force in history. Podhoretz with George Bush at the 20th anniversary dinner of American Spectator - fall, 1987 Everything begins with an idea in somebody's head, and the best thing John Maynard Keynes ever said was that practical men who think that they are indifferent to ideas always turn out to be the slaves of some defunct economist, or, I would add, defunct philosopher or defunct intellectual. There is a trickle-down effect, and people are influenced by thinkers of whom they have never heard, and they don't know this. These invisible forces are shaping how they feel and think about a whole range of issues in their own personal lives, not to mention in the society in which they live.

So I think intellectuals are supremely important, and I lament the fact that the American intellectual class has played what I consider on the whole to have been a destructive role. They pretend to think they agree with Shelly. He said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." I would say intellectuals are in general the unacknowledged legislators. If intellectuals understood this better than they do, if they took their own power more seriously, perhaps they would exercise it in what I regard as a more responsible fashion. But even when they don't exercise it in a more responsible fashion, they do serve to force into focus the assumptions that lie at the basis of the way we live and the way we feel and the way we think and the way we raise our kids and the way we relate to our wives and husbands and so on.

Your book Ex-Friends is dedicated to your grandchildren.

I have ten of them. Photo of Reagans with Podhoretz and caption: 'To Norman Podhoretz with Best Wishes, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan

And four children. What would you like your grandchildren to take in the way of a lesson from this intellectual journey we have been talking about?

I would hope they would take away some of the things I am saying here. I hope that they would first of all learn to place the kind of value on this country that I think it deserves. Secondly, I hope that they would learn to understand how important ideas are. Some of them -- the oldest are eighteen, and they have already learned that -- one of the best reviews of Ex-Friends was written by one of my grandchildren: it was a very favorable review! I would hope that they would also understand the idea that was most eloquently expressed by George Orwell who said something like this: the truth to which we have got to cling as a drowning man to a raft is that is possible to be a normal decent human being and still be fully alive. And I endorse that view with all my heart. I would hope my grandchildren would learn to endorse it as well.

Mr. Podhoretz, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today to talk about your life, your ideas, and the times in which you lived.

Thank you for having me.

And thank you for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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