The Making and Unmaking of the Podhoretz Dynasty
Fifty years after Making It, a neocon’s memoir re-examined.
NORMAN PODHORETZ’S MEMOIR Making It is not exactly a good book, but it’s a better book than anyone gave it credit for in 1967. Upon its initial publication, it was savaged by the circle of New York intellectuals the author had spent his early career endearing himself to, a struggle that comprises the book’s main subject. Re-issued for its 50th anniversary by the New York Review of Books, Making It in 2017 reads half as a lively, if infuriating, first-person account of a bygone cultural era and half as a revealing, if unintended, study of the conservative mind.
More than most memoirs, Making It has a clear thesis, articulated in the memorable opening lines: “Let me introduce myself. I am a man who at the precocious age of thirty-five experienced an astonishing revelation: it is better to be a success than a failure.” Podhoretz goes on to say that it is better to be rich than poor, better to give orders than to take them, better to be recognized than to be anonymous. Making It was Podhoretz’s attempt to brand himself as a kind of Jewish intellectual Horatio Alger, a self-made social climber whose life spanned “One of the longest journeys in the world,” the trip from “certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.” Specifically, this refers to Brownsville, the working-class area where he was raised among Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and the Upper West Side, “a country as foreign to him as China and infinitely more frightening,” where he fought his way into the upper-middle class intelligentsia.
The star of his outer borough public high school, Podhoretz won a partial scholarship to Harvard and a full one to Columbia, the latter of which he accepted, and went on to Cambridge, a stint in the army, writing book reviews for The New Yorker, and eventually the editorship of Commentary and the social company of Hannah Arendt, Norman Mailer, and James Baldwin. This is a classic American success story, but for Podhoretz, to openly portray it as such was to violate the social norms of his adopted class.
Throughout Making It, Podhoretz is remarkably frank about how his brash, self-aggrandizing manner offended his more privileged peers. Here is how he describes the attitudes of his Columbia classmates, whom he subdivides into “the prep-school boys, those B students who rarely said anything in class… the homosexuals with their supercilious disdain of my lower-class style of dress… and the prissily bred middle-class Jews who thought me insufferably crude”:
These scruples had nothing to do with morality; they had only to do with the code of manners governing ambitiousness which seemed to bind everyone at Columbia but me. It was a code which forbade one to work too hard or to make any effort to impress a professor or to display the slightest concern over grades… Yet I, a flagrantly open violator, was being rewarded
How a contemporary reader feels about passages like these, which are littered throughout the book, may be a function of one’s own background. The writer Christopher Byrd, for instance, in his largely positive review of Making It, describes himself as “a black guy who grew up in and around the D.C. area for much of his life, and who by fifteen was scrupulously following Michael Dirda’s literary column.” Byrd sees some of himself in Podhoretz, and recommends Making It as an account of navigating between two different worlds. “If you’re fascinated by code switching,” he writes, “or have ever received the cold shoulder from someone at a party who, apart from anything having to do with attraction, assumed you were not in their league, then you will likely find much of interest in this book that plunges deep into the pressure cooker of the American class system.”
Other readers, including “prissily bred middle-class Jews” like me, may react to Podhoretz much as he tells us people did at the time: what an insufferable prick! This is a book full of sentences like “My grades were very high and would obviously remain so,” and, “it is no wonder–though it was a great and glorious wonder to me then–that A+’s (an unusual grade at Columbia outside courses in the sciences) should have begun appearing on my record almost as regularly as A’s.” But it seems unfair to say these boasts mar Making It when they’re the entire point of the book. Podhoretz is writing about how great he is at least in theory in order to make a point about elite culture’s resistance to doing exactly that.
Read on these terms, Making It almost makes a persuasive case. The first half is entertaining and evocative, and would be worth reading just for the story of Podhoretz’s mentorship by his high school teacher, Mrs. K, an old-Brooklyn WASP to whom he attributes “an old-fashioned kind of patrician anti-Semitism.” Mrs. K, he writes, “saw no distinction between the hopeless task of teaching the proper use of English to the young Jewish barbarians whom fate had so unkindly deposited into her charge and the equally hopeless task of teaching them proper ‘manners.’” In the most memorable sequence in the book, Mrs. K insists on taking a teenage Podhoretz shopping for interview suits on Fifth Avenue, and then to a fancy restaurant in order to humiliate him. The excruciating nuances in this episode are precisely what was missing in David Brooks’ baffling New York Times column about “insensitively” taking a friend with only a high-school degree to an upscale Italian sandwich shop. If, upon reading that, you wished Brooks’ friend had written the column instead, you’ll probably enjoy Making It.
In a telling parenthetical, Podhoretz adds, “There were as many young Negro barbarians in her charge as Jewish ones, but I doubt she could ever bring herself to pay very much attention to them.” Here Podhoretz casually admits, but does not further examine, that he enjoyed the benefit of what we now call white privilege. As Mrs. K’s favored student, his life was set on an upward trajectory unavailable to his black classmates. Not only does he not register this as an injustice, he feels aggrieved by those very classmates, and, as later becomes clear, by black people in general.
MORE THAN 200 PAGES LATER, in the memoir’s weaker, more tedious second half, he describes how James Baldwin, after agreeing to write a piece about black Muslims for Podhoretz’s Commentary, instead submitted it to The New Yorker. In a rage, Podhoretz accuses Baldwin of playing on white liberal guilt to justify this brazen betrayal. However, “If he thought I felt guilty to him or any other Negro, he was very much mistaken. Neither I nor my ancestors had ever wronged the Negroes; on the contrary, I had grown up in an ‘integrated’ slum neighborhood where it was the Negroes who persecuted the whites and not the other way round.” In response to this rant, which it’s fair to say does not hold up well 50 years later, Baldwin mischievously suggests Podhoretz write down his feelings on race, and so he did, in an infamous 1963 essay in Commentary entitled “My Negro Problem–and Ours.” Reactions at the time were polarized, and the essay itself could generously be described as bizarre; a race-baiting screed that doesn’t recognize itself as such, it ends with a grudging call for mass miscegenation in order to engineer a colorblind America. But Podhoretz clearly relished provocation, because a few years later he would write Making It and alienate most of his friends.
As Louis Menand recounted in The New Yorker earlier this year, the release of the memoir drew a scathing response from friends like Jason Epstein, Lionel Trilling, and Norman Mailer, who had warned against its publication. Podhoretz became a heavy drinker, withdrew from the circles he had fought so hard to enter, and by 1970 found for the first time comfort in his Jewish identity. In the years that followed he would publish more conservatives in the pages of Commentary, vote for Richard Nixon, and increasingly come to associate the liberal intellectuals offended by Making It with what he saw as the excesses of the New Left, especially with regard to the Vietnam War and Israel.
Podhoretz, now 87, is today less famous for his book reviews, his views on race, or the (in retrospect, quaint) scandal surrounding Making It than for his politics. He is seen as a foundational figure in neoconservatism, along with Irving Kristol, although Podhoretz was not among the brilliant young Trotskyists in Alcove No. 1 at City College and met Kristol and his cohort much later. The word “neoconservative” wouldn’t gain currency until the 1970s, a few years after Making It was published, and Podhoretz first publicly described himself that way in a New York Times article in 1982 in which he endorsed Ronald Reagan’s hawkish approach to the Soviet Union.
Making It is not primarily about politics, but to the extent Podhoretz addresses his own, he doesn’t make the case for welfare cuts, aggressive policing, interventionist foreign policy, or U.S. support for Israel, all staples of later neoconservative thought. He was firmly anti-communist and at odds with some peers who felt more threatened by McCarthyism, but beyond that, his politics at the time were in line with the New Deal liberalism of his set. It doesn’t seem inevitable that in 2007 he would author a book entitled World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism (World War III was the Cold War, according to Podhoretz) that reads as lazy propaganda for George W. Bush’s by-then undeniably disastrous wars, or that in 2009 he would castigate 78 percent of American Jews for voting for Barack Obama:
In 2008, we were faced with a candidate who ran to an unprecedented degree on the premise that the American system was seriously flawed and in desperate need of radical change not to mention a record powerfully indicating that he would pursue policies dangerous to the security of Israel. Because of all this, I hoped that my fellow Jews would finally break free of the liberalism to which they have remained in thrall long past the point where it has served either their interests or their ideals.
“That possibility having been resoundingly dashed,” he added, “I now grasp for some encouragement from the signs that buyer’s remorse is beginning to set in among Jews.” (It did not.) But a fair reading of Making It confirms that Podhoretz wasn’t always a right-wing hack. At his height, he was a sophisticated thinker, a compelling prose stylist, and much more concerned with high culture than with politics or foreign affairs.
All the same, it’s impossible to read Making It without considering Podhoretz’s later career. This is a book published at the zenith of mid-century liberalism, a year before the New Left would shatter the Democratic coalition and Nixon would win the presidency by appealing to the Silent Majority. Over the next half-century, conservatism would steadily advance into the mainstream, with Podhoretz’s circle of neocons making up an influential faction within the Republican Party elite and achieving, at least for a few years, world-altering power in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Making It is a prelude to all of this, and it would be teleological to impose decades of subsequent history onto the 35-year-old literary critic who wrote it. But was there something in the young Podhoretz’s worldview that accounts for his later commitments?
IN HIS OWN REVIEW of Making It, The New Republic’s Jeet Heer includes a savage kicker that I wish I could claim as my own original insight:
The figure Podhoretz ultimately resembles is not Charles de Gaulle but a more contemporary statesman. Making Itis the story of a boy from the outer boroughs who dreams of succeeding with the Manhattan elite. A relentless self-promoter, he finds fame, yet he can’t quite shake the feeling that the more genteel members of the establishment don’t like him. Full of racial resentment, he is also quick to deride the losers and haters who criticize him. Podhoretz even has some advice on how to make deals. (“Advice to Young Men: The best way to get a job you really want is to believe that you really don’t want it.”)
Norman Podhoretz is the Donald Trump of American literature and Making It is his Art of the Deal. That’s a sad strange fate for what was once a promising Brownsville boy who loved Keats and wanted to be a poet.
Associating Podhoretz with Trump is fair game. “Many of the younger – they’re not so young anymore – neoconservatives have gone over to the Never Trump movement. And they are extremely angry with anybody who doesn’t share their view,” Podhoretz told The Times of Israel in September 2016. “But I describe myself as anti-anti Trump. While I have no great admiration for him, to put it mildly, I think [Hillary Clinton is] worse. Between the two, he’s the lesser evil.” Trump’s many disqualifying attributes were less objectionable to Podhoretz than Clinton’s support for the Obama Administration’s Iran nuclear deal, which, like Trump, Podhoretz views as “one of the most catastrophic actions that any American president has ever taken.”
Still, in one key respect Heer’s analogy fails: stipulating that he benefited from expanded opportunities for white working-class men in the aftermath of World War II, the period in which “Jews became white folk,” Podhoretz really did grow up working class, he really was ambitious and hard-working, and his story can plausibly be described as an impressive meritocratic rise.
The president, by contrast, inherited a real estate fortune and has lived a life of indecent privilege and constant upward failure. Trump refutes any argument that America is a meritocracy; his sole talent is obscene spectacle, which he leveraged to defeat all of the elite’s most admired, accomplished, and credentialed members in his successful bid for the White House.
Of course, while Trump has always been a millionaire, he speaks in the vernacular of the white working class and counts many of its members among his loyal supporters. He didn’t win Brownsville, which is now overwhelmingly black, and he certainly didn’t win the Upper West Side, but he did win in places like Staten Island and parts of Nassau County where the folkways of Podhoretz’s childhood still prevail. The uniquely vulgar way in which Trump flaunts his wealth represents an aspirational fantasy for whites who will never make the transition Podhoretz made to the cultural elite.
It’s important to emphasize that more often than not Trump’s supporters aren’t poor. They’re typically earning more than the average American, and for a straightforward reason: they are almost all white. While many Trump supporters are legitimately blue collar, many others are mid- to high-income whites who retain blue collar sensibilities, probably because, like many whites in the postwar period, their families were granted entrance into the middle class via federally subsidized home mortgages and college educations. It’s common to attribute this advancement to hard work, even if doing so requires erasing the experiences of African-Americans and other minorities who were denied the same opportunities.
Podhoretz may not share Trump’s background, or that of most of his supporters, but spiritually Making It is a blueprint for how many Trump supporters see themselves. Podhoretz’s arrogance in the eyes of his more established classmates can be read sympathetically by today’s liberals as new money’s unapologetic, aggressive challenge to old money snobbery–the same basic story Jay-Z has been telling for two decades, the story Lin-Manuel Miranda projects onto Alexander Hamilton. But there’s a more cynical reading: Podhoretz is pushing a rugged individualist story that offers nothing to the people he left behind in Brownsville, whom he describes with ever-growing contempt and alienation. His accomplishment is impressive, but it belongs solely to him, and if his neoconservative politics weren’t fully formed in 1967, neither was any sense of responsibility to promote collective social uplift. Podhoretz resents the elite and the masses alike; his only true allegiance is to himself, the hero of his own story.
If conservatism, as Corey Robin has described it, is fundamentally a defense of old hierarchies, in the 50 years since Making It conservatives have often affected Podhoretz’s populist, anti-establishment, blue collar sensibility, in ways that predate and anticipate Trump. Nixon, who had to turn down a scholarship to Harvard because his family couldn’t afford living expenses, built his whole identity around scorning the preppy northeastern elites; Reagan, while sunnier, could plausibly sell himself as a self-made man. But the vacuity of this appeal is confirmed by the more recent leaders of the Republican Party, none of whom can claim to be products of the working class.
Almost every recent Republican leader is first and foremost someone’s son. George H.W. Bush was a scion of New England privilege, and so was his son George W. Bush, despite the latter’s adopted Texas drawl. John McCain is the son and grandson of four-star admirals and married a beer bottling heiress. Mitt Romney is the son of the wealthy governor of Michigan. Donald Trump isn’t an outlier here; as a spoiled rich kid who styles himself as the antithesis of liberal elites, he’s entirely in keeping with his party’s recent history.
And so is one other figure of note in contemporary conservatism: Norman’s son John, the current editor of Commentary and the author of Bush Country (2004), a little-recalled defense of the then-president, who to many is best known as a singularly unpleasant troll on Twitter. In a drily eviscerating 2013 profile in New York Magazine, Hanna Rosin wrote that John Podhoretz “has inherited his father’s literary narcissism, but without the ideological vigor.” She quotes a former colleague of his as saying, “Almost everybody, friend and foe, thought he was full of himself… He continuously complained that his brilliance wasn’t appreciated.”
It’s clear who he got that from. But John Podhoretz is the product of Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the Upper West Side, not a public school in Brownsville, and can’t reasonably claim that Making It was any kind of exceptional achievement on his part. As the editor of the magazine his father took over and reinvented in 1960, John Podhoretz will always be dogged by accusations of nepotism (a fate he shares with Irving Kristol’s son Bill as well as Saul Bellow’s son Adam, who went ahead and embraced it with a book titled In Praise of Nepotism).
In Thomas L. Jeffers’ friendly 2010 biography of Norman Podhoretz, he claims that his subject was removed from the process that selected his son as Commentary’s new editor in 2009. “Keeping him out of it was one way for John to show he got the job on his own merits,” writes Jeffers, adding “Norman’s response to the announcement was ‘one of amazement and joy, mixed with anxiety over the beating he’ll take from our enemies who will scream nepotism.’ And of course they did.”
Of course they did! But the issue here isn’t really that John Podhoretz benefited from nepotism, as countless others, talented or otherwise, have in the fields of journalism and publishing. It isn’t even necessarily that John Podhoretz is talentless. The real significance here is that in a single generation, any meaning deeper than self-aggrandizement in Making It has been refuted. Here is yet another rags to riches story in which the end product is a son no less privileged or entitled than anyone his father resented on his journey out of Brownsville. Here is yet another fortunate son who inherited working class resentments rather than coming by them honestly. Here is a blue collar chip on the shoulder of a white collar kid. Here is the real parallel with Donald Trump and the party that overwhelmingly supports him, still, even if John Podhoretz wishes it were otherwise.
In another writer’s hands, Making It might have been a celebration of postwar meritocracy, a grateful acknowledgement that barriers for certain Americans, working-class outer borough Jews very much among them, had been lifted, and that social and economic advancement was really possible. It might have made the case for expanding those opportunities to the many other Americans still left behind. But Norman Podhoretz, by temperament at the time and by ideology in hindsight, would never have written that book. He only wanted to make the case for himself.