Friday, October 19, 2007

Neoconservative Rebirth

Jacob Heilbrunn's column today argues that the neoconservative movement is regrouping with the appointment of John Podhoretz at the new editor of Commentary Magazine:

For several years, the conventional wisdom has been that neoconservatism is on the skids. Vice President Dick Cheney has been sidelined while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flexes her diplomatic muscles, and old neocon standbys such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith have largely disappeared from view. But the movement isn't dead yet. As shown by the announcement this week of former New York Post editorial page editor John Podhoretz's appointment to head the flagship neoconservative journal Commentary, the movement may be battered, but it is not going away. If anything, it is regrouping.

At the moment, the future of neoconservatism hangs on its unspoken system of dynastic succession, in which the top posts of the movement are handed off to the sons of its leaders. A second generation is taking over from the first to lead the crusade against the liberal traitors at home and the terrorists abroad.

Like William Kristol, who edits the influential right-wing journal the Weekly Standard, Podhoretz is the son of neoconservative eminences. Kristol's father, Irving, was editor of the old neocon journal the Public Interest and helped create the movement's network in Washington; his mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb, was a conservative cultural critic and prominent advocate of Victorian morality.

In Podhoretz's case, his mother, Midge Decter, is a trustee of the right-wing Heritage Foundation and has written several books decrying feminism. His brother-in-law, Elliot Abrams, who played a leading role in the Iran-Contra affair, is a staffer on the National Security Council responsible for the Mideast and democratization programs.
But in this galaxy of notables, it is Podhoretz's father, Norman, who looms largest. Norman, now 77, is the patriarch of the neocon movement. An advisor to presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani, a prominent advocate of bombing Iran, author of the bestselling book "World War IV" and himself the editor of Commentary for four decades, he exemplifies the intensely intellectual and combative first generation of neoconservatives.

A scholarship student at Columbia University who resented what he called the "WASP patriciate," Norman Podhoretz studied under the literary scholar Lionel Trilling and initially made his name by denouncing Jack Kerouac and the Beat movement in the late 1950s. His mentor at Commentary was Elliot Cohen, a former Trotskyist turned virulent anti-communist. After Cohen committed suicide in 1959, Podhoretz was named editor at age 30.

At first, Podhoretz turned against such mentors as Trilling and embraced the left. His memoir, "Making It," made matters worse by revealing his lust for success. The snobbish New York intelligentsia snubbed him.

But in the late 1960s, Podhoretz took yet another turn. Disgusted by what he viewed as the anti-Americanism of the antiwar movement, he moved sharply to the right. Under his leadership, Commentary defended Israel, denounced the Soviet Union and opposed affirmative action. Its articles helped Daniel Patrick Moynihan and then Jeane Kirkpatrick become U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations. Podhoretz was riding high.

For the hawkish Podhoretz, who had been raised on the Cold War and had written articles about Mikhail Gorbachev with such titles as "The Fantasy of Soviet Collapse," the end of the Soviet Union came as a shock. The neocons were reduced to gadflies as President Clinton won two terms in the 1990s.

With 9/11, Podhoretz and the neocon movement were revitalized. But it is the sons who will carry forth the standard in coming years.

John Podhoretz will undoubtedly seek to update his magazine, which has lost many of its readers. The younger Podhoretz epitomizes the ethos of the new generation; he has spent much of his time as a critic of pop culture, writing about films and television. If his father wrote books with such titles as "Ex-Friends" - about intellectual grandees such as Hannah Arendt - John Podhoretz's memoir, "Hell of a Ride," was about watching the antics of interns working for George H.W. Bush. Unlike his father's generation, John Podhoretz's has never really rebelled. As a result, it is not made up of disaffected liberals but of people who have been attracted to the right from the beginning. They have never flirted with the left but have been groomed to battle it.

And so Podhoretz has been tapped to continue the war against liberalism and to rejuvenate the magazine that played such a key role in the history of neoconservatism. After the debacle of the Iraq war, it will be a stiff challenge. Unless, of course, Giuliani wins the presidency. Then all bets are off, and an article in Commentary may once again be the ticket to a United Nations appointment, not to mention a Cabinet post.
While John Podhoretz may have been groomed under the aegis of his father, I would argue a whole new generation of 9/11 neoconservatives - born of the outrage against the left's demonization of the United States in the early Bush years - will grow and prosper in the years ahead.

Neoconservatism offers a compelling alternative to the nihilism of the contemporary left, and the moral clarity of the movement - in both domestic and international life - provides a vital foundation for the conservative policy agenda going forward.

For Commentary's announcement of Podhoretz's appointment as editor, click here.

Plus, be sure to see
my initial post at American Power, which provides a nice primer on the power of neoconservative ideals.

See also, Irving Kristol, "The Neoconservative Persuasion."