Why Rudy Giuliani loves Norman Podhoretz
By Jacob Heilbrunn
hen Norman Mailer died in November, it was hard not to feel a twinge of melancholy and nostalgia for the vanished world of the New York Family of intellectuals. In the past decade, many of its most colorful members have passed away—among them Leslie Fiedler, Saul Bellow, and Seymour Martin Lipset. A surviving neoconservative remnant that includes Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb has reached its dotage but is content to see its children carry on the battles and struggles it once waged. Only one original representative of that fractious group of intellectuals remains in the fray. That is Norman Podhoretz, who, at the age of seventy-seven, has recently—and improbably—reached the height of his celebrity and notoriety.
Podhoretz was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, and he has been in the forefront of support for the Iraq War. In the late spring of 2007, he met with President George W. Bush and Karl Rove to urge Bush to bomb Iran. His son, John Podhoretz, was recently chosen to be the next editor of Commentary, the magazine that Norman himself headed for several decades. Impressive as this reach may be, however, it is Podhoretz's newest sphere of influence that has most vexed—and frightened—his detractors. He is a close confidant of leading Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani.
In June, the former New York City mayor named Podhoretz a senior advisor to his campaign. It is no ceremonial post. Podhoretz speaks regularly with the candidate and trumpets their association. "As far as I can tell there is very little difference in how [Giuliani] sees the war and how I see it," Podhoretz told the New York Observer in October. And indeed there isn't much daylight between what Podhoretz has written and what Giuliani is saying on the stump. Podhoretz has judged the war in Iraq an "amazing success"; Giuliani in November declared that he "never had any doubt" about the wisdom of invading Iraq. On Iran, Podhoretz has said, "The choice before us is either bomb those nuclear facilities or let them get the bomb." Giuliani told an audience in October: "If I'm president of the United States, I guarantee you we will never find out what [Iran] will do if they get nuclear weapons, because they're not going to get nuclear weapons."
As a foreign policy guru, Podhoretz is hardly an obvious choice for Giuliani. The mayor has virtually no direct foreign policy experience, and neither does Podhoretz—he is an editor, polemicist, and literary critic who has never worked in government. Podhoretz is certainly a prominent hawk, and Giuliani needs hawks in his camp to help insulate him from attacks on the right, particularly from social conservatives. But there are plenty of foreign policy heavyweights who could play that role, from Henry Kissinger to Robert Kagan. And if the candidate wished to put some distance between himself and the unpopular current occupant of the White House, Podhoretz is no help; his son-in-law, Elliott Abrams, is Bush's deputy national security adviser.
But the choice of Podhoretz seems to have little to do with Giuliani trying to position himself politically or sit at the feet of an experienced master. Rather, what draws Giuliani to Podhoretz, I think, is something else—a very human quality that the former mayor sees in himself: an unrelenting, us-versus-them bare-knuckledness that one seldom encounters in the oak-and-port world of the Council on Foreign Relations. I myself encountered this quality when meeting Podhoretz for the first time, at a Manhattan Institute gala dinner for William F. Buckley Jr. at which Giuliani hailed his championing of conservative values. Podhoretz expressed his disappointment at the evenhanded tone of a review I had written in the New Leader of his memoir My Love Affair With America. "My friends, I expect to go all out for me," he said, noting with pride that the historian Ronald Radosh had called him a "national treasure." After acknowledging that we didn't really know each other personally, Podhoretz continued, "My enemies, I expect them to hit me as hard as they can. That's the way it should be."
I don't mean to make too much of a single encounter. However, having spent several years subsequently interviewing leading neoconservatives, including Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, as part of a history of the neocon movement, I can say that the rules of book reviewing that Podhoretz set out at that party do rather nicely sum up an intellectual philosophy he has developed over a lifetime. It's one of unremitting combativeness, rooted as much in temperament as in a worldview. It's also a philosophy that strikes a deeply responsive chord in Giuliani, who, like Podhoretz, is a Brooklyn-born street brawler who started out on the left and moved steadily to the right. A good place to look for hints of what a Giuliani presidency might offer, then, is in the life of that last active New York Family intellectual, Norman Podhoretz.
odhoretz was born in 1930 into a lapsed Orthodox Jewish family, the son of a sixty-dollar-a-week milkman. He grew up in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood that profoundly shaped his character. In his book Ex-Friends, Podhoretz describes Norman Mailer, who grew up near him and attended the same high school, as a similar product of the local street culture: "Like me, and practically every Brooklyn boy I had known, he was direct and pugnacious and immensely preoccupied with the issue of manly courage." Podhoretz was a member of a gang called Club Cherokee and hung out with gamblers and other riffraff as a child. It was an environment in which, he recalled in a 1999 television interview, "the main desideratum was to be tough and not to back down from a fight. And to be a sissy, as people used to say, or a coward was probably the worst possible condition into which you could fall." It was the credo Podhoretz would follow all his life.
A series of mentors applied an intellectual buffing to Podhoretz, beginning with "Mrs. K.," a high school English teacher intent on ensuring that he made it into Harvard, wore a proper suit, and learned how to use silverware correctly. Podhoretz spoke Yiddish as his first language and had to efface his accent. At Columbia University, where he studied with the literary critic Lionel Trilling and worked hard to get ahead, class resentments were never far from the surface. He hated the wealthier Jews and homosexuals, two groups of people who he felt condescended to him. Later, Podhoretz looked back, with typical bluntness and venom, at his Columbia days:
Is it any wonder that I aroused so much hostility among certain Columbia types: the prep school boys, those B students who rarely said anything in class but who underwent such evident agonies over the unseemly displays of pushiness they had to endure from the likes of me; the homosexuals with their supercilious disdain of my lower-class style of dress and my brash and impudent manner; and the prissily bred middle-class Jews who thought me insufferably rude.
The hostility never dissipated. (Much of Podhoretz's and other neocons' loathing for liberal Jews can be traced back to the breach between Lower East Side Jews from eastern Europe and the Uptown Jews, prosperous German-Jewish New York families that were intent on assimilation and viewed the influx of Jewish immigrants with distaste.) Decades later, Podhoretz would assert that gays and feminists were subverting America's martial instincts, rendering it unmanly (a theme upon which neocon Harvard professor Harvey C. Mansfield has recently expatiated in his widely ridiculed book, Manliness).
Podhoretz reveled in the intellectual life, but he never wanted to lose his connection to the street. He tried to meld the two, becoming a brash literary critic who assailed heavyweights such as Saul Bellow. Still, in the late 1950s, Podhoretz was pretty much a conventional liberal, celebrating the bourgeois virtues of television shows in one of his first pieces for Commentary. He had been assured by his elders at Columbia and elsewhere that he would become the next big thing, and he did, assuming the editorship of Commentary in 1960. He was thirty years old.
Commentary had a sterling reputation, with contributors such as Hannah Arendt and George Orwell. But Podhoretz soon shook things up by rebelling against his mentors, especially Trilling. The split was probably inevitable. Trilling was a mandarin, someone who tried, as far as possible, to behave and appear like an English gentleman. He never raised his voice. He disavowed any interest in Jewish topics and refused initially to join the board of Commentary. He wrote in an aloof and sometimes opaque style, one adopted, as Sam Tanenhaus has pointed out in Slate, by older Jewish critics who wanted to demonstrate that they were worthy inheritors of the Anglo-American literary tradition. Podhoretz, not surprisingly, thought this was a bunch of bilge. He wanted to be a real American, not a milquetoast Jew disguising his origins, and he began to see Trilling as a kind of sellout who lacked the guts to stand up to radical blacks and left-wing students who were badmouthing the greatness of America. (It's hard not to wonder if Podhoretz's constant denunciations of cowardly liberals today aren't a form of shadowboxing with the memory of his former mentor.)
Podhoretz never felt entirely at home with his fellow liberals, but in his first years at Commentary he attacked them mainly from the left. During the Kennedy administration, in 1962, Podhoretz wrote an essay for Partisan Review denouncing the cold war and criticizing President Kennedy for being too timorous about publicly acknowledging that the United States had to retrench on its commitments abroad.
Gradually, though, Podhoretz began to inch rightward, showing an ever-greater willingness to shock his own side. With his February 1963 Commentary essay "My Negro Problem—and Ours," Podhoretz created a furor. The article concludes with a plea for racial intermarriage, but it is mostly remembered for being a blunt recollection of Podhoretz's childhood terror of the black children and teenagers who, at times, beat him to a pulp. "In my world it was the whites, the Italians and Jews who feared the Negroes, not the other way around," he writes. "The Negroes were tougher than we were, more ruthless, and on the whole they were better athletes." On the playing field itself is where Podhoretz sets his most vivid encounter with a force majeure. He recounts how he and his buddies once refused to vacate a ball field after being ordered off by a gang of black youths. The young Norman is beaten up, and, writes Podhoretz, "we retreat, half whimpering, half with bravado. My first nauseating experience of cowardice. And my first appalled realization that there are people in the world who do not seem to be afraid of anything, who act as though they have nothing to lose." As with much of Podhoretz's writing, this is raw stuff, willfully truthful. There is no attempt at pretense or dissimulation. Rather, Podhoretz, flagrantly repudiating the lofty Trilling mode, brandishes his emotions as intellectual arguments; they fuel the imprecations he directs at his foes.
f Podhoretz had been flirting with conservative ideas in the early 1960s, the upheaval of the rest of the decade prompted a steady transmigration away from the left. Like many other liberals, especially Jewish ones, Podhoretz was enraged by the link between black radicalism, anti-Semitism, and hostility to Israel. After the Six-Day War in 1967, which left Israel as an occupier of the West Bank, black radicals began to suggest that Jews were behaving like Nazis. Worse was to come. In 1968, the Ford Foundation, under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy, the Kennedy-era national security adviser who had helped mire the U.S. in Vietnam, carried out an experiment in local control over schools in the Brooklyn district of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The result was that black radicals attacked Jewish teachers, calling them "Middle East murderers of colored people." By the end of the decade, New York had descended into unprecedented levels of crime and racial strife, a descent that the neoconservatives-to-be felt could be traced to the collapse of liberalism and the rise of the New Left.
Podhoretz and others were profoundly shaken by New York's deterioration. They were also scandalized by what they saw as the liberal intelligentsia's failure to stand up to radicals. Confronted with behavior that was often wacky and thuggish, the patrician establishment sometimes responded limply. It was bad enough that the likes of McGeorge Bundy would seek to cosset rather than confront black radicals. But even worse were the many New York intellectuals who seemed to have lost their mental gyroscopes as well. For Podhoretz, the New York Review of Books, which was running articles defending the Black Panthers, represented a particularly distasteful strain of radical chic. (Tom Wolfe would soon popularize the term.) For Podhoretz the Review's brief flirtation with radicalism, chronicled in Philip Nobile's superb book Intellectual Skywriting, became synonymous with everything that had gone wrong with America. He kept fighting the same old battles even as the old radicalism disappeared.
Inevitably, the intellectual disputes turned personal. Podhoretz was a gregarious presence at New York parties, but he never minded letting his temper surface. As Sidney Blumenthal recounted in The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, at several dinners at the Columbia Faculty Club in the early 1960s, attended by Daniel Bell, Lionel Trilling, Jason Epstein, and Sidney Hook, among others, Podhoretz made a fool of himself. He assailed his mentors, saying that Hook was "a fraud" and shouting, "You're not a Social Democrat!" By the close of the decade, these spats had become even more acrimonious. Podhoretz turned on his old friend Jason Epstein, prompting the New York Times Magazine to devote ten pages to an essay called "Why Norman and Jason Aren't Talking."
What had ended up permanently alienating Podhoretz from his circle of friends was the publication of his memoir Making It in late 1967. His friends had told him to suppress it. He ignored them. To Podhoretz's dismay, his old chum Norman Mailer trashed it in Partisan Review. Podhoretz was extruded from Manhattan literary society. But, in some respects, announcing that he was an arriviste helped him to arrive. Podhoretz had become notorious—and then became more so by moving to the right within the ranks of the Democratic Party. He reveled somewhat in his apostasy, having always been envious of the 1930s generation of intellectuals that had undergone the searing experience of breaking with Marxism. Now he would replicate the heroic conversion experience by opposing the New Left he had once championed.
Podhoretz decried the rise of George McGovern and tried to return the Democratic Party to traditional anticommunist liberalism of the very sort he had previously denounced as complacent and retrograde. When Jimmy Carter took swipes at an "inordinate fear of communism" and affirmative action became a staple of the Democratic Party platform, however, Podhoretz had had enough. Eventually, he, along with other neocons, came to see liberals and radicals as one and the same. In the 1980s, Podhoretz embraced Ronald Reagan and moved firmly over to the right. He never looked back.
The Reagan White House welcomed the support of the formerly liberal New York intellectuals (even appointing Jeane Kirkpatrick, a protégé of Hubert Humphrey, whom Kirkpatrick adored to the end of her days, to be ambassador to the United Nations). But the neocon infatuation with Reagan turned sour. Podhoretz accused Reagan of engaging in "appeasement" in 1983 for exiting from Lebanon and failing to stand up to the Soviets over the introduction of martial law in Poland. He went on to condemn Reagan for not maintaining a hard line against Mikhail Gorbachev, writing about the "fantasy of communist collapse." With the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, nearly all sides, including the neocons, claimed vindication.
With the presidency of George H. W. Bush, the neocons faded in influence, becoming little more than gadflies throughout the 1990s. Podhoretz himself, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, pronounced neoconservatism dead. Bill Clinton had pursued a reformist liberalism, including curbing welfare and defeating Serbian aggression in the Balkans—all of which were policies that effectively took away much of the sting of the neocon criticisms of Clinton himself. Had it not been for the attacks of September 11, neoconservatism might have faded away with its founders.
n 1994, Podhoretz was winding down his time at Commentary and Rudy Giuliani was beginning his first term as mayor of New York City. In some ways, the two men's careers were on entirely different trajectories. In others, however, the men had been living parallel lives. Like Podhoretz, Giuliani grew up in Brooklyn and had a taste for conflict bred into him. As a child, Giuliani had been dressed by his father in a pinstriped Yankee uniform in a borough of Dodger fans, a sartorial choice that taught him to "physically defend myself from neighborhood kids who would attack me."
And like Podhoretz, Giuliani started off on the left before moving right. A supporter of George McGovern in 1972, Giuliani didn't become a registered Republican until 1981, when he switched parties in time to land a plum job in the Reagan Justice Department. As U.S. attorney in New York from 1983 to 1989, his combative temperament served him well as he went after mobsters and white-collar criminals. After Giuliani was elected mayor, he brought his fighting style to City Hall. Though he espoused liberal views on some issues—abortion, gays, illegal immigration—he also picked Podhoretz-like high-profile fights with the liberal-left. He refused to meet with prominent black leaders in the city. He famously tried and failed to shut down a Brooklyn Museum art exhibit deemed disrespectful of the Virgin Mary. He had Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat evicted from a concert of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at Lincoln Center and ordered the NYPD not to allow him to travel outside Turtle Bay. His press conferences were often bruising affairs in which he insulted reporters for questions considered foolish or unworthy, behavior he also exhibited toward voters who called in on his weekly talk radio program.
Just as the neocons were on the outs in the 1990s, so Giuliani seemed to be headed nowhere as the end of his second term loomed in 2001. New Yorkers had tired of his truculence. But then came crisis, and with it redemption in the form of the September 11 attacks. Both New York's fiery mayor and the neocons found themselves with a new, Churchillian mission. And when the war in Iraq went south, Giuliani, like Podhoretz, neatly pivoted, focusing his ire on the threat from Iran—a threat that has increased, of course, thanks largely to an Iraq war that both men steadfastly defend.
No one has fought more valiantly to ensure that conservatives maintain ranks than Podhoretz. This past September (on the eleventh), Podhoretz came out swinging with his latest book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. It represents no departure from any of his other recent writings on the subject. The United States, Podhoretz says, has only fired the opening shots in a lengthy campaign that should include attacks on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria in turn, wiping out their regimes and creating the conditions for democracy in the Middle East. Podhoretz never pauses to discuss the feasibility of carrying out such measures; to him it is self-evident that the U.S. must exercise moral and military leadership, heedless of any financial or human costs, for the stakes are nothing less than survival or annihilation. At the same time, the country must root out the liberal traitors at home who are trying to sap its will to defeat its foreign enemies. According to Ian Buruma in the New York Review of Books, Podhoretz "expresses a weird longing for the state of war, for the clarity it brings, and for the chance to divide one's fellow citizens, or indeed the whole world, neatly into friends and foes, comrades and traitors, warriors and appeasers, those who are with us and those who are against."
Podhoretz's influence and inflammatory statements have made him Exhibit A for writers seeking to demonstrate the lunacy of expanding the war on terror to include Iran. In the New Republic, Todd Gitlin condemned Podhoretz for twisting his words about the meaning of patriotism for liberals after 9/11, and the British journalist Johann Hari depicted him, in an account of a National Review boat cruise, as something of a nutcase, clinging to the conviction that weapons of mass destruction were hidden away in Syria. In the New York Times Book Review, Peter Beinart said that Podhoretz is exploiting the war on terror to "titillate himself with fantasies of civic violence." And Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek, wrote that Podhoretz "provides not a scintilla of evidence" to justify likening Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.
If anything, however, Podhoretz's banishment from an increasing number of establishment circles has endeared him all the more to Giuliani. Giuliani, like Podhoretz, sees a global conflict in which the United States is locked in permanent warfare. Tellingly, Giuliani calls for adding at least another ten combat brigades to the U.S. Army—a difficult goal to meet, given the recruiting challenges brought on by the Iraq War, and one that, thanks to an exodus of top junior officers, could wind up undermining military effectiveness (see "The Army's Other Crisis," by Andrew Tilghman, page 44).
Nowhere are Giuliani and Podhoretz more in agreement than on the issues of dealing with the United Nations and Iran. Neocons loathe the UN because of its history of antagonism toward Israel. Giuliani dismisses it as irrelevant: "The organization can be useful for some humanitarian and peacekeeping functions, but we should not expect much more of it," he said recently. This is of a piece with Giuliani's impatience with diplomacy. Giuliani has expressed disdain for a U.S. role in mediating between the Israelis and the Palestinians: "Too much emphasis has been placed on brokering negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians—negotiations that bring up the same issues again and again." Though Giuliani makes a few token nods to engaging in diplomacy with Iran, it's abundantly clear that force is on his mind. He does not address the concerns, particularly acute in the Pentagon, that any military attack on Iran might not only fail to wipe out its nuclear weapons program but also prove a public relations and security disaster.
The truth is that at the core of Giuliani's campaign is the message that America needs to redouble its efforts to go on the attack or remain a fat target for its enemies—the very message, it must be said, that Podhoretz himself has been preaching for decades. Cynics, including many in the press corps, tend to discount Giuliani's more militaristic and unilateralist statements as political posturing by candidates pandering to the GOP base. But that's a foolish assumption. I believe that Giuliani is in deadly earnest about his foreign policy positions. For both him and Podhoretz, these positions are rooted in gut beliefs that are not open to debate.
In short, arguing over the finer points of foreign policy doesn't especially interest Giuliani or, at this point, his advisor. Like George W. Bush, they don't do nuance, and both men are less about debate now than about attitude. Increasingly, Podhoretz has been making his points by resorting to tired analogies and questioning the character of his opponents. Appearing with Fareed Zakaria on the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer in late October, Podhoretz said, "I want to say that I think the attitude expressed by Fareed Zakaria represents an irresponsible complacency that I think is comparable to the denial in the early '30s of the intentions of Hitler that led to what Churchill called an unnecessary war involving millions and millions of deaths that might have been averted if the West had acted early enough." Zakaria responded, "Norman, perhaps instead of calling me names, you could just explain why the arguments are right or wrong."
Zakaria was wasting his breath. Real men don't explain. They seek to intimidate and cow their opponents into abject submission—which is why Podhoretz and Giuliani were probably fated to join forces. In becoming Rudy's maven, Norman has made his greatest conquest.
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Jacob Heilbrunn is senior editor at the National Interest and author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.