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Intellectuals at War
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MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. This week Think Tank is joined by the distinguished writer, editor and literary critic Norman Podhoretz. Podhoretz was editor and chief of the neo-conservative magazine Commentary for 35 years. Now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, he is the author of a new book called Ex-Friends, falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt and Norman Mailer. The topic before this house, intellectuals at war, this week on Think Tank.
MR. WATTENBERG: Norman Podhoretz, thank you for joining us on Think Tank.
MR. PODHORETZ: Delighted to be here.
MR. WATTENBERG: Your book is about what you call the family. Could you tell us, for those of us who are uninitiated in this language, what youíre talking about?
MR. PODHORETZ: The family was a coined term by the late columnist Murray Kempen, refers to a group of intellectuals centered in New York from the í30s up through the late í60s, I guess, when it began to disintegrate. These were people who wrote for what used to be called high brow magazines like Partisan Review, Commentary and later Descent to Public Interest. They tended to be people in the broadest sense of the left.
MR. WATTENBERG: Of the political left, yes.
MR. PODHORETZ: Political left, but in a certain sense the cultural left as well, because they were partisans of the modernist movement in the arts, and they were as passionate about the arts as they were about politics. Many of them were ex-Communists who became anti-Communists of the left of varying stripes. I mean, some were Trotskyists, and then ex-Trotskyists, some were anarchists, some were social Democrats, some were liberals.
MR. WATTENBERG: Mostly Jewish?
MR. PODHORETZ: Mostly Jewish, but not as Jewish as the legend has it. I mean, there were a good many prominent non-Jewish members of this family.
MR. WATTENBERG: Dwight McDonald (sp).
MR. PODHORETZ: Dwight McDonald, Mary McCartney, Robert Lowell, William Barrett, F.W. Dupree. I can go on. But many were Jewish, yes.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right. So, the family was about arts and politics. You are, in your original incarnation, a literary critic. And I wanted to begin by reading a quote from Tom Wolfeís book A Man In Full, toward the end of it, the hero runs into an almost antique professor of English down in George, and the guy is rambling on about the non-importance of literature. And heís talking to him, and he says, this is the professor speaking, he says: Entire civilizations are founded without any literature at all, and without anybody missing it. Itís only later on, when thereís a big enough class of indolent drones to write the stuff and read the stuff that you have literature. When I saw all those eager hands sticking up as I taught, I always wanted to tell them what Iíve just told you. But what right did I have to play iconoclast after making a living my whole life taking it seriously, or at least with a straight face.
MR. PODHORETZ: Well, Tom Wolfe, of course, is making fun of that professor, heís not endorsing those sentiments. On the contrary, he is a passionate believer in the importance of literature, although he opposes certain tendencies in modern literature, and has sort of single-handedly sort of taken on the entire literary establishment. But, I agree with Tom.
MR. WATTENBERG: You think he is spoofing that guy, not making a point that has, in his judgment, a core of elemental truth to it?
MR. PODHORETZ: I have no doubt that heís spoofing this character, otherwise his own career would make no sense whatsoever. I mean, his highest aspirations over the last 20 years has been to write novels, and to revise what he considers a moribund form of a novel. I mean, what the professor says is true, there are entire civilizations without literature, there are entire civilizations without the wheel. I mean, the question is, how important a given cultural phenomenon, a given cultural sector is to the individual lives of people in a given society.
MR. WATTENBERG: Letís go from the literary aspect of this group of intellectuals in New York to the political aspect. Give me a little background, and tell me why you think this particular group was important.
MR. PODHORETZ: Well, the main reason it was important is that it spent day and night arguing what are the life and death issue of our century, and what were life and death issues to them, intellectually speaking. Iím talking about the nature of totalitarianism, the question of how to judge the Soviet Union in relation to this concept of totalitarianism, the nature and character of American society, the rights and wrongs of the Cold War, all of these questions.
MR. WATTENBERG: Capitalism later.
MR. PODHORETZ: Later on, capitalism and youíre right to address later, because almost everybody was either a socialist or an anti-capitalist though not necessarily a socialist. It was only much later that people began to praise it.
MR. WATTENBERG: Yourself included?
MR. PODHORETZ: Myself included. I came late to the belief, as Milton Friedman said, is itself a form of freedom, and also the precondition for the creation of prosperity. It took me a long time to come to that realization, which I hold to very firmly now. Almost nobody in the family took that view. The view was generally --
MR. WATTENBERG: But, Norman, people in America took that view. I mean, Sinclair Lewis makes fun of George Babbitt, but George Babbitt is espousing sort of a heartland capitalism that 80 years later intellectuals in New York, some of them, say, you know, thatís a pretty good idea, arenít I wonderful that I thought of it. And the same with the Cold War. I mean, the view about the Soviet Union being a threat, a major threat, was enunciated by Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy, and my hero, our hero for while, I guess, Scoop Jackson, and a lot of other people.
MR. PODHORETZ: These are people operating in the political realm who implemented policy. But before they did so, there were many years of debate and analysis of the phenomenon that they finally, and I say finally, came to recognize as the kind of threat it actually was. And this debate was conducted through books and through verbal arguments. And it had to do with defining what the true reality of the Soviet Union was. As you know, there were many apologists for the Soviet system, many defenders of it, including important politicians, including Franklin Delano Rooseveltís Vice President Henry Wallace, whom we narrowly escaped having as president, which would have been a calamity, I think. So, the point is that --
MR. WATTENBERG: But Harry Truman was not educated and shaped by intellectuals in New York.
MR. PODHORETZ: No, on the contrary, but I think thereís is a kind of trickle down effect in the culture as there is in the economy. Ideas, in my judgment, are the moving forces of history. Iím the opposite of a Marxist. I donít think itís the economy, stupid, that drives history, I think itís ideas in the heads of men, and one of the best things John Maynard Keynes, Iím not a great admirer of his, but one of the best things he ever said is that practical men who think that they are not influenced by ideas always turn out to be the slaves of the ideas of some defunct economist. I would say, as a philosopher, as a poet, you know, Shelly said poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Thatís an exaggeration, but the attitudes that most people carried around have their source in debates among philosophers of whom theyíve never heard. They donít come out of nowhere.
MR. WATTENBERG: What about the idea that this process doesnít go on as trickle down but as bubble up? That the people understood the evils of totalitarianism. I mean, you had this huge ethnic population in the United States who, by the grapevine of their people in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, knew damned well what was happening. Didnít Susan Sontag write, when she finally partially turned the corner, that you would have learned more about the Soviet Union from the Readerís Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million people, than from all the combined intellectual --
MR. PODHORETZ: Yes. But what she failed to say was that where the Readerís Digest learned it was from Max Eastman, who had been an ex-Communist intellectual and translator of Trotsky. The answer to your question is, yes and no. I mean, Iím a great believer in the common sense of the American people, and Iím a great believer in Bill Buckleyís classical dictum that Iíd rather be ruled by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT. So, I wonít argue populism with you. I will, however, say that the people on their own, as it were, the voters on their own, donít have a glorious record in this context. I mean, you know --
MR. WATTENBERG: More glorious than the intellectuals.
MR. PODHORETZ: Yes. Well, I donít know. That would be hard to measure. But conscription passed in 1940 or í41 by one vote. The tie was broken by the Vice President.
MR. WATTENBERG: The draft, right.
MR. PODHORETZ: The draft, yes. So there was a great reluctance, popular reluctance to take on Nazi Germany, the first form of totalitarianism against which we fought. There was a very mixed response later in the early days of the Cold War, and certainly in the latter part of the Korean War, which grew out of the policy of containment, and of course then there was enormous opposition mounted to the Vietnam War in its later phases.
MR. WATTENBERG: These arguments that you describe in your book, Ex-Friends, were particularly intense in New York. I mean we had these arguments in Washington all the time, and yet maybe Iím blind-sided by it, but people remained fairly cordial and fairly friendly because they had to do business and a lot of other things. I mean, agriculture policy.
MR. PODHORETZ: But youíve just given the answer, they had to do business on a lot of things. Itís also part of the art of politics to obfuscate differences in order to make it possible to cooperate, and even somebody like Joe McCarthy, it is said, would run into someone he had been harassing or ruining at a committee hearing, run into this guy in the elevator, throw his arm around him and say, itís nothing personal. Letís go have a drink. Well, I mean, I would have decked the guy, you know. Now, intellectuals donít play the game that way. Intellectuals feel it their duty, and I agree with this view, to sharpen and clarify differences, not to obfuscate or muddle them, in order to understand what the logic of a particular view leads to.
MR. WATTENBERG: But, does that mean getting bitter and personal about it, because thatís what -- some of that comes through in your book.
MR. PODHORETZ: Iím always asked that question, and my answer is that if you take ideas with the kind of seriousness that the people I write about, and that I myself always did, as I say, they were matters almost of life and death, and they were held with a religious intensity, when basic differences of opinion begin to emerge, it becomes extremely difficult, extremely difficult to maintain civil or cordial relations, because when you meet, you have to -- you have two possibilities, you can either bite your tongue, so you wonít get into a nasty fight, therefore evading the issues that most interest you, or you can fight all the time over these issues. And these fights get to be intense, because as I say theyíre held with great religious passion. So it becomes less and less pleasant to have relations. And either you drift apart, which is what happened in most cases --
MR. WATTENBERG: Doesnít that lead, then, to a certain parochialism, you hang out with your guys, they hang out with their guys, and all you do is take in each otherís laundry, instead of getting the blend that many of us would think is the source of wisdom?
MR. PODHORETZ: Well, it can lead to -- I wouldnít call it parochialism, I would call it sectarianism, and it can lead to sectarianism, except that you are always free, and whatís more you have an obligation to keep at least reading what the other guys are saying, and to make yourself aware of what the opposing arguments are. And this is something Iíve always attempted to do, both to my own profit, but because it was necessary, particularly if youíre conducting what amounts to a war, you know, against a set of ideas.
MR. WATTENBERG: A war against your ex-friends?
MR. PODHORETZ: Yes, once they became ex-friends.
MR. WATTENBERG: Norman Mailer, letís just go through some of those quick capsules from the book, Norman Mailer?
MR. PODHORETZ: Yes, he and I were very, very close friends for something like 15 years, and we finally broke over -- basically over political issues, over our conflicting attitudes toward the Cold War. As I moved toward the right, and as I more and more began to see the importance of resisting Soviet expansionism, he was going even further in the other direction, and was enormously upset by this change in me.
MR. WATTENBERG: How about Lilian Hellman, same deal?
MR. PODHORETZ: Lilian Hellman was -- the same thing happened, though there it was complicated by the fact that she had been a Stalinist, and even at my most radical I was an anti-Stalinist. We avoided politics for a long time, and were kind of playmates. We had a lot of fun together. But, when I began attacking the new left, of which I had been one of the founding fathers, intellectually, this was toward the end of the í60s, we began getting into unpleasant conversations, and finally drifted apart.
MR. WATTENBERG: One more, how about Alan Ginsberg?
MR. PODHORETZ: Well, he and I went all the way back to college. And we met at Columbia. We were never close friends, but what happened with Alan, even though we drifted apart physically, weíd run into each other from time to time, he seemed to me to stand for everything that was destructive and damaging, especially to the children in this country, the encouragement of the use of drugs, the encouragement of promiscuous sex, especially of promiscuous homosexual sex, which he regarded as superior to straight sex. And that eventually led to the outbreak of AIDS. The encouragement of a contempt for this country, and the encouragement, as his friend Timothy Leary put it, to turn on, drop -- turn on, turn off, dropout, whatever it was. In other words, refuse to take your place as the responsible member --
MR. WATTENBERG: Turn on, tune in, drop out, something, whatever it was.
MR. PODHORETZ: Yes, refuse to take your place as a responsible member of this society. And I was fighting against all of that. I later discovered from interviews he gave, and from things he wrote, including up to almost the moment he died, that he had been conducting an imaginary battle with me in his head, especially when he was under the influence of certain drugs, I would appear to him in a vision, and he would fight with me about poetry, about America. And he finally said that even though he had hated me for many years, he finally forgave me, and I had become a sacred figure to him. But, I never forgave him, because I think he did a lot of harm.
MR. WATTENBERG: Norman, you make the case toward the end of the book that the family in New York, those who went in a neo-conservative direction had a significant impact on the policy of the Reagan administration. How -- I mean, Ronald Reagan was not a neo-con, George Bush was not a neo-con.
MR. PODHORETZ: Well, he was by the way.
MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, he didnít come out of that. Thatís not what shaped him.
MR. PODHORETZ: I would say he was the first neo-con in a way, he was a Democrat who moved, at the age of 51, into the Republican Party. He started on the left and moved toward the right. Thatís the sort of fundamental definition of what a neo-conservative is.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I mean, but in terms of -- I donít think he was influenced, or not visibly so, by the arguments that youíre talking about, nor was George Bush, nor was Casper Weinberger, nor was George Schultz, and you can go down a long, long list of the Cold Warriors. So where was -- I donít want to argue, I want to understand, where was this influence?
MR. PODHORETZ: Well, thatís not as hard a question to answer as you may think. First of all, what I claim, and what I think is true, is that starting in about 1972, the neo-conservative intellectuals helped to create a change in the climate of opinion in this country, particularly on military issues, military build up, the Soviet threat.
MR. WATTENBERG: That was when that infamous and famous organization, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority was founded. And we were involved --
MR. PODHORETZ: Made up of intellectuals.
MR. WATTENBERG: But, mostly Washington types.
MR. PODHORETZ: But, the idea spread through magazines like Commentary, mainly through Commentary, I would have to say. That created a climate of opinion that made possible the election of someone holding the kinds of views Ronald Reagan held. Although, I have to say that Ronald Reagan himself, by all reports, did actually read some of the stuff Iím talking about, including a couple of my own books. He certainly read an article by Jeanne Kirkpatrick in Commentary, called Dictatorships and Double Standards, which led to her appointment.
MR. WATTENBERG: But, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and her husband go back in Democratic politics -- I mean, Evron Kirkpatrick taught Hubert Humphrey at the University of Minnesota, Jeanne worked in Humphreyís 1968 campaign. She was not created, you know, whole cloth.
MR. PODHORETZ: No, but Jeanneís article, Dictatorships and Double Standards appeared in Commentary, and it was through that article that she came to Ronald Reaganís attention.
MR. WATTENBERG: And Moynihanís --
MR. PODHORETZ: And Moynihan earlier, they both got their jobs through Commentary at the U.N. Now, the other point I would make about the influence on the Reagan administration, which for my money was never great enough, came through his appointments. My memory isnít what it used to be, but there were at least half a dozen, I would say, important members of the Reagan administration who had been more or less recruited from among the ranks of the neo-conservative intellectuals, including many who were regular contributors to Commentary.
MR. WATTENBERG: Including your son-in-law Elliot Abrams.
MR. PODHORETZ: Including Elliot Abrams, including I mentioned Jeanne already, including Richard Pipes, including Edward Luttwak, as I say my memory isnít --
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MR. PODHORETZ: I mean, we could go on. You could probably name a few others.
MR. WATTENBERG: The case you make is that these people, the family, were so influential in fighting the left is because they were of the left.
MR. PODHORETZ: Talking about the neo-conservatives? Neo-conservatives are a split from the family, an heresy if you like.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Letís talk about the neo-conservative heresy. You maintain that they were so influential because they had been of the left, is that right?
MR. PODHORETZ: Right, they -- we, right, we.
MR. WATTENBERG: Not me, you.
MR. PODHORETZ: When we came along our arguments against the left were much more effective than the arguments that had been made by traditional conservatives, like Bill Buckley and the people around the National Review, who really didnít know the enemy as well as we did. We knew where the vulnerabilities were. We knew exactly what the case was that had to be refuted, and the left by this time was like an old prize fighter, you know, a champ who hadnít had a serious contender for a long time and had lost his timing and his rhythm. They were completely bewildered by this assault. They could easily brush off the assault from the right, but they truly, to use a phrase Nathan Glazier once used in a different context, they couldnít remember the answers by now. And we won those arguments partly because they were out of shape, but partly because we were right.
MR. WATTENBERG: But, is the moral of the story that in order to be influential you have to be wrong first?
MR. PODHORETZ: No, thatís not the moral of the story, of course not.
MR. WATTENBERG: But, thatís what youíre describing.
MR. PODHORETZ: No, Iím saying in a particular situation, this was the case. I wouldnít -- you know, I wouldnít extrapolate it into a general philosophical principle. No, but I do think that this explains why we had the effect that we had, the disproportionate effect that we had, when you consider how tiny our numbers were, at least to begin with. We were like, in those movies, you know, the six cavalrymen being attacked by 1,000 Indians, and they would run from one rock to another to try to fool the Indians into thinking that there were more of them than there were. Well, thatís how it was with us.
MR. WATTENBERG: I used to say in those eras that they attacked with a blizzard of letterheads, that they would defeat communism with a bunch of little organizations, which a lot of that happened. Thank you very much for joining us, Norman Podhoretz. And thank you. We encourage feedback from our viewers, itís very important to us. Talk to us via email or snail mail. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.
ANNOUNCER: We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our show better. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1150 Seventeenth Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20036, or email us at email@example.com. To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS Online at www.pbs.org. And please let us know where you watch Think Tank. This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content. Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is the biggest challenge of the new century, which is why ADM is conducting research into aquiculture and other new food sources. ADM, supermarket to the world. Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.
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