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Oedipus & Podhoretz

His father fought Stalinists. But for Post edit-page chief John Podhoretz, sitcoms are the battleground of freedom.

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The first thing you notice about John Podhoretz, the new editor of the New York Post’s editorial page, is that he’s constantly moving. If his hands are not pushing up the sleeves of his fine cotton shirt, they’re rolling a pen halfway across the desk, then rolling it back again. His startling blue eyes dart from the door to the phone to someplace out the window, then back to the door again. In almost a month, he’s made almost no effort to move into his vast new office; about the only thing in it is a kind of mini-shrine to himself -- two shelves full of his own book, Hell of a Ride, about the Bush administration, alongside a history of Casanova. He came back to New York, the city where he grew up, after two and a half years in Washington as deputy editor of The Weekly Standard, a place he expected to spend his whole life. “I’ve worked as someone’s deputy, and now it’s time for me to run something,” he says. “It’s time for me to run my own shop.”

That “someone” is Bill Kristol, Washington’s best-known Republican commentator. The two started the magazine together, but it became “Bill’s magazine. . . . He didn’t do anything to make that happen,” explains Podhoretz. “He’s just a major American celebrity.”

Coming to New York will allow Podhoretz to step out of Kristol’s large shadow while taking along certain of his lessons. Podhoretz plans to import the Standard’s “cheerful” vision of conservatism to the New York Post, a vision personified by the charming ways of Bill Kristol. “It’s time to view the conservative movement as in ascendancy,” Podhoretz explains, “and not fighting the rear guard.”

Under Eric Breindel, the Post’s editorial page became one of the most influential platforms in American conservatism by adopting an embattled, us-against-the-world tone. In the Post’s worldview, the liberals and the counterculture and non-English speakers and residents of the Bronx were always on the verge of taking over -- op-ed writers like Scott McConnell and Hilton Kramer manned the battlements.

But according to Podhoretz, New York is over its funk. Fifteen years ago, Podhoretz lived in an apartment three blocks from where the Post’s offices are now. In those days, the street was peopled with “hookers with Adam’s apples” and scores of nervous, ineffectual cops. Now he looks out his window and sees a “clean, busy, crowded street.” The city has become a “buoyant” place, run by a Republican mayor and a governor pushing “unexpectedly energetic policies” -- the ideal testing ground for Podhoretz’s optimism.

Breindel was succeeded by editorial writer Scott McConnell. But after McConnell was fired for a column about Puerto Rican statehood that offended even the Post’s sturdy sensibilities, Breindel recommended Podhoretz for his old job. “He’s a real New Yorker,” says Breindel. “He has a feel for the nature of the discourse in the city.”

To say that Podhoretz has a feel for the nature of discourse in the city is putting it mildly. He’s the son of the prominent, pugnacious neoconservatives Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, two people who have almost never put anything mildly. In fact, the two were largely responsible for creating the image, persistent even during the Reagan era, of the right-winger as victim.

And for John Podhoretz, the name, as even his mother admits, is “a lot of baggage.” When he worked at the conservative Washington Times, the joke goes, people thought his name was “John P. Normanson,” because the paper’s editor, Arnaud de Borchgrave, a friend of his parents’, walked around the office introducing him as John Podhoretz, Norman’s son. He is very close to his family; he stayed with his parents recently while he was looking for an apartment, and he is good friends with Elliott Abrams, the Reagan undersecretary of state convicted of lying to Congress during the Iran-contra affair and Podhoretz’s brother-in-law. But his parents say he rarely asks for professional advice. “When you have controversial parents, people have expectations about you,” Podhoretz says. “If every day at work I thought to myself, How does this relate to them?, I’d be paralyzed.”

Podhoretz was born on the Upper West Side in 1961, just as his parents were making their rancorous break from liberalism. From an early age, he was already steeped in the conservative views of his transformed father. “He takes things for granted that we had to struggle our way to intellectually,” says his mother.


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