John and the other children of neocons -- Kristol is the son of Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb -- are often referred to as the mini-cons. The label misleads. The parents are defined by rifts, New York intellectuals molded by the upheavals of the fifties, a time when friendships ended over ideology. The children are conservatives from birth, more Washington than New York, more interested in politics than in ideology, and practically indistinguishable from any other Reaganites. John is impatient with ideological quarrels, says his mother. He considers bitter feuds over, say, Hannah Arendt a waste of time, friendships lost over nothing.
Podhoretz went to Columbia Prep, then headed west to the University of Chicago. He, like many other conservatives of his generation, studied with Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind).
Fresh out of college, the young Podhoretz took a job as a researcher at Time, standard grunt work for an aspiring journalist. After a little more than a year, the grunt work grew old; he asked for a promotion to writer and was turned down. This made him suspicious. The reason I was given was this: I was too young, he writes in an essay (in fact, he was all of 22 at the time). The reason I was not given was this: I was too conservative.
Since then, Podhoretz has skipped from job to job, staying at none for much more than eighteen months. He has worked mostly at conservative publications -- editing and writing for the Washington Times and Insight magazine as well as working for Time and, briefly, U.S. News & World Report. He was the New York Posts television critic for a year and spent nine months in the White House.
Norman Podhoretzs gift -- or curse, depending on how you look at it -- is to see himself at the center of history. As a writer, hes a narcissist. Critical occasions for America, for the world, grew out of his personal experience. Both his books, Breaking Ranks and Making It, are memoirs, tracing his own life as the paragon of an age. His disgust with Stalinism is the universal disgust; his drive for success is a reminder of an abandoned American ideal.
John Podhoretz has inherited his fathers literary narcissism, but without the ideological vigor. Instead, he decided early on his model would be Robert Warshow, a movie reviewer for Commentary in the fifties. The rest of us were interested in boring topics, like foreign policy, says his friend Daniel Cass. John only wanted to talk about movies and television.
So his parents spent their life at war with Communism; the younger Podhoretz has spent much of his life at war with sitcoms.
For five years on and off, Podhoretz wrote a column for the conservative Moonie-owned newspaper the Washington Times, in which he lived out the banal life of a twentysomething on the page -- one of Americas first bathetic, solipsistic Gen-Xers (around the Washington Times offices, the column was often read out loud in Podhoretzs absence, for comic value, in a ritual famously called Podenfreude).
No subject was too trivial to share with readers. Topics included his trip to an amusement park; his hatred of household pets; his love of Jell-O; conversations with his imaginary friend. He recounted events in mind-numbing detail: I missed the 2:30 shuttle, so I had to wait for the 3:30 shuttle . . . I arrived in Washington at 5:15. Hed also do things like type SEX SEX SEX SEX SEX sex sex sex sex sex, apropos of nothing (I can see your eyes drifting). One column ended with Podhoretz . . . this is without question the dumbest column youve ever written. Stop it now!
An unmistakable subtext in his columns is his struggle to deal with the titanic intellectual figure of his father. In one of them, for instance, he describes how he and his friends used to play games such as The $10,000 Pyramid, but with clues like What Ludwig Wittgenstein would say.
They stopped playing, Podhoretz implies, because girls thought they were nerdy: There is no way a man (or woman) is going to be wildly attractive to the opposite sex if he (or she) starts quoting Lionel Trillings essay on Henry Jamess The Princess Casamassima instead of saying Do you like Thai food?
Over the years, the Jack Benny voice gradually disappeared, and he often railed with the same intensity and grandiosity that his father once wielded against Stalinists; the younger Podhoretzs targets, however, tended to be people like Ellen DeGeneres.
Actually, Podhoretz is best when he writes about popular culture on its own terms. Theres no Seinfeld or Mary Tyler Moore reference he wouldnt get, says his friend Meredith Berkman. His mother says hes had to lock his television in the closet to keep himself from watching. Hes also a five-time Jeopardy! champion. When he tones down the rant, this vast database of trivia can make him a charming critic.
But when he strays into politics he gets cruder, plugging the cultural trivia into his grand, prepackaged ideology. Hes written that the success of Ellen means liberals consider homosexuality the defining issue of the day. In an article called Dole, the GOP, and the Genetically Endowed, Podhoretz argues that the arrival of a new crop of blondes with Rachel-from-Friends hairstyles meant the conservative movement was revived. The 22-year-olds look like winners because they are. They are eye-catching, they speak well, they are quick if not deep. They have bestowed their bounty on the GOP, in the service of conservatism. (Not surprisingly, the blondes were not amused: If this is his sweet way of asking all of us for a date, it has failed, as have his direct attempts in the past, one wrote.)
Podhoretz even turned his own stint in politics into sitcom fodder. In 1988 and 89, he worked in the White House, first as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and then in the office of the drug czar. After nine months, he grew bored and decided to write a book. His original notion was to write a serious, highbrow book about the importance of individualism, and on that basis, he got a book contract from Simon & Schuster.
After a few months, he decided to write about life in the White House instead. Here was his chance to mull over real politics, react to the failed Bush years, consider the Reagan legacy. Instead, he wrote a funny, gossipy book about West Wing culture, young Bushies packed in like sardines at the Woodward Building on Fifteenth Street, and just screwing their brains out.
For Podhoretz, embracing the language of popular culture is a way to distinguish his own attitudes from his fathers cornered-animal conservatism. There are two possibilities for people who hold my kind of views, he explains. You can be almost entirely rejectionist of contemporary life, and only see old books and old movies, but I dont have that luxury, since I didnt live in that time. I dont feel alienated from American culture, but I understand people who do.
Instead, Podhoretz indulges in popular culture, racing to movie theaters sometimes several times a weekend, only to criticize its decrepitude. Its a way of having ones pop-cultural cake and eating it too, of being both cool and reactionary.
So far at the Post, Podhoretz has made at least one move toward making the op-ed page a more cheerful place. Within days of his arrival, he fired Americas most cheerless critic, Hilton Kramer, the editorial pages media critic and a man for whom no painting, book, or film -- or at least none created in the past half-century -- ever measured up. Podhoretz will say only that Kramers column had run its course.
But, aside from seeing Kramers departure, you will be hard-pressed to detect this kinder, gentler voice. In Podhoretzs first week, for instance, he wrote an editorial calling Alton Maddox, a lawyer for Tawana Brawley, a vicious hyena. In a paper stocked with the columns of Steve Dunleavy and Andrea Peyser, where the devil is everywhere (the killer Macys float, a thuggish bike messenger . . .) and the hero is always a cops cop, Podhoretzs page is so far another screaming voice.
Fred Siegel, a balanced if wonkish columnist who was the papers most reasonable voice, left last week after a fight over one of his columns. Siegel had written what he thought was a newsbreaking column lamenting the departure of Patricia Woodworth, Governor Patakis budget director. The column fell flat by Dunleavy standards but broke some juicy unreported details about a particular kind of pre-modern pork, as Siegel called it, and gave Pataki suggestions on how to stem it. If Podhoretz was looking for ways to guide his Republican allies along, the column, which eventually ran in Newsday, would have been a good start.
Siegel and Kramer wont be the only two who are soon gone, if Podhoretzs previous career is any indication. Scattered around Washington are bitter former employees or friends of Podhoretz; some are known as Pod scholars. Pod stories are gleefully and wickedly traded in Washington like sniffs of glue. Its clear he had a problem keeping staff; when he returned to the Washington Times after an absence, almost half the 40 or so writers who worked under him eventually quit or asked to be transferred. Podhoretz seems to respond to a hierarchy of power. Elders like de Borchgrave adore him; friends like Dan Cass loved working with him; but some who worked under him find him suffocating.
At the Standard, Podhoretz did much of the heavy lifting. Kristol was no absentee landlord, says Podhoretz, but both he and Fred Barnes, the executive editor, spent a fair amount of time jetting between talk shows and the lecture circuit. Podhoretz wasnt satisfied working behind the scenes, and last summer he demanded a bigger title. Kristol resisted, and the Post job became the elegant exit strategy.
Before his exit, Podhoretz exhibited a certain status anxiety in a more flamboyant way. He complained obsessively when he found out Fred Barness office would be bigger than his. He insisted his secretary have a wall around her office so no one would read his mail. Once, at a meeting, an assistant tried to teach the staff how to transfer calls, and Podhoretz barked, Bill Kristol and I dont transfer calls.
His arrogance and egotism had a psychological effect people cant quite believe, says one staff member. He treated his favorites well; but others he alienated so much that they will never write for the magazine again.
Podhoretz blames his reputation on Lisa McCormack, one of the writers at the Washington Times he liked least. But after about twenty interviews with many people whove worked with Podhoretz over the years, its clear McCormack is just one of the few brave enough to speak. If you misplaced a comma, he would tell you you were a no-talent dirtball, McCormack says. He was even mean to interns. Among the staff, she has earned the half-joking nickname Elie Wiesel, for speaking up for the victims.
At the Times, Podhoretz was permanently frozen in juvenilia, as one older writer put it -- working with writers sometimes twice his age, and resenting it. When a writer would challenge Podhoretz, he would say, Ive worked for six magazines; how many have you worked for? recall writers on the staff. There was an enormous gap between the power he had and his view of himself, says a former colleague.
One other person spoke on the record. The Miami Heralds Central American bureau chief, Glenn Garvin, was at first friends with Podhoretz when he was at the Times, but ultimately his astounding self-centeredness made it difficult to maintain a friendship, says Garvin. (Podhoretz once talked for twenty minutes at an editorial meeting about when he might get his own private office.) On the subject of himself, he has no sense of humor, says Garvin. He recalls seeing a letter Podhoretz wrote to the University of Chicago saying he would no longer support the institution because it had failed to mention the conservative college newspaper he founded in a fund-raising letter. Almost everybody, friend and foe, thought he was full of himself, says Garvin. He continuously complained that his brilliance wasnt appreciated.
The brilliance of Podhoretz will always be appreciated by someone, however. Johns parents will always happily listen to their son, although they may tune out when he gets to the part about Mary Tyler Moore. And if they happen to be engaged in some war of words over Hannah Arendt or Alger Hiss or the perfidy of Lillian Hellman, theres always the comfort of a soft couch and a remote control.