Oedipus & Podhoretz

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.

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 Post’s television critic for a year and spent nine months in the White House.

Norman Podhoretz’s gift – or curse, depending on how you look at it – is to see himself at the center of history. As a writer, he’s 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 father’s 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 America’s first bathetic, solipsistic Gen-Xers (around the Washington Times offices, the column was often read out loud in Podhoretz’s 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.” He’d 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 you’ve 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 Trilling’s essay on Henry James’s ‘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 Podhoretz’s targets, however, tended to be people like Ellen DeGeneres.

Actually, Podhoretz is best when he writes about popular culture on its own terms. “There’s no Seinfeld or Mary Tyler Moore reference he wouldn’t get,” says his friend Meredith Berkman. His mother says he’s had to lock his television in the closet to keep himself from watching. He’s 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. He’s 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 father’s 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 don’t have that luxury, since I didn’t live in that time. I don’t 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. It’s a way of having one’s 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 America’s most cheerless critic, Hilton Kramer, the editorial page’s 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 Kramer’s column had “run its course.”

But, aside from seeing Kramer’s departure, you will be hard-pressed to detect this kinder, gentler voice. In Podhoretz’s 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 Macy’s float, a thuggish bike messenger …) and the hero is always a cop’s cop, Podhoretz’s page is so far another screaming voice.

Fred Siegel, a balanced if wonkish columnist who was the paper’s 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 Pataki’s 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 won’t be the only two who are soon gone, if Podhoretz’s 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. It’s 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 wasn’t 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 Barnes’s 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 don’t transfer calls.”

His “arrogance and egotism had a psychological effect people can’t 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 who’ve worked with Podhoretz over the years, it’s 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, “I’ve 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 Herald’s 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 wasn’t appreciated.”

The brilliance of Podhoretz will always be appreciated by someone, however. John’s 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, there’s always the comfort of a soft couch and a remote control.

Oedipus & Podhoretz