October 16, 2000


The narcissism of Norman Podhoretz has for years inflicted us with a seemingly endless stream of autobiographical musings that, one day, may be the subject of a psychological case study: like a hot-air balloon, his oeuvre expands inexorably and exponentially, year after year, with new tales of his triumphs, his friends, his ex-friends, his feuds, and, most of all, his own sense of self-importance. This is a man incapable of writing in any but the first person. His latest book, My Love Affair With America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative, is even more rambling and self-indulgent than previous efforts, and might just as well have been titled My Love Affair With Myself: Tall Tales of a Nattering Narcissist. This lack of structure – and, on occasion, even coherence – turns out to be a virtue, however inadvertent, in that it reveals much more than the author intended. Packaged as a paean to his own puffed-up image of himself as the quintessential American patriot, this book is the kind of confession that comes easily to a man who no longer has the art or the inclination to hide his true character as the supreme opportunist.


Through all his incarnations – youthful Pop Fronter and author of "Stalingrad," an ode to the USSR; sometime quasi-Trotskyist; West Side rad-libber; "Scoop" Jackson conservative Democrat; "neo"-conservative Republican – a pattern emerges, the leitmotif of Poddy's career as polemicist and professional scold, and that is his instinct for the main chance. He knew just when to jump on the latest liberal-lefty hobbyhorse – and, more important, when to jump off. His chameleon-like powers, an uncanny ability to blend into whatever landscape he found himself in, to be the first to wear the new colors of the season, are here documented in self-loving detail. The origins of this survival strategy are perhaps explained in the section where he describes the often painful process of "Americanization" he underwent at the hands of his WASPy teachers, who got rid of his foreign accent and inculcated in young Poddy the virtues of cultural (and political) conformism. In this memoir he confesses that as a student at New York's Columbia University "I could never quite get over the feeling that I was not as 'real' an American as someone whose people had come here earlier than mine." My Love Affair With America can be read as the author's attempt to finally prove, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that he is not only a real American but the spokesman of the only true Americanism at the center of US politics, the uncompromising guardian against "anti-Americanism" on the Right as well as the Left.


If self-love, the celebration of himself and his friends and associates, is the overarching theme of the Podhoretz's autobiographical series, then the love of war is a major sub-theme, one especially noticeable in the present work. Recalling the music that accompanied some old war movie – "Boots – boots – boots – tramping up and down again! / There's no escape from the war" – he writes that those lines

"Gave me an early inkling of what words could do and evoke, not only through what they signify but through their placement in rhythmic patterns and the uses of their very sounds to reinforce and make the meaning more vivid and immediate. I could hear in the harsh spondees . . . the endlessly stomping boots, and this then propelled me into an intimation of the endlessness of the war and the inescapable doom it promised."


This early inkling gave rise to a full-blown career as a wordsmith in the service of the war god. Podhoretz is amused by his own youthful indiscretions of a ideological nature, such as his epic poem, "Stalingrad," which he describes as "my own contribution to the hosannahs that were being sung all over America and that wiped out all remaining traces of disgust with Stalin." He is "happy to report that there are no surviving copies of this juvenile effusion of mine," but historiographers of Podhoretziana need not despair. For it is very likely that this lost effusion is similar, in style if not content, to his more recent apologias for the Vietnam War, the Gulf war, the Balkan war, and indeed any and all wars, especially World War II. In this volume, in an account of the "fanatical" isolationists on the Right who opposed that war, he pulls out all the familiar smears – anti-Semite, pro-Nazi, etc. ad nauseum – which is not too surprising. What is surprising is that he even lays into his own dear grandmother in a display of invective that has to be read to be believed.


It seems that Esther Malkah, his maternal grandmother, was listening to the radio one day, with her little grandson, the budding young Popular Frontist and aspiring poet, when she first heard the slogan "Uncle Sam Needs You!" Podhoretz provides the context: her son, Maxie, had just been drafted, an event she had not exactly greeted with delight. After coming from Galicia, deserted by her husband and left with five children, hadn't she had to bear enough in her life? "With all that behind her," as Podhoretz puts it, "did she now have to endure the anxiety of waiting to hear that her youngest son had been killed in yet another war?" A perfectly reasonable fear, that one might certainly expect her grandson to not only understand but empathize with: not little Norman, however, or, for that matter, even the older and yet still no wiser Norman, who writes:

"It was just too much, and so turning to me sitting next to her on the couch, she cried: 'Ver iz er, der Ujcle Sam? Im hob ikh extra in dr'erd!' ('Who is he, that Uncle Sam? Him I would especially like to send six feet under.')"


Young Poddy, around eleven or twelve at the time, though "filled with wartime patriotic fervor," knew better than to argue with this formidable woman, at least at the time, but now does not hesitate to take out after her in the pages of his memoir, scolding her in retrospect for her narrowness and provincialism. He avers that "whenever I have told this story, I have been asked in wonderment how it was that my grandmother should have felt so little stake in the American war against the Nazis." He asks: "Why on earth should her fury have been directed not against Hitler but against 'Uncle Sam?'" The idea that it would be at all unusual for a mother to resent having a son conscripted may seem counterintuitive, and we might expect more understanding from the author on account of this being his own grandmother and all, but oh no, Poddy doesn't cut her any slack:

"The answer is that so beaten-down and withdrawn was this stooped and wizened old woman with the face of a thousand wrinkles and so exclusively preoccupied was she with her private troubles and woes, that it is entirely possible she knew nothing about the war and its connection with the fate of the Jews of Europe. . . . But even if she did know more or less what was going on, she was altogether incapable or minding anyone's business but her own, which extended to her children and grandchildren and not a micromillimeter farther than that. Compared to their welfare, nothing was of any importance; and anything that harmed them (a category that self-evidently included being drafted into the army) was bad, period, with no discussions or elaboration needed or even allowed."


What a wonderful credo, and what a loving person, whose loyalty was the patriotism of the family – and who, the author informs us, later gave up her life to spare that of her granddaughter by throwing her own body in front of a speeding automobile. Yet, strangely, this admirable woman is described by Podhoretz as "this piteous creature": in spite of the author's obvious affection, Esther Malkah is depicted as an essentially ignorant and narrow-minded person, who selfishly ignored the plight of her own people in pursuit of her own private ends. She was, in short, one of the dreaded "isolationists," who don't realize that they have a moral obligation to mind everyone else's business but their own – and who would pop up again (on the Left) during the cold war, during the Vietnam era, and again in the post-cold war era, this time on the Right. Each time, the Patriot Podhoretz would rise up, like St. George of the War Party intent on slaying the isolationist dragon, as if to reenact his ancient quarrel with old Esther Malkah, whose wisdom he failed to absorb. For who can answer her irrefutable argument that, compared to her family, nothing was of any importance – and that Uncle Sam's claim on the life of her son did indeed represent a mortal threat?


Podhoretz does not try, even now, to answer this argument, implicit in his grandmother's imprecations hurled at Uncle Sam, but instead attempts to explain it away as a function of her immigrant roots, of her separateness, her inability or unwillingness to learn English and assimilate into American culture. But Podhoretz is missing the point, as usual, and still hasn't gotten it even after all these years. For Esther Malkah's reaction to the idea of conscription, her immediate and visceral rejection of the concept that the State has a primary claim on everyone's life, is quintessentially American – far more so than the author's shocked reaction. Grandma Malkah's cantankerous individualism seems to emanate from the very soil of this country like a sulfurous mist, but young Poddy was apparently immunized from the effects of this cultural vapor by his Commie teachers at public high school (he tells us that he later found out that one was a Communist Party member, the same one who lauded his youthful ode to Uncle Joe Stalin).


The usual motivation for writing such a memoir, aside from touting the genius and moral superiority of the author, is in large part to give vent to his pet hatreds, and on this score Podhoretz indulges himself to the full. Gore Vidal, with whom he has conducted a feud for years, is smeared as an "anti-Semite" without evidence or even any coherent explanation: Podhoretz cites an article from the Nation, but only quotes a couple of words from it (not even a complete sentence) and then pretends to believe that he has proved his case. Henry Adams is also similarly denounced, with the same sort of non-evidence: we are supposed to believe that Podhoretz's views on matters such as these must be accepted on faith, for no reason other than that he has pronounced them. Naturally, Pat Buchanan gets the same treatment, along with the editors of Chronicles magazine, whose great sin was that they praised Vidal's novels and opposed increased levels of immigration (this is described by Podhoretz as "nativism," a curse-word in the neo-conservative lexicon, and a hate crime in modern parlance, but which my dictionary defines as "love of one's own country above all others.") Yet Podhoretz's all-too-familiar smears – how long has he been peddling the same recycled complaints? – have a tired, unconvincing ring to them, obligatory and halfhearted. Nobody outside of Podhoretz and the editorial board of Commentary magazine believes that Gore Vidal is an anti-Semite, just as the same charges against Buchanan have failed to stick no matter how long and insistently they are repeated by America's neoconservatives – all seventeen of them.


Of course, it helps that sixteen out of these seventeen are newspaper columnists and/or television talking heads, but it matters much less than the neocons imagine. On the Right, they are distrusted – with the Weekly Standard's embrace of GOP contender John McCain just the latest in a long line of maneuvers that underscore their essential nature as pursuers of the main chance at any price. The career of Norman Podhoretz, one of the godfathers of neo-conservatism – the doctrine of ex-liberals who were "mugged by reality" and turned rightward – is emblematic of this whole political tendency, whose other godfather is Irving Kristol, Standard editor Bill Kristol's father. It is the ideology of the status quo, of whatever is popular or about to be popular at the time, not a body of ideas so much as a sense of political fashion. This is the real story of Norman Podhoretz and his alleged love affair with America – it is the tale of a faddist with a purpose, a man always positioning himself for maximum access to the one thing he truly wants and worships – power.


I want to say a word about the recent, uh, discussion over the relative virtues of Slobodan Milosevic and my recent polemic directed at one of my favorite writers, George Szamuely. I did not mean to imply that George is in any way a conscious apologist for dictators of any sort, and I did go a bit overboard: unfortunately, his column appeared at the exact moment when a vigorous discussion of how we should cover the Yugoslavia election was taking place within Antiwar.com, and I'm afraid he got caught in the crossfire. While I disagree with his viewpoint, in retrospect it seems that I might have used a more nuanced approach: a "more in sadness than in anger" tone rather than a savage attack. I only hope he'll continue to write for us – and that we can continue to collaborate in the ongoing battle against interventionism.

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“Behind the Headlines” appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with special editions as events warrant.


Past Columns

Norman's Narcissim: Podhoretz in Love

The Middle East: War Without End

Classic Raimondo: Isolationism for Beginners

Notes on the Serbian Revolution and Other Matters

Revolt of the Little Guys

The Clinton-
Gore-Milosevic Connection

Szamuely's Folly: Sympathy for the Devil

Slobo's Gambit: Will It Work?

Adventures in Cyber-Politics, Revisted

Curtains for Milosevic

Dubya's Kosovo Deception

The Return of Pat Buchanan


The Vindication of Wen Ho Lee

Against the EU: Danes Resist Assimilation

UN Millennium Summit: Globalist Dream is Your Worst Nightmare

Iraq and the US – Our Fantasy Island Foreign Policy

Classic Raimondo: Allied Vultures Pick at Iraq's Bones

Colombia – The Deja Vu War

Passage to Cargagena: An Inauspicious Visit

Invasion of the Party-Snatchers

Blowback: Read This Book!

Bush on Kosovo – Turning on a Dime

The Kosovo Fraud: Will They Ever Admit It?

The Outing of Ralph Nader, and Other Atrocities

Why Kosovo? Follow the Money!

Additional Justin Raimondo Archives

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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