I was hired in 1972 by the American Jewish Committee to serve as editor of a new magazine I named Present Tense. My vague assignment was to be more “Jewish” than the well-established and influential Commentary magazine, which, while also parented by the AJC, had shifted its primary attention to more worldly interests under Norman Podhoretz, its smart and creative editor, who had abandoned his and the magazine’s traditional liberalism and moved right, very far right, into the brawling territory of U.S. foreign policy and national politics. From 1972 to 1990, when we were closed down, my office was one flight below that of Commentary.
From the very beginning Present Tense was “a sort of counter-Commentary,” as Susan Jacoby, one of our regular columnists, shrewdly noted in her illuminating book, “Half-Jew: A Daughter’s Search for Her Family’s Buried Past.” Early on, a reader wrote us that we were doomed to obscurity and worse because the further we veered left, the more we became too liberal for the AJC’s conservative donors (they also had liberal donors, equally unhappy with Commentary). Even so, we lasted for many years, sometimes taking on the Israel Lobby, disdainful of Reagan for Iran-Contra and his proxy war in Central America, while celebrating his anti-nuke huddle in Reykjavik with Gorbachev and publishing all sides of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and I mean, all sides, including right, center and left. We also refused to forgive and forget the ugly legacy of McCarthyism and how its impact still blunted dissent in the American Jewish world, as the novelist and journalist Anne Roiphe, another of our intrepid columnists, pointed out in our final issue.
“Not since Holland’s Jews read Spinoza out of the people have Jews so quickly drawn lines of who is outside, and used these lines as political weapons, one against the other.”
But Commentary was the AJC’s star attraction to the media and politicians. I often saw Pat Moynihan in our East 56th Street building in Manhattan during his dalliance with the neocons. In Jacob Heilbrunn’s “They Knew They Were Right,” the best book yet on the neocons, he quotes Moynihan telling the New York Times’ Tom Buckley in 1975 that “when it came to Zionism, Jewish history, anti- Semitism and related topics, Podhoretz is Moynihan’s maven.”
Irving Kristol, the quintessential neocon and Grand Master of the neo-conservative movement, would occasionally visit Commentary’s suite of offices. More than most on all sides of the perennial and bitter political clashes of those years, Kristol knew how to use politics and power to grow his fledgling ideological enterprise. “Kristol’s power is not in his visibility; it is his ability to guide ideas,” wrote Geoffrey Norman in Esquire. Before too long he would lead the neocons away from Henry Jackson’s Democratic hawks and into the Republican Party, aligning them with the Imperial City’s War Party. Just as significant, he attracted a lot of the super-rich interested in his ideas.
Still, despite our ideological differences most of us had common backgrounds. We were the sons and daughters of the working class. Our Yiddish-speaking East European Jewish immigrant parents had been ardent FDR voters. Kristol, though, was a bit unique. While still young, and at the urging of fellow CCNY student Irving Howe, he became a follower of Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s most acerbic critic, who also had an authoritarian streak a mile wide that Kristol and other young Trotskyists seemed to have overlooked.
The neocon Founders and their acolytes were largely Jews scarred by the Holocaust, much like the men and women with whom I tended to associate. To their credit few of them had suffered any illusions about Stalin’s Russia. But the same was true of those of us on the non-Communist left. Irving Howe — Kristol’s former pal and later his bitter ideological adversary, who would write an introduction to a volume of Present Tense profiles I later edited– loathed the neocons, and vice versa. He once wrote a biting Op Ed mocking neocons for defending Reagan’s alliance with Contra “freedom fighters” in its secret proxy war against Nicaragua. Inspired, I assigned an amazing journalist, Tina Rosenberg, who later moved on to the New York Times, to cover the troubles south of the border, which she did in several impressive reports, none of which I imagine the bellicose pro-Reagan neocons on the floor above appreciated After the U.S.-favored Chilean-Pinochet coup against the elected Salvador Allende, Rosenberg quoted a popular joke among Chileans. “Why is there no military coup in America?” The answer: “There’s no U.S. Embassy.”
Kristol was drafted in World War II. Unlike most second generation successor neocons who avoided military service in wars they passionately supported, he saw combat in France and Germany as an infantryman in the 12th Armored Division. After his discharge, he and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, who would become a respected and distinguished historian, moved to England where she had earned a scholarship at Cambridge University. It was there Kristol started writing for the American Jewish Committee’s new magazine Commentary, and when the couple returned home he became its managing editor. By then he had abandoned the Trotskyists and moved on to neo-conservatism or, as he explained, how a liberal’s politics shifted after being mugged. In 1952, he continued his movement to the right. In his Commentary article, “Civil liberties 1952-A Study in Confusion” he wrote, “For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel no such thing.” His break with liberals and moderates was now set in cement and he was forever stigmatized by those who despised the fraud from Wisconsin. He then returned to London to co-edit with Stephen Spender the journal, Encounter, which was later revealed to have been secretly subsidized by the CIA, which Kristol denied knowing.
During the tumultuous Vietnam War era, Kristol, a supporter of the war, began to draw the attention of wealthy free marketers as well as incipient Wilsonians ready to reshape the world, by force if necessary. His star was about to rise and the movement to take flight. When Walter Goodman, a family friend who wrote for Commentary as well as Present Tense, was preparing an article about Kristol for December 1981 publication in the New York Times’ Sunday magazine, Walter told me Kristol announced he was leaving Manhattan for Washington because that was where the real action was.
In all those years Commentary continued to be the flagship for Kristol’s dream of a new (neo) conservative politics. And we remained second stringers, barely noticed in the national secular media until the Times ran one lone and favorable editorial reference to us and then published a goodbye piece by Roger Cohen announcing the end of our run. But long before I added a fine editor, Adam Simms, to the staff, and some of our articles did, however, draw attention, especially in Jewish and liberal publications, notably Robert Spero’s well- documented and brave “Speaking for the Jews,” a brilliant expose about “A growing number of American Jews, including many inside the Jewish establishment, [who] are fed up with the hard-line views of Jewish leaders whom they did not elect and whom, in any case, do not speak for them.” Then we published Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, the preeminent American historian of Zionism, on the “neoconning of America” in which he took direct aim at its extremism: “American Jewish right-wingers are almost without exception partisans of the Likud policy of de facto annexation of the West Bank,” he wrote, adding “The hard-liners are bad, very bad for Jews—and for all Americans….Jews have survived best, and have been most authentically themselves, when they have practiced restraint”– a la Maimonides’ “middle way.”
The middle road did not quite suit Kristol’s contrarian, free-thinking nature, especially after he made Jacobo Timerman and his 1981 book “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number,” a target. The book detailed his prison experiences and the torture he was subject to in neo-fascist Argentina. Mario Diament, an Argentine journalist and former executive editor of La Opinion when the newspaper was taken over by the military in 1977, argued in our pages that Timerman did not exaggerate as Kristol had alleged.
Alfred Kazin, yet another son of the Jewish immigrant working class (Present Tense once awarded him our annual “Lifetime Achievement” award, which we sincerely meant and he deserved, but which also brought us a bit of publicity), was no friend of Communism, but very much an anti-fascist. He blistered Kristol’s declaration of war against Timerman in the Wall Street Journal. According to his biographer, Richard M. Cook, an incensed Kazin said, “It was not enough for Timerman to have electrodes applied to his private parts, he must be attacked in the Wall Street Journal.”
Anyway, Kristol had plenty on his mind after the coup by fascist-minded generals in Argentina. In the Wall Street Journal in 1981, its pro-business and foreign policy editorials as neocon as Commentary’s (In contrast, in 1987, the novelist Carol Ascher’s wrote for us “Insider Trading Can Anyone Tell Right from Wrong?,” a prophetic warning of things to come) Kristol famously wrote “The military regime in Argentina, for all its military aspects, is authoritarian, not totalitarian,” sounding much like Jeane Kirkpatrick’s neocon-ish adage in her 1979 Commentary piece that Red regimes were totalitarian and stable, frozen in time and unable to change, while authoritarian governments were open to change, which allowed neocons to justify the Reagan administration’s defense of dictators in Guatemala, Argentina, the Philippines, and UNITA in the Angolan civil war.
Kristol’s sort of, kind of, nice words about the Dirty War and its principals, was a lame rationalization for the junta’s butchering of political opponents and dissidents, its practice of tossing people out of planes into the ocean and even snatching babies from new mothers. But still, there was something his critics preferred to overlook. In the early nineteen seventies radical leftist Argentinean gangs killed and kidnapped their “enemies,” frightening ordinary Argentineans and infuriating and encouraging those who despised democratic rule. It may well have helped somewhat to create the political climate which gave way to fascism, Argentine-style, just as German Communists had helped smooth the path for the Nazis in the infamous 1933 election by turning on the Social Democrats and thus allowing the Nazis to win a plurality of the votes and take total control.
Kristol detested liberal and left intellectuals who, he argued in his book “Reflections of a Neoconservative”– and elsewhere, of course– were alienated from “the American way of life,” unlike the American people. Susan Jacoby in another of her outstanding books, “The Age of American Unreason,” took aim at Kristol’s “alienation” theory, the forerunner of his “culture war” fixation. “One would never guess from this passage,” wrote Jacoby, “that Kristol himself was a New York Jewish intellectual through and through and that what separated him from those wrongheaded other intellectuals so at odds with the American Way of Life, was his embrace of the Republican Party.”
Other than his short-lived venture with Public Interest, a journal he co-edited with Daniel Bell, and which concentrated on domestic affairs, most of today’s neocons have little or no interest in domestic affairs, especially in reaching out to the poor and most vulnerable among us. I’m not sure that even the most articulate among them have had much to say about what happens here at home. The late Milton Himmelfarb, Irving’s scholarly wife’s scholarly brother and a neocon Commentary contributing editor— the leading neocons were once and to an extent remain, a family affair—wondered in Commentary (where else?) why “Jews earned like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” One response was offered by Earl Shorris in his sharp-edged 1982 anti-neocon book “Jews Without Mercy: A Lament.” In it, he condemned the neocons and their “self-interest, without mercy for the old or the poor, a movement that condemns oppression only when it serves the interests of the movement to do so.” Shorris would have been delighted to have been at an AJC staff meeting, as I was, when Milton Himmelfarb insisted that there was no such thing as social justice in Judaism. To which a leftist staff member shot back, if there isn’t any social justice in Judaism there isn’t any Judaism.
Most of the Founders are now dead or retired. Their successors’ time to shine came during the Bush-Cheney era, when they enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq. To the second generation neocons who rarely if ever wore a military uniform or expressed any interest in apologizing to the war dead’s families, the Iraq War was an integral part of their unshakable faith that they and they alone knew how to reshape and inject democratic rule into the autocratic, chaotic, and complex Middle East.
Today, the spirit and message of Kristol’s neocons live on, eagerly awaiting another Bush-Cheney White House. Meanwhile, Washington is overrun with their well-funded think tanks, publications, responsive pundits, politicians and lobbyists. Their official doctrine is to push for more of the same, in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Ukraine, et.al. and lend full support to the current Israeli government’s policy against Iran, who our neocons hate as much as they once hated Saddam and the vast store of WMDs he was hiding. I like to think that had Present Tense not been shut down we would have gladly taken on the neocons and their sophomoric dreams of a Middle Eastern cakewalk.
Murray Polner wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran,Disarmed & Dangerous, a dual biography of Daniel & Philip Berrigan (with Jim’O’Grady), and We Who Dared Say No To War (with Thomas Woods Jr.).