Norman Podhoretz

Ex-Friends, Part II

VTR Date: March 9, 1999

Guest: Podhoretz, Norman


Guest: Norman Podhoretz
Title: “Ex-Friends”, Part II
VTR: 3/9/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with a literary man with whom I go back a long, long time: I as a most admiring reader, Norman Podhoretz as a most prolific writer … from his Making It and Breaking Ranks to The Present Danger and Why We Were In Vietnam (and, of course, Commentary magazine during all 35 years of his brilliant editorship).

Well, now Norman Podhoretz has written still another provocative commentary on his American generation and mine intriguingly titled Ex-Friends about his enormous, life-long capacity for “falling out”, as the sub-title of his new Free Press book has it, falling out with the likes of such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer … plus a whole slew of lesser lights along the way.

Well, since we recorded our first program on Ex-Friends two months ago, many compelling reviews have surfaced concerning what Christopher Lehmann-Haupt quite appropriately characterized as “such a textured intellectual history” … and “a deliciously gossipy and scintillating recollection of our times”.

Now last time, of course, my guest and I spoke at some length — though certainly not long enough — about what Murray Kempton had first called The Family, the group of New York intellectuals that in the decades after mid-century made the life of the mind in America so much more satisfactory and satisfying than perhaps it is now.

We didn’t, however, talk about Allen Ginsberg … and today we must begin that way. Norman, in your wonderful book Ex-Friends and by the way, I’m going to share with the audience what I shared with you before we went on the air that in looking back at a People magazine “Profile” of you and Midge Decter from February 16, 1981, I came across this article in which you say “If we wish to name drop now, he says, we have only to list our ex-friends”. So that title had to have been very much on your mind for a long time.

PODHORETZ: Well, I must have an unconscious like an elephant. This new book begins with a sentence, “I have often said that if I wished to name drop, I have only to list my ex-friends”, but I had no idea that I have been saying it since 1981 [laughter].

HEFFNER: And in People magazine, of all places.

PODHORETZ: And in People magazine.

HEFFNER: But here in Ex-Friends you talk about a meeting with Allen Ginsberg, who, of course, was my classmate … not my classmate, was a younger classman, when I was at Columbia, too. You say, you talk about the contrast to the ominous parting words Ginsberg had flung at me a few hours earlier, just as I was leaving his apartment … “we’ll get you through your children”.


HEFFNER: That stuck, didn’t it?

PODHORETZ: Yes. Well, Allen, I met Allen … he was an older classmate of mine at Columbia, he was a Senior when I was a Freshman. And he was Editor, or Poetry Editor of the Columbia Review, the literary magazine … the undergraduate literary magazine and he published a couple of poems of mine, which is how I got to know him. And then we parted ways, really. He ran with a semi-criminal group of homosexuals that he had fallen among, and I was very straight in every sense of that word. So we drifted apart. But in the next ten years as I was establishing myself as a rather precocious young literary critic, he was finding a new style for himself as a poet. And when his most famous poem “Howell” came out, he sent me a copy hoping that I would review it. Instead I wrote several pieces denouncing the Beat Generation of which he was the self-proclaimed and accepted leader, as made up of a bunch of no-talent writers and losers, though I excepted him, I always thought he had a lot of talent, as a poet. I thought so when we were in college, and I thought so later. Anyway, the story to which you refer occurred … the imprecation or threat you quoted occurred after a meeting to which he summoned me in his apartment in Greenwich Village. Allen was there with Jack Kerovac, who was of course the leading novelist of the Beat Generation. And we spent four or five hours arguing about literature and about their work and about the attitudes expressed in their work to which I took strong exception. And neither of us convinced the other. And Allen, as I was leaving … I left with Kerovac, whom I had attacked. I never attacked Allen, but Kerovac was a very easygoing guy, and very charming. And it was Allen who took offense on his behalf. Anyway, as I was leaving Allen yelled at me, “We’ll get you through your children”. And of course, he didn’t get me through my own children, thank God, I have four. And although at least one of them flirted with the counter-culture of which he was the real father, which matured in the sixties, he certainly got a lot of other people’s children. And I think wrecked a lot of their lives through his influence. I mean his influence which extended to propaganda for the use of drugs, promiscuous sex … especially promiscuous homosexual sex, which he thought was superior to heterosexual sex. And which had a lot to do with the outbreak of AIDS eventually. And I think his influence also was harmful in that it encouraged young people to have contempt for what they thought of as the sterile bourgeois life of their own parents. And he also encouraged a refusal on their part to grow up and assume a responsible place in society. But something very weird happened between us … although I would run into him now and again … we would generally fight when we ran into each other … we did not see each other for many years. And I discovered through some interviews that he published and that I was some kind of weird obsession to him. And every time he was under the influence of some drug or other, usually ecstasy, he would have a vision of me … and he would, he would [laughter] … he would have these arguments with me about the nature of poetry, about the nature of American society. And he …

HEFFNER: In his fantasy?

PODHORETZ: … yes … I wasn’t there … I had no … I had no knowledge that he ever had a thought of me. I had gone along, I had by this time been moving from his point of view to the Right. And he had been moving even further Left, at least in his cultural attitudes than he was when he started. Not that … well, that wasn’t so easy, he started pretty far over. He eventually announced, again, through interviews and a piece he wrote, that he forgave me and what’s more I had become what he called a sacred figure to him because if I hadn’t existed who would there be for him to beat his head against and fight with. So he was very grateful for that and therefore he forgave me. But I end my chapter on Allen by saying “But I don’t forgive him” because I think he did a lot of harm particularly to young people and I think … the fact that his work, especially “Howell” is now established as a great classic, and read in colleges and assigned. His work still contains the potential for harm.

HEFFNER: Well, you know it’s interesting, Norman, when I read to you this quote about Ex-Friends from People magazine, I’d really gone back to that issue of People, I had it in my notes, because of something I remembered you had said, and I ask you about it in a much, much earlier Open Mind. You said, “I came more and more to believe that radicalism, mine and my friends, was destroying the children. I still think that is true”. And so that really was your peeve with him.

PODHORETZ: Well, it certainly … it was one of the major reasons for my break with radicalism, the effect it was having on the kids I could see around me, both my own and … but much more so, their friends. I mean I was in touch with high school kids in the sixties because I was a parent, and I saw a lot of them, and all their teachers and many of their parents were proclaiming to the world, this was the brightest, best, most idealistic generation in the history of the universe. Margaret Mead said they were a new species … superior species. They were talked about as though they were a collective Messiah, you know. And what I saw was a bunch of kids who seemed like, including the boys, I mean … like neurasthenic Victorian ladies, lacking in energy, zonked out half the time, very full of themselves, lacking in curiosity about the world, full of an unearned contempt for everything around them. Now many people ascribe this to the Vietnam War or the race issue. And I couldn’t buy that because I saw no evidence that this condition, this spiritual debilitation had any objective political cause. Sometimes these causes were used to rationalize their behavior, but I don’t think there was a direct correlation.

HEFFNER: But it’s interesting that you, you in a sense pointed at your own self because you say, “I came more and more to believe that radicalism … mine and my friends …”


HEFFNER: … was destroying the children. And then, of course, your wife, Midge Decter had written, I don’t remember whether she had yet written, Liberal Parents, Radical Children …

PODHORETZ: Yeah, frankly I don’t remember exactly when that was written, either. My memory’s getting a little dim. Yeah, I mean Midge and I have traveled in tandem; we’ve been married a very long time, for nearly 43 years.

HEFFNER: Kids, come on.

PODHORETZ: We went through a similar journey politically, spiritually, as you might say. The fact is that … we were radicals. I rather more than Midge, I think, when I was one. And as I said in our last session together, my radicalism was a form of Utopianism, or what I later came to call “Utopian Greed”. It was based on the idea that you could have it all … you could perfect American society, that the means were at hand to achieve perfection. And it was only bad will that stood in the way of achieving such perfection. Now, the problem was that many of my fellow Utopians on seeing how difficult it was to arrive at this goal, this delusory goal basically decided that America wasn’t worth saving at all. I mean they kind of passed the death sentence on it. It was so rotten that only a revolution could save it, and they came to see it as evil in itself and as the main cause of evil in the world outside. And they became, that’s why I used the term anti-American, the way I became increasingly anti-Soviet, they were anti-American.

HEFFNER: And you became anti-anti-Americans.

PODHORETZ: I became anti-anti-American and so, in addition to what I saw as the destructive effect the counter culture was having on the kids, the distortions and the misrepresentations of the nature of this country that came out of the New Left, which was the sort of political face of the new Radicalism … it had a cultural face and a political face … those distortions which led some people even to throw bombs … they took the idea of revolution seriously. I came to feel that that, too, was not only destructive, but vastly mistaken in its conception of reality.

HEFFNER: Norman, where is that anti-Americanism today?

PODHORETZ: Well, a lot of it is gone. I mean certainly there’s nothing like the kind of hatred of this country that many Americans felt from the mid-sixties, I think all the way up through the Reagan Administration. But it has mutated into other forms and it sort of opened second and third fronts in this … what we now call the Cultural War. I think, for example, the vogue of multiculturalism in the universities is … descends from the anti-Americanism in the sixties in the sense that what it says basically is that our culture is no better, and probably worse than any other culture, however, quotes “primitive” that culture may seem to us. And the real animus, you know, there was a demonstration at Stanford led by Jesse Jackson once when there was an effort made to repeal a compulsory course in Western Civilization. And, you know, they chanted … they marched around chanting, “Hey-ho, Hey-ho Western Civ has go to go”. And they didn’t just mean the course, Western Civ … they meant Western civilization. Now that is at the furthest remove from the way I feel about Western Civ … both the course [laughter] and Western civilization itself. Not just multiculturalism. I think that certain forms, certain extremities, extreme edges of the environmental movement are descended from the anti-Americanism of the sixties in their animus against … well, what I no longer hesitate to call capitalism. And, again, it’s not as naked as it was before, but you have a strong impulse in the culture now which says that any … you know … what used to be called “material progress” achieved, you know, through technological means, comes at a price, depredation of the environment, that isn’t worth paying.

HEFFNER: Now you’re saying the animus isn’t as great there. But looking at the one time anti-Americanism and the anti- anti-Americanism, how do you feel about this new kind of descendent, this linear descendent? Are you, can Podhoretz mount an anti-campaign now?

PODHORETZ: Well, I’ve been trying to do that for years. And … of course, I’m getting to be an old man and I’m not as full of beans as I used to be [laughter]. But I can still get pretty riled up when I see certain sorts of lies being told about this country and the role it’s played. I mean, for example, I could hardly watch the series on the Cold War that was broadcast on TNT, for fear that I might get a stroke from the underlying premise of that series which is the moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union … they were bad in one way, we were bad in another way. And the whole conflict probably could have been avoided. Whereas I, I think the Cold War, like the war against Nazism was a close as you come in human history to wars of good against evil. I mean everything … all good is relative in this human world. Although we have learned that not all evil is relative. I mean there is such … something close to absolute evil that we have seen in this century. And that has come in the form of the two mutations of totalitarianism … Nazism and Communism.

HEFFNER: I want to turn the hands of the clock back a little. Whatever appears on cable, I’ve always been puzzled and you can straighten me out … what was the fuss about with Making It?

PODHORETZ: Ah, my book, Making It. Well, I’ve sometimes said that Making It was a miracle of mis-timing. It came out at the worst possible moment. That was nobody’s fault. I mean I wrote this book when I did and it takes a certain …


PODHORETZ: … well I started work on this book in 1965. And it finally came out in late ‘68. There had been delays because the original publisher rejected it, and there was already a big scandal about it before it was even published. What happened was … in Making It I said that I was going to expose what D. H. Lawrence had called “a dirty little secret”. He was talking about sex to the Victorians. And I said that “success was the dirty little secret of the upper reaches of American culture”. That is that everybody in America was desperate for success …

HEFFNER: Including The Family.

PODHORETZ: Including intellectuals, members of the New York intellectual group that I also called The Family, right. And I used my own career as a sort of case study in the analysis of this drive for success that I think permeates American life. And that I justified, in the book, I didn’t attack it, which was the usual tactic … nobody disagreed, you know, the Bitch Goddess, as William James called it … Success … was an American obsession. But, you know, what we would today call “political correctness” demanded that you condemned this. Whereas I came close to celebrating it. And this, this book came out at the very height of the power of the counter-culture and if there was one sacred dogma of the counter-culture, it was that the pursuit of success was bad, wicked, evil, corrupting to the spirit. It was almost evil number one in the dogma of the counter-culture. So here comes along a book which blasphemes against this sacred dogma at the very moment when the dogma is being most fervently held by, by more people than ever before or since. So, you know, I sort of plopped this thing right into the middle of the worst imaginable context for its reception. And, and if I hadn’t known it before, and I hadn’t … I was naive about it, to tell you the truth … since I had been raised to believe that it was one of the duties of a serious writer not only to be as honest as possible, but to violate taboos, whenever possible. And here was … and I was certainly violating a taboo. But instead of being defended by my fellow intellectuals, they joined in the general assault, and the assault was ferocious. I’ll just give you one example … there was a piece in Newsweek magazine which said, “one topic has driven Vietnam from place number one in the dinner, you know, in the conversation at dinner tables around New York, and that is Making It. Well, you know, a book has to be pretty awful I suppose to have driven Vietnam from the minds of people to whom Vietnam was the worst possible evil they could imagine. So the fuss was wholly disproportionate … I mean if you read that book today, in fact, people write me letters, asking me exactly the question that you’ve asked me … I don’t understand what the big fuss was about. And it’s hard if you read that book today … I mean it was written by a 35 year old who was a very different person from the 69 year old you see before you. So I can talk about it dispassionately. You know, it’s a rather sweet-tempered book. It’s not, it’s not nastily polemical, doesn’t say bad things about any individuals. In fact, when Norman Mailer, my other close friend, who read it in galleys and was a little jealous because it was making such a scandal, he came back and he looked at me puzzled and he said he thought the book was terrific, he saw nothing meretricious about it and he couldn’t for the life of him understand why everybody was getting so excited. And he then, two months later, wrote a review attacking the book and justifying the excitement. Totally changed his mind. But the fact is that even, even he, you know, would not stand up for it.

HEFFNER: Would you write it today?

PODHORETZ: Well, if I wrote such a book today, it would be very, very different. But would I, would I agree with the ….


PODHORETZ: … ideas? Very largely. I mean I haven’t re-read it in a long time, but certainly … I mean … what the book was and I don’t know that I realized it then. I mean that was a book in defense of America … written against a cultural climate which was, at the very least … the very least hostile to America and at worst, full of hatred of America. This was a book that was full of love and admiration for America. And if anything my love and admiration for America has increased since, since those days.

HEFFNER: Norman, believe it or not, we’re at the end of our program.

PODHORETZ: Oh, dear.

HEFFNER: But before we stop, Edward Rothstein’s connections in the New York Times … he wrote … “at any rate it is now far more comfortable to use premises to define friendships, than to use friendships to explore premises. We have a Balkanized politics to match our Balkanized culture”. Think so?

PODHORETZ: Yeah. I mean things are Balkanized. That’s one of the effects of multiculturalism. And also one of the effects of the loss of the center that I bemoan in this book. Even though I think The Family was wrong about many … most things and that I included and that we made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of harm that I’ve spent 30 years trying to undo. It was very important both to me personally, and to this country, to this society to have a center in which people gather to talk passionately and debate passionately about art and ideas and politics and the relations among them. There is no such place, at least if there is, I don’t know where to find it. And I think Edward Rothstein is right in suggesting that its loss … as I do myself … that its loss has impoverished us all culturally.

HEFFNER: Norman Podhoretz, one way we can regain it is by going back and seeing how you ticked off your Ex-Friends. Great book. Norman, thank you for joining me again on The Open Mind.

PODHORETZ: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.