Norman Podhoretz

My Love Affair with America, Part I

VTR Date: September 21, 2000

Guest: Podhoretz, Norman


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Podhoretz
Title: “My Love Affair With America”, Part I
VTR: 9/21/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Still pleased as can be by a wonderful cartoon in a recent New Yorker that shows a smiling her saying to a rather glum him, “Good news, honey, 70 is the new 50″.

PODHORETZ: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Which particularly tickles me right now as my long time friend and guest today, author, editor, commentator Norman Podhoretz tries to insinuate himself into the pantheon of ancients, my crowd that is, just because he’s recently turned 70. And he writes in his splendid new Free Press memoir, “My Love Affair With America,” having entered even by today’s standards of longevity into old age, I find it as the elderly always have, more comfortable and less threatening to look back than to look ahead”. And look back he does, subtitling his “Love Affair With America, The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative”. Which leads me, of course, to ask Norman Podhoretz, why “a cautionary tale?”.

PODHORETZ: A cautionary tale is directed at some of my fellow conservatives, friends, who in recent years began talking about this country in terms that were uncomfortably reminiscent of the terms that the Left Wing radicals of the 60s did, and in fact, it was that kind of talk, the anti-American talk of the 60s that drove me out of the Left and into the Conservative position I’ve been rather happily occupying for the last 30 or more years. And then suddenly I discovered that my present group of friends, not all of them, but some significant ones, were beginning to talk about the illegitimacy of the American regime, about the possibility that civil disobedience might be called for. Some even said a revolution might be called for. Now the issues that were driving them were totally different from the issues that drove the Radicals on the Left in the 60s, which were, you know, Vietnam and civil rights and so on. And the issues driving the Conservatives of the late 90s were the use of patient power by the Supreme Court and some of the decisions, both on abortions and euthanasia that had … that the court had made. And also, more immediately, the fact … the quite puzzling fact, actually that every time Bill Clinton told another lie, his approval ratings rose. And it was just the opposite of Pinocchio’s nose. So the, this phenomenon of Clinton’s great popularity called into doubt one of the fundamental beliefs of contemporary American Conservatives, which is that while the elites, summarized by the national media, Hollywood, New York, the universities, might be against them, most of the American people were on their (our) side. And the locus classicus of this belief is a wonderful crack made by Bill Buckley … William F. Buckley, Jr. … that he would rather be ruled by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT. Well, suddenly it seemed as though the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book were not fit to govern us … so it seemed to some of my friends. And I violently disagreed. Not necessarily with some of the particular judgments they were making, but with the attitude toward America that was arising out of these judgments. And so … seventy though I was [laughter] and weary of battle, I donned, as I put it, my rusty old armor, reluctantly and the aged eagle spread its wings … to steal a phrase from T. S. Eliot and went into battle again in defense of America. Only this time it was to be a … not a defensive defense, but an aggressive one. A whole-hearted, full throated assertion of the greatness of this country and, and of the institutions on which it is founded. And the cautionary note was aimed at my fellow Conservatives. The “cheerful” Conservative, the adjective “cheerful” in the subtitle refers to the fact that so many of my Conservative friends are glum. As Judge Robert Bork put it in a book of his, “we slouching towards Gomorrah”. That’s a phrase he took and adapted from W. B. Yeats poem “Sailing Toward Byzantium”, in which Yeats said “we slouching towards Bethlehem”. He was talking about the second coming of Christ. Bork was in effect hinting that we were … had already arrived at the place of evil, we had already gone to hell and I don’t agree with this view at all. On the contrary. So, there are other examples of what I’m talking about. I’m cheerful about the condition of America. And I’m cheerful about the future of America to the extent that I can foresee what is likely to happen out there. Hard to predict next week, let alone [laughter] next year.

HEFFNER: How much, really, of a cautionary tale is this of the Radical turned Conservative, now moving in another direction again. What is there about this movement that seems almost so inevitable?

PODHORETZ: Well, in my case … you mean. I’m not sure I’m moving in any other direction …

HEFFNER: They’re moving …

PODHORETZ: Oh, “they”. Well, I mean to make their case these are people who are committed to certain principles. They’re not committed to the Republican Party or to some movement that has a party line, you know the way the Communist Party did. They are people who have a certain philosophy. Most of them are religious. Some Catholics, some Protestants, some Jewish. And they measure the realities around them by the extent to which those realities either … fulfill or fall short of those principles. And they make their judgments according. So, they do not seek for, you know, partisan apologetics the way, you know, loyalist members of a party would. And …

HEFFNER: You know, I’m puzzled though, Norman, you, you understand them …


HEFFNER: .. you’re not … you don’t find them disgraceful. Yet this “the people … no” rather than “the people … yes”. Buckley’s comment about those 2000 people in the Boston phone book. What do you think has brought that about? Have they changed? Have the American people changed?

PODHORETZ: I think that the American people are rather more complicated than some of my friends believe or have imagined in the recent past. I ought to say, in all fairness, by the way, that most of them have backed down from the positions they were taking that provoked me into writing this book. I’m glad to say that because as you know my last book was called Ex-Friends, which is about … and I didn’t want to make another set of ex-friends. I have nowhere to go [Laughter] from here. But I think that a lot of my current friends … I’m glad to say that they have not become ex-friends as a result of this book, had well you might call it a morally romanticized view of the American people.

HEFFNER: You said that about yourself as a younger man.

PODHORETZ: I did. I did indeed, and I talked about my Utopianism as a younger man. They’re not Utopians, the Conservatives I’m talking about. It’s a slightly different mind-set. No, what I actually think is they fail to take into account the complexity of sentiment. This is a very big country and there are a lot of things going on all the time … swirling around, many in contradiction to other … you know, to other … some positioning. Say one thing … others same to say the opposite and people seem to be able to live comfortably with these contradictions. Walt Whitman, you know, once said “I am large, I embrace … I contradict myself very well and I contradict myself … I am large, I contain multitudes”. Well the American multitudes contain contradictions. And I think that they are, and I think that some of these complexities which are reflected very much in the culture around us and the polity were ignored by many of my friends who put too much emphasis on one side of the, of the whole … of the whole bag of elements rather than looking at the … entirety …

HEFFNER: You are generously saying they are not pushing harder in that direction. Is that true?

PODHORETZ: Well, I think it is. At least the people I’m talking about. Their …

HEFFNER: Judge Bork?

PODHORETZ: Well, Judge Bork is quite consistent … I mean his latest book is quite consistent with the one before it, and although he I think has moved somewhat to the Right of where he was even when he failed to win confirmation to the Supreme Court, he’s pretty much the same Bob Bork I knew, you know, 30 or more years ago. I mean he is a Conservative. And a strict constructionist in his reading of the Constitution. And I think he may be, as he gets older, somewhat more outspoken and somewhat gruffer in tone. He was always a bit … rather gruff … than when he was younger. But I don’t think his positions are all that different. In other words … Let me say his principles are all that different than what they have been for a very long time now.

HEFFNER: What are we going to do with your principles? What …

PODHORETZ: Well, my principles …

HEFFNER: … are we going to do with your broadness of scope …


HEFFNER: … your ability to accept and embrace …

PODHORETZ: Well, I’m glad that you think I’m broad. I wish more … some of my critics shared your view. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Well, you’ve accepted …

PODHORETZ: Well, I, I … but I … in a way I always did. I mean I’m idiosyncratic in that sense. Even when I was a radical of the Left, I as I explain in My Love Affair With America, I loved this country. And as I discovered many of my fellow Radicals not only did not love this country, they hated it. And made no bones about that. Many of them now deny that they ever felt that way. But It was not for nothing that so many of them spelled America with a K to suggest an association with Nazi Germany. And it was not for nothing that so many of them said that the country was so rotten that nothing but a revolution could save it. You know no reforms could do any good. I was always uneasy and finally revolted by this attitude toward America. And, so again in one sense there’s a consistent thread in my own point of view, certainly with respect to the nature of this country. And it’s odd that this country, that the nature of this country should be an issue. I mean people don’t run around arguing about the nature of France, or even … well, there’s a condition of England question. But, you know what I mean, it’s America is a sort of ideological issue. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that there is such a place? You know, is it … does it set a good example or a bad example? Is it a force for good or a force for evil? Both within, to its own people and to people outside the world. This is an argument that’s been raging practically since the birth of the Republic, you know. And the other curious feature of this argument is that unlike in any other country that I know of … where in every other country of the world Conservatives tend to be very patriotic and even aggressively nationalistic. Patria … pro patria is the essence of Conservatism all over Europe, everywhere. Whereas in this country, at least since the Civil War, not so much before it, you’ve had a tradition of conservatism that was and I make no bones about using the term … anti-American. I don’t say “un-American”, I say anti-American. That is the figure I always single out as the sort of quintessential embodiment of this tradition is Henry Adams, who was the son and … the grandson and great-grandson of two American Presidents. And a great historian in his own right. Who came to loathe this country with a ferocity that is almost hard to, is almost hard to take, to believe unless you actually see the words he uses, especially in his private correspondence about this place in which he was born and to which he had such a deep and strong attachment.

HEFFNER: But now you’re saying that his counterparts today … although you say some of them are moving back again … his counterparts today, your Conservative friends, have too many, to your taste begun to have similar feelings about this nation.

PODHORETZ: Well, Very few of them are as virulent as Henry Adams was. [Laughter] And … but, but I think that it is true that a number of Conservatives had a kind of fever I would call it a few years ago of, almost an infection of anti-American feeling and thought that has subsided and I worried about it very much at that point. I’m a little less worried about it now because unlike so many of the Leftists, my Conservative friends have actually responded to criticism. I mean some of them have bethought themselves in fact … when it was pointed out to them. “Do you hear what you’re saying?”, you know. And they didn’t like some of what they were saying themselves. But the tradition is alive.

HEFFNER: Of anti-Americanism?

PODHORETZ: Yes, on the Right. It’s alive among what they call the “paleo-Conservatives” …

HEFFNER: Yeah, I know.

PODHORETZ: That’s a whole new story.

HEFFNER: There was this wonderful, almost obtuse piece in the New York Times not so long ago. You’re featured in it, of course … September 16th, the year 2000. About, well, the title is “When the Left Turns the Right, It Leaves the Middle Muddled”. And it left me muddled. About Conservatives, neo-Conservatives, paleo-Conservatives, etc. What should we make of this?

PODHORETZ: Well, like every other political “tendenz”, the German word “tendenz” is better than the English word tendency, it sums up, it’s something less than a Movement, but you know, more than an arbitrary set of ideas. The Conservative … conservatism in America is sectarious, split into different sects. And some of these sects hate each other much more than they hate Liberals or Leftists…

HEFFNER: But there’s another connection here, these are former Leftists …

PODHORETZ: Yeah, well, the ones …

HEFFNER: … who turned Right.

PODHORETZ: … the ones in this particular story are all what used to be called neo-Conservatives. And I certainly was a neo-Conservative. The problem is that after … neo means “new” … that’s what …

HEFFNER: How long can you stay …

PODHORETZ: How long can you stay “neo”?

HEFFNER: …”neo”

PODHORETZ: … and since it’s been 35 years I think its time to drop the “neo”. Also, the new … the neo-Conservatives brought a new element to American Conservatism that is no longer new because it was assimilated into the old Right. To put it for you in personal terms … the young Bill Buckley was much further Right than the Bill Buckley, age 75. And as he has sort of moved in a Leftward direction, if you’re certainly not to the Left, but in a leftward direction from where he started. A neo-Conservative like me has moved in Right-ward direction from where I started, and we all kind of met somewhere Right of center. It’s hard exactly to define the point. And there’s no agreement on every single issue. I mean I don’t agree with Buckley on the legalization of drugs where he takes what is the Liberal position, or the Libertarian position. I’m against the legalization of drugs, he’s for it. You know, but … that’s just one example of, you know, of the difference.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but caught up here is this quote from you and it’s quite appropriate in terms of the way we began the program and what you were saying, and what you write in your new book. “I did not become a Conservative in order to become a Radical, let alone to support the preaching of revolution against this country ….”


HEFFNER: You, you do see these people. Now you’ve stepped back a little, what you’ve just been saying, but you do see these people as becoming Radical …

PODHORETZ: Well, that, that quote …

HEFFNER: … and trying to bring you with them.

PODHORETZ: Yeah. That quote came from a letter …

HEFFNER: A letter.

PODHORETZ: … I wrote to Father Richard Newhouse, who was a friend of mine and the editor of “First Things”, which a magazine about religion and public life. And he had run a symposium in the magazine called “The End of Democracy?” in which some of the ideas we started with that I described earlier were expressed quite forcefully by people like Judge Bork, Charles Coulson, who is a born-again Christian and Richard Newhouse, himself, as well as couple of other Catholic contributors. And it was about that symposium that I wrote Newhouse this letter. And his response was that I had misinterpreted the symposium. Well, I don’t think I did misinterpret it. But I found that his own interpretation of what he, himself, and the others had said was a lot milder than what I found on the paper. That’s why I say they back down a bit.

HEFFNER: You mean the matter of looking at what they’ve said, and saying “this isn’t what we meant”.

PODHORETZ: Right. Well, that’s again, we’re back to T.S. Eliot.


PODHORETZ: “That’s not what I meant, that’s not what I meant at all”. Well, they may not have meant it, but they said it. And, and I thought it was dangerous for them to be saying things of this kind. And I felt that it was my duty even at the risk of making a new set of ex-friends to tell them so in no uncertain terms. And I did. And then I wrote this book, “My Love Affair With America” in which I tried to combine, as I have in other books, elements of memoir or autobiography with social criticism and cultural history. It’s a kind of peculiar melange that … in which I feel comfortable working. And the point was to say that the American, this country represents one of the highest points of human civilization known to history. That’s a very strong statement. And I tried to, I used my own story as a way of making the abstract proposition more vivid and concrete, but I also write a good deal about the history of some of the ideas and attitudes that I’m trying to analyze and criticize. And finally I try to make the case for this very, very positive judgment of the United States. That is, I put it up there with fifth century Athens and Elizabethan England and Renaissance Italy as a great, as a high point of human achievement.

HEFFNER: Well, it seems to me that so much of it comes, not down to, but up to, as you write about your grandparents, as you write about your early family and your upbringing in New York … only in America. That is what you’re saying.

PODHORETZ: Well, I actually use that phrase …

HEFFNER: I know.

PODHORETZ: Which was invented by a nearly forgotten writer named Harry Golden and it is true that many things are possible, or have proved to be possible only in America. And I would … certainly my own life story could only have occurred in America. And, but, but, even at its worst, even at its most vulnerable to criticism, that is let us say the condition of the poor, or the Blacks. As I point out, and I marshal a lot of statistics to support this, the prosperity that we all enjoy is shared to an extent that would be unimaginable in other countries. I mean the poorest of Americans have material possessions that are regarded as great luxuries of the rich in many other countries of the world. And certainly not … and even in prosperous countries, are not accessible to people who don’t have a fair amount of money. So that we not only have more liberty and more prosperity than any other society that has ever existed, but that prosperity is more widely shared than in any society that has ever existed. It’s an enormous human achievement for which we should be grateful and for which many of us are not only not grateful, but tend to be, tend to take for granted and even denigrate.
HEFFNER: Norman, I’m so pleased to have you here again today, and what you’ve just said fits so well your title, “My Love Affair With America” and I can’t help but say how much I agree with you when you attribute so much of this, so much of your feeling to that early education you received at Columbia College. So the Alumni Fund should leave me alone now.

PODHORETZ: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Norman Podhoretz, thank you for joining me today.

PODHORETZ: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. 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 an 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.