“I am an unashamed, wholehearted American patriot,” Norman Podhoretz told me over Zoom on a bleak October afternoon. “But America is definitely on the decline, and it will be saved, if it’s saved at all, by somebody who can mobilize the forces of patriotism.” At 91, the neoconservative public intellectual who turned Commentary magazine into America’s leading journal of cultural criticism is as lucid and genial as ever, sitting comfortably in his Upper East Side apartment. He jokingly refers to himself as a hermit who would rather read indoors than venture outside into a COVID-ravaged New York City, and is visibly dispirited when our conversation turns to contemporary politics. Yet his fascinating observations on society convey a definite sense of optimism. For those who wish to follow Podhoretz’s example in upholding America’s culture of liberty, his rich life in letters provides a wealth of lessons.
Born in 1930, Podhoretz revered America even as a child. The son of Jewish immigrants from Galicia—a region of Central Europe now located in Ukraine—he shared an almost religious devotion to the country with his boyhood friends. Podhoretz remembers Brownsville, the neighborhood of Brooklyn in which he was raised, as an archetypal melting pot where children were taught in public schools to salute the American flag and sing patriotic songs. “Demographically,” he said, “it consisted of about a third Jewish, almost all of whom were immigrants. Another third was black and they too were immigrants in the sense that they had come recently, most of them from the South. And another third Italian; mostly immigrants from Sicily.”
But though Podhoretz’s peers were thoroughly Americanized, ethnic factions still emerged. “The idea was that if we only got to know each other, all discrimination or hostility would disappear,” he recalled. “And it was just the opposite. All we ever did was fight.” By the time of his enrollment at Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant—an area that was then dotted with lavish brownstones—Podhoretz roamed the streets in a red satin jacket as a member of a local gang, the Cherokee Club. His activities were impish rather than destructive. “Calling it a gang is misleading in today’s terms; it was not violent in the way that gangs later became,” he told me. “It was formed by a bunch of us who spent most of our time either playing sports or chasing girls. Unfortunately, not very successfully. But there it was.”
With a smile, Podhoretz observed that he lived a “double life” growing up. Despite his mischievous hobbies, he was an exceptional student, and skipped two grades in elementary school. The origin of this formidable intelligence is difficult to place. Podhoretz’s mother, a housewife, possessed a charming wit but seldom read, while his father, a milkman, preferred solitude and devoured newspapers. “I think under other circumstances he might have turned out to be an intellectual,” Podhoretz said. “But it’s very hard for me to know where I picked anything up when I was a kid. My grades were very high, but I don’t know how much I learned.”