Norman Podhoretz, 51, and Midge Decter, 53, would be New York’s superstar intellectual couple if superstardom were encouraged in those circles—and if they had not made such a spectacularly neck-wrenching political turnabout in 1970 from the middle distance of the Left to the front lines of the New Right. These days Midge aims her best shots at feminists, while Norman takes on proponents of disarmament, racial quotas, easy abortions and legalized drugs. “If we wish to name-drop now,” he says, “we have only to list our ex-friends.” They include but are by no means limited to Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Diana Trilling and Susan Sontag—all disaffected contributors to the old Commentary, which its editor, Podhoretz, has made the country’s most influential conservative magazine.
This is not to suggest that author Podhoretz had a problem finding name blurb-writers when he published his latest book, The Present Danger, a scary 90-page analysis of the U.S.S.R. that describes it as “armed to the teeth and dedicated to the destruction of the free institutions which are our heritage.” Emblazoned on a promotional band around the book is the exhortation: “I urge all Americans to read this critically important book.” It is signed Ronald Reagan.
Until recently Podhoretz and Decter thought they might be summoned to the corridors of power. President Reagan’s entourage includes a number of longtime Commentary readers, and one, National Security Adviser Richard V. Allen, personally touted Podhoretz’s book to the President. But the offer Norman heard he was in line for—head of the International Communications Agency (the old USIA)—didn’t come. Since he was made editor of Commentary almost against his wishes when he was 30, Podhoretz had theorized that the best way to get a job is not to want it. Now “Podhoretz’s Law No. 2,” he says, “is that the worst way not to get a job you may not have wanted is to have it thought you were rejected for it.” It also may not have helped that Podhoretz suggested during a recent interview that Reagan’s mind was “not the kind generally admired by intellectuals.” “I can’t believe you said that purposely to kill your chances,” his wife says. “I just have a big mouth, Midge.”
Theirs has been a unique joint Odyssey through American politics. It began in Brooklyn, where Norman, the son of a Jewish immigrant, was a street tough whose clearest memory of Hebrew school is of “a series of quietly smoldering rabbi’s daughters.” At Columbia University, he was a brilliant if intractable scholar who told nubile fellow students he would kill himself if he wasn’t a great poet by the time he was 25—not bothering to credit the threat to Keats. One day when he misquoted T.S. Eliot while trying to charm a prospect, an onlooker, Midge Rosenthal, corrected him and became a close friend. Years later, after she had divorced Jewish activist Moshe Decter and was a secretary at Commentary, Podhoretz reappeared in her life. They married in 1956.
By then he had spent two years in graduate lit studies at Clare College, Cambridge. When he returned to New York, as he told it in his confessional memoir, Making It, he was intent on becoming the Left’s leading young critic and seemed to be succeeding. His literary essays were already appearing in such organs as The New Yorker when the American Jewish Committee, which has published Commentary since 1945, insistently offered him its editorship. In 1960 he reluctantly accepted, fearful that administrative duties would end his writing days. After a decade there, he found his kind of hard thinking impelled a move to the political Right.
That shift began at home, in an agonizing, years-long dialogue with Midge. The daughter of a sporting goods wholesaler in St. Paul, she spent a year at the University of Minnesota and a semester at New York University before dropping out, sensing college interfered with her education. She housewifed for seven years to rear her two daughters by Decter, whom she divorced before joining Commentary in 1954. She left the magazine before she and Norman married, but stayed in publishing and kept working after their daughter and son were born.
More than 10 years ago, when those children were not yet in their teens, the Podhoretzes’ change of heart began on the do-your-own-thing ethos of the counterculture. “I came more and more to believe that radicalism—mine and my friends’—was destroying the children,” he says. “I still think that is true. I felt responsible for the mortal dangers these kids were getting themselves into—not as a parent but as a propagandist. I had a crisis over it, and Midge and I talked about it endlessly.” As Norman was formulating the ideas articulated in his 1979 memoir of disillusion with the Left, Breaking Ranks, and in The Present Danger, Midge was writing companion works, as it were. In 1972, in The New Chastity, she argued sex was being oversold and would profit from what family friend Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan might call benign neglect. Then in 1975, in Liberal Parents, Radical Children, she condemned what she believed to be permissiveness run amok. “There is no quicker way to see that ideas have consequences,” Midge says, “than to see them working themselves out on the actual flesh of people who are more important to you than all others.”
All the soul-searching made for a home in which, as Midge’s daughter Naomi recalls, “there was not the smallest thing which did not carry moral weight. If you were asked to pick up a carton of milk and forgot, that was not just absentmindedness. It was an absence of care for others in the house.” The censure came from Norman. Naomi’s retaliation came in the mail from her private school. “Such report cards,” he sighs, “a Jewish parent shouldn’t have to see.”
Still, the young in the family have survived. Naomi, 29, writes for Commentary; her husband, Steven Munson, a former Episcopalian who has converted to Judaism, is an editor at the New York Times Magazine. Rachel, 30, is married to one of Alexander Haig’s Assistant Secretaries of State, Elliott Abrams, 31 (“the third youngest Assistant Secretary in U.S. history,” Podhoretz père boasts); he is, of course, another Commentary contributor. Ruth Podhoretz, 23, has emigrated to Israel and works in Jerusalem in public relations. Her brother John, 19, a University of Chicago junior, is at least as conservative politically as his parents. The children have managed, moreover, without one word of instruction from either parent on religion or sex. “I got my sex education where everybody should get it,” says Norman. “On the streets.”
Having weathered their ideological sea change together, the Podhoretzes are a relatively solid couple. “The most heated and passionate disagreement between us,” Midge muses, “is on Gustav Mahler’s music, which Norman loves and I hate.” Still, as two feisty, incandescent intellects, they seem to disagree on even their points of agreement. Despite their ardent advocacy of Jewish rights, for example, the Podhoretzes are not ritual-observing Jews. “There is an arrogance to it,” Norman says. Midge puts in: “To be a nonobserving bum is by now a time-honored Jewish tradition.”
“That’s too strong,” he tells her. “Norman,” she shoots back, “I was being flip.”
Norman can be flip too. And in addition to being arrogant, he can be mock-arrogant. “In case you would like to know,” he says, “the one household job I do is I carry out the garbage. That, and sometimes I change light bulbs.” “But that,” she trumps, “takes two of us.”