Norman Podhoretz, Doris Day, and Arnold Palmer were among the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 23, and it is by no means easy to say who deserves the award the most—or, for that matter, the least. Most people probably were not aware that Miss Day was still alive but were happy to learn she was. The same cannot necessarily be said of Mr. Podhoretz.
The Pod, as he is not very affectionately known to his critics, is, of course one of several neo-conservative “godfathers,” a term especially resonant when speaking of the mafia of Zionists, Social Democrats, defected Trotskyists, Straussian eggheads, and any number of other apparatchiks of one description or another who compose the “neoconservative movement.” Mr. Podhoretz, as editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995, was one of the movement’s godfathers not only because he presided over its formation in his magazine but through his vast family connections.
The Pod’s ubiquitous hand is evident through his wife Midge Decter, his son John (once of the Washington Times and now of the New York Post), and his son-in-law Elliott Abrams, at one time a heavy in the Iran-Contra affair and more recently (despite a felony conviction that would deny the appropriate security clearances to most applicants) a heavy in the National Security Council (for Middle Eastern affairs, naturally). Another son-in-law is Steve Munson, who converted to Judaism to wed the beauteous Naomi Podhoretz and who for years (through the Reagan, Bush I, and much of the Clinton administrations), ran the editorial page of the Voice of America, whence he helped spread democracy all over the global barnyard. La famille Podhoretz, however, is presumably not why the White House chose to knight the Pod with what many people regard as “the nation’s most prestigious civilian honor.”
Nor is it credible that the Pod won the medal because, in a Commentary article of 2002 advocating that the United States wage what he dubbed “World War IV” (against virtually every Arab country in the world), he mewed ingratiatingly that President George W. Bush’s speech to the nation after the September 11 attacks reached “the heights of sublimity.” Admittedly, Mr. Bush might well be tempted to award the nation’s highest civilian honor to the only human being on the face of the planet who has ever praised his rhetoric. But neither the Pod’s readiness to prostitute himself and his (largely self-promoted) reputation as “a leading New York intellectual” nor his zealotry in fetching water for the President’s bellicose foreign policy and flaccid oratory quite explains the decision to give him the award.
What does explain it is simply that the Medal of Freedom signals that neoconservatism has now become the official ideology of the Bush administration—not Old Right conservatism, not “compassionate conservatism,” and not any of the 57 other varieties of “conservatism” that still lurk in the politico-intellectiual demimonde, but the neoconservatism of Norman Podhoretz and his fellow godfather Irving Kristol (who has already won the medal).
Back in the happy days of the Reagan Revolution, neocons did not win the medal very much—they just got all the appointments. In fact, such Old Right figures as James Burnham (after a stroke that impaired his faculties), Whittaker Chambers (posthumously), Milton Friedman, Frederick Hayek, and Barry Goldwater all won the medal, mostly from Reagan. Other major figures, however, did not—in particular, the late Russell Kirk, who met with both Presidents Nixon and Reagan.
All these individuals did or said or wrote something that does, in fact, merit high recognition. Other than breeding a vast progeny of perpetual office seekers and professional courtiers, however, it is hard to see exactly what Norman Podhoretz has done, said, or written that anyone anywhere remembers. There is not a single book or a single major article he has ever produced that is still read today except by the neocon cultists. There is not a single phrase or idea—other, perhaps, than his unique insight as to the “sublimity” of Mr. Bush’s rhetoric—that lingers in the mind. All there is, as Mr. Podhoretz himself revealed in one of his earliest books, is Making It, the fine art of ensuring your own success.
Doris Day and Arnold Palmer actually did something, and if their leaf is now faded, no one today has to explain to a bewildered American public who they were or what they did. The same cannot be said of the Pod. Those who know who he is and what he represents will understand perfectly well how and why he won the medal. Those who do not know will stay bewildered.
This article first appeared in the August 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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