John Podhoretz Leaves Neocon Nest To Play Murdoch’s Man in New York

If you had any doubt that New York is challenging Washington as the social and intellectual hub of American neoconservatism, consider this: John Podhoretz has moved back to town.

Mr. Podhoretz, the chubby 36-year-old son of neocon pioneers Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, recently quit his job as deputy editor at Rupert Murdoch’s Washington-based Weekly Standard -the gleefully contrarian conservative journal that he co-founded in 1995 with Dan Quayle’s former chief of staff, William Kristol, and former New Republic editor Fred Barnes-to take over the editorial page of Mr. Murdoch’s New York Post . Despite two successful years at The Weekly Standard , Mr. Podhoretz grew weary of working in the shadow of the mediagenic Mr. Kristol. “It’s Bill Kristol’s magazine,” Mr. Podhoretz explained over tea at the Algonquin on a recent Sunday. “I wanted to run my own shop.”

The Post editorial page could use some direction. With a popular Republican mayor in City Hall and a Republican governor in Albany, the page has yet to successfully reposition itself. “We were constantly against the Cuomo and Dinkins administrations,” said Bob McManus, a Post editorial writer since 1984. “Now, the rest of the world is seeing things our way, and we find ourselves defending policies that the other papers oppose.”

Mr. Podhoretz said he wants the tone of the paper to be “sharp, clever, funny, punchy and firm,” and that he is “not an enforcer of an ideological line,” all of which sounds a little fishy to some conservatives. “Conservatives aren’t very good when they’re playing such games,” said Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, executive editor of the far-right American Spectator . “If we join the spinning culture, we’re spinning out of control.… Maybe he’s trying to appeal to the better side of his nature.”

But the Post under Mr. Murdoch has arguably done little to appeal to the better side of anyone’s nature. Indeed, it wasn’t until he wrote a tremendously inflammatory editorial against the idea of Puerto Rican statehood that the editorial page’s previous editor, Scott McConnell, was fired. Even then, Mr. McConnell did not go quietly: In the pages of the conservative journal Heterodoxy , he declared himself a victim of, believe it or not, political correctness at the New York Post . “Scott seemed to think if you speak Spanish, you’re not part of the United States,” Mr. Podhoretz said, adding that Mr. McConnell represented a “very dangerous strain” of conservative thought that claims that “America is being weakened by corrupting cultural influences.”

So how much freedom will Mr. Podhoretz have to promote a more urbane, Weekly Standard -style neoconservatism in the pages of the Post ? Although he declared, “I don’t want anyone to tell me what to say,” Post insiders said Mr. Podhoretz may have a thing or two to learn about the way Mr. Murdoch runs his paper’s editorial page. While Mr. Murdoch let the boys at The Weekly Standard have their fun-they published anti-China stories at a time when he was vying for business there- Post insiders said Mr. Murdoch likes to make his voice heard through the paper’s editorial page and expects to be kept informed.

That voice holds sway even with Mr. Murdoch’s political enemies. “I helped save the Post three times, and they endorsed my opponent even after they told me they liked me,” said former Gov. Mario Cuomo. “There’s no secret about Rupert Murdoch. He’s not in the newspaper business because he likes to lose $9 million a year. He does it to influence public opinion toward his point of view.”

Mr. Murdoch was close to former editorial page editor Eric Breindel, who has been moved upstairs at News Corporation, and Mr. Podhoretz said he, too, expects a strong relationship with the boss: “Rupert is an ideological conservative and so am I.”

“I’m a hopeful conservative,” he added. “I don’t think America is going to hell in a handbasket … The Standard was a cheerful magazine, and I’m going to run a cheerful editorial page.”

Love in the Beltway

Politics weren’t the only thing that brought Mr. Podhoretz back to the city he grew up in. His brief marriage to fellow inside-the-Beltway conservative Elisabeth Hickey unraveled this fall in a very public way. The two were married in May after a courtship of only 10 days, and thanks in part to Mr. Podhoretz’s declarations of love in his Weekly Standard column-he ended one column with the words, “in her calm, there is the permanence I seek”-the relationship had become the talk of Washington’s small conservative media clique. The couple split after three months. Mr. Podhoretz would say only that the breakup was a “sad disruption in my personal life.”

Mr. Podhoretz is looking forward to a new beginning in New York, which he said reminds him of Washington in the 80′s, “an exciting, heightened, powerful place to be.” “Everybody in New York is in such a good mood,” he said.

The 90′s Post has changed as well. The paper has ceded coverage of the outer boroughs to the Daily News and has morphed into a Manhattan-centric, media-obsessed hybrid of trade sheet and tabloid. The news pages are built around the screeching reactionary columns of Andrea Peyser, Ray Kerrison and Steve Dunleavy, who regularly call for the heads of whoever the day’s villain may be. And the media coverage-like the daily stories bashing Ted Turner during Time Warner Cable’s battle with Fox News-can often read like a lengthy editorial penned by Mr. Murdoch. Lost in the din of all this heady spewing has been the formerly razor-sharp editorial page. Once famous for haranguing New York’s liberal establishment-the paper took loud and divisive stands on the 1990 Korean grocery boycott and the Crown Heights riots in 1991-the page has become erratic. And when the Post has gone on the offensive recently, the result has often been crude. When flammable stairwell paint in several New York City public housing projects ignited, killing two residents, the Post blamed messy building residents. Contrast that with Mr. Podhoretz’s wish to produce an editorial page that is “light in touch and light in tone.”

But whatever ends up on the page, Mr. Podhoretz’s former colleagues said, his light touch often comes with a heavy hand behind the scenes. He is described alternately as “brilliant” and “a monster” by Standard staff. His writers report that he regularly derides them by saying their copy “sucks.”

“John is smart and he’s a good editor,” said Lisa McCormack, who wrote for Mr. Podhoretz at The Washington Times . “But he finds people’s weak spots psychologically and gets a hot poker and sticks it in there and breaks them.”

Child of Converts

Mr. Podhoretz grew up on 105th Street and West End Avenue, attending high school at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School. He traces his conservatism to those early years on the Upper West Side when “the collapse of civil society was the story.”

“I was mugged four times by the time I was 12,” Mr. Podhoretz said.

His father, Norman Podhoretz, was the editor of Commentary , the highly respected liberal journal, who very publicly “converted” to conservatism in the late 1960′s. The younger Mr. Podhoretz formed his political beliefs from his parents’ reaction against liberalism.

After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1982, Mr. Podhoretz went to work at Time magazine as a researcher. Two years later, he moved to Washington to take a job as a columnist at The Washington Times , which is owned by the Rev. Sung Myung Moon. Under the eccentric editor Arnaud de Borchgrave, Mr. Podhoretz’s colleagues joked that his last name was “Normanson,” because Mr. de Borchgrave frequently referred to him as “John Podhoretz, Norman’s son.” He also picked up a more enduring nickname: “The Pod.”

Mr. Podhoretz went on to edit Insight , The Washington Times ‘ in-house magazine, until he was hired away by Mortimer Zuckerman to work at U.S. News & World Report . In 1988, he was hired as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and, when George Bush was elected, transferred to the office of drug czar William Bennett. But by 1989, Mr. Podhoretz was back editing at The Washington Times . His colleagues from those days have said that many staff members under Mr. Podhoretz left. “He’s a bully. He’ll take an elephant gun to a fly,” said Ms. McCormack. “He’d tell people they were idiots if they misplaced a comma.” (Mr. Podhoretz responded, “Lisa McCormack is an idiot, but otherwise I don’t think it’s true that I’ve said that. I’ve been known to misplace a comma myself.”)

In 1994, he took a job as television critic for the New York Post . That October, Mr. Podhoretz stumbled upon his first big idea: a breezy conservative magazine, a palatable alternative to the tired National Review and radically right American Spectator . With Mr. Kristol and Mr. Barnes, and with several million dollars in start-up money from Mr. Murdoch, he started The Weekly Standard .

The Standard advocated the standard neocon platform-continued opposition to communism, support of Israel-and heaped criticism on Newt Gingrich as his “revolution” fizzled. Mr. Kristol became the Michael Kinsley of the right, by appearing regularly on PBS’s The News Hour With Jim Lehrer , while Mr. Podhoretz, a self-described “intermittent insomniac,” was doing the heavy lifting-generating story ideas, writing and editing. Mr. Podhoretz lived the life of a media junkie. “He’s a compulsive TV watcher, he gets every magazine from Spin to Creme , and he watches every infomercial,” said a Standard staff member. “A number of times, he’s had to go cold turkey from television.”

Members of the Standard staff, like some at The Washington Times , had some problems with Mr. Podhoretz’s style. They objected to his withering assessments and were miffed last year when he gave a cover assignment to his then-girlfriend Wendy Shalit (sister of journalist Ruth Shalit) and paid her more than The Standard ‘s regular freelance rate.

Staff members also said Mr. Podhoretz had a long memory of personal slights. “John holds grudges,” said one staff member. “There are certain people he still hates for, say, insulting his father in 1972 in The New York Review of Books .” (Indeed, Post media critic [and Observer art critic] Hilton Kramer was fired soon after Mr. Podhoretz arrived, and Standard staff members believe Mr. Podhoretz fired Mr. Kramer because the latter once wrote a Post column dismissing The Standard as “a snooze.”)

Over time, Mr. Kristol emerged as The Standard ‘s media face, and Mr. Podhoretz said he felt it had become “somebody else’s magazine.” Then love struck: In February 1997, Mr. Podhoretz ran into Ms. Hickey at a party thrown by Arianna Huffington. Mr. Podhoretz soon circulated news of his engagement in an e-mail to friends headed “This is not a put-on.” The couple was married in May. Three months later, Mr. Podhoretz told friends he hadn’t been in love after all. Said a friend of the couple, “they cut their losses.”

At about the same time, the Post editorial page had become embroiled in its own meltdown. Mr. McConnell’s job had been in jeopardy for months, according to Post insiders, but his editorial on Puerto Rico sealed the deal. Mr. Podhoretz learned about the vacancy at the Post from his longtime friend Mr. Breindel. In early November, Mr. Podhoretz unpacked his bags at his parents’ Upper East Side apartment until he found a place of his own, downtown. He started at the Post on Nov. 10.

The Post editorial page began its far-right march in 1987, when it was taken over by Mr. Breindel. For the first years of his tenure, Mr. Breindel said, the page “was heavily animated by the politics of the Cold War.” On local issues, the page followed the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, and opposed what Mr. Breindel called the Dinkins administration’s “tendency to see the entire city through the prism of race.”

“And we regarded it as a special mission to make sure New York City police knew there was at least one outlet editorially on which they could rely for a kind of reflexive sympathy,” said Mr. Breindel.

“Eric Breindel was one of the most charming, courtly people you could meet, but I disagreed almost all the time with his observations,” David Dinkins told The Observer , who called the Post a “newsletter for Giuliani.”

The challenge for Mr. Podhoretz will be to get his less crabby page read. He wants to promote a friendly, nuanced, ironic conservatism-the kind that clean-cut, unthreatening guys like Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes can serve up on the Sunday-morning chat shows. But given the stiff competition he will face in his own publication-see firebrands Dunleavy, Peyser and Kerrison or the addictive Page Six-the question is, will anyone bother to read a happy New York Post editorial page?

“I think so,” Mr. Podhoretz said. “Outrageousness is one way of getting attention, but it’s not the only way.”