John Podhoretz did not consult his father when Neal Kozodoy, the editor of Commentary, called him last spring and asked if he would consider succeeding him.
John’s father—that’s Norman, if you’re not aware—had been the editor of Commentary for almost half a century; more than anyone, it was Norman who turned it into the flagship publication of the neoconservative movement. In many ways, even though he passed the wheel to Mr. Kozodoy in 1995, it remains his magazine to this day.
So it would only have been natural for John—who until last Friday was a columnist for the New York Post—to have asked his father for some advice when the opportunity to inherit his magazine presented itself. Instead, John said in an interview, he kept it to himself, and told his father he’d taken the job only after he finalized the agreement with the governing board of Commentary, Inc.—just a few days in advance of the public announcement.
“I’m 46 years old,” John said yesterday, speaking to The Observer by phone from Disney World. “I wanted to make this decision on my own without reference to my father or his views.”
According to the elder Mr. Podhoretz, that’s exactly how it went: Asked last week if the appointment was a palace coup, he said that if it was, it wasn’t staged by him. “I know that it looks like that,” he said. “But oddly enough it isn’t. … It was Neal’s idea.”
Some skeptics are not so sure. “Of course Norman was involved,” said a longtime contributor who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “Neal is brilliant but spineless. His entire role in life is to be the Podhoretz family steward. Neal defers to Norman about everything and looks to Norman for everything.”
“On the one hand it’s obvious, but no one saw it coming,” the contributor said. “The nepotism is shocking. This is a magazine, not a little family business.”
The contributor went on: “The people who have worked there a long time have been misled about the succession. These are people who are in the prime of their careers who would not have been putting in year after year as editors if they knew Norman’s son was going to jump over their heads.” Several Commentary editors contacted by The Observer declined to comment.
John dismisses the nepotism charge as an ad hominem attack motivated by ideological differences. “People are criticizing me in that way not because they have any problem with me or even care that much about it,” he said. “It’s a way of belittling and disrespecting the ideas that I express.”
In 1995, John teamed with Bill Kristol—himself the son of a seminal figure in the creation of modern-day conservatism, Irving Kristol—to found the conservative opinion magazine The Weekly Standard, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Still, several writers and editors associated with Commentary and interviewed for this article wondered whether John—who writes a column for The Standard about movies, and is known for using pop culture as a lens through which to assess politics—is intellectually serious enough to lead a magazine like Commentary without sacrificing its analytical rigor.
“A lot of people think John is a hack,” the longtime contributor said. “He writes a well-written, entertaining tabloid column. He’s written books, but the books are also very playful. The Commentary universe is meant to be a little more serious. Even his father had a Ph.D. in English literature.”
John said he finds such criticism absurd. Why, he asks, should the fact that he is well-rounded count against him? “My interest in pop culture is not overpowering,” he said. “I’ve been working as a political columnist for 10 years, and I’ve written three books on American politics. It’s a preposterous notion.”
He seems to have the journalistic credentials. He was the Post’s editorial page editor for two years, from 1997 to 1999, and part of that time he doubled as the paper’s arts and features editor, editing 13 pages a night. “I burned out,” he said.
Still, he admits that he was not always ready for this job: “I don’t think I could have done it 10 years ago,” he said. “But you know, I’m 46, I’ve had a very long and established career, and I feel that I can take it on.” His last Post column appeared last Friday, two days after he visited the Commentary offices to meet with his new team.