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.
The younger Mr. Podhoretz certainly has his supporters, and they are not shy about voicing their enthusiasm. The editors of The New York Sun published an editorial after the announcement was made calling him “a leading voice of the younger generation,” and his appointment at Commentary an “inspiring transition for those of us who cover the battle of ideas.” And Richard Lowry, editor of National Review, speaking to The Observer, praised his ability “to do high and low and in between.”
“I don’t think we’re going to see pieces about, I don’t know, Smallville—we’re not going to see that in Commentary,” Mr. Lowry said. “Just because he’s interested in pop culture doesn’t mean he can’t do the highbrow stuff extremely well.”
He may also offer other advantages: “The thing about Commentary is it seems to aim to influence three elections from now rather than the next one,” says Ramesh Ponnuru, a writer for National Review. “John Podhoretz’s writing has been much more immediate in its ambitions, so it’ll be interesting to see whether Commentary takes a little bit less of an above-the-fray sort of approach and spends a little bit less time to set the intellectual tone. … One thing about John Podhoretz is he certainly does like mixing it up. He likes being in what ever argument’s going on.”
Even Mr. Podhoretz’s detractors, like the longtime contributor quoted above, said he could make the magazine livelier and help bring in younger readers. That could be essential, as several prominent political journalists interviewed for this article said they’d stopped reading Commentary years ago because it had grown tedious and predictable. “Commentary was interesting because it was not fully an organ of the conservative movement,” said one conservative writer. “Some of the things they said were interesting not just on their own merits but because Commentary was saying them.”
In the past few years, several journalists said, the magazine that once published such adventurous writers as Clement Greenberg and Hannah Arendt has become little more than an official organ of the Republican party. “At a moment where there should have been a venue for the intelligent debate over various Bush administration policies,” one writer said, “they have enforced whatever the party line is. Commentary takes too seriously that its job is to define neoconservatism for the ages.”