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Public Lives By: Michael Janofsky
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, June 29, 2004


As the grandfather of so much more than his children's children, Norman Podhoretz stood proudly in the East Room of the White House yesterday as President Bush awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

"The biggest deal imaginable," Mr. Podhoretz called it during an interview several hours before the ceremony. "It's the most wonderful honor ever to come my way, the most wonderful honor I could ever imagine coming my way."

Well, maybe it's not so hard to imagine, after all. Mr. Podhoretz, 74, a lifelong New Yorker, is widely recognized as a grandfather of neoconservatism, the intellectual and political movement begun in the 1970's by former liberals to push a wide-ranging agenda that included a renewed flexing of American power in the world. Only a handful of major writers and thinkers traveled a similar path, and those who held their new beliefs the most passionately, like Mr. Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, begat a generation or two of followers, many of whom have reached high seats of power and, some say, transformed neocon ideology into current foreign policy.

Mr. Podhoretz's soapbox was Commentary, the monthly magazine he edited for 35 years, and the 10 books he has written. They articulate a political evolution that has led him to praise President Bush as "achieving greatness" in his response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Yet he is not entirely sure, he said, why he was chosen to join this year's diverse group of 13 Medal of Freedom winners - imagine, Pope John Paul II and Doris Day. "I haven't scrutinized the list," he said. "I don't know if they conform to a political configuration in any given administration. I imagine there is always something of a mix."

In any case, he insisted that his selection arose not from any relationship with the president, whom he had met only once, long enough to shake his hand. Mr. Podhoretz said he did not even support Mr. Bush in the early goings of the 2000 presidential campaign, preferring Senator John McCain.

Nor did his son-in-law have anything to do with it, as far as he knows. Mr. Podhoretz and his wife of nearly 48 years, Midge Decter - she, too, a neocon writer and social critic - have presided over a family of conservatives that includes Elliott Abrams, a veteran of the Reagan administration who is now a senior official in the National Security Council and is married to the oldest of their four children, Rachel. (The other children are Naomi Munson, a public relations executive in northern Virginia; Ruth Blum, a columnist and feature writer for The Jerusalem Post; and John Podhoretz, a columnist for The New York Post and contributing editor at The Weekly Standard, a conservative weekly he helped Mr. Kristol's son William found.)

If any of his children or politically aware grandchildren are out of step with him, Mr. Podhoretz said, "they're further to the right."

So maybe it was just his time to receive a Medal of Freedom, he said. And Mr. Bush could not have found a more kindred spirit.

Mr. Podhoretz not only subscribes to the so-called Bush Doctrine of foreign policy, which embraces the concept of pre-emptive action against those who are viewed as a threat to the United States, but he is also taking the doctrine a step further in the next book he intends to write. The working title refers to an era begun by the Sept. 11 attacks: "World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win."

He sounds no less assertive than Mr. Bush in stressing the urgency of the doctrine, to the point of predicting that if the next Democrat to occupy the White House does not continue the policy, "we will be in danger of the most horrendously imaginable attacks, something infinitely worse than 9/11."

He recalled the political climate following the 1952 election, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower at first resisted, then carried out the Truman Doctrine of containment against the threat of Soviet aggression. "I really don't think there's any other way to go than the way Bush has staked out," he said. "As a strategic plan, it's not only a viable one, it's necessary."

If his words belie the liberal he was long ago, through Columbia University, Cambridge University and New York bohemia of the early 1960's, they carry the same confidence and feistiness.

Mr. Podhoretz's journey from left to right has cost him friends, Norman Mailer foremost among them, and long periods of discomfort, reading the nasty things his old friends were writing about him. But as the son of working-class immigrants, growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, he developed a thick skin that served him well on the streets, and later in the towers of the New York intelligentsia as his old political views were evolving into the new. Perhaps not surprisingly, along the way he and his wife moved from the Upper West Side to the Upper East Side.

Though he retired from Commentary in 1995, he has kept on writing - three books and more than 100 essays. No doubt Mr. Bush would nod in agreement with most of them. But Mr. Podhoretz hopes it is not political symmetry with the president that got him to the East Room. He prefers to think it was his patriotism, even if neocon-flavored.

"This honor comes from the United States of America," he said. "That is how I understand it. That's how it's intended to be taken."



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