How to Lose Friends and Influence People

by A.O. Scott


In the first chapter of his new memoir, Ex-Friends, Norman Podhoretz, editor emeritus of Commentary and one of the godfathers of American neoconservatism, recalls an expedition he undertook one Saturday evening in the autumn of 1958:

At about 7:30 p.m., after hanging around the house all day in the sloppy old clothes I usually wore on weekends, I shaved, put on a clean white shirt with a button-down collar, a rep tie, and a three-piece charcoal gray flannel suit from Brooks Brothers, and headed down by subway from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to an apartment in Greenwich Village, where [Allen] Ginsberg and his friend and literary sidekick Jack Kerouac were waiting for me to arrive.

The sartorial detail is no mere novelistic flourish but rather the point of the story. Podhoretz, then a young prince of the New York literary establishment, had recently published a series of articles assaulting the pretensions of the Beat Generation and was conscious of venturing into enemy territory: The rep tie would be his standard, the Brooks Brothers suit his armor. Such martial imagery is apt in its way, but there is also, when Podhoretz returns to the question of clothing a few pages later, a whiff of the suburban teenager preparing for an important afternoon at the mall:

it occurred to me that if I were to arrive at [Ginsberg's] apartment needing a shave and dressed in threadbare chino pants and a rumpled old shirt, it would be as if I were donning the enemy's uniform for a foray into his own territory. Worse yet, I might in some sense seem to be currying favor.

This mixture of combativeness and insecurity pervades Ex-Friends, along with a degree of competitiveness remarkable in a man of Podhoretz's age and accomplishments. This is a man who, after the provocations of his early efforts as a literary and social critic and the succès de scandale of his first memoir, Making It, led an intrepid band of intellectuals out of the fleshpots of liberalism and into the Canaan of the Republican Party. If he demurs that his "reputation of having great influence in the Reagan administration" is "mostly exaggerated," he nonetheless, in his tireless opposition to dÈtente through the 1970s, did much to prepare the ground for the rearmament policies of the next decade, policies that he credits with toppling the Soviet Union. His book comes garlanded with blurbs from the likes of William Kristol, William Bennett, Robert Bork, and Cynthia Ozick--luminaries of the counter-Establishment he helped to create. He's made it. His side won. You would think he might avail himself now, at seventy, of the magnanimity that political victory and personal success can bestow.

But then you wouldn't really know Norman Podhoretz. If he'd wanted a title that followed the pattern established with Making It and Breaking Ranks, he might have called this book Settling Scores--or maybe Keeping Score. Has he told you that he was Lionel Trilling's favorite student? Did you know that he was not only a better dresser than Allen Ginsberg but tougher? ("the idea that I would be afraid of trading punches with Allen Ginsberg reminds me of what James Cagney...said about a similar possibility involving Humphrey Bogart...: 'When it comes to fighting he's about as tough as Shirley Temple.'") Tougher, even, than Norman Mailer. And not only that:

what was most important in this context was that I had also been much more sexually precocious than Mailer, having started earlier and having enjoyed an amount of success with girls that was unusual for those days, when "getting laid" as an adolescent really was the big deal Mailer would make of it as an adult (when it no longer was).

So there.

The posturing and gossip make for delicious, if unedifying, reading. Any book that contains a sentence beginning "I was seated at a table with Lillian Hellman and McGeorge Bundy" is hard to resist. There are some unforgettable moments: Mailer trying to inveigle Podhoretz into a threesome with one of his girlfriends; Podhoretz saying, "Fuck you," to Jackie Onassis when she makes a snide remark about his clothes. And there are also splendid sketches, drawn in venom and washed in nostalgia, of the New York intellectuals at the height of their (self-)importance. Podhoretz is at his best when he reminisces about

the old Family parties [where] the guests vied with one another in making brilliant arguments for this and against that (while also managing to indulge freely in their second-greatest passion by gossiping with the wittiest possible malice about anyone who had the misfortune not to be present or to be out of earshot in another part of the room).

But Podhoretz, as Mailer might say, is not a conservative ideologue for too little. This is literary gossip as jeremiad. His story has a familiar moral--the moral of half the books in the Free Press catalog--which is that American culture has gone to hell since the 1960s. And while there are ample grounds to dispute this contention, the real trouble with Ex-Friends is formal: Podhoretz is so sure of the moral that he's forgotten which story he wants to tell. Is it the one about the decline of "the Family," that loose, dysfunctional, incestuous constellation of New York intellectuals who dominated a noisy corner of American cultural life from the fall of Berlin to the fall of Saigon? Is it the one (already the subject of Podhoretz's earlier memoir Breaking Ranks, chunks of which resurface, verbatim, here) about his disillusionment with leftist, and then with liberal, politics and his subsequent move to the right? Or is it the one about the waxing and waning of Podhoretz's relationships with six individuals--Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer--in a climate of personal rivalry, shifting social allegiances, and political disputation? These narrative strands are necessarily intertwined, but in Podhoretz's hands they have a tendency to tangle and snarl.

"The personal is political" is not a slogan one ordinarily associates with the neoconservative movement, but this feminist bromide could be Podhoretz's creed. Every broken friendship becomes for him a miniature allegory of political betrayal. Podhoretz believes that "a regnant leftist culture pollutes the spiritual and cultural air we all breathe" and he believes further that this culture was the handiwork of his erstwhile comrades. Each of his six subjects (and they are culled from an astonishing list--an unabridged version of Ex-Friends would be the Manhattan telephone directory circa 1967) does scapegoat duty for a particular crime: Ginsberg personifies sexual anarchy and the drug culture (and therefore is responsible for the AIDS epidemic); the Trillings stand in for the legions of liberal anticommunists who lacked the courage or insight to see that the best means of fighting Stalin was voting for Reagan; Hellman is Stalin redivivus in Park Avenue dowager drag; Arendt is the Jew who refuses to embrace Zionism and the intellectual too much in love with abstraction; Mailer is, somehow, all of the above.

There are a few obvious problems with this approach. First of all, if a "regnant leftist culture" really exists (and, if it does, it's not as regnant, as leftist, or as cultured as it used to be), its current adherents can hardly be said to hew to the teachings of Lionel Trilling or Hannah Arendt. Feminism and multiculturalism, to cite two of the scariest monsters in the present conservative demonology, don't derive their special power to terrify from their association with the names Norman Mailer and Lillian Hellman.

More disconcerting is the sense one gets that, even though the political differences between Podhoretz and these characters were serious and real, they don't quite explain the collapse of the friendships. When Hellman and Podhoretz met in the 1950s, for example, they were already in opposing camps: She had helped to organize the Waldorf conference, "whose purpose [in Podhoretz's words] was to whitewash Stalin's actions," while he sat on the board of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anti-Stalinist organization originally formed in outraged response to that same conference. In spite of differences of age and ideology (she was in her fifties, he in his late twenties), he was drawn to her because she was glamorous and fun--"playful, mischievous, bitchy, earthy, and always up for a laugh." Her political tendencies were not mysterious; nor, in the decades that followed, did they change. But at some point--exactly when is not clear--they became intolerable to Podhoretz.

His chapter about Hellman ends with a discussion of the series of memoirs that revived her fame in the 1970s and the subsequent discovery that much of the material in them was shaded, distorted, or downright false. The most egregious of these books were published, and their mendacity revealed, after the quarrels that cooled their affections, which took place sometime in the late 1960s. Yet Podhoretz treats what can only be an ex post facto justification of his falling out with Hellman as though it were the reason the falling out took place. "Even if we had still been friends when [Scoundrel Time] appeared," he writes, "it would certainly have precipitated a decisive break." A few pages on, "would have" is all but indistinguishable from "did," and scorn for the public Lillian Hellman (who, pace Podhoretz, finds few defenders these days) justifies the private break with her: "Nothing in [our] friendship repaid me so well as the cause for which I felt myself forced to give it up," he declares. But the sacrifice of the friendship, if Podhoretz's chronology can be trusted, preceded his full embrace of the cause.

Podhoretz's account of his ex-friendship with Hannah Arendt is similarly teleological. Their most sustained and consequential disagreement was over her 1960 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which Podhoretz attacked in the pages of Commentary. In 1960, though, Podhoretz was pushing that magazine to the left, and Arendt's own political positions were, on many issues, more conservative than his own. And while Arendt's displeasure with Podhoretz did drive a wedge between them, it did not precipitate a complete break. Yet the dispute over Eichmann, in Podhoretz's account, foreshadows the later, irreparable rift caused by the weakening of Arendt's anticommunist ardor and her apparent tolerance for the excesses of the New Left. The most damning evidence of this, moreoever, comes from letters Arendt wrote to Mary McCarthy expressing admiration for McCarthy's book about North Vietnam--letters that were first published in 1996 and that Podhoretz is unlikely to have read before then. My own suspicion is that Arendt's real crime is her friendship with McCarthy, whose name crops up several times in Ex-Friends, often in close proximity to the word "bitch."

As for the Trillings, one suspects that the real problem may have been that Podhoretz never much cared for Diana when she was the wife of his beloved mentor Lionel, and that her high-handed and meddlesome behavior once she was Lionel's widow finally drove him away. And while Norman Mailer did support Henry Wallace's presidential bid in 1948, this faint taint of Stalinism hardly seems to explain the end of Podhoretz's friendship with him nearly three decades later. Even Ginsberg, who was never really a friend, was separated from Podhoretz less by politics than by differences of temperament and taste.

"A failure of self-knowledge," Podhoretz once wrote of F.R. Leavis, who had been his teacher at Cambridge and who was, after Trilling, his intellectual mentor, "is always...a radical fault in a poet or a novelist, but it need not be seriously disabling in a critic." This seems to apply to Podhoretz as well: In spite of his fame as a memoirist and a polemicist, his greatest gift has always been for literary criticism. Doings and Undoings, his 1964 progress report on postwar American literature, remains extraordinarily fresh and should be restored to print. His severe judgment of the Beats in "The Know-Nothing Bohemians," which exempts Ginsberg from the worst failings of his colleagues, seems to me inarguable, as does his estimation of both Mailer's extravagant talent and his ultimate failure to make good on it. Even when his evaluations seem bizarre ("Kissinger the writer...has established a secure claim to greatness"), his arguments are interesting.

But the failure of self-knowledge in a memoir, while perhaps inevitable, produces confusion. Podhoretz's attempt to explain his relation to his contemporaries is ultimately undone from one end by his desperate vanity and from the other by his ideological rigidity. The elegance and subtlety that characterize Trilling at his best give way, sometimes within the space of a single sentence, to the cranky dogmatism of Leavis at his worst. And a humane impulse to forgive is always checked by a churlish vindictiveness. Look at how his chapters conclude:

In the end...[Ginsberg] decided to be magnanimous in victory and forgive me. But...I still could not bring myself to forgive him, even now that he was dead.

Although I still consult Lionel's writings often and although I think about him a lot, always with admiration, gratitude, and indeed love, the best I can do with Diana is occasionally to remember her fondly. But not, in all truth, all that often or all that much.

...having spent the last thirty years and more trying to make up for and undo the damage I did in cooperation with Mailer and so many other of my ex-friends, both living and dead, I simply could see no way back to him, or to them, ever again.

It would be too much to say that Pod horetz is his own worst enemy, but one comes away from this book convinced that he's his own best ex-friend. •

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