Tag Archives: Norman Podhoretz

Alexander Cockburn

Forget H.L. Mencken — nobody could do invective like Alexander Cockburn. His lampoon of the sonorously balanced banalities of The McNeil/Lehrer Report (“A Galiliean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified?”) remains the definitive takedown of intellectually neutered “balance” in journalism. He dubbed Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz “Norman the Frother,” and when the pompous neocon attacked Cockburn for “gutter journalism,” Cockburn proudly ran the quote atop his Village Voice column as the “Frother Seal of Approval.” (When Martin Peretz, then publisher of The New Republic, jined the tussle on Poddy’s side, Cockburn added the quote as the “Peretz Blue Ribbon.”) But early on, as nasty as he could get, Cockburn was usually more than just a snark-slinger. When Ronald Reagan began his John Wayne strut across Central America, Cockburn used the rape-murder of three American nuns and a church worker in El Salvador as the starting point for a viciously accurate assessment of the media’s moral calculus: x number of murdered Salvadoran peasants versus y number of Americans.

Cockburn, who just died at the age of 71, brought to mind a Christopher Hitchens unencumbered by the desire to be a clubby insider. The two were stablemates for a time at The Nation, which resurrected Cockburn’s “Press Clips” column as “Beat the Devil” after the Village Voice ousted him on a hazy conflict-of-interest charge. As fellow Voice alumnus James Wolcott notes in his farewell piece, Cockburn’s career seemed to drizzle away in the Eighties — even accounting for the fact that a combative leftist with an aversion to Greater Israel militarism is not going to have an easy career, one expected more from him. He could be factually unreliable, and in some of his positions — his dismissal of global warming, for example — he was not just wrong but stupidly wrong. But his biggest problem may simply have been that he was too much his own man to fit into any slot, and when he turned his back on medialand to live in northern California, he put an end to his chances for wider influence.

 If you’re not familiar with Cockburn’s work, this lengthy C-SPAN profile will fill in some gaps. Apparently the title of his forthcoming memoir is Colossal Wreck. Now that is something I want to read.

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Wild man lessons

I’ve blogged about my long-distance fondness for Theodore Solotaroff, the editor whose New American Review series ushered me through the gates of Quality Lit. If you read that post, you’ll know why I’ve been relishing these excerpts from Solotaroff’s unfinished memoir of his publishing days, run in two parts by The Nation. The passages offer  glimpses into a long-gone era when ambitious magazines held a place at the center of American culture, along with some amusing, gossipy stuff about silver-maned literary lions — and the lesser specimens who wanted to play like them:

I began working at Commentary in September 1960, some nine months after Norman Podhoretz had taken over, invigorating the magazine and steering it in a less Jewish and more leftward direction. By leading off his first three issues with long excerpts from Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman, the surprise witness whose testimony would soon change the terms of the debate about American society from conformist to deformed, Norman made it clear that the magazine would hold its own as the suddenly prominent new voice of a new decade . . .

He [Pohoretz] was no longer the spokesman of our sober, mature look, whose wistful suggestion for acting up was a midnight plunge in the Plaza Hotel fountain. No, that Norman was history. In the past year or two he had teamed up with Norman Mailer, the lead rebel, iconoclast and sensualist of the New York scene. The result was a hard-drinking, sexually liberated Norman who didn’t seem to spend many evenings at home. Our editorial meetings were often punctuated by phone calls from Mailer, who appeared to have open access to Norman. We always knew it was “the other Norman”–as Sherry referred to him, with her droll roll of the eyes–because the butch side of Norman would emerge as he responded to Mailer’s latest brainstorm or piece of gossip or plan for the night’s revels.

It’s been a long, long time since words like “invigorating,” “fresh” and especially “leftward” were used in connection with Commentary, but it’s even more surprising — and hilarious — to picture the younger N-Pod getting wild man lessons from Norman Mailer in his brawling prime.  

It’s not hard to believe that some of those evenings spent following Mailer along the razor’s edge fueled N-Pod’s overweening self-image as the twilight warrior against communism — and later on, a cartoon idea of terrorism. If there is an afterlife, I expect Mailer is off somewhere reading those words and thinking, I created a monster.

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