Review: Running Commentary

07/06/2010 04:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Politics is like love -- passions run high. And when they cool, rejection is intense. Consider Commentary -- an extraordinary monthly founded by left-wing Jews in 1945 that swung right in the 1970s. Its circ was small, but its influence reached the highest corridors of power.

In part, the meticulously researched Running Commentary, The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right is the story of post-war America. The perennial outsiders became the ultimate insiders. The "outsiders," children of immigrant Jews, birthed the magazine. No strangers to poverty and prejudice, they embraced socialism in the Depression-ravaged Thirties. Cries for social justice were a secular means to universal redemption.

In fact, before and after WWII, they equated the Left, famous for its infighting, with the same impulses as Judaism: "A yearning for harmony regained, a collective hope for mankind." But when Commentary debuted, the magazine's staff and regulars, known forever after as "The Family," had the first of several revelations.

They had moved to what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the vital center," or in current parlance: classic liberalism. Author Benjamin Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, is adept at political inside baseball; he neatly recalls the mood, circumstances and passion of pre- and postwar political life. Today's screaming TV ideologues are more interested in personal aggrandizement than principle. They look puny beside them.

Commentary was shaped, then altered, by three key editors: Elliot Cohen, Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozodoy. Cohen's dream was to create a magazine "that would explore the creative possibilities of Jewish culture in America ... free from partisanship and hospitable to divergent views." Smart not stuffy, it produced provocative writing and rigorous analysis of religion, politics, sociology and arts.

Plus, its contributors became legendary: Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling, among others. Classic liberals, they championed freedom. The catch? Despite a love of country and genuine success, they felt alienated. Their intellect was incontestable; their acceptance as Jews was not.

Undaunted, their magazine pioneered publishing firsts: printing "The Diary of Anne Frank" in English, condemning Germany's post-Holocaust silence and Soviet suppression of Eastern Europe, revealing growing poverty in America. And impressive accolades followed: Both JFK and Gen. MacArthur were fans. The magazine influenced LBJ's Great Society. Voice of America broadcast its articles. The outsiders had arrived.

Here's the kicker: By 1980, the once-liberal bastion was squarely in the Reagan camp. Why the dramatic political shift?

Blame the '60s and '70s. Podhoretz, a former Leftie, was in the minority of American Jews. Like them, Podhoretz was critical of Cold War policies and pushed for racial equality. Unlike them, he felt counterculture politics and cultural values threatened Western traditions and America's stability.

Alarmed by student radicals, black anti-Semitism and Jimmy Carter's Israel bashing, Podhoretz struck back. Anti-Semitism, long the province of the Right, had emerged from the New Left, an alarming and deeply disturbing trend. Politics was rooted in self-interest, he preached. If liberals didn't agree, he was liberal no more.

In response, his Commentary did a 180, adopting a "more adversarial, abrasive, all-guns-blazing style," writes Balint, to the chagrin of many longtime readers. The young Podhorertz commissioned pieces from Black Panthers; now he recruited Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bill Bennett, Bill Kristol and David Frum -- and with Kozodoy, impacted a new generation political radicals, dubbed neocons.

The magazine also had a new mandate -- "promoting democracy and freedom abroad," particularly in the Mideast. It 1988, it warned against Islamic fundamentalism and laid the groundwork for the Bush Doctrine. When the Iraq War began, Commentary zoomed to its influential zenith. As Charles Krauthammer noted in 2005, the Bush Administration was "neoconservatism in power."

Give Balint, though part of a conservative think tank, credit. He understands what few pundits, who play Extreme Politics, will admit: There are enormous contradictions and betrayals on both sides of the political divide; thoughtful people can be liberal on some issues, conservative on others. More telling, the meanings behind such labels can change. Balint is fair-minded, pointing out contradictions in both Left and Right, while eloquently chronicling the thinkers and events that defined this singular review.