Podhoretz's lyric, adoring America

July 16, 2000|By Paul Duke | Paul Duke,Special to the Sun

"My Love Affair with America," by Norman Podhoretz. The Free Press. 248 pages. $25.

There is much about America that may be disappointingly wrong, but this marvelous little treatise by social commentator Norman Podhoretz reminds us that there is much more that is right -- that the historic balance sheet is weighted heavily toward the positive.

Lamentable though the ups and downs of U.S. democracy may be, it has persevered over two centuries and is clearly setting the standard for the global march into the future. In this passionate poem to freedom, the author vividly captures the essence of its spirit, vitality and regeneration.

He is unflinching in his view that democracy has provided the barriers against all kinds of encroaching evils, including utopianism, and that no matter the shortcomings and difficulties, Mr. Dooley was right when he said that God looks out for drunks, little children and America.

Thus, Podhoretz rejects the newer pessimism from the Right just as he did the nihilistic excesses of the Left during the tumultuous '60s. As he sees it, both succumbed to the belief that democratic values were diminishing and that the American people had lost their way in the torments of change.

The country's capacity to face new realities is as strong as ever in his opinion, with political institutions functioning as always to cope with society's evolving tides. Indeed, as the title suggests, Podhoretz's unabashed affection for America is as boundless as ever and glowingly reflected in his repeated professions of being "madly in love" with his native land.

These heartwarming feelings occasionally drift into maudlinness, but they do not deter him from a few harsh judgments. While forthrightly acknowledging a youthful leftist fling and initial opposition to Vietnam intervention, Podhoretz cannot resist accusing anti-war protesters of "hating" their country. For all of their intolerant behavior and zeal, it seems unfair to suggest that the demonstrators were motivated by anything more than misguided idealism or that most of them were any less patriotic.

It is strange, too, that Podhoretz, who was always a civil rights champion, looks so unkindly on latter-day affirmative action laws, contending "they have caused a great deal of harm." While their merit is certainly questionable, to claim that the measures have been a damaging failure is a bit much.

Still, the book is a fitting valedictory for a thoughtful chronicler of the cultural and political turmoil of recent years. As a poor boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and '40s, Podhoretz was intoxicated by books, manifested an early intellectual precocity and rejoiced in being a contrarian (preferring the music of Harry James to that of Glenn Miller and the songs of Dick Haymes to those of Frank Sinatra). His accession into the life of ideas was complete at the age of 30 when he became editor of Commentary.

Podhoretz is at his pungent best in describing his painful journey from liberalism to conservatism during his 35-year reign at the magazine. In reaching his final destination, he proudly glories in being the cheerful right winger who feels a kinship with Britain's longtime leftist radical, Bertrand Russell, who once said that "love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess."

Paul Duke, a senior commentator for Public Broadcasting Service, covered the Kennedy campaign in 1960 as a political reporter for the Wall Street Journal. For 20 years he moderated "Washington Week in Review," the longest running news program on PBS. He has worked as a reporter at the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and NBC and has written widely for newspapers and magazines.

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