Obama, Hitler, and Commentary Magazine

Does this picture hang on the walls of Commentary magazine?

In his 1979 memoir Breaking Ranks, Norman Podhoretz, then the editor of Commentary magazine, told the story of his political shift from left-liberalism to neo-conservatism. A key reason for his political rethinking, Podhoretz asserts, was the intemperate attacks on legitimate political leaders by the New Left and its fellow travelers. As an example, we’re told about an argument Podhoretz had with his old friend Jason Epstein, the book publisher and eminence grise behind the New York Review of Books.

“Certainly I was not afraid of Jason,” Podhoretz recalled. “I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I had never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response. He taken aback and so was I…”

Yesterday on the Commentary blog Jennifer Rubin, a regular writer for the magazine, described the worries that many militant Israeli nationalists in America (“the AIPAC crowd”) have about President Obama. Commentary is of course the house journal of the AIPAC crowd so her account was quite sympathetic. She tells the following anecdote:

An elderly couple from Florida were agitated by recent events. The wife explained she that had fled Nazi Germany as a child for Shanghai. “There are parallels,” she said. “This is depressing. It’s scary.”  She said that she had argued with her liberal friends during the campaign about Obama’s associations with anti-Israel figures. “My mother always said where there is smoke, there is fire,” she explained, then added wearily, “They didn’t listen.” …That’s just a sampling, but it gives you a sense of the angst. This is not a crowd that is celebrating. They are worried. Very worried.”


There is much that can be said about these two passages. A few thoughts:

1. One problem with defining neo-conservatism is that it is not a fixed, static thing but an ideological formation that is always evolving in response to a changing world. In 1979, the members of the Podhoretz circle were still largely allied to the Democratic Party, supporters of Scoop Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Neo-conservatives at that time positioned themselves as centrists, heirs to the tradition of liberal anti-communism and opponents of all forms of extremism whether on the left or right. By 2010, almost all the neo-conservatives are now part of the Republican Party, and indeed closely linked to extreme right wing of the Republican Party (they have more in common with Sarah Palin than with Olympia Snowe).

2. I don’t want to belabor the obvious, but there is something really wrong with people who think it is a horrible libel to compare LBJ to Hitler but are willing to casually repeat the idea that there are “parallels” between the Führer and Obama. The analogy is wrong in both cases but there is a different kind of error at work in the two cases. Whatever his virtues, and they were many, LBJ launched an unnecessary war in Vietnam, a brutal  adventure that cost the lives of more than 50,000 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese. To compare him to Hitler is to engage in gross and obscene hyperbole, but the hyperbole is at least rooted in a genuine revulsion against war and agression. But look at Obama: whatever his faults, he’s trying to wind down in a prudential manner two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq); he’s also trying to extend health care insurance to millions who are not currently covered in the United States; and like every other American president since the late 1960s, he is opposed to the Israeli policy of building settlements in the occupied territories. Like a large chunk of the population of Israel, Obama believes that Israel cannot survive as a Jewish democracy if it keeps building settlements. That’s why some in “the AIPAC crowd” think Obama is comparable to Hitler. In effect, they believe that anyone who works for a political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is in the same ballpark as  Hitler. There’s a special kind of craziness at work here…

3. Finally, I want to say something about Commentary magazine itself. I’ve read the magazine for a long time, perhaps too long,  going on 30 years now. The magazine has a distinguished history. It’s list of contributors include: Hannah Arendt, Robert Alter, Paul Auster, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Leslie Fiedler, Nathan Glazer, Paul Goodman, Clement Greenberg, Michael Harrington, Joseph Heller, Richard Hofstadter, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, F.R. Leavis, John Lukacs, Scott McConnell, Dwight MacDonald, Norman Mailer, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, Philip Roth, Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.; Leo Strauss, Lionel Trilling,  and John Updike, among many others. That’s a very strong list of writers. But of course, many of them are dead and gone. And of the living, many have broken with Commentary. Aside from Robert Alter, is there a single first-rate writer still associated with Commentary? These days the magazine publishes Jonah Goldberg and Jennifer Rubin. The decline and fall of Commentary as a serious magazine is a story that has yet to be told. If I wrote the story, it would be told in a tone more of sorrow than of anger.

20 thoughts on “Obama, Hitler, and Commentary Magazine

  1. “I’ve read the magazine for a long time, perhaps too long, going on 30 years now.”


    For some reason, I had you pegged in my mind as someone in his early to mid 30s. In which case, you may have been the most precocious Commentary reader ever.

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  3. Hi Robert,
    I’m a bit older than you think but I did start reading Commentary when I was very young — about 13 or 14 I think.

  4. I started reading at age 19 or 20 (more than 10, but less than 20 years ago). The back issues were a revelation. Now they are publishing idiots. The sad decline of the specifically Jewish thread of American thinking.

  5. “The decline and fall of Commentary as a serious magazine is a story that has yet to be told.”

    In fact this may change this year. Recently a book by Nathan Abrams was published, entitled Norman Podhoretz and Commentary Magazine: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons. This one focuses on the Podhoretz years. He has also written a book on the Cohen Years (1945-1959). In addition, Benjamin Balint has written a history of Commentary that will be published in June of this year, and Thomas L. Jeffers has written a biography on Podhoretz, set to appear in August of this year.

    My PhD dissertation also deals with the history of Commentary in the 1960s and 1970s.

    I don’t think that all of these will deal with the subject in the terms of decline. Two authors are or have until fairly recently been associated with the magazine. Thomas Jeffers is a Commentary contributor; Balint is a former assistant editor (under Kozodoy) and a contributor. Although I have of course not yet read their books my guess is that they will have a different take on it.

    Abrams does talk in terms of decline, but I don’t think it does Commentary justice.

  6. Hey Tom — thanks for this very informative comment. I’m looking forward to all these books. Let me know when your dissertation is published.

  7. I’m glad to have the clarification. It’s good to know that the editors of Commentary haven’t gone completely over the edge of sanity.

    But having said that, my “misreading” of the original posting was based on Jennifer Rubin’s sloppy writing. If her intention was to say that the Iranian government is like Nazi Germany and Obama is like Chamberlain during Munich, why didn’t her posting contain references to Chamberlain, Munich or appeasement? In point of fact, Iran is only a small part of posting, most of which is taken up with critiques of Obama’s policy towards Israel and the settlement issue.

    And note that Obama was not accused of “appeasement” but rather of having ties to “anti-Israel” figures, which him sound not like an appeaser but rather like an enemy of the Jewish people.

    I invite readers to look at Jennifer Rubin’s original post. I think my “misreading” is closer to the mark than John Podhoretz’s clarification.

    Having said that, it is good to have Podhoretz go on the record and say that he does not think Obama is like Hitler.

  8. I should ad that I’m going to have the phrase “a foul anti-Israel polemicist of uncommonly repellent vintage” put on a tee-shirt.

  9. This post seems like a stretch. Jennifer Rubin didn’t claim that Obama was like Hitler, she was only quoting someone else, who incidentally didn’t actually compare Obama to Hitler.

    Wake me up when she claims that Obama is like Hitler

  10. When writers such as Mr. Heer take another writer’s words out of context and throw around the race card, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror. Ms. Rubin was referring to Iran, as Mr. Heer is well aware. Nevetheless, Mr. Heer insists on defaming Ms. Rubin as well as Commentary magazine. Mr. Robert Wistrich wrote a new book entitled A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to Global Jihad. In it Mr. Wistrich describes the new anti-semitism enveloping the world. I wonder which page has Mr. Heer’s reflection staring back.

    1. Sally – I’ve read the brief story written by Ms. Rubin and she was not referring to Iran with the quote from the elderly couple from Florida. The definate implication in that section of Ms. Rubin’s piece is that President Obama and his administration are akin to Hitler and Nazi Germany. One can agree or disagree with that interpertation of the current President and administration, but please focus on what is being written, not what you imagine is being written. Thank you.

  11. Mr. Heer, it wasn’t her sloppy writing, it was your sloppy reading. You read Rubin the way you did because you didn’t think about what she wrote before commenting, and you found it easy to believe that she (an evil conservative by your lights) was comparing Obama to Hitler. You are less likely to say embarrassing things like this if you give people with different opinions the benefit of the doubt, and refrain from jumping to conclusions.

    1. Stephen – See my response above to Sally. Your comment was of the same ilk. You were not reading Ms. Rubin’s piece with either an eye toward what she was writing and implicating. Please do so in the future, its not that hard. Thank you.

  12. I have never read the commentary but after reading all the comments I will never read it.
    There is no substance or reality in any of the above.

  13. haha come on everyone are you seriously going to defend Jennifer Rubin?? Have any of you people even read what she wrote?? Heer is RIGHT ON: the parallel being referred to IS DEFINITELY between Obama and Hitler…..NO WHERE is there a mention of IRAN….do you people have interpretation problems??

    If I say I have less than 2 apples but I do have apples….that MEANS I HAVE ONE APPLE. EVEN IF I DON’T SPECIFICALLY SAY I HAVE ONE APPLE. It is unfortunate that many of you are so inept at the process of comprehending what goes through your pathetic brains as ‘written communication’.

    I just read another article from this Rubin chick about how Sarah Palin has the genius of accurately gauging the desires of the American public….LOL really? Were you asleep during the elections or the embarrassing interviews she gave?? Can she possibly know anything even remotely related to what the American public wants if she thinks this world is a few thousand years old??

    I will continue reading Commentary when they kick out trash like Jennifer Rubin.

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