From Lionel Trilling to Sarah Palin: Podhoretz’s Pilgrimage


Sarah Palin

Once upon a time, Norman Podhoretz admired intelligence. Podhoretz’s best book, Making It, is a non-fiction bildungsroman, the story of how an uncouth Brooklyn boy learned to love literature and high culture, eventually becoming a formidable critic and editor. The book is filled with tough-minded but loving portraits of Podhoretz’s teachers, especially Lionel Trilling and F.R. Leavis. Podhoretz was a scholarship boy, someone whose gift for words transported him out of his humble origins into the heady world of Partisan Review and the New Yorker.

Here is Podhoretz’s account of his first visit to the home of Lionel Trilling: “Everything there was easy and informal – even, I thought, rather surprisingly bohemian – and no one seemed to care whether my tie was on or off. It was an atmosphere in which I could loosen up, and after a swim and several martinis, I began talking my head off abut Cambridge, about Leavis, about Europe, and even, finally, about my secret uncertainties….Yes, of course, he [Trilling] said, he understood exactly what I meant, and proceeded – with a witchlike precision which the hesitant style of his speech and the diffidently soft quality of his voice left one unprepared for and somehow surprised by, even though one knew he was Lionel Trilling and one of the most intelligent men in the world – to tell me what it was I had been trying to say.”


Since his much-advertised move to the political right, Podhoretz has re-thought many issues, not least the importance of education and learning. He’s no longer the bright-eyed undergrad who idolized Lionel Trilling. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Podhoretz has an op-ed which extols Sarah Palin as a political leader. Throughout the column Podhoretz airily dismisses the objection that Palin is none too bright by asserting that strong leaders don’t need to be intellectual:

Nothing annoys certain of my fellow conservative intellectuals more than when I remind them, as on occasion I mischievously do, that the derogatory things they say about Sarah Palin are uncannily similar to what many of their forebears once said about Ronald Reagan….Now I knew Ronald Reagan, and Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan…. Ultimately, of course, we all wound up regarding him as a great man, but in 1979 none of us would have dreamed that this would be how we would feel only a few years later.

What I am trying to say is not that Sarah Palin would necessarily make a great president but that the criteria by which she is being judged by her conservative critics … tell us next to nothing about the kind of president she would make.

Take, for example, foreign policy. True, she seems to know very little about international affairs, but expertise in this area is no guarantee of wise leadership. After all, her rival for the vice presidency, who in some sense knows a great deal, was wrong on almost every major issue that arose in the 30 years he spent in the Senate.

What she does know—and in this respect, she does resemble Reagan—is that the United States has been a force for good in the world, which is more than Barack Obama, whose IQ is no doubt higher than hers, has yet to learn. Jimmy Carter also has a high IQ, which did not prevent him from becoming one of the worst presidents in American history, and so does Bill Clinton, which did not prevent him from befouling the presidential nest….

But how do we explain the hostility to Mrs. Palin felt by so many conservative intellectuals?…

Much as I would like to believe that the answer lies in some elevated consideration, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the same species of class bias that Mrs. Palin provokes in her enemies and her admirers is at work among the conservative intellectuals who are so embarrassed by her. When William F. Buckley Jr., then the editor of National Review, famously quipped that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT, most conservative intellectuals responded with a gleeful amen. But put to the test by the advent of Sarah Palin, along with the populist upsurge represented by the Tea Party movement, they have demonstrated that they never really meant it….

As for me, after more than a year of seeing how [Obama’s] “prodigious oratorical and intellectual gifts” have worked themselves out in action, I remain more convinced than ever of the soundness of Buckley’s quip, in the spirit of which I hereby declare that I would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party, and I would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama.


There is much that could be said about this remarkable op-ed. Here are a few quick notes:

1. It’s quite an admission that Podhoretz is willing to support Palin as president even though she “seems to know very little about international affairs.” Basically, Podhoretz is saying we should never trust anything he says about politics.

2. As I’ll discuss in another post, Podhoretz is conflating a great deal of history in his account of his relationship with Reagan. In point of fact, far from “regarding [Reagan] as a great man” while he was in office, Podhoretz was hugely critical of the actor turned President during the 1980s, accusing him of being an appeaser and weak on communism.

3. There is, of course, something to be said for the argument that intelligence is overrated. Along the lines of Jean-Jacques Rousseau one could argue that a simple heart and a strong character are more valuable than the cunning deceits of the over-educated. But Sarah Palin, who has shown herself to be devious, feckless, and unsteady, as witness her abandonment of her position as governor of Alaska, doesn’t have a simple heart or a strong character.

I’ve never understood why this quip was considered so clever since it’s clear, as Podhoretz himself admits, that almost no one believes it. And in fact, if put to an actual test, Podhoretz wouldn’t adhere to Buckley’s idea either. It might be that the population of Boston is more conservative on some issues than the faculty of Harvard or MIT (although probably not on economic issues), but the population of Boston is still pretty damn liberal: Obama got more than 78% of the Boston vote. And the first 200 names in the Boston phone directory would give you a a ruling class that is much more ethnically and racially diverse than Harvard (or the US Congress) and much closer to gender parity than Harvard (or the US Congress). I really don’t think either Buckley or Podhoretz would have been happy with a ruling class that faithfully reflects the actual demographics of American society. Buckley’s quip was always a dishonest, pseudo-populist bluster, and Podhoretz’s praise of Palin just continues the same tired trick.

4. To put it another way, W.F. Buckley was born the son of a very wealthy oilman, went to prep school in England and then studied at Yale, was a lifelong yachtsman, possessed a trademark sesquipedalian vocabulary, and eventually became a pillar in New York society circles. As such, Buckley was hardly a plausible populist. And it is hard to believe in the populism of Podhoretz, who revels in his ascent up the social ladder, nor of Palin, who has lately used her political career largely to enrich herself and get as far away from her Alaska roots as possible.

5. Norman Podhoretz once wrote that “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan.” I would add that one of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Lionel Trilling’s classroom to the Sarah Palin fan club.

For more on the Podhoretz op-ed, see Ed Kilgore’s comments here.

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