An Evening in Commentary
On Monday evening I had the honor of attending the first annual Norman Podhoretz Lecture, heretofore the Commentary Dinner. The evening was dedicated, as the name suggests, to Norman Podhoretz (probably the greatest intellectual in the country today) and also marked the 60th anniversary of the influential New York-based magazine, Commentary, of which Mr. Podhoretz is the former Chief Editor.
The setting for this gala occasion was the fancy-shmantzy Union League Club on Park Avenue (where else?), an impressive edifice containing wood-paneled walls, uniformed stewards, dimly-lit and impressively large club rooms, and very fluffy paper towels in the bathrooms (I found this last item to be a big plus that contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the evening).
My father, my mother, and I disembarked from our limousine shortly after 6 PM, which left us with an hour before dinner to talk to people. Generously sprinkled through the immense cocktail lounge, among the 250-or-so guests, were the top Conservative thinkers in America, including Norman Podhoretz, William F. Buckley Jr., Charles Krauthammer, Neal Kozody, John Podhoretz, etc (this is a long list here).
Since we were in the middle of the cocktail hour, I needed a cocktail, which in my case was a glass of tonic water with too many ice cubes. It was here that I made my first big sacrifice of the evening, courageously allowing my left hand to become frozen in order to keep my right open to shake hands with everyone who came up to talk with or introduce himself to my father. Conversation was interrupted every thirty seconds or so as yet another steward came by in a vain attempt to foist some caviar or paté on us. My father tried to stick close at hand but was frequently pulled off into neighboring conversational circles, often leaving me over my head in terms of discussional depth. When we were no longer talking about my college plans next year, I was left with fairly little to say, and reduced to offering the occasional clever remark just to keep my hand in.
Punctilious and punctual stewards came in at 7 to ring the four-tone dinner bell (more of a xylophone really). It is just as this bell is sounded that nothing happens, as my father explained: everyone pretends to ignore the dinner call, just to demonstrate how engrossed he is in his deep interlocutional experience. Finally, with some prodding from the hungrier guests and the closing of the bar, everyone boarded the elevators to go down to dinner (second floor).
The dining hall was similarly big but better lit than the salon, and heated to about 300 degrees. Whitish walls and a white ceiling, with Grecian triglyphs around the top and large blue-and-gold chandeliers. An immense portrait of Lincoln and an American flag dominated the room from one end; Lincoln was no doubt happy to see that Republicans continue to promote the advance of freedom in the world, and he watched the whole affair in silent approval.
As we worked our way to our table, I saw Mr. Krauthammer sitting in his electric wheelchair at a table near the podium, chatting amiably with a herd of surrounding people. He seemed somehow larger (more massive) than he had looked on Fox News. My father, my mother, and I moved off to our table, which was right next to the lectern, across from the table with Krauthammer, Buckley, and Podhoretz, and adjacent (or nearly so) to a table with Neal Kozodoy and two guests from the White House.
The sound-level in the dining hall quickly rose to the point where one could only talk to the people immediately adjacent. I took quick stock of the situation, noticing simultaneously that I was the youngest guy in the room and that there were no attractive young ladies to look at.
We worked through our haute-cuisine dinner, starting with a fairly peculiar salad which, judging from the other plates in the room as well as my own, did not seem to be generally edible. After the servers had given us plenty of time to contemplate this unfortunate scene, we moved on to the main course, which turned out pretty well (a piece of fish, with decoration). As we finally got to the exclusive Union League Club sorbet, Roger Hertog stepped up to the lectern, forcing me to turn around (I had been sitting with back to the podium) and leave my dessert for the moment. When I next got a chance to look at my sorbet, about an hour-and-a-half later, it didn’t seem nearly so appetizing.
Roger Hertog is a famous financial figure, friend of the Jewish community, patron of the arts, and a central figure in the Commentary dinner. (As Commentary editor Neal Kozodoy later said, most of the contributors to the Commentary Fund have chosen to remain anonymous, especially Roger Hertog.) Mr. Hertog introduced Kozodoy , who spoke about Commentary’s 60 years, the 5-million people each year who read some piece in Commentary, and the great men behind its success. In particular, he addressed the major metaphysical problem facing us today, namely “Who is qualified to deliver a Norman Podhoretz lecture, other than Norman Podhoretz?” The earlier quest to answer this question had led to the selection of syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, and the later selection of the man who would introduce him and was now himself introduced -- my father.
My father’s speech was certainly (and I am reporting this in as unbiased a manner as possible) the wittiest and best introduction ever given to any man in the history of the United States, if not the world at large. He started off with a few words about Podhoretz (“The Bible says ‘Do not follow a multitude to do evil.’ Norman’s entire careers is a commentary on that verse.”) This was followed by praise of Commentary (“the most distinguished magazine in the country”) and Neal Kozodoy (“Neal is the perfect embodiment of what intellectuals were supposed to be like before anyone had actually met one”). And that brings us to Krauthammer, “wholly and entirely original… Not once but dozens of times Krauthammer has performed the greatest single feat a thinker can -- he’s said something that seems obvious in retrospect. He says it and before long everyone else starts saying it, and you can barely remember that no one ever had said it before he did.” My father finished with a brief biography of Krauthammer (“In ’87 he redeemed the honor of the Pulitzer Prize by winning one…”) and the podium was handed over to Dr. Charles Krauthammer.
Krauthammer began to speak (“if my mother were here, she’d believe it”) and quickly moved into a fascinating lecture that focused on the movement of Neo-Conservatism into a dominant position, following the failure of realism (Bush ’41) and liberalism (Clinton). Liberals who had been with us only at the very beginning of the war on terror were among the first to jump ship and decry our attempts to democratize Iraq, predicting (and hoping for) failure; suggesting that the United States was incapable of giving, and the Iraqis incapable of receiving, democracy. After we had already fought the war in Iraq, and were moving to the establishing-democracy phase, the semi-Conservative Francis Fukuyama said that the failure of our campaign had been predictable. But, interestingly enough, Mr. Fukuyama had not predicted it, and so he was obliged to predict it in retrospect (“Maybe that’s how it works when you predict things at the end of history”). Unfortunately for Mr. Fukuyama, he had performed the remarkable intellectual feat of getting a retrospective prediction wrong, as Iraq successfully continues to move towards democracy. Krauthammer spoke of four critical elections (Australia, US, Afghanistan, and Iraq) that lent strength to Neo-Conservatism and the march towards world democracy, and added the additional important point that temporary alliances with dictators are sometimes necessary, because we cannot democratize the entire world overnight. We must continue to move in small but decisive steps. Krauthammer suggested that we move on to Lebanon next and then Syria, two countries that are now ready for democracy.
My over-brief summary of Krauthammer’s remarks are approximate, as I am writing from mental notes only (the lady sitting next to me had borrowed my pen for the duration of the lecture). When it was all over, and my head was energetically whirring with ideas, and I was temporarily able to conceal the fact that I was utterly exhausted. Avoiding the herd that had once again established itself around Mr. Krauthammer, we rode the elevator down to ground, said a final goodnight to Mr. Hertog (who happened to be sharing his elevator with us just then) and exited the classy club into our classy limousine, which carried us back out of Manhattan (a good-looking city, in the dark). We passed by the recently collapsed wall on the Henry Hudson Parkway, and, finally, got back to our very own Connecticut house, just in time for me to satisfy the hunger I had left over from dinner with half a cinnamon bun. Not a bad evening -- my first and fascinating introduction to the upper crust of American thinking.