JOHN PODHORETZ: COMMENTARY is 75 years old, and it has had only four editors in that time. First was its founder, Elliot Cohen, who died in 1959. Then came you, from 1960 to 1994. Neal Kozodoy, who had worked at the magazine for 30 years as your deputy, was the editor from 1995 to 2008. I took over from Neal in January 2009. These are long periods of continuity.
NORMAN PODHORETZ: Some magazines are writer’s magazines, where what the writer puts down on paper is sacred to him, and the editor doesn’t do much except maybe change the punctuation. But COMMENTARY has, from the beginning, been an editor’s magazine. Very few pieces that Elliot Cohen edited, or that I edited, or that Neal edited, were not worked over, sometimes radically worked over. There are arguments about whether this is a good way or a bad way, but that’s the way it was at COMMENTARY. I don’t think any other magazine, except possibly the New Yorker, is as heavily edited as COMMENTARY has always been.
JOHN: I am less of a heavy editor than you were, certainly than Neal was. I try to work with writers who need less editing. You and Neal both were, in a way, more energetic than I, in the sense that you were always willing to work with a writer or a manuscript that you didn’t mind basically overhauling from the first sentence to the last.
NORMAN: The heavy-editing tradition started out of necessity, rather than from the desire of editors to monkey around with other people’s work, because many of the contributors to COMMENTARY at the beginning were themselves immigrants, mostly German. And although they like to think that they had mastered English, most of them had not mastered English.
JOHN: There’s a story about Hans Morgenthau, an eminent political scientist.
NORMAN: He was considered the leading realist theoretician in the country, maybe even in the world. And he was very arrogant, as almost all those German-Jewish refugee intellectuals were. And they hardly tried to hide it. They were superior. I mean they had read Heidegger and German philosophy.
JOHN: They’d even slept with Heidegger!
NORMAN: Well, that was only Hannah Arendt, as far as we know.
JOHN: Yes, as far as we know.
NORMAN: So Morgenthau was doing a monthly column for COMMENTARY. We always sent the edited versions to the author for final approval, and they would sometimes argue or fight and rarely say thank-you. And he said, “You know, I’ve written for many distinguished periodicals and they don’t seem to find it necessary to correct me.” He pointed to a particular sentence in the piece as an example. And I said, “But Hans, your sentence was ungrammatical.” And he said to me, in a thick German accent, “How do you know?”
JOHN: People don’t really understand what editors do, which is completely understandable. I don’t know what a stereo technician does when he opens up a stereo to fix it. Editing is in part a technical process. You commission an article, you get the article back, and it’s rare that an article doesn’t need some form of massaging, grammatical or thematic. It’s missing points, or it elides them, or it doesn’t have good transitions. So, like a mechanic, you try to repair it. You finish that process, and then there is a very technical process that follows, one that was more laborious in your time—when the edited manuscript had to be retyped, sent to a writer, argued over, finished, and then sent to a typographer. The typographer had to lay the type out and send it back. Then you had to correct typos and send it back to the typographer. Eventually you had to have the articles laid out on pages, look at the final images of the pages—which came back to you in the color blue, and were called “blue lines”—for absolutely final check. And then it went to a printer, was printed and was mailed from there. Almost all of that now takes place within the realm of the computer, a couple of programs, and the Internet, until the physical magazine is produced off a printing press. In that sense, it’s much easier now.
Why do you think some people are good at all this and some people aren’t? Is it a skill that can be learned?
NORMAN: Good editors, really good editors, are very rare, in fact even rarer than good writers. It’s a special kind of talent because it takes two qualities that rarely go together in the same person. On the one hand, great arrogance, and on the other hand, great selflessness. The arrogance lies in the fact that you, the editor, thinks he knows better than the author, who is usually a specialist, on how to say what it is he wants to say. The humility or selflessness, which is very important, is that you are willing to lend your talents to someone else’s work without getting any credit for it.
There’s another story, again about a German-Jewish intellectual, Walter Laqueur, who may have contributed more pieces to COMMENTARY than anybody else ever. His writing was moderately bad. Walter had written something I had rejected for some reason or other, so he sent it to Midstream. Its editor, Shlomo Katz, took it and read it, and he said, “That son of a bitch, his good stuff he sends to COMMENTARY and the lousy shit he sends to me!” Katz just took it for granted that what he had read by Laqueur in COMMENTARY was written by Laqueur.
JOHN: Let’s talk about one of the most important articles the magazine ever published, “Jewish Faith and the Holocaust: A Fragment,” by Emil Fackenheim—which has, over time, become one of the key statements about Jewry in the wake of the Holocaust.
NORMAN: Emil Fackenheim was a very nice man, and he was easy to work with. He knew that his English was not perfect, and he was happy to be improved upon.
JOHN: What was important in the article was its statement of principle that the key requirement for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust was for Jewry to survive. Jews, it says, are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler. I’m bringing this up because, if I remember correctly, Fackenheim didn’t write that.
NORMAN: That’s right.
JOHN: You wrote that.
NORMAN: That’s right.
JOHN: So this is the ultimate editor’s triumph and tragedy. I think this formulation will be quoted 250 years from now when people write about Jewry in the wake of the Holocaust. Emil Fackenheim will be immortally associated with this paragraph—he is now already—and he didn’t write it, you wrote it.
NORMAN: But I wrote it on the basis of what he was trying to say. The idea, and calling it the 614th commandment, he hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but he was very happy with it, because that’s exactly what he wanted to say. I’m perfectly happy to have him get credit. I mean they were his ideas, not mine.
JOHN: But it gives you a sense of what an editor does, both at his best, and then also what this selflessness or humility that you mention as a key quality ultimately requires.
NORMAN: Let me tell you about the two articles published by COMMENTARY that both resulted in the appointment of the author as ambassador to the United Nations—Pat Moynihan’s “The United States in Opposition” and Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”
Pat was a very, very witty man, very witty, one of the wittiest I’ve ever known, both in speech and on paper. But he wrote very quickly and sometimes sloppily. He had been ambassador to India under Nixon. And he came back at the end of his term with this long manuscript. So I read it and I was very excited by it, what it said, but it was way too long. So I mostly cut it and reorganized it and got it down to a manageable length of, I don’t know, 7,500 words, something like that. I met him at the Century Club in New York and nervously handed him the manuscript because I’d published things by him before, but they had not been as heavily edited as this one. And he sat in his chair with the manuscript and I sat next to him. That never happened. You don’t want to be in the vicinity of an author who you’ve edited. But he insisted I be there. And he held the thing and he kept casting away every page as he read it, he threw it on the floor, and hmm, hmm, uh-huh, hmm, mmm, like that. And finally when he finished, he had made not a single change, not one, not even a “the.” He understood exactly why I had done what I had done. And, instead of yelling at me, or grudgingly accepting me, he showered praises upon me. And the article turned into a classic.
JOHN: And Jeane Kirkpatrick?
NORMAN: Jeane was very, very academic as a writer. There’s a way that academics are virtually forced to write in order to gain credibility. And the result is often obscure to the lay reader.
JOHN: It’s that line from Yeats—“all cough in ink.”
NORMAN: Jeane’s 100-page article was unreadable. It was full of jargon, allusions that were not explained, so that most lay readers would be unable to follow it. So I had to cut it and do a lot rewriting in the process, because I had to join things together and so on and so forth. She very grudgingly accepted it, and the article was published as edited, maybe with a few changes. And it became a sensation. And somebody gave it to Ronald Reagan, and he later offered her the job as ambassador to the UN. She never either criticized me or thanked me. But years later, a friend of hers said to me, “You know, Jeane has never forgiven you for butchering her article.”
JOHN: The most self-confident, intellectually self-confident writers in my experience have very little problem with being edited. When editing triggers a defensive or hostile response, it’s because the writer himself is insecure and believes that he is coming under attack or criticism.
NORMAN: That’s exactly right.
JOHN: I sometimes tell writers I’m arguing with that I don’t do this for my health. I’d prefer to surf the Internet all day than to spend 10 hours trying to help turn something good into something that is the best that it could be. But that’s the job.
NORMAN: In the old days, if you got an article from an Englishman, it almost never needed any editing. And if you were desperate because an issue didn’t have enough stuff, what you did was call up G.F. Hudson or George Lichtheim or Richard Crossman, and by return mail you would get a perfectly written manuscript and send it to the printer. We were spared the work.
JOHN: The boss does not “line edit” usually. Or proofread. Or copyedit.
NORMAN: No, well, and I did all of that.
JOHN: And so do I.
NORMAN: And so did Neal Kozodoy, with a vengeance, even.
JOHN: Line editing is the act of going through an article sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph and improving the article that way—even to the point of reorganizing the piece if necessary because the argument is flipped around or points are made that would be better made later, whatever.
NORMAN: I always described it as putting the manuscript under a microscope. And that’s where the defects would reveal themselves. But the other aspect of editing is ideas. A good editor can be a good editor even without technical skills, but good because he or she has some sense of what’s going on out there, what’s relevant, what’s interesting. Not so much to the audience, but to himself, and taking himself as the audience, what would I like to read about and what would I like to hear. And that’s different.
JOHN: That’s commissioning.
JOHN: And commissioning involves two aspects. So there’s an idea for an article, and then there is matching a writer to the idea and then talking the writer into writing it and then doing what you can to ensure that the writer doesn’t screw up an idea.
NORMAN: That’s exactly right. And the vast majority of articles in COMMENTARY when I was the editor, came from ideas from us, me or Neal or somebody else who might have been on the staff, the vast majority. That’s not true of all magazines or many magazines, and particularly matching the right author. And as you said, I mean it often took a lot of work to get somebody who really should write this piece to do it. I virtually had to blackmail Lionel Trilling into writing a piece on a long-forgotten controversy between two friends of mine, F.R. Leavis and C.P. Snow, which was a very big deal at the time. I thought he was the perfect author for this, and he wrote a wonderful piece. The result was that neither Leavis or Snow would ever talk to me again, because they blamed me for the article, with some justification.
JOHN: What about the act of assembling an issue?
NORMAN: The balance of it, the variety of it, it’s sort of like conducting an orchestra. Each issue, ought to, as itself, be interesting, relevant, a rich menu, so to speak.
JOHN: A magazine issue comprises a series of articles on a variety of different subjects in a series of different topic areas to provide a reader with a menu of the kind of literary, journalistic, rhetorical material that they can dine on.
NORMAN: Ideally, from beginning to end, first page to last, which is how I always read.
JOHN: But it is not the way people, as we now say, “consume” information any longer, and so this is an art that may soon be gone like the dodo—the art of providing a generalist reader with a variety of information on many matters of interest that will give him or her a whole picture of what is going on in any given month. There were once even digests of these digests—like Reader’s Digest, whose editors looked at other magazines, took stuff from them, abridged them, put them together, and then sent them out to a vastly larger audience than they would have gotten.
NORMAN: Tens of millions.
JOHN: It was a kind of cannibalization, but it was also a popularization. And now, basically, there’s no need. Either the article that you publish goes viral on its own or it doesn’t.
NORMAN: I was asked by two magazines to write a piece in 1984 about Orwell’s book. One was Reader’s Digest and one was Harper’s. Harper’s had a circulation, I don’t know, maybe of 100,000. Reader’s Digest had a circulation of 15 million. So, and I wrote two separate pieces, one for the Reader’s Digest and one for Harper’s. From the Reader’s Digest, 15 million readers, there were three letters. From the Harper’s audience, there was a huge controversy. So I often use that example to explain to people why a large circulation is not necessarily a measure of influence.
JOHN: The big magazines weren’t writer’s magazines either. My professional career as a salaried worker in journalism began at Time—it had 4 million subscribers at the time, 4 million, and was viewed as an extraordinarily important voice. And nobody there, two or three people there, had any kind of individual reputation. If they made it, they made it by leaving Time. So who left Time when I was there? I left, Maureen Dowd left, Graydon Carter left, Kurt Andersen left, Pico Iyer left. We had all been at Time, and you just couldn’t be a writer of any reputation or any standing by being a staffer for that magazine. You could write a cover story for Time Magazine that 4 million people could read, but you were a nobody. You made an upper-middle-class salary, which was rare in journalism. And you had a lot of perks and benefits. But it was an unsatisfying experience for a writer to write for these institutional publications. And that was very instructive. COMMENTARY has never had a large readership, and yet it has had this outsized impact, wildly outsized impact, as you indicate just with the job prospects, not only of Jeane and Pat, but literally dozens of COMMENTARY contributors who went and populated the administrations of Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, second Bush. I mean, dozens, more than dozens. Much of the foreign-policy apparat from the ’60s through sort of like 2008 were people who had at least appeared in COMMENTARY at some point or other.
NORMAN: COMMENTARY, Partisan Review, and various other small magazines were like the farm teams of American intellectual life. A lot of people started here, who were spotted early by us, and then eventually got picked up, and some got to be very famous. I mean there’s some that I’m not, I’d say more than some, many that I’m not particularly proud of because I gave a boost to careers that I disapproved of.
JOHN: Tell me about it.
NORMAN: We have a lot of years in purgatory waiting for us when it comes to certain people whose careers we’re responsible for.
JOHN: COMMENTARY for 60 of its 75 years was a publication of the American Jewish Committee. And it was published under a grant of editorial independence by the American Jewish Committee, which was savvy, smart, selfless, and very peculiar.
JOHN: Unique and unduplicatable.
NORMAN: COMMENTARY was owned by the American Jewish Committee, and AJC granted from the beginning complete editorial independence to the editors. On paper, that was well established. In reality, many people tried to breach it.
JOHN: If it were today, it would be breached in five seconds.
NORMAN: Well, these days, you get fired for the wrong headline.
NORMAN: But we published many articles that the Committee people did not like.
JOHN: In the very early going, before you were on the staff, long before I was born, the magazine published a scandalous piece by Isaac Rosenfeld.
NORMAN: “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street.”
JOHN: Which posited the laws of kashruth were an expression of Jewish sexual neurosis.
JOHN: And the most important rabbi in America …
NORMAN: Milton Steinberg.
JOHN: Steinberg sought to have it shut down and very nearly succeeded. The article was a scandal, and though it’s a kind of very amusing piece of writing, it should not, I believe, have been published.
NORMAN: Thirty-five years I was editor in chief, and I was there for, I don’t know three or four years as a junior editor—and every few years, there would be an effort, either to get me fired or to shut the magazine down. And these efforts obviously never succeeded, which is not to say that they didn’t make trouble and create anxiety. I don’t know if you want to know the story of Golda Meir’s suit against COMMENTARY.
JOHN: It’s a good one.
NORMAN: Well one of the early Soviet Jewish dissidents to arrive here, a man named Lev Navrozov, a crazy genius actually, wrote an article. He thought that all the Western powers, including the United States and including Israel, had been naive about Stalin. They didn’t realize how bad Stalin was. Navrozov picked Golda Meir as an example. In 1948, the War of Independence, a fairly large number of young Jews in the Soviet Union wanted to go fight in the War of Independence. But they had to get permission to leave. Golda Meir was some kind of envoy to the Soviet Union, the functional equivalent of an ambassador. The story went that she collected a list of names of young Soviet Jews and gave it to Stalin, thinking that he would give permission to all these guys to leave. And what he actually did was have them all shot. She said the story was not true and was defamatory and she sued for $3 million, a million against me, a million against Navrozov, and a million against the American Jewish Committee as the publisher. You can imagine what a storm this created. And she demanded a retraction. When I asked Navrozov, he said, I didn’t run away from the KGB in order to be persecuted by Golda Meir. I said to him, well, can you prove it, do you have evidence, and he said, “Everybody knew!” So, I either had to give in or back him, and I decided that it was my duty to back him. The suit went forward, and there was a lot of bad blood, I mean millions of dollars of legal consultation was spent on this. We finally reached some accommodation by which the American Jewish Committee was allowed to announce in the magazine, on a special page, that it did not agree with the magazine, it agreed with Golda Meir, and Meir accepted that, and that was that.
JOHN: And you remained the editor for another 20 years.
NORMAN: There were many instances when articles were published that offended some important member or leader of the American Jewish Committee. And I always took the position, from the day I was hired until the day I retired, that the AJC was the owner of the magazine and that I was its employee and that it had a perfect right to fire me for cause or no cause. But as long as it didn’t, keep your hands off the magazine. And that worked.
JOHN: We’re talking about a long-gone world in which freedom of speech had become an almost unassailable, liberal value. And even though freedom of speech does not in fact govern the notion of whether or not an institution has to allow people within it whom it is paying the right to use their facilities to say whatever they want to say. Nonetheless, it was observed so scrupulously!
NORMAN: They said from the beginning, we don’t want a house organ, we want a distinguished magazine, and they all agreed, the founders, that the only way they were going to get a distinguished magazine was to allow complete freedom.
JOHN: But what good was it to the American Jewish Committee to publish a distinguished magazine? It’s an aesthetic good, it’s a sort of culturally relevant institutional good, but it’s not an organizational good in and of itself. And the other odd part is that when COMMENTARY took its turn toward the right in the late 1960s, it was promulgating opinions that were very much in the minority not only in the Jewish community at large, but in the American Jewish Committee as an organization.
NORMAN: Well, people wouldn’t speak to me in the elevator.
JOHN: The leaders could have just said, you know what, we’re sick of you, we’re sick of this right-wing stuff, we’ll fire you. But they didn’t.
NORMAN: Those AJC leaders, they were a different breed. Mainly German Jews, and many of them rich. It was an elite organization. And many of those people, including the ones who did not like the magazine, regarded it as sort of the jewel in the crown. And they would brag about it even if they disliked it. Such a thing is inconceivable today.
JOHN: COMMENTARY survives because it made this transition in 2006 from being supported by the American Jewish Committee to being supported by a body of readers who not only subscribe but have decided that it is part of their mission in life to ensure its continued existence. These are engaged, combative, and intellectually minded people with philanthropic goals who make it possible for the magazine to survive and thrive, in part because it offers a minority opinion within the Jewish community. Like, why would you need a magazine that tells the overall Jewish community exactly what it wants to hear?
NORMAN: I used to say COMMENTARY was originally a Jewish magazine with general interests that became a general magazine with Jewish interests. And COMMENTARY, from almost the first issue that I turned out in 1960, became very hot. It was talked about a lot. This was the period, we’re talking about the ’60s, when the New Left began to develop and the whole culture was moving in the direction that it has reached by now, tragically, in my opinion. But those were the early seeds. And I’ve often said that I spent the last 40 years of my life trying to make up for the damage I did in those years.
JOHN: You made it a general magazine on Jewish themes just at the moment that it had almost become its own proof of concept. At that moment, Jews had ascended to the cultural leadership of the United States—writers, the hottest writers in fiction, in essays, in Hollywood, on Broadway. Culturally, Judaism was very hot, and that gave you maybe a kind of platform from which you could sort of assume that the assimilation had happened. Now, it’s several generations later, and self-conscious Jews are more interested in Judaism and less interested in assimilation. You might say that while Jews were Jewier when you took over the editorship, Jewy Jews are Jewier than Jews were then. They’ve gone to day schools, they’ve gone to Jewish summer camps. They are more likely to have kosher homes by choice than kosher homes by cultural habit, let’s say. Living as a Jew in the 21st century is a matter of deliberate, conscious daily choice. So I have a different kind of editorial challenge in this regard, in part because compared to you and Neal Kozodoy, I’m far less literate when it comes to Judaism and Jewish history.
NORMAN: Everybody is less literate than Neal.
JOHN: Well, that goes without saying. When it comes to the point of view in the magazine, it would be pretty fair to say that, with the exception of maybe a judgment about a certain novel or movie or something like that, you found it almost impossible to publish articles whose thematic approach and conclusions you did not agree with. Some editors would say, “Well, you know, that’s really interesting. I don’t really agree with it, but people will find that that’s an interesting take, so maybe I’ll run it anyway.” That was not your approach at all.
NORMAN: No. No. Certainly not. When I took that turn toward what came to be called neoconservatism, we were virtually the only voice expressing our point of view, that defense of the West, of America, of Israel, of high culture. My view was that the other side had many platforms, and our side had at most two. I had a lot of pressure put on me, including by my board, why I should loosen up and publish articles from a different ideological perspective. We did publish many symposia in which there were varying points of view, but I resisted that pressure because I think that point of view had many outlets, and we had very few. And I can tell you that our single-minded way turned out to be very successful. We had a very, very grateful audience.
JOHN: At the newspapers and magazines I worked at over the past 40 years, we’d do focus groups, have conversations with readers and former readers and non-readers to try to figure out where we should position ourselves and how we should present our publication to them. People would say, “I’m too busy. I would like to read your thing, but I don’t have enough time.” So the experts we’d engage to run these groups or do this research would say, “Well, you need to shorten the articles. The articles are too long. People don’t really have time, and you should really simplify the language, because they like shorter sentences. The vocabulary shouldn’t be too complicated so they can get through it.” These ideas dominated the news business in the 1980s and 1990s. But there was a central, bizarre flaw in the logic here, which is that you were going to people and asking them…
NORMAN: “If you read, what would you like to read?”
JOHN: Right. But they don’t read, and they don’t know what they want to read, because that’s not their business. It’s your business to give them something that they might want to read. When you dumb your product down or change it to try to appeal to people who don’t read it, you are then going to offend the people who are reading it and who do read it. You’re going to lose them, and then you’re not going to get the ones that you’re whoring after, and so you die out. It’s something similar when people say, if you’re a conservative publication, that what you really need is more liberals. Maybe if you publish more liberal articles, then liberals would read you, and conservatives would read you, too. But it’s unlikely liberals are going to read you. And if you publish liberal stuff, it’s going to anger the conservatives who do read. So they’re going to stop reading you, and the liberals aren’t going to read you, and then you’ll be dead. Right?
NORMAN: What used to be said to me and to Neal and I imagine to you by readers is this: “Every month I look forward to COMMENTARY to reassure myself that I’m not crazy.” The people who read COMMENTARY live in communities in which nobody agrees with them, and then they seem to think either I’m crazy or they’re crazy or all of them, and they’re very grateful for the reassurance.
JOHN: The ultimate feedback all three of us editors have gotten involves another technical term from the world of publication circulation: Churn. What COMMENTARY had in your day and still has in my day is what is called an incredibly low “churn rate.” Eighty to 90 percent of our subscribers in any given year subscribe the following year. That number is all but unprecedented.
NORMAN: It’s not “all but.” It is unprecedented.
JOHN: That is the ultimate sort of like market test. The people who read it, read it forever. Now, in one way, and only one way, maybe, COMMENTARY is like a sonnet. The form it appears in drastically limits how we do things, but in the limitation there is liberation. COMMENTARY is a nonprofit 501(c)(3). And, as a result, it cannot endorse candidates.
NORMAN: Or parties.
JOHN: Or parties. And that can be a hardship. In the Obama era, in marketing terms, and maybe in the Clinton era for you and then for Neal, what we could never say was, “We’re here to show you how to beat the Democrats,” even though obviously we stood philosophically in very serious opposition to liberal policies, particularly on the Middle East. Conservative publications that did not have this tax limitation could say, “Read us to get the real inside scoop on how Republicans can and should and are going to beat Obama.” That was a problem because it was very hard to sell COMMENTARY to people who wanted red meat of that sort. But it has also been a liberation because editorially we never frame questions in that manner—how to elect a Republican Senate, or how candidates can or should win this or that at the ballot box.
NORMAN: It concentrates the mind. It focuses the attention on matters higher than mere electoral success, let’s just say. Now we began by mentioning the 75th anniversary, and as I think about it, it’s really extraordinary that throughout all the changes in point of view, the magazine has been consistently itself. It’s remained COMMENTARY.
JOHN: It has remained itself because if it weren’t itself, it would have no reason for being.
NORMAN: Well, plenty of magazines have no reason for being.
JOHN: There are magazines that have a reason for being because they are an attempt to turn a profit. Or there were. News magazines made oceans of money. The Condé Nast magazines made oceans of money. The women’s magazines made oceans of money. This was a very profitable field. But COMMENTARY never made anybody any money and was a source of discomfort and controversy inside the organization that owned it. And yet it was so much itself and had carved out such an identity, that when the American Jewish Committee came to you in 1990 and said, “We’re no longer supporting the deficit,” you were able to turn around and go out and raise a great deal of money to keep it going, never having raised a nickel before in your life.
NORMAN: I was 60 years old.
JOHN: You raised money, and then Neal raised a sufficient amount of money to secure the magazine’s independence from the AJC in 2006, and we still manage to raise money every year to keep it going. It is so defiantly itself that there are a sufficient number of people who not only subscribe to it but believe it is important enough that they provide eleemosynary support for it. If it didn’t have that, COMMENTARY would have died after the American Jewish Committee came to you and said, “Go out and find outside support for your deficit.” You would have gone out and people would have said to you, “Why should I give you money? The Cold War’s over. Who cares about being Jewish,” and blah, blah, blah. And COMMENTARY would have simply become one of those publications that had once existed but existed no longer.
NORMAN: The late Irving Kristol, who once worked as an editor at COMMENTARY, cut his teeth on COMMENTARY, really, once said it was the most important Jewish magazine in history—which is pretty strong. But it’s probably right. Always, in all its manifestations, it has maintained a high quality that combines authority with accessibility. COMMENTARY didn’t only just reassure people they weren’t crazy for holding the views they did, it also expressed and argued for ideas and perspectives usually in advance of the zeitgeist ideas—ideas people were not quite sure yet that they held.
JOHN: But that goes to what I was saying about the focus groups, which is that, in the end, an editor tells people what he thinks they should know, and then it’s up to them whether they want to listen or say, “Ah, get the hell out of here.” But any strong, good editor is saying, “This is what you should be reading right now.”
NORMAN: Or thinking.
JOHN: Here’s something funny. The most important lesson of my career in journalism that I learned from you has nothing whatsoever to do with commissioning brilliant articles or the mission or anything like that. It has to do with the one time when the magazine could have collapsed in the mid-1960s owing to a seductive but terrible business strategy.
NORMAN: We had a business manager who was a little nuts. Yes.
JOHN: He came to you and said, “Look. We can get this magazine up to 100,000 paid. No magazine like this has ever done that before, and we’ll just be cooking with Crisco.” How do you get 100,000 subscribers for a small Jewish magazine? You do it by discounting it. So you sell a year’s subscription for $5. And you send out direct mail to a couple of million people. Then you almost went broke because the direct mail was enormously expensive and every issue you printed out and mailed lost money—and there was no new revenue, and suddenly your deficit jumped.
NORMAN: We reached 60,000 very quickly from a base of about 25,000. So not only were we spending too much money, when the number went down because people didn’t renew, our internal critics said, “You see? Nobody likes it.”
JOHN: Learning about this experience from you meant that everywhere I went, from newspapers to magazines, I told the people I worked with that it was dangerous to expand circulation through deep discounting. And I was always proved right, because the new circulation didn’t stick around and advertising never covered the costs. The point is, by overruling the business manager and changing your strategy, you saved COMMENTARY from a suicidal approach that has killed off literally hundreds of magazines.
NORMAN: Look how I earned a place in the history of business!
JOHN: People constantly ask me, “What’s COMMENTARY’s mission? What’s its purpose?”
NORMAN: Elliot Cohen founded COMMENTARY with a very clear mission in mind, and everything in that magazine every month reflected in one way or another that mission. I had two missions. I began for the first 10 years or so moving to the left from the liberal anti-Communist perspective of Elliot Cohen’s COMMENTARY, and then 10 years later started moving in the other direction. My mission was to fight aggressively in what I saw then and see even more today as a war, a war about America and about Israel. There were those who thought and felt that America and Israel were forces for good in the world and those who thought that they were forces for evil in the world, and I see that same war going on. It’s still unresolved and may even end up with guns in the street. Some days I feel that. But that war was consistently being fought from 1945 until now in the pages of COMMENTARY, and it’s heated up considerably. That’s what COMMENTARY is about in my opinion, and that’s the value that COMMENTARY has and had, and I would say not only the important contribution but almost the indispensable contribution it made to the cultural life of the country. No one else was fighting that war in the way that we fought it; that is to say, wholeheartedly, aggressively, and with a desire to win.
JOHN: The art of producing a complicated, highbrow, very serious, analytical, and quite formal publication—a publication that is “journalism” only in the sense that it appears in a journal—has all but vanished. We work at COMMENTARY every month to retain a style of argument and presentation that almost no one practices anymore, and so in that sense, the magazine is a representation of what I think, or what our readers think, or what people who buy it or support it think, the life of a serious person should and could be.
NORMAN: Another thing that was unique about COMMENTARY, and it had everything to do with the way it was edited, was to take subjects, important subjects, and look at them, write about them in a way that would be interesting both to specialists and accessible to the lay audience. You and I know how very hard it is to produce such writing, because almost nobody is born with the talent. It’s not popularization. Some people might call it high-level popularization. So whatever the vision or the mission was, whether COMMENTARY was on the right or the left or liberal or conservative or neoconservative, whatever, that particular ideal has remained.
JOHN: I say that COMMENTARY today has a four-pronged mission—a defense of the West and its institutions, defense of Israel, serving as a bulwark against anti-Semitism, and reflecting in its pages the cultural legacy of the West in trying to present what Matthew Arnold called the best that had been thought and said at any given moment. But when it comes right down to it, it’s just 20 items per issue, every month.
NORMAN: And this was true for me, too. That’s why heavy editing was necessary. Without it, it would have been impossible to maintain that combination of, what shall I say, authority, sophistication, and accessibility. It won’t happen if you just sit back and publish what is sent to you. It really has to be created.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.