Observer 1997: John Podhoretz Leaves Neocon Nest To Play Murdoch’s Man in New York

Warren St. John wrote:

Mr. Podhoretz, the chubby 36-year-old son of neocon pioneers Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, recently quit his job as deputy editor at Rupert Murdoch’s Washington-based Weekly Standard -the gleefully contrarian conservative journal that he co-founded in 1995 with Dan Quayle’s former chief of staff, William Kristol, and former New Republic editor Fred Barnes-to take over the editorial page of Mr. Murdoch’s New York Post . Despite two successful years at The Weekly Standard , Mr. Podhoretz grew weary of working in the shadow of the mediagenic Mr. Kristol. “It’s Bill Kristol’s magazine,” Mr. Podhoretz explained over tea at the Algonquin on a recent Sunday. “I wanted to run my own shop.”

…Politics weren’t the only thing that brought Mr. Podhoretz back to the city he grew up in. His brief marriage to fellow inside-the-Beltway conservative Elisabeth Hickey unraveled this fall in a very public way. The two were married in May after a courtship of only 10 days, and thanks in part to Mr. Podhoretz’s declarations of love in his Weekly Standard column-he ended one column with the words, “in her calm, there is the permanence I seek”-the relationship had become the talk of Washington’s small conservative media clique. The couple split after three months. Mr. Podhoretz would say only that the breakup was a “sad disruption in my personal life.”

…But whatever ends up on the page, Mr. Podhoretz’s former colleagues said, his light touch often comes with a heavy hand behind the scenes. He is described alternately as “brilliant” and “a monster” by Standard staff. His writers report that he regularly derides them by saying their copy “sucks.”

“John is smart and he’s a good editor,” said Lisa McCormack, who wrote for Mr. Podhoretz at The Washington Times . “But he finds people’s weak spots psychologically and gets a hot poker and sticks it in there and breaks them.”

…Under the eccentric editor Arnaud de Borchgrave, Mr. Podhoretz’s colleagues joked that his last name was “Normanson,” because Mr. de Borchgrave frequently referred to him as “John Podhoretz, Norman’s son.”

…But by 1989, Mr. Podhoretz was back editing at The Washington Times . His colleagues from those days have said that many staff members under Mr. Podhoretz left. “He’s a bully. He’ll take an elephant gun to a fly,” said Ms. McCormack. “He’d tell people they were idiots if they misplaced a comma.” (Mr. Podhoretz responded, “Lisa McCormack is an idiot, but otherwise I don’t think it’s true that I’ve said that. I’ve been known to misplace a comma myself.”)

…Mr. Podhoretz lived the life of a media junkie. “He’s a compulsive TV watcher, he gets every magazine from Spin to Creme , and he watches every infomercial,” said a Standard staff member. “A number of times, he’s had to go cold turkey from television.”

…Members of the Standard staff, like some at The Washington Times , had some problems with Mr. Podhoretz’s style. They objected to his withering assessments and were miffed last year when he gave a cover assignment to his then-girlfriend Wendy Shalit (sister of journalist Ruth Shalit) and paid her more than The Standard ‘s regular freelance rate.

Staff members also said Mr. Podhoretz had a long memory of personal slights. “John holds grudges,” said one staff member. “There are certain people he still hates for, say, insulting his father in 1972 in The New York Review of Books .” (Indeed, Post media critic [and Observer art critic] Hilton Kramer was fired soon after Mr. Podhoretz arrived, and Standard staff members believe Mr. Podhoretz fired Mr. Kramer because the latter once wrote a Post column dismissing The Standard as “a snooze.”)

…Over time, Mr. Kristol emerged as The Standard ‘s media face, and Mr. Podhoretz said he felt it had become “somebody else’s magazine.” Then love struck: In February 1997, Mr. Podhoretz ran into Ms. Hickey at a party thrown by Arianna Huffington. Mr. Podhoretz soon circulated news of his engagement in an e-mail to friends headed “This is not a put-on.” The couple was married in May. Three months later, Mr. Podhoretz told friends he hadn’t been in love after all. Said a friend of the couple, “they cut their losses.”

…Podhoretz. “Outrageousness is one way of getting attention, but it’s not the only way.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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