|Frequency||11 monthly; combined July–August issue|
|Circulation||33,000 / month|
|Country||New York, United States|
Commentary is a monthly American magazine on politics, Judaism, social and cultural issues. It was founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945. Besides its strong coverage of cultural issues, it provided a strong voice for the anti-Stalinist left. By 1960 its editor was Norman Podhoretz, originally a mainstream liberal Democrat. He and his magazine moved to the right in the 1970s and 1980s. Benjamin Balint describes it as the "Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right". Historian Richard Pells says that "no other journal of the past half century has been so consistently influential, or so central to the major debates that have transformed the political and intellectual life of the United States."
Commentary was the successor to the Contemporary Jewish Record. When the Record's editor died in 1944, its publisher, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) consulted with New York intellectuals including Daniel Bell and literary critic Lionel Trilling. They recommended the AJC hire Elliot Cohen (1899–1959) to start a new journal. He had been an editor of a Jewish cultural magazine and was now a fundraiser.
Commentary is a nonpartisan journal focusing on Jewish affairs and other contemporary issues — a sort of Jewish Harper's, only more scholarly. Cohen designed the new magazine to reconnect assimilated Jews and Jewish intellectuals with the broader, more traditional and very liberal Jewish community. At the same time Commentary would bring the ideas of the young Jewish intellectuals to a wider audience. It demonstrated that Jewish intellectuals, and by extension all American Jews, had turned away from their past political radicalism to embrace mainstream American culture and values.
Cohen stated his grand design in the first issue:
With Europe devastated, there falls upon us here in the United States a far greater share of the responsibility for carrying forward, in a creative way, our common Jewish cultural and spiritual heritage...to harmonize heritage and country into a true sense of at-home-ness.
As Podhoretz put it, Commentary was to lead the Jewish intellectuals "out of the desert of alienation...and into the promised land of democratic, pluralistic, and prosperous America."
Cohen brought on board strong editors who themselves wrote important essays, including Irving Kristol; art critic Clement Greenberg; film and cultural critic Robert Warshow; and sociologist Nathan Glazer. Commentary paid well and published such rising stars as Hannah Arendt, Daniel Bell, Sidney Hook, and Irving Howe.
Although many or even most of the editors and writers had been socialists, Trotskyites or Stalinists in the past, that was no longer tolerated. Commentary articles were anti-Communist and also anti-McCarthyite; it identified and attacked any perceived weakness among liberals on cold war issues, backing President Harry Truman's Cold War policies such as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO. The "soft-on-Communism" position of the CIO and Henry Wallace came under steady attack.
Liberals who hated Joseph McCarthy were annoyed when Irving Kristol wrote at the height of the controversy that "there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing."
Podhoretz as editor, 1960–1995
In the late 1950s the magazine sagged, as Cohen suffered from mental illness and committed suicide. A protégé of Lionel Trilling, Norman Podhoretz (b. 1930) took over in 1960, running the magazine with an iron hand until his retirement in 1995. Podhoretz reduced the space given to Jewish issues and moved Commentary's ideology to the left. Circulation rose to 60,000 as the magazine became a mainstay of the Washington liberal elite in the heyday of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
The emergence of the New Left, which was bitterly hostile to Johnson, to capitalism and to universities, angered Podhoretz for its shallowness and hostility to Israel in the 1967 war. Articles attacked the New Left on questions ranging from crime, the nature of art, drugs, poverty, to the new egalitarianism; Commentary said that the New Left was a dangerous anti-American, anti-liberal, and anti-Semitic force. Daniel Patrick Moynihan used Commentary to attack the Watts Riots and liberals who defended it as a just revolution. The shift helped define the emerging neoconservative movement and gave space to disillusioned liberals.
As the readership base shifted to the right, Commentary filled a vacuum for conservative intellectuals, who otherwise were reliant on William F. Buckley's National Review. In March 1975, Moynihan's article "The United States in Opposition," urged America to vigorously defend liberal democratic principles when they were attacked by Soviet-bloc and Third World dictatorships at the United Nations. President Gerald Ford appointed Moynihan as be ambassador to the United Nations, where his outspoken advocacy of American values led to election to the Senate in 1976. Political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick's November 1979 denunciation of the foreign policy of President Jimmy Carter, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," impressed Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in 1980. In 1981 he appointed her to the United Nations ambassadorship and Commentary reached the apogee of its influence.
Commentary is currently edited by Norman Podhoretz's son John. The elder Podhoretz, who served as editor-in-chief until 1995, is currently the magazine's editor-at-large. Neal Kozodoy was editor between 1995 and January 2009.
In January 2007 Commentary launched a new blog, contentions.
Currently, Commentary prints letters to the editor that comment on various articles three issues earlier. The more critical and lengthy letters tend to be printed first and the more praiseful letters last. The author of the article being discussed almost always replies in a follow-up to his critics. Each issue has several reviews of books on varying topics. Commentary usually assigns a review to books written by notable contributors to the magazine.
Commentary has been referred to in several Woody Allen films. In Annie Hall, in 1977, Allen (as character Alvy Singer) makes a pun by saying that he heard that Dissent and Commentary had merged to form "Dysentery". In Bananas, as an old lady is threatened on a subway car, Allen hides his face by holding up an issue of Commentary. This image is featured at the New York City Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, an issue of Commentary lies on a character's bedside table.
||This section contains embedded lists that may be poorly defined, unverified or indiscriminate. (March 2012)|
Over the decades the magazine has attracted top American intellectuals—most of them (but not all) Jewish. The magazine's home page lists 1072 different authors. including:
- Nathan Abrams, Norman Podhoretz and Commentary magazine: the rise and fall of the neocons (2009) "Introduction"
- Benjamin Balint, Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right (2010). New York: PublicAffairs. ISBN 1-586-48749-3.
- Quoted from Murray Friedman (ed.): Commentary in American Life, Philadelphia 2005, Temple UP.
- Ehrman, John (June 1, 1999) Commentary, the Public Interest, and the Problem of Jewish Conservatism, American Jewish History
- Richard H. Pells, The liberal mind in a conservative age: American intellectuals in the 1940s (1989) p. 296
- Thomas L. Jeffers, Norman Podhoretz: A Biography (2010) pp. 20, 62, 129, 145
- Tanenhaus, Sam (2009-09-01). The Death of Conservatism. Random House Publishing Group. p. 72. ISBN 9781588369482. Retrieved 18 October 2013.
- "Commentary, American Jewish Committee Separate". The New York Sun.
- See announcement
- See Commentary search
- Podhoretz, Norman. Breaking Ranks (1979), memoir
- Nathan Glazer, Thomas L. Jeffers, Richard Gid Powers, Fred Siegel, Terry Teachout, Ruth R. Wisse et al. in Commentary in American Life, ed. Murray Friedman. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005
- Balint, Benjamin. Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right (PublicAffairs; 2010) 290 pages
- Ehrman, John. "Commentary, the Public Interest, and the Problem of Jewish Conservatism," American Jewish History 87.2&3 (1999) 159–181. online in Project MUSE, scholarly article by conservative historian
- Jeffers, Thomas L. Norman Podhoretz: A Biography (2010)
- New York Sun article on who attends the annual Commentary-hosted gathering
- More bio bits on Cohen and Commentary history
- Nathan Abrams, Commentary Magazine 1945–1959: 'A Journal of Significant Thought and Opinion. Bio on Cohen and Commentary's early history
- Weekly Standard article on Commentary
- What Does Reform Judaism Stand For?. Commentary. Published June 2008.
- Commentary website
- contentions blog
- Commentary Finding Aid at the Harry Ransom Center