A well-done roast

‘My friends, we are free and we are blessed. And I will forever be thankful to all of you.’

As I write in late November, I remain in the glow of Thanksgiving, only partially because the Vikings beat the Lions that Thursday. Playing a bigger part is having just finished reading Norman Podhoretz’s My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative. Choosing to finally read it was more serendipitous than planned, as I was simply looking for a book small enough to fit neatly into my brief case for a flight to Texas for a family wedding, but substantial enough to keep my interest. And if nothing else, Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine for 35 years, is substantial.

It’s also fair to say he can be direct to the point of combative, as he was nearly 40 years ago when I finagled a deal with his secretary to interview him for my dissertation. Once sitting across from him, he opened by saying how he preferred doing his own research rather than helping graduate students with theirs, and proceeded to race through the most nuanced of my questions in less time than any of my 50-plus other interviewees. But all has been forgiven and rendered moot by My Love Affair with America, which is not a new book, released in 2000.

As is well-known in limited circles, Podhoretz—who is 87 and still kicking—was first a literary critic and political observer of the moderate left, then more radical left, then neoconservative right, and then what might be thought as basic, prefix-free right. Yet whatever scholarly, ideological, or political fights over the decades he may have provoked or jumped into, with friends as well as foes, his gratitude and devotion to the United States is expressed in the book in terms more tender than brawly. Here is just one of the sweeter passages. “More Americans,” Podhoretz writes, “enjoy more freedom and more prosperity than any other people on the face of the earth, whether in the past or in the present. Surely this entitles the United States of America to a place among the very greatest of human societies. And even more surely, it entitles this country to the love and gratitude of all whom a benevolent providence has deposited on the shores of—yes, a thousand times yes—‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ to live their lives and make their livings under the sublime beauty of its ‘spacious skies’ and ‘from sea to shining sea.’”

Very nice.

In a second bow to providence, Podhoretz quotes from a concluding passage by William F. Buckley, Jr. in his autobiographical Overdrive: A Personal Documentary, published in 1983. “Complaint,” the late founder of National Review beautifully wrote, “is profanation in the absence of gratitude. There is much to complain about in America, but that awful keening noise one unhappily gets used to makes no way for the bells, and these have rung for America and are still ringing for America, and for this we are obliged to be grateful…. I must remember to pray more often, because providence has given us the means to make the struggle, and in this respect we are singularly blessed in this country.”

Very nice again.

Beyond last Thanksgiving, the most sacred of secular holidays, coinciding with my flying off to Fort Worth and fortuitously picking up a copy of My Love Affair with America, what else might explain this burst of thanks for thankfulness? I trust it has something to do with the gloriously appreciated honor bestowed on me the night before the flight: “A Well-Done Roast of the Well Seasoned Mitch Pearlstein,” a decidedly non-retirement party hosted by Center of the American Experiment and its Board of Directors. If you were among the 300 who attended, including a remarkable roster of Minnesota leaders who purposely and kindly failed to bust my chops, I trust we shared a volume when I concluded my own remarks by saying, “My friends, we are free and we are blessed. And I will forever be thankful to all of you tonight.”