A skilled writer, editor, and political activist, Midge Decter was a key figure in the movement of neoconservative, anti-Communist liberals away from the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s.
Born in St. Paul in 1927, Decter attended multiple universities—the University of Minnesota, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and New York University—but did not receive a degree from any of them. In 1950, she began working at Commentary, then a liberal magazine published under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee. She left shortly afterward but returned in 1953, remaining for three more years, after which she left again for other professional pursuits. Even after that second departure, though, she never really left: she wrote 69 pieces for Commentary over 55 years. She also married Norman Podhoretz, who would become the magazine’s editor, and one of their children, John, would later become editor as well, as he remains today.
Commentary was part of Decter’s family, but it was also a key magazine of The Family, a collection of mostly Jewish New York liberal anti-Communist intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s. Decter and Podhoretz were important figures in this group, and their apartment became a hub of activity and social events. In 1964, they hosted a party for Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the recently assassinated president. (Philip Roth referred to her as “the shiksa.”) Former attorney general William Barr’s father was in the Family milieu as well, and Barr recalled in his recent memoir attending “birthday parties at the home of power couple Norman Podhoretz, editor in chief of Commentary magazine, and Midge Decter, a prominent journalist and author.” Decter also wrote for magazines like Harper’s, where she served as executive editor from 1969 to 1971.
It was a charmed life, or so it seemed. But things changed in the 1960s with the growth of the New Left. This Left, with its rejection of tradition and authority, made her uncomfortable. As she wrote in Commentary in 1982, “The refusal to be bound by rules, any rules, turned children against their elders, impelled them to don rags and roam the country simulating poverty, destroy their brains with drugs, burn books, and rage against the very idea of responsibility, social, intellectual, or personal.”
She was also a staunch anti-Communist. As she would write, Commentary’s “true animating passion was a deep hatred for Communism in any and all of its manifestations.” She felt that the Democratic Party of the 1970s was wavering on that principle. Unlike many of her fellow neoconservatives, she had never had a Marxist phase. “The only grand posturing of my teens,” she once recalled, “had been a declared intention to die on the barricades in Palestine.” To her, the George McGovern Democrats of the early 1970s no longer upheld the liberal anti-Communist banner she held dear.
In 1972, Decter helped found the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a group expressly created to bring back liberal anti-Communism to the Democratic Party. She was taking a risk on two levels. First, she was flirting with a rupture with liberalism. The Republican Party and conservatism were not serious options for her or her friends at the time. As late as 1976, she would write, “I have no choice but to be a liberal.” The Left and the Democratic Party had been the only home she knew.
The second departure was entering the world of political activism. She had no previous political experience. “We never thought of that as being our end of the world . . . We wrote and debated and argued and criticized and that’s what we did,” she recalled. “That’s the kind of people we were.”
Decter would soon find that not only was she also the kind of person who engaged in political activism, but that she was good at it. CDM became a force, though a minority one, within the Democratic Party. She and Podhoretz encouraged their friend Daniel Patrick Moynihan, fresh from his hero-making turn as U.S. ambassador to the UN, to run for Senate. As UN ambassador, Moynihan had stood up for the United States, and the West in general, at a time when America seemed embattled and lacking confidence. Decter recalled that when she walked around New York with Moynihan, people would say to him “you’re great” and “congratulations.” With Decter and Podhoretz’s assistance, Moynihan sought and won a Senate seat in 1976. While Moynihan shared their views in his early Senate years, he drifted leftward, as New York State did, and they ended up in different places politically. “He broke our hearts,” Decter wrote.
Jimmy Carter was another disappointment to the CDM crowd, whose members failed to land jobs in the Carter administration. And the Carter foreign policy more closely resembled that of their rivals within the Democratic coalition. In 1980, Decter helped organize a meeting with Carter, as the White House sought to shore up its support in what was shaping up to be a challenging election battle against Ronald Reagan. All they wanted to hear was that Carter was willing to take a tougher line in a second term—but Carter could not assure them. Carter’s guests left the White House that day convinced that they would not be supporting the president for reelection. As Jeane Kirkpatrick, a close friend of Decter’s, told her after the White House meeting: “I will never vote for that man.”
The 1980 election was a watershed moment for Decter. She and Podhoretz supported Reagan, whom they had first met in 1978. By now, Decter had broken with the Left, and though she did not love the Republican Party, she recognized that it was more aligned with her worldview. “There comes a time when you need to join the side you’re on,” she said. In her words, “Republicanism—capital R—has never been the name of conservative desire . . . It is just that for those who still pin at least some hope on the outcomes of elections, the GOP is all there is.” In 1983, when some of the old crowd tried to revive the CDM in advance of the 1984 elections, she was not interested: “We tried to wrest the Democratic Party back from the left, and we failed.”
Her former friends on the left were not happy with the new Decter. Some called her the dragon lady. Timothy Leary wrote, unkindly, that “I’d rather shoot heroin with Janis [Joplin] than shoot heroines with Midge.” Yet she felt embraced in Reagan’s Washington. She lunched at the White House and corresponded with Reagan officials like Ken Adelman. She and Podhoretz helped their son-in-law, Elliott Abrams, get a job in the Reagan State Department. And their son John would serve as a speechwriter in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. As Decter saw it, “It was the first time in our lives we felt truly welcomed and truly close to the political action.”
In 1981, she founded a new organization, the Committee for a Free World, “dedicated to the advancement of liberty at home and abroad.” As she wrote in her memoir, An Old Wife’s Tale, “you cannot defend American democracy without defending the economic system that is its necessary underpinning.” As she saw it, in the battle for freedom, “domestic policy was foreign policy, and vice versa.” Within a decade, the Committee’s main goal, the collapse of the Soviet Union, had been achieved. And then Decter did something rare and admirable. As Ruth Wisse wrote, “Once that blessed event occurred, Midge, defying every convention of foundation life, declared ‘mission accomplished’ and shut down the operation.” Even the New York Times took note: “Midge Decter, one of the frostiest sentinels on the ramparts of the cold war, apparently is satisfied that a stake has been driven squarely through the heart of communism.”
Bold decisions governed her life. She and Podhoretz could have remained in their liberal intellectual community and spared themselves untold heartaches and enmities. Instead, she made the hard decision to try and change the trajectory of the world. She made the right bet. “Nerve,” she once said, is “the one thing all writers need.” Vision helps, too. Midge Decter had both in abundance.
Photo by Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images