At one point during World War II, when Norman Podhoretz was about 12, an uncle had just been drafted. Podhoretz's grandmother heard on their big Zenith radio the slogan, "Uncle Sam Needs You."
Afraid her son would be killed, she turned to Norman and asked in Yiddish, "Ver ist er, der Uncle Sam? Im hob ikh extra in dr'erd!" (Who is he, that Uncle Sam? Him I would especially like to send six feet under.")
Esther did not speak English, read very little, and did not know the war was about a tyrant who was trying to murder all of Europe's Jews. Podhoretz explained simply (he had learned not to argue with her) that Uncle Sam was "a stand-in for America."
The story is evocative for Podhoretz because later, he recalls, as the editor of Commentary magazine, "I ... [was driven,] almost against my will, to defend the country with all my might against its ideological enemies on the left from the late 1960s on."
This ideological battle caused him to plumb the depths of his unabashed love for America. What makes his story even more dramatic, for nearly 10 years, starting in 1960 when he became editor of Commentary at the age of 30, he had helped lay the ideological groundwork of the radical left.
What caused his change of heart and mind? He could not bear, he says, the hatred for America that the left spewed out. And he owned up to having himself indulged in a utopian vision for America. His discussion of utopianism in this book, charged with his own experience, is a classic dissertation on repentance for ideological sins.
He suggests that the range of leftists he chose to oppose had perhaps one thing in common: Rather than honoring the rights of every individual, they fought for their concept of abstract systems - Marxism and Stalinism, among others.
After retiring in 1995, Podhoretz found that some of his friends on the right had started their own hate campaigns against the American people. So he put on his armor again and returned to the battle. He urged his friends not to hate the public that refused to throw Clinton from office. And he urged them not to use rhetoric that suggested it might be good to bomb abortion clinics.
His battles with both sides have produced this invaluable and most charming book, a book not flushed with anger, but cool, analytical, historical, learned, funny, and loving. It is immensely more than a book about clashing ideologies. In a unique and limited way, it's also a book about Jews in America, and certainly about Podhoretz himself. The book appeared before Joseph Lieberman was nominated as a vice-presidential candidate, but the book helps us see how natural this was.
In another way, it's about religion in America, for he borrows the phrase "God's Country" to title his short introduction (which doesn't really discuss religion!). And he points out at the end of the book that the word "blessings" is in the first paragraph of the Constitution. Also, he reminds us that America "declared its independence ... by an appeal to 'the laws of Nature and nature's God.' "
In the last chapter, "Dayyenu American Style," he says that his love and gratitude for America, which is his true home (although he respects Israel), recalls something Jewish. A hymn, repeated by Jews at the Seder meal on Passover, recalls the elements of the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery. Each line ends with the word dayyenu, meaning "that alone would have been enough for us."
He closes the book with a list of what he is grateful for. He wants us to make our own lists, and to recite them often enough that we don't forget what we have.
David Mutch is a freelance writer in East Harwich, Mass.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society