Obituary: leading commentator, thinker and writer Midge Decter

Decter was a controversial and confrontational polemicist who published notorious rants against feminism and homosexuality


A leading commentator, thinker and writer in the group known as the New York Intellectuals, Midge Decter, who has died aged 84, was also one of those who came to be known as the neoconservatives.

Although best known as the wife of Norman Podhoretz, the pugilistic editor of Commentary magazine between 1960 and 1995, Decter was a controversial and confrontational polemicist in her own right, publishing notorious rants against feminism and homosexuality, among many other topics.

Decter began writing at a time when liberal anti-communism was in the ascendancy. This morphed into hard-line anti-communism as the Cold War heated up. Along with her husband, she moved increasingly to the right, spurred on by what she saw as the ravages of the New Left and the counterculture, the increasing marginalisation of Israel by the left, coupled with its tendency to blame the United States for the onset and continuation of the Cold War.

An unrelenting ideologue, during the 1970s Decter was described as “Commentary’s specialist in baiting minorities”.

Taking on a full workload while raising her children, she placed herself at the centre of resistance to the women’s liberation movement, writing The Liberated Woman and Other Americans (1970) and The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation (1972).

She characterised the looting during a race riot in New York City in terms of the animalistic behaviour of the black rioters. And she followed this up with a vicious and homophobic attack on “the homosexual-rights movement” in an article called “The Boys on the Beach” in Commentary in September 1980.

Although Decter continued to label herself a liberal in that decade, by the end of it she became a prominent member of the neoconservatives, a small but vocal and influential group of intellectuals.

Disenchantment with the Democratic Party, especially under President Jimmy Carter, led her to cross the Rubicon by making the almost unheard of move (for American Jews at least) of abandoning the Democratic Party and backing Republican candidate Ronald Reagan as president in 1980.

In the 1980s, during Reagan’s two terms in office, Decter began to focus increasingly on foreign policy. The aggression she had channelled into criticising the women’s movement was now funnelled into the Cold War. She became the executive director of the Committee for the Free World, a group that sought to raise awareness of the threat the Soviet Union posed to the United States and Israel.

In 2003, she penned a biography of Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under George W. Bush, Jr and a darling of the neoconservative establishment who was also her co-chair of the committee.

Midge Rosenthal was born into a Jewish family in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She was the youngest but loudest and most talkative of the three daughters of Harry and Rose (née Calmenson).

Harry and Rose ran a sporting goods store where Midge worked as a clerk. Her ambitions to become a writer emerged at an early age and she worked on the Central High School’s literary magazine. Although she briefly attended the University of Minnesota, then the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and finally New York University, she never graduated.

In 1947 she married Jewish activist Moshe Decter, with whom she had two daughters, Rachel and Naomi, before the marriage ended in divorce in 1954. Two years later, in 1956, she married Norman Podhoretz whom she had met at the offices of Commentary and had two more children, John and Ruthie. Both became conservative columnists and John currently edits Commentary. Rachel Decter married prominent neoconservative politician Elliott Abrams in 1980.

Decter began her career in publishing in 1950, working as secretary to Robert Warshow, then managing editor of Commentary.

Under his predecessor, Elliot E. Cohen, the journal, which had been relaunched by the American Jewish Committee in 1945, soon became a leading hub for publishing fresh writing and thought in post-war America. She began her career as a writer with “On the Horizon: Belittling Sholom Aleichem’s Jews”, which was published in the April, 1954 issue.

She continued to publish in the journal for the next 55 years, culminating in her article, “Kennedyism at Rest” in October 2009. She contributed 67 pieces in total.

Other posts she held included assistant editor at Midstream, executive editor of Harper’s Magazine, and an editor at Basic Books and Legacy Books. She also published in a range of right-wing journals, including First Things, National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The American Spectator.

Among her other publicactions were: Liberal Parents, Radical Children (1975), Always Right: Selected Writings of Midge Decter (2002) and An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War (2001) in which she looked back at her career.

Decter was active in several other organisations, many of them part of the growing network of conservative foundations. These included the Independent Women’s Forum, the Northcote Parkinson Fund, The Heritage Foundation, the Center for Security Policy, the Clare Boothe Luce Fund, the Philadelphia Society, the Institute of Religion and Public Life, the Project for the New American Century, and Accuracy in Media. In 2003 she received a National Humanities Medal.

She is survived by her husband Norman Podhoretz and her children, Naomi Decter, John Podhoretz, and Ruthie Blum.Her daughter Rachel Abrams, died in 2013.

Midge Decter, author and commentator, born July 25, 1927; died May 9, 2022.

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