- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

She grew up in the Depression, came of age during World War II, watched the social upheavals of the 1960s, and lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, Midge Decter wants to tell the truth — her truth — about those eventful years.
"It seemed more and more to me the past was being completely distorted," said Mrs. Decter, explaining the inspiration for her new memoir, "An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War."
As someone who, along with her husband, Norman Podhoretz, one-time editor of Commentary magazine, waged intellectual warfare against communism during the Cold War, Mrs. Decter, 72, is not afraid to tackle even the most powerful myths — including the current glamorization of World War II.
"It's being paralyzed," said the former executive editor of Harper's Magazine in a recent telephone interview from her Manhattan home. "It's false to what actually happened, to those of us who lived through it.
"Tom Brokaw says [World War II G.I.s] were the 'Greatest Generation.' Well, they weren't the greatest generation. They were just Americans doing their duty — which seems very strange today, I guess."
Likewise, Mrs. Decter says, the 1950s have "certainly been completely distorted, almost from the first second."
She laughs off as "absurd — absolutely ridiculous" the popular conception of the '50s as an intellectual wasteland. "The literary and cultural life of America in the 1950s was richer and more interesting and more important, by far, than what followed," she says.
In her book, she notes the influence of W.H. Whyte's 1956 book "The Organization Man," which depicted corporate managers as slavish conformists. "I did not recognize a single friend or neighbor in Whyte's book," Mrs. Decter writes. Yet the stereotype of the '50s as stifling and dull has endured.
"The '50s, particularly, got a really bum rap. They were a time when a lot of the young couples, after the war, set out in a big hurry to make themselves lives. They married, they had children very quickly," she recalls.
"We were all trying to get along the best we could and make decent homes, for which we were all roundly attacked by our children [in the 1960s] for being 'materialistic,'" she says. "Kids who were driving around in cars and traveling around the world, had come to sneer at their parents for having houses and washing machines."
Recalling the difficulties of life before modern appliances — in the book she tells of her mother's labors doing laundry before automatic washing machines — Mrs. Decter still seems angry over hippies who sneered about suburbanites "keeping up with the Joneses."
"I remember wishing, God, if you only had a clothes dryer so you wouldn't have to hang your clothes out — that's what came to be called 'materialistic' and 'conformist,'" she said. "That was part of the youth rebellion [of the 1960s], that we were bourgeois materialists and they, of course, living on checks from home, were the idealists."
The youth rebellion of the '60s was the subject of Mrs. Decter's 1974 book, "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," which blamed parental indulgence for the excesses of the era.
Baby boomers "were raised without a sense of responsibility — we did that," she says. "And having seen the works of our hands, we praised them. Writers, ministers, teachers — we praised these kids, when we knew they were ruining their lives. … They were the products of our ideas about life, that it need have no limits and all that."
One of Mrs. Decter's most persistent battles over the years has been against feminism.
"The most important thing that enabled [women] to have these [career] choices is medical technology," she says. "Since they controlled the birth of their children, they have energy to burn and good health."
But "this ability to control the terms of your own life" has been both "a blessing and a burden," Mrs. Decter says, because it forced women to find purpose in their newfound freedom.
"That is why feminism was so appealing to so many, because it pretended to explain to women why they were so unsettled," she says. "And of course, they were not unsettled because they were victims. On the contrary, they had new freedom, and new freedom is a great burden."
Mrs. Decter was a working mother during the 1950s, years before the advent of feminism. She eventually worked her way up in the magazine business from being a secretary at Commentary to become executive editor at Harper's. Along the way, she married, divorced, remarried, and had four children.
At Harper's, she worked for editor Willie Morris during what Mrs. Decter calls a "very brief and wonderful" period that lasted "six or seven years," when such writers as Norman Mailer and David Halberstam were leading contributors to the monthly.
Mr. Morris, who died in 1999, is still a legend in the magazine industry. "But I have to say, that in my view, the great editor of those days was my husband," Mrs. Decter says.
Mr. Podhoretz became editor at Commentary in 1960 and "for 35 years, put out one brilliant issue after another," she says. "He was tough and had very stringent standards, which did not endear him to people, the way Willie was endeared."
During those 35 years, the couple's politics shifted from left to right, and Commentary established itself as one of the founding journals of what became known as "neo-conservatism."
"It was one little thing at a time, in the course of the '60s," Mrs. Decter says, explaining her and her husband's separation from liberalism. "One of the things that made it inevitable was that we were both passionate anti-Communists. The liberals made it very hard to remain with them and be a passionate anti-Communist. And then we were both getting very upset at the growth of anti-Americanism in the liberal community. That wasn't our cup of tea at all."
Their opposition to communism led Mrs. Decter and her husband — who had been lifelong Democrats — to support Ronald Reagan's bid for the White House in 1980. It also led to Mrs. Decter forming her own activist group, the Committee for the Free World. Left-wing critics called Mrs. Decter and her anti-communist group "extremist" and claimed (falsely) that it was funded by the CIA.
Within a decade came an event Mrs. Decter says she never expected to witness: the collapse of the Soviet empire. "I never thought that the United States would display the fortitude necessary" to win the Cold War, she says, "but thanks to Reagan, we did."
Today, Mrs. Decter is concerned about the prospects of another war — in Israel, where one of her daughters and four of her grandchildren live.
"I think a war is coming, and I hope to God, when it comes, that it's on Israel's terms," she says.
Israelis, she says, have abandoned the hopes they placed in the peace process during the Clinton years: "I don't know if they've resigned themselves to a big war … but certainly they've given up on peace, and now they're trying to figure out what they can do next."


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