What follows is the text of the 2008 Podhoretz Lecture, which is delivered annually at the Commentary Fund Dinner in New York City. This year’s dinner took place on May 18. The lecturer was Senator Joseph Lieberman.

I am honored to be asked to give this lecture named for Norman Podhoretz, a great American intellectual and a great American patriot. In the three and a half decades Norman spent at the helm of COMMENTARY, he made it one of America’s most important and influential magazines, and transformed the way a lot of people think about the world. 

It is not difficult to find the perfect words to explain the enduring motivation for COMMENTARY—because Norman has already written them:  a “love affair with America.” That is what has moved this extraordinary magazine—an unabashed, unapologetic love for what Podhoretz has rightly called “one of the most extraordinary countries that has ever existed.”   

The first editor of COMMENTARY, Elliot Cohen, wrote in its inaugural issue that the magazine was “an act of faith in our possibilities in America.” This is the patriotism that has inspired COMMENTARY since its inception—a patriotism rooted not in arbitrary attachment to our country’s land or its borders, but in a recognition that the values that were present at the creation of America and animate it still—the values of freedom and justice and opportunity—are not just our own national values; they are universal and eternal values, which are right and true not only for us in our own time, but for all people in every time. That was the great mission our founders, in their Declaration of Independence, gave each succeeding generation of Americans. It is a mission that COMMENTARY  has accepted and fulfilled magnificently.

From its patriotic principles, COMMENTARY has consistently summoned the courage to draw the moral distinctions that matter most. It is a magazine that has always understood the difference between freedom and slavery, democracy and dictatorship, and good and evil, and it has never been seduced by a moral equivalency that confuses the two. 

That is why Norman Podhoretz broke with the Democratic Party nearly forty years ago when he saw too many of his colleagues on the Left unwilling or unable to draw these distinctions. 

Unfortunately, today, I see some of that same confusion in the Democratic Party, on the most important questions of foreign policy and national security. 

This evening I’d like to speak about how the Democratic Party got here—how the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy—the party that the founders of COMMENTARY considered their natural ally in the struggle against Soviet totalitarianism—has drifted so far from the principles and policies that were at the core of its identity and its purpose. This lecture will be part history, part political science, and part self-administered psychotherapy. 

In September of 1999, National Review ran a cover story by Norman Podhoretz about then-President Bill Clinton. Although I don’t need to remind you that neither Norman nor the editors of National Review were our forty-second President’s biggest admirers, the article was not an attack. On the contrary, Norman declared at the outset, “I come not to bury Bill Clinton, but to praise him.” 

The reason for this praise was clear—and I believe correct. By 1999, Bill Clinton had reconnected the Democratic Party to some of the better parts of its modern history. 

Beginning in the 1940s, the Democratic Party was forced to confront two of the most dangerous enemies our nation has ever faced: Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. In response, Democrats under Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy forged and conducted a foreign policy that was principled, internationalist, and strong.  And it was successful. 

This was the Democratic Party that I grew up in—a party that was unhesitatingly and proudly pro-American, a party that was unafraid to make moral judgments about the world beyond our borders, a party that grasped the link between the survival of freedom at home and the survival of freedom abroad, and a party that understood that either the American people stood united with free nations and freedom fighters around the world against the forces of totalitarianism, or we would fall divided. 

This was the Democratic Party of Harry Truman, who pledged that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” 

And this was the Democratic Party of John F. Kennedy, who movingly promised in his inaugural address that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of freedom.” 

And this was also the party of COMMENTARY, which from the very dawn of the Cold War provided intellectual artillery for those on the frontlines of the fight against Communist totalitarianism. The magazine was unmistakably a star in the constellation of American liberalism.  And it was precisely because of its commitment to liberalism that it saw so clearly the evil of communism and was so determined to combat it.  As early as 1946, in fact, COMMENTARY warned that the Soviet Union was “the greatest challenge democracy has ever confronted.” 

This worldview—the policies of the Cold War Democrats who guided American foreign policy under President Truman and President Kennedy, and who created COMMENTARY—began to come apart in the late 1960s, around the war in Vietnam. In its place, a very different view of the world took root in the Democratic Party. 

Rather than seeing the Cold War as an ideological contest between the free nations of the West and the repressive regimes of the Communist world, including the one in South Vietnam, this rival political philosophy saw America as the aggressor—a morally bankrupt, imperialist power whose militarism and “inordinate fear of communism” represented the real threat to world peace. 

It argued that the Soviets and their allies were our enemies not because they were inspired by a totalitarian ideology fundamentally hostile to our way of life, or because they nursed ambitions of global conquest. Rather, the Soviets were our enemy, they said, because we had provoked them, because we threatened them, and because we failed to sit down and accord them the respect they deserved.  In other words, the Cold War was mostly America’s fault. 

This was the ideology that Jeane Kirkpatrick, in a brilliant piece in COMMENTARY in 1979, skewered and indicted as a “conception of national interest [that] borders on double think” because it “finds friendly powers to be guilty representatives of the status quo and views the triumph of unfriendly groups as beneficial to America’s ‘true interests.’” 

Norman Podhoretz witnessed firsthand the seizure of the Democratic Party by the advocates of this ideology. “Never,” he wrote in National Review thirty years later, “will I get over my amazement at the speed with which this point of view spread from the margin to the mainstream. Within five years, the radical perspective had become the conventional wisdom.”  Today, I regret to say I have the same sense of amazement about the speed with which similar ideas have again spread to the Democratic mainstream. 

Of course the earlier leftward lurch by the Democrats did not go unchallenged. Democratic Cold Warriors like Scoop Jackson and organizations like the Coalition for a Democratic Majority fought against the tide. But despite their principled efforts, the Democratic Party through the 1970s and 1980s became prisoner to a foreign policy philosophy that was, in most respects, the antithesis of what Democrats had stood for under Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. 

Then, beginning in the 1980s, a new effort began on the part of some of us in the Democratic Party to reverse these developments and reclaim our party’s lost tradition of principle and strength in the world. We were aided in this push by historic events—first the collapse of the Soviet Union and then America’s lightning victory in the Gulf War—which made a strong, self-confident foreign policy look increasingly correct. 

Our band of so-called New Democrats was successful sooner than we imagined possible when in 1992, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected, and a big shift took place in the foreign policy of the Democratic Party. In the Balkans, as President Clinton and his advisers slowly but surely came to recognize that American intervention, and only American intervention, could stop Slobodan Milosevic and his campaign of ethnic slaughter, Democratic attitudes about the use of military force in pursuit of our values and our security began to change. 

This transformation was the reason Norman Podhoretz took to the pages of National Review in 1999 in praise of Bill Clinton. 

The Clinton administration, he wrote then, “has at last long done what those who founded the Coalition for a Democratic Majority more than a quarter-of-a-century ago were unable to bring about: He has all but de-McGovernized the Democratic Party.” 

This happy development continued into the 2000 campaign, when the Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore championed a freedom-focused foreign policy, confident of America’s moral responsibilities in the world, and unafraid to use our military power. He pledged to increase the defense budget by $50 billion more than his Republican opponent—and, to the dismay of the Democratic Left, made sure that the Party’s platform endorsed a national missile defense. 

Oh, and incidentally, he chose a hawkish Democratic senator from Connecticut as his Vice Presidential running mate. 

By contrast, in 2000, Governor Bush promised a “humble foreign policy” and criticized America’s peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. One of his top foreign policy advisers opined that “America’s armed forces are not a global police force”—a line that another prominent Republican said was “closer to the spirit of George McGovern than Ronald Reagan.” 

This was a reality that Norman also noted in his 1999 article in National Review, and which he lamented. “It pains me to admit this,” he wrote, “but I would estimate that there is now more isolationist sentiment in Republican than in Democratic ranks.” 

Today, less than a decade later, the parties have completely switched positions.  And though it pains me to admit this, I would estimate that there is now more isolationist sentiment in Democratic than in Republican ranks. 

The reversal began, like so much else in our time, on September 11, 2001.  The attack on America by Islamist terrorists shook President Bush from the foreign policy course he was on. 

He saw September 11 for what it was: a direct ideological and military attack on us and our way of life.  His response was equally direct: ideologically self-confident and militarily strong. It included counter-attacks on our enemies and nation-building in our new allies. 

If the Democratic Party had stayed where it was in 2000, America could have confronted the terrorists with unity and strength in the years after 9/11. 

But instead a debate soon began within the Democratic Party about how to respond to President Bush. I was at the center of it in my unsuccessful Presidential campaign of 2004, and my tumultuous but ultimately successful campaign for reelection to the Senate in 2006. 

I felt strongly that we Democrats should embrace the basic framework that President Bush had advanced for the war on terror as our own, because it was our own. It was our party’s legacy from Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Clinton. 

Of course we should criticize the Bush administration when we believed it failed to live up to its own new national security goals, or when it mishandled the execution of its policies. But I felt strongly that we must not minimize the seriousness of the threat from Islamist extremism, nor weaken our country’s response to it by dividing reflexively along partisan lines. 

But that was not the choice most Democrats made. Instead, at critical moments and on critical issues of foreign policy and homeland security, they have resurrected the profoundly wrong and persistently unsuccessful McGovern-Carter worldview that had characterized the Democratic Party during the 1970s and 1980s. 

It did not happen all at once. In the weeks and months after September 11, Democrats and Republicans put aside partisan divisions and stood united as Americans. As late as October 2002, a Democratic-controlled Senate voted by a wide bipartisan margin to authorize President Bush to use military force against Saddam Hussein. 

But when total victory did not come quickly in Iraq, the old voices of partisanship and peace at any price began to assert themselves at the grassroots of the Democratic Party. Despite all of the successful efforts of New Democrats during the 1990s to rebuild a strong centrist Democratic Party, the pillars of our achievement were soon falling like dominoes.  

And so the pacifist, protectionist, and isolationist sentiments that President Bill Clinton and we New Democrats worked so hard to banish from the mainstream of the Democratic Party are today back with a vengeance. They are a galvanizing force among a significant segment of the Democratic base, and a major part of the Democratic Party’s platform. 

By considering centrism to be collaboration with the enemy—not Bin Laden, but Bush—these activists have successfully pulled the Democratic Party farther to the left than it has been at any point in the last twenty years. 

Instead of challenging their opinions, far too many Democratic leaders have kowtowed to them. And that, not surprisingly, includes my Senate colleague Barack Obama, who, contrary to his rhetorical invocations of bipartisan change, has not been willing to stand up to his party’s left-wing on a single significant issue in this campaign, nor for that matter has he worked with Republicans in the Senate during his three and a half years there to forge the tough, bipartisan compromises that produce results for the American people. 

In this, Barack Obama stands in stark contrast to John McCain, who has shown the political courage throughout his career to do what he thinks is right – regardless of its popularity in his party or outside it, to take on the status quo in our government when it is not working, and to reach across party lines to get things done for our country. 

John also understands something else that too many Democrats seem to have become confused about lately—and that is the difference between America’s friends and America’s enemies. 

Now, there are of course times when it makes sense to engage in tough diplomacy with hostile governments, times when it is in our interest as well as theirs, and there is some prospect of progress. But what Senator Obama has proposed is not such selective engagement, but a blanket policy of meeting personally as President, without preconditions, in his first year in office, with the leaders of the most vicious, anti-American rogue regimes on the planet. 

Senator Obama has said that in proposing this, he is following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.  But Kennedy never met with Castro, and Reagan never met with Khomeini.  And can anyone imagine Presidents Kennedy or Reagan sitting down unconditionally with Ahmadinejad or Chavez?  I certainly cannot. 

If a President ever embraced our worst enemies in this way, he would strengthen them and undermine our most steadfast allies. In some critical regions of the world, Senator Obama already seems to be doing that. 

In Asia, for example, at the same time Senator Obama has offered to meet without preconditions with the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, he has turned his back on our democratic ally in South Korea, by announcing his opposition to the trade agreement that is rightly viewed by Seoul as pivotal to the future of our alliance. 

In the Western Hemisphere, where Senator Obama has said he would be willing to meet without conditions with the anti-American dictators in Cuba and Venezuela, he is simultaneously giving a cold shoulder to the democratically-elected, pro-American government of Colombia. 

In the Middle East, Senator Obama has famously said that he would meet without preconditions with the president of Iran—the terrorist leader of a terrorist regime, a man whose government is responsible for the murder of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq, and who repeatedly promises to destroy Israel and bring “Death to America.” 

At the same time Senator Obama has pledged to meet with the leader of this viciously anti-American totalitarian regime in Tehran, and so many Democrats have struggled to defend his pledge, he and they have simultaneously pledged to abandon the democratically-elected government in Baghdad. 

These important questions have, of course, been in the news over the last few days because of Senator Obama’s response to the stirring speech President Bush gave to the Israeli Knesset last week.  I thought the lessons the President drew from the Second World War were powerfully true for our time, and all times.  I assume that Senator Obama and most of the foreign and defense policy leaders of the Democratic Party responded so quickly and emotionally to President Bush’s words because they stung them with their relevance to their policies, whether or not that is what the President intended. 

In his attempt to show how he would bring about “change”—in this case, in our foreign policy—Senator Obama has said he would meet with President Ahmadinejad without preconditions, presumably to work out our differences and to persuade the Iranians to end their attacks on us and our allies. But Senator Obama is not painting on a blank canvass. Such diplomacy has already been tried, thankfully not at the presidential level, and it has failed.


The government in Tehran, which Senator Obama says he will talk to, is the same fanatical regime with which our European allies sat and talked for more than two years about their nuclear program—and accomplished nothing. It is the same fanatical regime that recently rebuffed another attempt by the Europeans to sit and talk again about what we might do for them if they stopped their nuclear program, the same fanatical regime whose representatives the U.S. has been meeting with in Baghdad at a lower diplomatic level, in order to confront them with the conclusive evidence we have that they are training and equipping Iraqi extremists who have killed hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of innocent Iraqis, and demand that they stop. And yet the painful fact is that the Iranian-backed killing of Americans and Iraqis goes on. 

Now, I ask you to keep this recent history in mind and listen to President Bush’s telling of more distant history, and I think you will see why Senator Obama was so defensive about what the President said: 

Some seem to think that we should negotiate with the terrorists and the radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.” 

There are good and decent people who cannot fathom the darkness in these men and try to explain away their words.  It’s natural, but it’s deadly wrong.” 

As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American Senator declared, ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’” 

In hindsight, these senatorial remarks seem so pompous and foolish that one does not know whether to laugh or to cry. 

I gather the Senator being quoted was William Borah, a Republican and an isolationist.  His words are heavy with personal overconfidence and diplomatic naïveté. 

Those are not qualities to be desired in a Senator or a President, particularly not at a time of war. 

As a great Democratic Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, once warned “no people in history have ever survived, who thought they could protect their freedom by making themselves inoffensive to their enemies.”  This is a lesson that today’s Democratic Party leaders need to relearn. 

I am sometimes asked why, in light of these disagreements on foreign policy and national security with Democrats, I do not simply become a Republican. It’s a fair question. After all, many Scoop Jackson Democrats—including many in this room—followed Ronald Reagan into the Republican Party thirty years ago. But Scoop himself did not—and for the same reason, I suspect, that I have not. 

I continue to be a Democrat because I believe there is a critical need for two great American political parties with strong national security wings. We need a Democratic Party whose national security strategy isn’t subject to editorial review by Moveon.org and Daily Kos. 

So I call myself an Independent Democrat because although my foreign policy convictions are the convictions that have animated the Democratic Party in its finest hours, they exist in me today independent of the current Democratic Party, which has rejected them. 

And that is why I am so actively supporting John McCain for President this year—because John understands America’s unique values and mission, and he has devoted his life to our nation and its highest ideals. He understands that our Declaration of Independence is a universal declaration of human rights. 

I can tell you that some of the most moving moments I have had in Washington and around the world have been when we have met, usually at John’s request, with dissidents, reformers, and freedom fighters. 

As President, John won’t talk personally with the totalitarian leaders of Iran, but he will talk to the Iranian people who suffer under the current repressive regime in Tehran, the human rights advocates, the independent journalists, the women’s rights groups, the labor unions, and the representatives of ethnic minorities. 

John McCain understands the difference between our enemies and our allies. He will be trusted by our allies and feared by our enemies. He has a veteran’s distaste for war, but knows that there are times when only American power can protect freedom from tyranny, and save innocent lives from death. That is why I will do everything I can from now to November to help John McCain become the 44th President of the United States. 

Over many years now, COMMENTARY has been a north star for Democrats and Republicans alike in formulating and advocating an American foreign policy that understands that America’s cause is freedom, and that preserving, protecting, and defending freedom is the responsibility and destiny of every American leader—indeed, every American. 

COMMENTARY has been and continues to be a great intellectual fighter in that cause. For that, I thank the magazine, I thank Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozodoy for their extraordinary stewardship, and wish you, John Podhoretz, strength and honor in the battles ahead. This country that we love needs our help now as much as ever.

+ A A -
Share via
Copy link