Midge Decter has slipped away, passing quietly Monday at age 94. It may have been the only thing she did quietly in her entire life.
She was a talker, an inveigler and a world-class anecdotist. An editor of others’ prose and an underappreciated wordsmith in her own right. A family woman and a public figure.
From a place among what were called the New York Intellectuals of the 1950s — the mostly Jewish writers and thinkers who congregated in Manhattan — Midge emerged as the den mother of the old social-science form of neoconservatism in the 1960s and ’70s. From there it was a simple step to becoming the earth mother who helped hold together all the writers and thinkers in the big tent of Reaganite conservatives during the 1980s and 1990s. They squabbled endlessly with one another, but they would all come when Midge Decter called.
Mostly that was because she was always what previous generations would have called a smart cookie. She was born in 1927, to the Rosenthal family in Saint Paul, Minn., which had at the time a thriving Jewish community. Coming to New York to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 1940s, she worked at the Zionist magazine Midstream and the American-Jewish journal Commentary. Along the way she married the anti-Soviet activist Moshe Decter, whose name she kept after her divorce (and with whom she had two children: Naomi Decter and the late Rachel Abrams).
She would then marry Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary and one of the founders of early neoconservatism, and have with him two children: John Podhoretz, the current editor of Commentary, and the Israeli writer Ruthie Blum.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, Midge worked as an editor with Willie Morris in the heyday of Harper’s magazine and then as a guiding editor, the party theoretician, at Basic Books. Beginning in 1981, she served as the executive director of the Committee for the Free World, an important anti-Soviet organization. She closed her offices after the fall of the Iron Curtain — one of the few conservative groups that could say it actually achieved its goal and was no longer needed.
Her books include scathing 1970s takedowns of the emerging women’s movement and “An Old Wife’s Tale,” a 2001 memoir. Nearly forgotten is her astonishingly prescient “Liberal Parents, Radical Children,” a 1975 social commentary that might have been written today to explain the violent discontent of college-aged Americans.
For the past 30 years, nearly every conservative group — from the Heritage Foundation to the Independent Women’s Forum — has wanted her as a board member. And why wouldn’t they? Midge Decter was exactly what an organization needs on its board: someone experienced, clearheaded and not on the make. Midge was settled in herself, and it made her a great woman.
In an obituary in National Review, the conservative thinker Yuval Levin called her a “force for good,” which she was. But Levin, among the sternest of moralists in modern conservatism, put the emphasis on “for good.” And where the emphasis really belongs is on the “force.” She was one of those people who made things happen, one of those women who pushed things along.
I shared an office with Midge in the mid-’90s, editing together at a job for which there wasn’t really enough work for both of us. And so we filled our days with chain-smoking and conversation. For her, it was a chance to tell stories of the political dim lights of such literary luminaries as Robert Lowell and Alfred Kazin, the knotted lives of Lionel and Diana Trilling, the glibness and wildness of Pat Moynihan, the gentleness of Robert Warshow, the sternness of Jeane Kirkpatrick.
For me, fresh out of graduate school, it was an education. The New York in which she moved while young is gone. The intellectual battles she fought have faded into history. But the lessons she taught about activity, strength of character and good-natured argument remain unchanged from generation to generation.
Among her most quoted lines is her description of finally admitting to herself that she had become a conservative and a Republican, no longer the liberal critic of the excesses of liberalism. “The time comes,” she quipped, “when you have to join the side you’re on.”
Joseph Bottum is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University and poetry editor of The New York Sun.