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Commentary Magazine Editor John Podhoretz on the first days of the Obama administration

Wednesday, January 21, 2009
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HH: We now go to Commentary Magazine’s John Podhoretz. You can read all of his material at Commentary Magazine. He blogs as well at the Contentions Blog, which is a must visit many times during the day. J-Pod, a Happy New Year to you, and welcome to the first day of the full day of the Obama administration.

JP: Happy New Year, Hugh, and I am full of moxie.

HH: All right, now tell me first, give me your general reaction to the audience to yesterday’s inaugural address.

JP: I mean, I thought it was a stiff, to be honest, and I’m surprised, because I do think that he’s a wonderful speaker and capable of giving very interesting and thoughtful and challenging speeches on occasion, and soaring ones. And I think for some odd reason, he deliberately chose not to do that. I don’t know why. My feeling watching him on TV and then according to some people that I spoke to who were on the Mall was that there was something slightly deflating to that extraordinary mass of humanity waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, and then he didn’t really deliver the emotional wallop that he know certainly was capable of delivering. And it was sort of an interesting choice. I’d be interested to know why he made it. I think that perhaps he figured that he should underplay rather than overplay, which you know, is sensible. I’m very much in disagreement, by the way, with people on the right who think that he was uncharitable or ungenerous or vicious to former President Bush. You know, the entire logic of his candidacy was to take the country in a very new direction. And as I recall, Reagan’s inaugural was, I wouldn’t exactly say that it could have made Carter’s heart happy to hear just the ways in which Reagan enumerated that the differences of approach that he was going to take after the four years that preceded his inauguration. So I think there’s something quite silly in the objection that the guy who ran on change actually said something about the ways in which he was going to start…

HH: You know, I’m in a middle ground there. My objection was he might have been a touch more gracious at the beginning before hitting him with a hammer. You know, you could have said a few nice things.

JP: But it didn’t seem to me to be like a hammer. I didn’t think, I didn’t actually think that the rhetoric was all that slashing. So he said, and in some ways, some of the things he said were perfectly legitimate, even without reference to…

HH: Oh, I agree with that. But I still think when you…

JP: …these matters, like saying you know, we made the wrong choices over the last eight years. That’s not saying ill of Bush.

HH: No, it’s not. I agree with that. But he could have begun by saying you know, and you’ve done the best you could, and my gosh, people like you…

JP: Yeah, but he doesn’t believe, you know, he shouldn’t say stuff he doesn’t believe. He doesn’t believe that.

HH: He doesn’t have to endorse the invasion of Iraq. I mean, there are things, you’re a good speechwriter, John. You know how you do that.

JP: Look, and you know that there will be a time later on when he does exactly that, when he will do what, say, Bush did, the extraordinarily generous, overgenerous things that Bush was capable of saying, say, about Clinton when he went to the Clinton library and various other things.

HH: Right, right.

JP: I mean, Obama will do that. It’s just that the time was his moment. I mean, in some ways, the speech would have been better if he had been harsher.

HH: Well, let me ask you about the Whitehouse.gov this morning, where under the heading Katrina, the new boss writes, “President Obama will keep the broken promises made by President Bush to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast”. Is this really necessary, J-Pod?

JP: Well, they’re not…look, this is part of the problem of what happened yesterday. I think even in Obama’s own psyche, I mean, even though it’s been two months, and this is, you know, a very serious and sustained transition, very well planned and thought through and all that.

HH: Very mature, very mature.

JP: But they’re still in campaign mode.

HH: Yeah.

JP: I mean, that is the presumption somehow that you know, what they do now is simply contrast themselves to the policies that they disagree with. And you know, he can’t really be faulted. That’s not him. That’s, who knows who that is? That’s some schlep three levels down.

HH: Now let me talk to you about the financial crisis, because you’re living in Manhattan, the center of the beast here. In terms of the level of confidence about it ending, where is that now? Not that next week it’s going to be done, but that you know…

JP: You mean in Manhattan?

HH: Yeah, in the next…

JP: I would say the level of confidence that it’s about to be ending is, you know, is somewhere sort of akin to…like the level of…I mean, not only is there no confidence in that, I would say that there was utter confidence in the fact that we have just begun to see the wave that is about to flood us.

HH: And what does that mean? Does that mean the market goes to 2,000, John Podhoretz?

JP: Well, I don’t know what it means about the market. What is means, what it means is that we are in for an extended period of economic reversal. And I mean the sense that one gets here is that the banking system is under incredible stress for reasons that are unclear. There is this international, global deleveraging, you know, flight from risk, removal of assets, freezing of holdings, and that this effect being worldwide means that since there’s nowhere for anything to go to be dynamic, there’s a crisis that everything is just sort of dropping at once. And in a city like New York, here’s the interesting thing. New York is the belly of the beast, right? Well the real estate market here hasn’t tanked. Various other things haven’t tanked. In about six weeks, when the entire New York financial system, and the…is based on the notion of annual bonuses that are given out at law firms and banks and financial institutions, these enormous payouts for the previous year’s work. Well, when these 50-75 thousand checks are not written, when this money does not flow out from these institutions into the economy of New York City, at that point, around March or April, the market here, the real estate market, is going to tank.

HH: And…

JP: It’s going to go down 20-30…it’s going to go down.

HH: We’re going to shutter Zabar’s.

– – – –

HH: J-Pod, I’m going to be in town on Friday night to do Hannity’s show. I hope I can get a table. I mean, are the restaurants still open?

JP: Can you get a table?

HH: Yes, are the restaurants still open?

JP: You can get a table anywhere.

HH: (laughing) That’s good.

JP: You can get…and by the way, you were joking at the close of the last segment about how Broadway’s going to go dark and the horses…Broadway is going dark.

HH: Is going dark, I know, I read that.

JP: Twelve shows, twelve shows have closed in the last four weeks. I mean, it’s very interesting. It’s actually a very interesting phenomenon, because you know, what one is being led to believe, or led to think, is that at least in this city that a lot of the economic gains of the last seven years are being wiped out completely. In other words, by the time this is all over, New York City’s economy, New York State’s economy, will be the size that it was in 2001-2002.

HH: You know, J-Pod, you don’t need an editor. But if I was your editor, I would say to you, I know you’re busy running Commentary, but a book on the manners of New York in decline is fascinating to me, because going from the wealthiest to a sudden stop is a difficult thing to watch. And I mean, I…

JP: That’s a very good idea. The problem is that the only people who would be interested in such a book are people in New York. And who would want to read, who would want to read…

HH: Oh, you underestimate…

JP: …such a thing.

HH: You underestimate how many of us will take not joy but great interest…

JP: Oh, you’re taking joy.

HH: (laughing)

JP: You’re taking joy. But look, you guys took the hit first in the real estate market.

HH: That’s true, in California. Now I’ve got to ask you a question before I get out of here, because you’re a movie guy. And I went and saw two movies last Sunday. One was Defiance, and the other was Waltz With Bashir.

JP: Yes.

HH: And I talked to Medved about them both, and I just need very quickly, what is Waltz With Bashir all about?

JP: What’s it about?

HH: Yeah, why did that, why do people like that?

JP: It’s about how, it’s a Vietnam, it’s a lefty Vietnam movie made by Israelis about Israel. That’s all it is.

HH: Who knew? How often does that happen?

JP: Well, I mean, you know, so it’s a little frisson, a little special dollop because it’s a cartoon.

HH: Right.

JP: It’s a documentary cartoon.

HH: But is it…

JP: But you know…

HH: Does it get critical acclaim? It’s the most anti-Israeli movie I’ve ever seen.

JP: Oh, it’s going to win the Oscar. It’s going to win the Oscar.

HH: It will? Wow.

JP: Israel’s intelligentsia is no different from America’s intelligentsia.

HH: Have you written about Waltz With Bashir yet?

JP: I have not written about Waltz With Bashir, but in the March Commentary, there is a lengthy, March Commentary, coming out in about a month, there is a remarkable article about it by Hillel Halkin.

HH: I want you to know that upon your ascension to editorship, I have resubscribed to Commentary for the first time since the Carter years, because I think you’ve got a similar role now. John Podhoretz, always a pleasure, my friend.

End of interview.

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