About two-thirds of the way through the fine 1992 film, “A League of Their Own,” star catcher Dottie Hinson has had enough of the grind and is ready to quit. “It just got too hard,” she tells Jimmy Dugan, a former major league home run leader now relegated to managing the Rockford Peaches in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. “It’s supposed to be hard,” Dugan spits back. “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.”
Some years ago, at a lunch honoring Midge Decter, who died on May 9, I quoted the fictitious Jimmy Dugan while trying to capture something of the character of Marjorie Rosenthal Decter Podhoretz, “Midge” to her parents and all those privileged to be her friend. Doing the “hard,” with the courage born of conviction and the skill born of a broad and penetrating intelligence, is what made Midge Decter great— and unique. And while it’s a cliché to say it (especially about a gimlet-eyed editor who would skewer a cliché at 40 paces), we won’t see her like again. The combination of circumstances and personality that made her a giant are not replicable. And that is not pleasant to contemplate, because America today badly needs the wisdom and example of a Midge Decter.
Writing of Midge in The New Criterion, Roger Kimball nicely captured her multifaceted personality and its impact on so many of us: “She was above all a sort of spiritual godmother, warm and encouraging to the young, unsparing to the pompous and wrongheaded, gifted with a laser-like ability to distinguish what was genuine and what was fraudulent.” And while Midge was a happy Jewish warrior for cultural sanity, sound politics and a society that lived freedom in solidarity, she was also clear-eyed and unsentimental about the enduring effects in public life of what her Christian friends — and there were many of them — called “original sin.” I once complained to Midge about some political perfidy or other, some betrayal of principle or trust, and she replied, with a kind of grim smile, “Think low, George. You’ll rarely be disappointed.”
As a matter of prudential judgment, she was right: the human capacity to muck things up is virtually limitless. While hard experience and the cardinal virtue of prudence might dictate “thinking low” and not expecting too much in the political arena, Midge challenged us to aim high: to live and organize and argue for the good things, the permanent things, the noble things. Thinking low didn’t mean aiming low. And while Midge fought hard, she also fought clean, with a joie de combat and brio that kept those of us fortunate to be in her orbit energized.
Midge loved the United States of America and was deeply grateful for what the country had meant to her forebears, for tens of millions of other descendants of immigrants, and for women. When soft, psychologized 1950s liberalism morphed into radical 1960s self-indulgence and the detritus of all that began to show its toxic effects in American public life in the 1970s, Midge was one of the first to insist that politics is always downstream of culture. And if you didn’t like the options politics was presenting, you’d better look to disturbances (and worse) in the culture to understand why things weren’t what they should be.
Midge was one of the intellectual progenitors of neo-conservatism in American public life. That movement, always lacerated from the left, is now deprecated by MAGA types. And I expect Midge found it a sadness that ambition was warping the judgment of otherwise intelligent politicos who talk nonsense when kowtowing to the populist throng. A good spanking from Midge Decter, who never, ever kowtowed, whether to woke cancel-culture barbarians or their right-wing mirror images, might have done some of today’s aspirants to conservative leadership some good.
Her work in directing the Committee for the Free World was vindicated by the Revolution of 1989 and the Soviet crack-up of 1991. But Midge also knew that history hadn’t ended and that new dragons would emerge, as indeed they have. She also knew that it was the height of irresponsibility, including moral irresponsibility, to imagine that those dragons could be safely ignored by American foreign policy.
A true daughter of Israel, she loved her Christian friends and helped them make better Christian arguments in the public square. As Elisha asked of Elijah, may we be blessed with a portion of her spirit.