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An interview with Jay Nordlinger

By Bernard Chapin
web posted March 3, 2004

Jay Nordlinger is listed as National Review Managing Editor on its masthead and he's certainly one of the first names I think of whenever I see it come in the mail every other week or so. Nordlinger, like the NR, can be found "standing athwart history 24/7" (a motto on their old T-shirts). Throughout his years at the University of Michigan it would have been easier just to allow himself to go with the flow of the thousands of leftists around him but Nordlinger refused. He graduated and became one of the most sophisticated and persistent critics of political correctness that we have (see his comment on "every man for manself" below). Incidentally, the irony of his graduating from Michigan should be striking to anyone who knows Ann Arbor. [I have often suggested that the university change its nickname from "Fighting Wolverines" to "Irritable Post-Modernists" but, alas, no dean has taken my advice.]

Mr. Nordlinger is also a music critic at The New Criterion, which is perhaps the most erudite monthly offering that our culture possesses. I know this to be true as I received Poetry for a couple of years and found that the only poems I remembered reading each month were the three or four that were presented in the middle of The New Criterion. I've since let the other journal subscription elapse. When reading his music critiques what comes across to the layman, and I am certainly that, is his sincere reverence towards his subject. This month was one of the only times that I recall him saying anything remotely condescending about any of the musicians he has reviewed and he tactfully offered numerous justifications for his opinion afterwards. Nordlinger never bores the reader with symphonic "inside baseball." A sense of personality permeates all of his descriptions of the conductors, orchestras, etc. that he covers.

1. Jay, I come to you as a rather biased source due to the fact that I read your work as a subscriber to National Review and the journal The New Criterion on a regular basis. I also know that you used to work at The Weekly Standard. I'd like to ask you first whether you see yourself more as a political commentator or as a music critic. Secondly, would you consider your musical criticism to be political? Does politics in any way color your musical judgments in the same way that politics affects Mark Steyn's (outstanding) theatre criticism in The New Criterion?

Well, to take the first question first. That's sort of a hard one to answer – whether I see myself more as a political journalist or as a music critic. Until recently, the answer was easy: I was mainly a political journalist, and, sort of on the side, a music critic. Now it's more 50-50, I guess, although I still consider myself primarily a political editor and writer. (Let's not forget the editor part.) I write music reviews several times a week for the New York Sun, a (relatively) new newspaper here in the city. So, I'm sort of a political journalist by day, critic by night – I actually think about it that way. It breaks down that way.

Jay NordlingerAs for politics: In music? No. It almost never comes up. Sometimes performers inflict politics on the audience, and I of course take that into account when I write – but that happens seldom. I sort of pride myself on not letting political views color any of my music criticism – even in blatantly political works, like, oh, "The Death of Klinghoffer" (the opera by John Adams). There are certain musicians whose politics I despise, but I would never hold that against them, musically. (You would probably want an example – I'll give you Daniel Barenboim, whose views on the Middle East are roughly Arafat's.)

A group like the Kronos Quartet does frankly political things – commissions political works and so on. That you have to deal with.

But, in the main, I'm an art-for-art's-sake guy. (Which is a "conservative" position, incidentally.)

2. You've been very fortunate to work so closely with the intellectual giants of conservative America. Principally, I am of course referring toWilliam F. Buckley and Roger Kimball. How have they influenced your work? Kimball's book on the 60's, The Long March, is one of my all-time favorites. Did you wonder about Kimball being offered a government post with the Bush Administration?

Of course it's a huge honor to know and work with Buckley and Kimball, and many others. How have they influenced my work? Tremendously. The two people who had most to do with my political development are William F. Buckley Jr. (longtime editor of National Review) and Norman Podhoretz (longtime editor of Commentary). It's so weird and wonderful that they are now friends of mine. Jaded as I may be, I still consider myself damn lucky.

Yes, The Long Marchis a fabulous book. So are all of Roger's other books. I was talking to David Pryce-Jones recently (he's another major influence on me, and a dear friend). And I said, "Who are Roger's rivals today? I mean, who does what he does?" And David thought for a moment and said, "No one."

He's simply a great writer, a great thinker – a wonderful man.

A job for him in the Bush administration? What a comedown that would be . . . for Roger.

By the way, Bill Buckley said something interesting a couple of months ago when he introduced me at something. He said, "I'm reminded of the story of Jan Paderewski, who became prime minister of Poland. On meeting him, Georges Clemenceau said, 'Say, didn't you used to be the concert pianist?' Paderewski said, ‘Yes.' ‘And now you're in politics?' ‘Yes.' ‘What a comedown,' sighed Clemenceau."

No kidding.

3. One of the reasons I love your work is that your experiences in Ann Arbor are the same that I had when I would visit my friends there. They came back from college quite a bit different than how they left. I too identified myself as a liberal and would have been shocked to discover what I turned into after graduate school. Do you have any advice for "deprogramming" college students?

Good question. I think they should read widely. I should they should acquaint themselves with a range of people. And I think they should "question authority." Remember the old bumper sticker? "Question Authority"? That's what students need to do. They stopped doing it, many of them, long ago. And some of the authorities they might question are their professors.

4. "Impromptus" is my favorite part of NRO (with the exception of Jonah's Bastille Day yearly offering). Is it a dream of yours to one day be the overall editor of the magazine?

No. We have a splendid editor, Rich Lowry. And my dreams are mainly not professional. Furthermore, what professional dreams I do have relate primarily to writing – to books, for example, which I have not had the time to write, or even think about much.

5. With so much analysis and travel – your recent trip to Davos is an example – are you unable to do some things professionally? Is it your dream to become a prolific book writer like John Derbyshire or Kimball?

Isn't that odd? I hadn't read this question of yours, and I just answered it, in the previous question. I've got books I want to write. I've long wanted to write on Tiger Woods – Tiger Woods, golf, and America. A juicy theme, all together. I've written about Tiger – about various aspects of Tiger – many times, including two fairly big magazine pieces. I'd like to write about race in America. I'd like to write about music. I'd like to write about American liberals in the Cold War (although Mona Charen has done a great job of that, in her new book Useful Idiots). I'd like to write about Cuba, and how the world has ignored great suffering and evil there, or worse – defended and supported it.

I'd like to write about a mess o' stuff.

But it takes time, which I don't have now, what with editorial and critical duties (which I'm grateful for, and which pay bills).

6. What sets The New Criterion apart from other journals like The Independent Review and Partisan Review?

I know of no publication like The New Criterion. It is unique in all the world. I think it is a truly great publication, and I can hardly believe they let me in it. It almost seems a mistake – like being invited to a club where you clearly don't belong. Hilton Kramer did something wonderful and important when he founded that magazine. He's one of the people in this business – in journalism, in letters – whom I admire most. Why? For many reasons – he's a great art critic, for one thing – but especially because he quit the New York Times in order to undertake this daring and glorious venture, The New Criterion. I mean, he was at the summit, the top of the totem pole: chief art critic of the New York Times. That made him, in all probability, the most important art critic in the world. Certainly the most noticed.

And he said, "F*** it," or, excuse me, "To hell with it" (or "To heck with it"), risking everything to create a journal he thought needed creating. And we are all the beneficiaries.

7. Who is your most admired member of the Bush Administration? I assume from "Impromptus" that your answer will be Rumsfeld.

Yes, I admire Rumsfeld a lot. I think he's absolutely the right man in the right job. I admire Condi Rice too, whom I've known for several years, and John Ashcroft, and many others. Even Colin Powell. There's a lot that's stand-up about him, even if he sometimes sets my teeth on edge.

But you know who is most admirable? The president himself. He has conducted himself magnificently in office – not just as a wartime leader, but all-around. Someone suggested to me that he's as good as Reagan. I believe that, actually – and there's no greater Reagan nut than I. Even Nancy.

As Bush's father said, "It all comes down to the man at the desk." Bush the Elder used that in the '88 campaign: "It all comes down to the man at the desk." And that's the president, before whom the buck stops. In a way, the others – the subordinates – can't do anything without him.

8. The Carterpalooza in NRO and your piece on Carter in NR were hysterical although depressing. Your argument the other day about the man's hidden nature was excellent, but what is it about Carter that has allowed him to fool so many people for so long? The 70's were so long ago that whenever I try to argue with people about him it goes nowhere as they can't remember the facts. I point out that he even quit his former church when they tell me what a good and devout man he is, but I get very little mileage out of that point even. As an informed student of Jimmy Carter, would you agree that now in retirement he's become the real "Teflon President?"

He's the Teflon ex-president, yes – that's a good way of putting it. As I have often despaired, no one knows about Carter. No one knows what he has really become: sort of a far-left anti-American. And I don't say that lightly, believe me. I've studied him for a long time. Read just about everything on him. He was my "first president" – the president of whom I was first really conscious, the first president whom I followed in the newspapers. I probably cried when he lost to Reagan in 1980. I thought he was such a good, decent man – anti-war and all! And even though Desert One failed, miserably, at least it was attempted.

I could go on and on about Carter (and have in print), but I'll stop now. There's a lot of fascinating information in Doug Brinkley's book, The Unfinished Presidency. It's an admiring book, but it contains enough facts to damn Carter over and over in the eyes of a guy like me. No one realizes, for example, how diabolically anti-Israel he is, and how tight he is with many Arab leaders, including Arafat, including Gulf kingpins.

Oh, one more thing: He is not soft and naïve. He is very knowledgeable, very intelligent, and hard as nails. His views are simply repugnant. I'm sure he thinks that Fidel Castro is a greater leader, and a better man, than either Reagan or George W. Bush.

Carter is often portrayed as a too-trusting Sunday School teacher. Actually, from what I have learned, he's full of hate.

9. Your piece on the Interlochen music camp in northern Michigan called attention to an issue not mentioned much in the press. How valuable is a musical education for students in the scheme of life? How can it enrich the average, not gifted, student?

I try to be humble about this sort of thing. I think music is about the greatest thing in the world – but some people take to it, some people don't. You can't shove music down people's throats. People will sometimes say to me, "How did you choose music?" And I say, "You can't possibly choose music – music chooses you." Nothing in the world will keep a person away from music, if he wants it. And if he doesn't want it – you can't force him.

I say, make young people aware of everything: music, poetry, theater, sports, science, whatever. Make them aware of it. Make them taste it all. And let them go devour what they're drawn to. If it's music, great – if it's not, maybe the kid'll be enchanted by chemistry.

10. Everyone gets asked this one. Have conservatives lost the culture war?

I'm sometimes accused of being a gloom-and-doomer. But, yes, I think so. As I go about my daily life, I'm tempted to think that the world is awash in conservatives and conservatism. But whenever I leave my right-wing bubble and visit the broader world, I realize what freaks we are. What a remnant (as someone once said). A visit to a campus is a shocking thing – and it wasn't that long ago that I was in school. I even forget that you can't use standard English: that you can't say "every man for himself" without being regarded as a criminal or something.

And Hollywood? The entertainment industry? It's a sewer, to quote my friend Mark Helprin. A sewer.

Jay Nordlinger's work at the National Review Online can be found here while The New Criterion can be found here.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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