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Midge Decter, social critic and leader of neoconservative movement, dies at 94

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Midge Decter, an intellectual leader of the neoconservative movement whose acerbic, stylishly written essays and books assailed Soviet communism as well as American liberalism, denouncing feminism and other progressive movements while calling for unwavering support for Israel, died May 9 at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.

Her daughter, Naomi Decter, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

Mrs. Decter was the matriarch of a formidable neoconservative family that included her second husband, Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary magazine; their son John Podhoretz, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and now editor of Commentary; and son-in-law Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign policy positions in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.

Along with her husband and other New York-based intellectuals — including editor and essayist Irving Kristol and his wife, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb — Mrs. Decter was considered one of the founders of neoconservatism. The intellectual movement emerged in the 1960s out of the pages of Commentary, a previously liberal magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee.

Like many of her peers, Mrs. Decter was raised in a Jewish family of New Deal Democrats who grew disaffected by what she saw as an alarming tear in the American social fabric. Finding fault in welfare programs and moral relativism, she and other neoconservatives shifted rightward and became anti-communist hawks, championing a muscular foreign policy that saw peaks of influence during the Reagan White House and later under Bush.

In Commentary, a host of other magazines and several books, Mrs. Decter took aim at what she described as misguided social and political forces that were undermining traditional American culture and values in the face of a Soviet threat. Her targets included members of Students for a Democratic Society and other radical New Left thinkers, feminists and gay rights protesters, and militant activists of all stripes during and after the Vietnam era.

She achieved prominence in conservative intellectual circles in the 1970s for her critique of liberal politics and culture but was at her peak in the 1980s, with the ascendancies of Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In her 2001 memoir, “An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War,” Mrs. Decter wrote that she felt “truly welcomed and truly close to the political action” in an era when her conservative allies were in positions of power.

In 1981, she helped form the Committee for a Free World, a think tank dedicated to bringing down the Soviet Union, overthrowing the Marxist-Leninist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, opposing Fidel Castro in Cuba and championing capitalism everywhere. Mrs. Decter and her colleagues were outspoken critics of what she considered the post-Vietnam isolationism of the Democratic Party and its aversion to the use of military power. She also raised alarm bells over what she considered to be waning American support for Israel.

Mrs. Decter served as executive director of the committee while Donald H. Rumsfeld, defense secretary under Gerald Ford and later Bush, was its chairman. Other prominent neoconservative members of the committee, which disbanded after the fall of the Berlin Wall, included defense official Richard Perle, diplomat Paul Wolfowitz and Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest conservative foreign policy magazine, said Mrs. Decter was “a hybrid of intellectual-journalist” who helped influence thinking on the right, where proved a “supple and stylish writer.”

“She was a cold warrior, very anti-communist and deeply affected by the Soviet Union’s treatment of the Jews,” Heilbrunn added. “Midge also saw herself engaged in a war against the liberal elites.”

In three books written in the 1970s — “The Liberated Woman and Other Americans,” “The New Chastity and Other Arguments against Women’s Liberation” and “Liberal Parents, Radical Children” — Mrs. Decter sharply attacked the women’s liberation movement, the sexual revolution and what she described as “overheated parenting.”

She delighted in hammering what she considered the underpinnings of the women’s movement. She saw working men as the oppressed — taking flak from demanding bosses as well as newly radicalized wives.

“This is an absurdity as every man knows but so far hasn’t mentioned,” she told The Washington Post in 1972. “Here is some poor schnook who spends eight hours a day at the office taking a lot of crap, and for some reason or other he allows his wife to describe him as a beast surrounded by power and wealth.”

The women’s movement, she added, was a “paper tiger” that claimed to speak for the masses but whose roar was bigger than its bite.

“The fact that the movement has been allowed to speak for women has set back relations between men and women just as the Black militants set back race relations,” she added. “I mean, women are already working in a lot of offices, and their experience is exactly the same as men’s: The competent ones are at ease, have their self-respect, and are dealing with the problems of competitiveness just as men are.”

On sexual liberation, she wrote that birth control helped make the act of sex “inconsequential” for women and thus fueled empty sexual relationships that made women unhappy. She also lamented that liberal parents were raising narcissistic, overindulged children who took no responsibility for their actions and that young Vietnam War demonstrators were using activism as “just a convenient excuse” not to grow up.

Her 1980 Commentary magazine essay entitled “The Boys on the Beach” was a mocking and incendiary piece about vacationing in a gay New York seaside resort community called Fire Island Pines. The piece was ostensibly an exploration of the “homosexual-rights movement,” but its characterizations of gay life drew a withering, acid-dipped retort by author Gore Vidal.

In essays for the Nation magazine, he railed against Mrs. Decter and Norman Podhoretz for trafficking in anti-gay prejudices, likening Mrs. Decter’s essay to the fabricated anti-Semitic text “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Noting her “sheer vim and vigor,” Vidal wrote that “Decter has managed to go one step further than the Protocols’ authors; she is indeed a virtuoso of hate, and thus do pogroms begin.”

Around that time, Mrs. Decter said the point of her writing was to draw attention to what she considered liberal encroachment into American life — even if it meant incurring fiercely personal attacks.

“People who call us racist know we’re not,” she told the New York Times in 1980, speaking for a group that some liberals mockingly christened “the Commentary crowd.” “It’s just an attempt to defame your ideas by calling you names. Long ago, I decided to live without reference to what people called me since all those characterizations are intended to paralyze me, to shut me up. The only thing I can do is to go on and say what I think.”

Midge Rosenthal was born in St. Paul, Minn., on July 25, 1927. Her father owned a sporting goods store; her mother was a homemaker who sometimes referred to her talkative daughter, in Yiddish, as “Mouth.”

In high school, she wrote for the literary magazine and harbored what she later called “a series of girlish fantasies I wanted to die on the barricades in Palestine.” She attended the University of Minnesota, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and New York University but never earned a college degree.

Mrs. Decter stayed at home for several years to raise two daughters from her first marriage, to Jewish activist Moshe Decter. When the marriage ended in divorce, she joined Commentary as a secretary to its editor. She married Podhoretz in 1956, four years before he was named editor.

She once quipped to People magazine that the marriage was harmonious despite the fact that they made arguments for a living. “The most heated and passionate disagreement between us,” she said, “is on Gustav Mahler’s music, which Norman loves and I hate.”

In addition to her husband, of Manhattan, survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Naomi Decter of Manhattan; two children from her second marriage, Ruthie Blum of Tel Aviv and John Podhoretz of Manhattan; 13 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. A daughter from her first marriage, Rachel Decter Abrams, died in 2013.

Over the years, Mrs. Decter was acting managing editor of Commentary, executive editor of Harper’s and managing editor of the Saturday Review. She also was a senior editor at Basic Books, a publisher of social science and philosophy.

In 2003, she received a National Endowment for the Humanities medal that cited her achievements as an “author, essayist and social critic” who “has seen both sides of the American political divide.”

She once said that, given her jeremiads against the feminist movement, she was routinely pressed on how she divided labor in her own home.

“Why is there obsession with housework?” she told The Post, admitting that she employed help and that her husband shunned such duties. “Everyone has some unpleasant work to do in life. Everybody’s got some grubby work to do, it’s not the end-all of life. I mean, the movement describes household life as nothing but dirty dishes; it sees a child as nothing but a little producer of dirty diapers. There’s more than that.”

“I’ve put in my time,” she added. “And as for my husband, he keeps up my courage, and I bring him coffee. How do you think that compares?”

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