Midge Decter is best known as a member of a leading neoconservative family, the Podhoretz clan. Her second husband, Norman Podhoretz, was editor of the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary for decades and is considered one of the group's luminaries. Her son is newspaper columnist John Podhoretz, and her son-in-law is former Reagan State Department official and convicted (and later pardoned) Iran-Contra figure Elliott Abrams. Decter has been a prolific journalist and organizer, most notably as the founder and director of the hawkish Committee for the Free World in the 1980s (which she oversaw with the help of Donald Rumsfeld), and as an early and vociferous critic of feminism and the United Nations, which she regarded as a threat to the state of Israel.
Decter has been affiliated with many of the leading rightist and neoconservative institutions of recent decades. She has sat on the boards of the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Security Policy, and the Hoover Institution; was a founding member of the Project for the New American Century and a frequent signatory to its letters; and has been an editor at the rightist publishing imprints Basic Books and Legacy Books, as well as a frequent contributor to the magazines Commentary and First Things (see Writers' Representatives biography). Besides the Committee for the Free World, Decter was also involved in the similarly hawkish 1970s anti-détente groups the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the Committee on the Present Danger (Hoover Digest, 2002).
After a middle-class upbringing in Minnesota and an unsuccessful attempt at college, Midge Rosenthal came to New York and began working as a secretary at Commentary. While at the magazine, she met Norman Podhoretz, who became her second husband after the end of her first marriage to Moshe Decter. In the 1960s, she worked as an editor at Commentary and later at Harper's (see National Humanities Medal biography).
As was typical for many first-generation neoconservatives, Decter began her political career as a Democrat, moving to the right when she became disillusioned with the antiwar rhetoric of the George McGovern campaign. Her antipathy for the antiwar movement led her to help found the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a group of hawkish Democrats associated with Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson that was explicitly modeled on the earlier CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom (Hoover Digest, 2002).
During this period, Decter helped establish what would become long-standing tropes of the neoconservative rhetoric regarding purported liberal weakness, the United Nations, and Israel. Along with other early neoconservatives, Decter was concerned that the Vietnam War had resulted in the lessening of the possibility of the United States wielding its military power, a result that the neocons considered potentially catastrophic. As Podhoretz wrote in 1982: "The survival not only of the United States but of free institutions everywhere in the world depends on a resurgence of American power." Thus, Decter and Podhoretz struggled to overcome the post-Vietnam "malaise" in U.S. culture, which they thought was expressed in the counterculture and the "appeasement" polices of both the Nixon and Carter presidencies (see Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism, pp. 74-75).
Decter began associating Israeli security with U.S. security, arguing that the two were intertwined. As Decter once wrote while criticizing politicians whom she felt were not sufficiently supportive of Israel: "In a world full of ambiguities and puzzlements, one thing is absolutely easy both to define and locate: that is the Jewish interest. The continued security—and in those happy places where the term applies, well-being—of the Jews, worldwide, rests with a strong, vital, prosperous, self-confident United States" (cited in Mark Gerson, Neoconservative Vision, p. 165).
Decter also made a name for herself as a harsh critic of feminism and women's liberation—although her status as a Manhattan divorcee with a successful journalism career might have made her seem an unlikely champion of anti-feminism. Her first two books, The Liberated Woman & Other Americans (1970) and The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women's Liberation (1972), argued most notoriously that "the pursuit of orgasm for a woman is an entirely irrelevant undertaking" (Time, October 16, 1972).
In 1981, Decter founded the Committee for the Free World, which pushed for an aggressive Cold War stance until it disbanded in 1990. Decter served as executive director (and Rumsfeld as chair) of the group, which was particularly active in backing right-wing paramilitary movements in Latin America. Figures associated with the Committee included Abrams and Michael Ledeen, as well as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Decter also led the short-lived Nicaraguan Freedom Fund.
From 1990 to 1995, she was an editor at Richard John Neuhaus' First Things magazine, where she remains on the editorial board. During this time she was also a senior fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Life (National Humanities Medal biography).
In 2003, Decter published Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait, an admiring biography of her former colleague Donald Rumsfeld. Unsurprisingly, Commentary gave the book a glowing review, with reviewer Victor Davis Hanson opining that " what Midge Decter's biography reminds us is that we need this seventy-one-year-old veteran far more than he needs us" (Commentary, December 2003).
The course of the Iraq invasion and war failed to vindicate Decter's judgment. In 2006, the New Republic's Jonathan Chait looked back at the genre of Rumsfeld hagiography, of which Decter's tome was a prime example. Chait wrote that "[w]hen it was first published in 2003, Decter's ode to Rumsfeld was notable primarily for the schoolgirlish approach it took toward the author's sex appeal, replete with multiple cheesecake photos of a muscular young Rumsfeld in various athletic poses. Again, the contrast with Clinton was a central theme. '[T]here were few women and even fewer men who would with any sincerity have awarded Clinton the status of sex hero, let alone—O happy invention!—'studmuffin,' she wrote at one point. 'That designation would have to await the arrival of a high-achieving, clear-headed, earnest, no-nonsense, Midwestern family man nearly 70 years old.' Here Decter had pioneered a new literary form: the foreign policy tract as Teen Beat mash note.
"In retrospect, though, the quasi-salacious hero worship stands out less than Decter's wholehearted endorsement of Rumsfeld's hallucinatory worldview. In Decter's telling, Rumsfeld had the brilliant foresight to transform the military into a lighter, smaller force. ('[W]ho could honestly doubt the brilliance of the military plan [in Iraq]?' she asked, in what was at the time intended to be a rhetorical question.) Alas, as she explained, his masterful strategy aroused the envy of lesser minds around him. As she put it, '[t]hose whose resistance he had successfully put down would set out to exact their revenge by attacking his plan for the conduct of the approaching war in Iraq.' For instance, she noted incredulously, 'Ralph Peters complained that there were still not enough troops in Iraq to do what was necessary. They might have won the war handily ... but now there were not enough boots on the ground to establish the rule of law.' Decter presented this objection as self-evidently wrong" (New Republic, October 23, 2006).
In 2002, she published a memoir, An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War. Decter has remained an active commentator and proponent of interventionist policies. She also remains an outspoken hawk, placing most of the blame for the course of the Iraq War on the domestic antiwar movement. This view is similar to her analysis of Vietnam; in a 2005 lecture at the Heritage Foundation, she restated her claim that " Johnson and Nixon were unable to turn Vietnam into an honorable and ultimately beneficial military undertaking ... not because of what was happening in Vietnam itself but because of the hostilities back here in the United States" (Heritage Lecture, November 21, 2005).
In 2004, Decter joined a group of high profile political figures—including Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and former CIA director James Woolsey—in resurrecting the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), the 1970s group that led the battle against détente with the Soviet Union. In its post-9/11 incarnation, the CPD claims to be "dedicated to protecting and expanding democracy by supporting policies aimed at winning the global war against terrorism and the movements and ideologies that drive it." Decter is blurbed on the CPD website as saying: "The United States is the leading—indeed at the moment the only—major world power. It continues, as it always has done, to play this role reluctantly. Thus each international crisis is made to seem an entirely new and separate—and surprising—issue to deal with. Yet whether we take up the burden of our power willingly or reluctantly, it will remain our inescapable burden still. If we fail to act, that too will be an action. It is time for Americans to understand this and to be grateful that it is they, and not some monstrous regime, who have been chosen by Providence to play this role."
In 2003, President Bush honored Decter for her contributions to the conservative movement by awarding her the National Humanities Medal. During Bush's tenure in the White House, the prize has also gone to such conservative and neoconservative luminaries as Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harvey Mansfield, Donald Kagan, Hilton Kramer, Thomas Sowell, Bernard Lewis, and Fouad Ajami.