The Washington Post
Politics: Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004by Hendrik Hertzberg
Here at Last are Hendrik Hertzberg's most significant, hilarious, and devastating dispatches from the American scene he has chronicled for four decades with an uncanny blend of moral seriousness, high spirits, and perfect rhetorical pitch. Politics is at once the story of American life from LBJ to GWB and a testament to the power of the written word in the right hands. In those hands, politics encompasses everyone from Jerry Garcia to Rush Limbaugh, every place from New Hampshire to Nicaragua, and everything from Playboy v. Penthouse to Bush v. Gore. Hendrik Hertzberg breaks down American politics into its component parts -- campaigns, debates, rhetoric, the media, wars (cultural, countercultural, and real), high crimes and misdemeanors, the right, and more. Each section begins with a new piece of writing framing the subject at hand and contains the choicest, most illuminating pieces from his body of work. Politics is a tour of the defining moments of American life from the mid-'60s till the mid-'00s, a ride through recent American history with one of the most insightful and engaging guides imaginable, a writer who consistently makes us see more clearly and feel more deeply.
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Read an Excerpt
The Hertzberg Effect
By David Remnick
Hendrik Hertzberg, in his present incarnation, is the political voice of The New Yorker. That pleases me, because, in my opinion, Hertzberg is the most humane and urbane commentator on American public life since Murray Kempton.
I first began reading Hendrik Hertzberg-Rick, to his colleagues and his improbably large circle of friends-when he and Michael Kinsley took tag-team turns editing The New Republic in the nineteen-eighties. National Review and Human Events may have held sway in the Oval Office, but elsewhere in town (on Capitol Hill, in the office suites of cause lobbyists and consultants, in newsrooms and think tanks, even in odd corners of Reagan's White House) no political publication was more eagerly read or more excitedly discussed than The New Republic. The relatively small liberal weekly (its circulation was around eighty thousand) had become an exhilarating cacophony of fractious, even warring, voices of different tones and tempers. In TNR's order of battle, Hertzberg and Kinsley, despite contrasting sensibilities, generally found themselves on the same side. Kinsley was, and remains, a master at lancing an inflated reputation or a fatuous argument. His prose is spare, logical, acerbic. Hertzberg's is a warmer, rounder, more confiding voice, though no less funny and often no less cutting. I had been reading the magazine ever since I arrived in Washington in 1982, but I remember well the first time one of Rick's pieces had on me what I'd later identify as the Hertzberg effect-a twinned zing of provocation and pleasure. The year was 1985, and William Bennett was the Reagan administration's secretaryof education and grand inquisitor. (This was long before his Elmer Gantry-Fyodor Dostoevsky moment, when the ever-accusing moralist was forced to reveal he had gambled away millions in family milk money in the gambling dens of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.) In a tone of highest dudgeon, Bennett had complained that the people who really ruled the country-the liberals, the judges, the whatever-had consistently displayed what he called "an aversion to religion" and a disdain for the "Judeo-Christian" values that made America great. Hertzberg, a determined secularist born to an unbelieving Jewish father and a Quaker mother, took unforgettable umbrage:
As a Judeo-Christian who has an aversion to religion, and who is an American as good as or better than any mousse-haired, Bible-touting, apartheid-promoting evangelist on any UHF television station you can name, I must protest.
Where is it written that if you don't like religion you are somehow disqualified from being a legitimate American? What was Mark Twain, a Russian? When did it become un-American to have opinions about the origin and meaning of the universe that come from sources other than the body of dogma of organizations approved by the federal government as certifiably Judeo-Christian? If it is American to believe that God ordered Tribe X to abjure pork, or that he caused Leader Y to be born to a virgin, why is it suddenly un-American to doubt that the prime mover of this unimaginably vast universe of quintillions of solar systems would be likely to be obsessed with questions involving the dietary and biosexual behavior of a few thousand bipeds inhabiting a small part of a speck of dust orbiting a third-rate star in an obscure spiral arm of one of millions of more or less identical galaxies?
Two decades later, I still don't know what to admire most about that passage-its swingy fearlessness, its sly patriotism, or the sheer syntactical gymnastics of its final flourish. The writing is so happy-making it almost reconciles one to the comic, cosmic smallness of our species and the bleakness of its fate.
Some people are changelings, creating themselves as if in a universe of their own making; others create themselves from what is around. Hertzberg is of the latter kind. There is no doubting the particularity of his voice as a writer, but he comes from a tradition that begins with his parents and their political atmosphere and devotion. His father, Sidney Hertzberg, a son of immigrant garment workers, was a teen-age street-corner speaker for the Bronx Socialist Party who grew up to be an itinerant activist-journalist and a member of New York's small and beleaguered but ultimately influential anti-Stalinist intellectual left. Besides agitating for causes as varied as independence for India, justice for southern sharecroppers, and the political campaigns of Norman Thomas and Hubert Humphrey, Sidney kept the family going with a seemingly endless stream of jobs as a writer and editor at various publications, both mainstream (the Times, Fortune) and marginal (Common Sense, the early Commentary). Rick's mother, Hazel Whitman, was the product of a family far more proper and genteel than one might imagine from the reputation of her famous great-great-uncle, Walt. She rebelled, becoming national chairman of the Young People's Socialist League; eventually she became a schoolteacher and then a professor of history at Teachers College, Columbia. When Rick was in first grade, Sidney and Hazel packed up and moved him and his younger sister Katrina out of the city and across the Hudson to Monsey, a sylvan town in Rockland County which is now populated mainly by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews but was then a rural retreat for artistic and intellectual types looking for some quiet and lower real-estate prices. By 1952, when Rick was nine, he was handing out Adlai Stevenson buttons door-to-door. At Suffern High School, he organized a slate of candidates for student council offices. They campaigned against "school spirit," made fun of football, and called themselves the Liberal Party. Not for the last time, the Liberal Party lost.
At Harvard, Hertzberg was managing editor of the student daily, the Crimson. Late one morning, while he was sleeping off an all-nighter at the paper, he got a telephone call.
"Hello, this is William Shawn."
"Yes," came the answer, "and this is Marie of Romania." Hertzberg hung up, sure that his caller had not been the legendary "Mr." Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, but rather a classmate aping the editor's famously whispery tone.
The phone rang again.
"No, this really is William Shawn," the small voice insisted.
This time, Hertzberg was more attentive. It would turn out that Lillian Ross had seen him on a television documentary about "concerned youth" called "The Shook-Up Generation," and he had been not only appropriately shook-up but eloquent about it as well. Shawn, therefore, was inviting him to write for his magazine. As it happened, Hertzberg was in the same class, 1965, as Shawn's son Wallace, and so, too, were Jonathan Schell, Jacob Brackman, George W.S. Trow, and Daniel Chasan, all of whom eventually received similarly welcoming calls from Shawn. "My whole career has been so marked by advantages gained from Harvard's old-boy network," Hertzberg confessed in 2002, in an interview with Craig Lambert for the university's alumni magazine, "that only in the last couple of years have I been getting over the debilitating sense of not deserving anything."
Hertzberg did not take the New Yorker job, not right away. First he was briefly the editorial director for the National Student Association, then reported for Newsweek out of their San Francisco bureau, and, most consumingly, had to deal with Vietnam. In 1966, he enlisted in the Navy, which began a personal drama that he has described with minimal self-dramatics and maximum self-deprecation. The long and short of it, he wrote in 1985, was that he "managed to have it both ways: veteran (sort of), and resister (in a way)." For the full essay, "Why the War was Wrong," written on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, see page TK of the book you are holding.
Mustered out of the Navy in 1969, Hertzberg finally went to The New Yorker, where he worked for seven years. It was, despite the times, his least political period as a writer. He did dozens of reporting pieces a year, mostly for the "Talk of the Town" section. He covered antiwar demonstrations and political rallies, but more often he wrote about things like rock concerts, trade shows, countercultural antics, minor-league baseball, local eccentrics, Monty Python's Flying Circus, and movie people-and he grew restless. At the end of 1976, when the call came from James Fallows to join the speechwriting staff of President-elect Jimmy Carter, Hertzberg jumped at the chance.
Hertzberg's four White House years are not represented in this book, unless you count the incisive character assessment of his flawed and saintly boss he wrote fifteen years later. Of course, he was writing like mad during those years, but the results have already been collected-by the United States Government Printing Office. Of particular note, for those who care to dig out the nine musty volumes of "Public Papers of the Presidents: Jimmy Carter" from some particularly well-stocked library, are the addresses to the Indian parliament (January 2, 1978), to the Egyptian parliament (March 10, 1979) and the Israeli Knesset (March 12, 1979), at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Library (October 20, 1979), and to the American people on "Energy and National Goals" (the so-called "malaise speech," July 20, 1979). And, of course, the Farewell Address (January 14, 1981). These speeches, of course, are not exactly "by" Hertzberg. Though his contributions to them were large, Presidential speeches involve an authorial cast of thousands. Still, it's not hard to tell which bits are not Hertzberg's. (He has a framed copy of the Farewell Address in his study at home, inscribed as follows: "Rick-Not bad for a 10th draft-Maybe we should have been more careful on earlier speeches & saved this one 4 more years-Jimmy Carter".)
The Reagan tide washed Carter out of the White House, and Hertzberg landed up The New Republic at the invitation of another Harvard friend, his old teacher Martin Peretz. The two had been arguing about politics since 1962, when Peretz was Hertzberg's political science tutor; now Marty was paying Rick to tell him he didn't know what he was talking about. While Peretz (and others at the magazine) increasingly listed right, chucking previous convictions overboard as hopelessly dated or naïve, Hertzberg set out the particulars of his persisting liberalism: the squalor of capital punishment, the idiocy of American drug and gun laws, the need for affirmative action as the flawed medicine after generations of institutionalized racism. There was surprise in the argument, surprise, certainly, in the prose, but not in the principles.
Though Hertzberg's title was editor, he sometimes found himself denouncing the editorials he edited. When TNR backed military aid to the Nicaraguan contras, he drafted a dissenting letter to-well, to the editor. (It appeared over the names of a majority of the magazine's distinguished roster of contributing editors.) When TNR attacked the nuclear freeze movement as a sinister plot manipulated by Soviet intelligence, he defended it as an earnest expression of justifiable popular anxiety. He was quicker than many of his colleagues to credit and welcome the liberal revolutions in Poland and the Soviet Union. The constant internal skirmishing at TNR was invigorating, but for the participants it could be wearing, too. The first time Hertzberg quit the editorship, in 1985, he wrote, in a "Washington Diarist" not included in this book,
My reasons for leaving are complicated. In the current (fiftieth anniversary) issue of Partisan Review, Daniel Bell writes that he finally left The Public Interest, which he had co-founded with Irving Kristol, because he believes that "friendship is more important than ideology." I believe that too. (In fact, it's a central tenet of my ideology.) I've learned here that I can be friends, good friends, with people who have serious politics of which I deeply disapprove. This is something I wouldn't have thought possible before.
One of the highlights of Hertzberg's time at The New Republic was his coverage of the 1988 campaign: Bush-Quayle vs. Dukakis-Bentsen. He got no scoops, influenced not a thing, but bemusedly tagged along with the candidates, all the while writing an ongoing chronicle that combined high comedy with moral disappointment. As a writer and as a man, Rick is almost preternaturally good-natured. Nothing, to him, is dull or meaningless, even the most meaningless of events. "In the afternoon we fly to South Dakota for a rally at the Sioux Falls stockyards," he wrote of a stint with the Bush (Senior) campaign. "Three hundred people are standing around in a makeshift corral. A sign says WELCOME TO SIOUX FALLS STOCKYARDS. There's livestock nearby. The podium is made of hay bales. The site makes for good visuals. Good olifactuals, too. The smell of bullshit, like the sound, is not wholly unpleasant." It's hard to choose the best of these '88 pieces, but surely the eeriest is the dissection of Dan Quayle. Eerie, because as Hertzberg ruminates about the difference between Bush and Quayle-the generation of noblesse oblige versus the generation of indolence and entitlement-and as he juxtaposes the younger man's limited achievement with his limitless ascent, he might as well be describing Bush (Junior).
Hertzberg returned to The New Yorker as an editor and writer when Tina Brown took over in 1992. For much of that period Rick's office and mine were next door to each other, and I grew accustomed to his undergraduate-style work habits; he was seldom there when I arrived in the morning, unless he had stayed all night. (That began to change somewhat after he married the talented senior editor down the hall, Virginia Cannon, and their son, Wolf, made his appearance.) In 1998, when I moved down the hall myself as Tina's successor, one of my first moves was to make sure that Rick's writing, and his political thinking, would be a regular, not just an occasional, mainstay of The New Yorker.
Nearly half of this book is drawn from the Comment pieces and longer essays Hertzberg has written for magazine over the past decade. It has been a time dominated first by the tribulations of the Clinton presidency and then by the darker era of the 2000 election, September 11th, and George W. Bush. The Bush era began with impressive rhetoric and cynical action, Hertzberg writes, and it has only gotten worse and more radically conservative. The President has ignored his lack of a mandate and jettisoned the idea of a "compassionate" and conciliatory conservatism for a swaggering revision of the American political way of life, foreign and domestic, since the New Deal. One of Hertzberg's more elegiac columns came after Al Gore finally let go the battle for the presidency after the Supreme Court delivered a verdict somewhat different from the electorate's. Hertzberg's choice of a historical analogy was original and apt, with, perhaps, a note of fine Kemptonian irony:
That was a tough concession speech Al Gore had to give the other night, but people have had to give tougher ones over the years. In 1633, a prominent, well-connected member of the high-tech community of Florence found himself on the wrong end of a decision by the then equivalent of the Supreme Court. Put on trial by the Inquisition, he was found guilty of advocating a doctrine described in the Holy Office's indictment as "absurd and false philosophically, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture." This was a characterization with which the defendant was known to privately disagree. But he was anxious to avoid being cast as a troublemaker and eager for the healing to begin, so he said the words the occasion required. "I, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzo Galilei, Florentine, aged seventy years," he recited, "abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies, and I swear that I will never again say or assert that the Sun is the center of the universe and immovable and that the Earth is not the center and moves." Before Galileo was led away to spend the rest of his life under comfortable house arrest, however, he kicked the ground and, according to legend, muttered, "Eppur si muove"-"But still, it moves."
It's fair to say that Rick disapproves of George W. Bush. He sees in the President, as he saw in Quayle, a man of incurious mind and crabbed compassion, and it was something that he noted immediately. In Hertzberg's estimation, Bush's inaugural address, as written by Michael Gerson, was a "relative" masterpiece. ("To read all fifty-four addresses, one after another, is to traverse a wasteland where pomposity, banality, and incoherence are more often relieved by mediocrity than by brilliance.") But, as he pointed out, "the dissonance began one day later. The new President's first act was an act of cruelty." He cut off all financial assistance to International Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide maternal health services in the most wretched corners of the earth and then spent the rest of the week promoting a regressive tax cut calculated to enrich his wealthy friends at the expense of the poor and near-poor. "Cruelty" was the word Rick used, and cruelty in politics, I have found, is the quality that he has never been prepared to abide.
--from Politics: Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004 by Hendrik Hertzberg (introduction by David Remnick), Copyright © 2004 by Hendrik Hertzberg, published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Hendrik Hertzberg has been a staff writer and editor at the New Yorker since 1992, and also in the early 1970s. He has also been a naval officer, a Newsweek reporter, President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter, and (twice) editor of the New Republic.
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