Hendrik Hertzberg's "Politics"

GUEST: Hendrik Hertzberg
VTR: 10/05/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And each time my guest has joined me at this table, I’ve struggled
to find words of introduction admiring enough to reflect how brilliant I’ve always considered his career … and his writing.

So, today, let me first just borrow briefly from The Penguin Press, publisher of his new “Politics … Observations & Arguments, 1966 to 2004″ as it notes that Hendrik Hertzberg has been a staff writer and editor at The New Yorker since 1992 … and was a staff writer there in the early 1970s as well. He has also been a naval officer, a Newsweek reporter, President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter, and (twice) editor of The New Republic.

But those are just the bare bones. Add to them about Politics and its author: first Philip Roth’s, “Hertzberg is among the very best. No bellicosity, not moral righteousness, no silly punditry, just the intellectual scrupulosity, the innate skepticism, the uncommon journalistic modesty, the unfailing common sense, the strong sentences, the wit and the dedication to justice and fair play.

And Toni Morrison’s… “Politics is invaluable for all sorts of reasons, chief among them being decades of elegant writing in the service of surgical intelligence”.

And Arthur Schlesinger’s … “For Americans interested in the moral and political temper of the Republic over the last 40 crazy years, Hendrik Hertzberg’s Politics is a fascinating book; astute, illuminating and witty.”

Then there’s Michael Kinsley’s … “Rick Hertzberg is the most eloquent defender of mainstream American Liberalism writing today. Combining passion and common sense, he makes the Liberal case on issue after issue seem not just true, but obviously true. He makes you wonder how could any sane person think otherwise.

And then, of course, there’s The New Yorker’s own editor David Remnick’s admiring, even loving Introduction to Politics, where he writes, “It’s fair to say that Rick disapproves of George W. Bush. He sees in the President a man of incurious mind and crabbed compassion and it was something that he noted immediately.

In Hertzberg’s essay “Estimation”, Bush’s Inaugural Address as written by Michael Gerson was a relative masterpiece, 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 the 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.” But Rick …

HERTZBERG: Wow.

HEFFNER: … there’s been a lot of that. Oh, come on … you’ve read this before …

HERTZBERG: [laughter]

HEFFNER: … you’ve seen your book.

HERTZBERG: [laughter] nobody’s read it out loud to me before.

HEFFNER: Well, it is quite wonderful and I think totally true. But how do you explain the cruelty that does seem to be characterizing American politics today? I don’t think that when you began to make your observations and arguments in 1966 that the quota was this high.

HERTZBERG: Well, I think we’ve had a lot of disillusioning things happen. I don’t think that there’s more conscious cruelty now than there was then, but there’s more, sort of careless cruelty. There’s more cruelty that, that grows out of cynicism and I think all across the spectrum there’s been a, a kind of invisible calcification, you might say, of, of cynicism.

Things never quite work the way we want them to and we start to, we start to expect that. And to up our quota of what we’ll accept in the way of, of cruelty … of, of casualties of people getting hurt accidentally …”that’s just the way it goes.”

HEFFNER: You know, I, I think you’re being too kindly, too generous. It seems to me that we have changed, that a kind of 19th century Social Darwinism … a carelessness about what happens to other human beings, “I’m alright, Jack, the devil take the hindmost” … that that’s come to the surface, that it certainly came to the surface in the Reagan years.

HERTZBERG: It did and the kind of Ayn Rand ideology, which was once a very marginal thing has become, has become mainstream, essentially. Mainstream. Now it doesn’t, it doesn’t overtly say … praise greed for its own sake. There’s always a social justification behind it.

The idea that if you … tax cuts for the rich, that if you give tax cuts to the rich, this is going to help everyone. It’s going to … the rich will invest the money and that will create jobs and that will help people farther down the scale. But it’s tinier and tinier and, it does baffle me actually. It does baffle me.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’ve changed as a people or just the people who represent us? I mean you, you were there in the Carter White House and happened to be there in that island of … benign concern for all human beings that I identify with Jimmy Carter, but otherwise we’ve been increasingly surrounded by this meanness.

HERTZBERG: Well, I don’t think Carter was any more or any less concerned about his fellow human beings than, than Clinton …

HEFFNER: You disappoint me.

HERTZBERG: I don’t. I, I really, I really don’t. I think that, that Carter and Clinton were very similar actually. Neither of them would, would be particularly happy to hear that. But I think that both highly practical people with a real, with a strong social ethic, with a strong ethic of, of social solidarity. And feeling around for how to get it down.

You know, Carter was … Carter was targeted pretty heavily by the Left of the Democratic Party, just as, as Clinton was in the early years of his Administration. And, and in both cases I think they were, they were trying to compromise, they were trying to find the formula between, between the purity of the goals and the, and the workability of the means to get somewhere …

HEFFNER: And I always …

HERTZBERG: … to actually get something done.

HEFFNER: And I always thought of Carter, and still do … you’ll forgive me …

HERTZBERG: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: … as someone who was never very much involved in those means.

HERTZBERG: Well, you’re … this is true in a way and in fact, when I … the essay on Carter that I have in this book … I, I describe him, half-jokingly, as a saint. Which has its good and bad aspects.

But …and I do think there’s a difference, there’s a temperamental difference there between … certainly between Carter and Clinton … between Carter and maybe many other, virtually all other Presidents that have come after him. It’s interesting to think about Carter versus Bush. Bush 2 because these are the … these really are the two most overtly expressive of religiosity of our last few Presidents.

Carter, Carter was the … Carter pioneered being a born-again politician/President/Christian. And, and Bush is another very, very, very, very different version of that. These two … Carter’s scorn and contempt for Bush, which was so much on view in the speech he gave at the Democratic Convention, is really routed in something that they nominally share, which is, which is a religious faith. Which is a religious outlook. And Carter, Carter despises Bush, I think in a way that, that … you know kind of the way that the Trotskyites despised the Stalinists. I mean … the real hates are between neighbors.

HEFFNER: Is that because, in your estimation, President Carter doesn’t accept, doesn’t believe in … would not recognize the religiosity, if that’s what you want to call it … of Bush 43?

HERTZBERG: I don’t think he would deny his, his private or personal religiosity. But the failure to make a connection, it has, I think, I can’t speak for Carter … and least of all in, in matters of religion. But I would guess that Bush’s failure to, to ask “what would Jesus do?” in this, in this profound or social way, would, would excite his contempt. I don’t think he would question that, that, that Bush was personally saved or that he was rescued from alcoholism and dissipation by, by faith in God.
But I think he would see, I think he would see Bush as a … and maybe now I’m just speaking … I should say I’m really speaking for myself and obviously not for [laughter] Jimmy Carter. But, but the smallness of Bush’s vision, the smallness of his religious vision, that doesn’t seem to … it doesn’t seem to … it’s a failure of imagination and empathy, not really a failure of faith, perhaps.

HEFFNER: In your own thinking, in your own position related to writing for President Carter. How did you, how did you come to accept whatever the nature of the religiosity, of the faith of that President.

HERTZBERG: Well, he did educate me … and without meaning to … in, in such matters. And in tolerance … I mean I’m a real Village atheist type …

HEFFNER: I can tell by reading your …

HERTZBERG: [Laughter] Yeah.

HEFFNER: … book.

HERTZBERG: And Carter, in encountering Carter, I was encountering … although, although I should add though that my mother was a Christian pacifist and a Quaker and so I had some inkling of, of the social gospel and that kind of Christianity. And, and some respect for it.

Carter was something new for me to encounter personally … you know a Southern Baptist, somebody who’s, who’s religiosity was so raw, I mean was so in-your-face, so on the surface, so there to see … and he taught … I learned to respect it. I learned to respect his faith and faith in general in a way that I hadn’t before.

HEFFNER: Would … would it have been possible for Jimmy Carter to make us feel that he communes quite as much as Bush 43 indicates that he communes and talks to a higher Father?

HERTZBERG: Ahhmmmm.

HEFFNER: Is that the kind of religion?

HERTZBERG: I don’t know. I was struck in reading David Frum’s about the Bush White House, where he writes of a … kind of the second day he was working there, walking with a friend out to the West Wing, and one of the big … one of the Bush big shots says to his friend, “Hmmm, missed you at Bible study this week.”

And that … it, it took me back to my White House days and I realized then that would have been an inconceivable thing to be asked if, in the Carter White House.

HEFFNER: How come? How come?

HERTZBERG: Because that was, because they, they … never at any moment was I made to feel unwelcome or not part of, of things or somehow not worthy of trust because my religious beliefs were different from, from Jimmy Carter’s and from many of the people that Jimmy Carter brought with him. Not for one second was I made to feel bad, the way this person that Frum describes is obviously made to feel bad because he didn’t get to Bible-study.

Bible study, religion those … the private faith, your relationship with God, I think, was viewed by Carter as completely your own business. And what you would be much more likely to be reprimanded for would be some failure of, some failure of compassion; some failure of … some political failure with an ethical base. So it’s the … ethics … he didn’t seem to mind where your ethics were rooted, whether they were rooted in the way that his were rooted, or in some other way. But he was … he, he wanted you to have them. But he didn’t care where they came from.

HEFFNER: Like them or not, do you think that the President and Karl Rove’s assumptions that they ought to keep appealing to the base and that the base accepts, indeed, embraces this … his brand of religion. Do you think they’re making a wise bet?

HERTZBERG: I don’t know. I mean, I suppose it’s a bet … I suppose it’s cynical and sincere at the same time, what they’re doing. But I’m not sure that it is a wise bet. There is a whole, there is another part of the traditional Republic base, which we might say the mainstream Protestant base … you know the Episcopal …

HEFFNER: Bush 41?

HERTZBERG: Kind of the Bush 41 … yeah, a different kind of, of a different kind of Protestantism. In fact Protestant is a word you don’t hear very often among, among the evangelicals. Christian is the word they use. And, and they’ve kind of separated themselves in a way from their, from the past and the legacy of, of Protestantism, which was, which was a revolutionary creed, after all, and which was … the name of which is, is a sign of rebellion against some sort of established order. They, they … and this … the kind of country club Episcopal church kind of Republicanism, that was part of the base and in some ways it is part of the base and that, I think, that part of the base is what Bush has risked alienating.

HEFFNER: Do you think he …

HERTZBERG: A lot of those people are wandering off. They’re not completely comfortable with, with voting for Kerry maybe, or with or with turning into Democrats, but they’re genuinely … there’s a lot of moderate Republicans who are genuinely disturbed and at sea, they’re not sure where to go.

HEFFNER: Rick is that an observation and argument. Or is that wishful thinking?

HERTZBERG: I mean people like Lincoln Chafee, the Senator from Rhode Island … now he, he … [laughter], not that he represents a mass movement, but I have enough anecdotal evidence from talking to people who are the, the sort of relaxed kind of traditional Republicans, suburban, not particularly passionate about, about anything, but kind of with a sense of, of with a sense of propriety and they don’t like, they don’t like the kind of religiosity that Bush pushes.

And they don’t like the policies. You know they don’t like the policies that flow from them, they don’t like the red meat that’s thrown to that constituency. They don’t like the anti-choice, or so-called “pro-life” position. They really don’t like the stem cell … I think that’s the one that’s, that’s … that’s the one that really crystallizes it for, for a lot of these people, is the stem cell research.

HEFFNER: And Kerry is pushing that now.

HERTZBERG: And he’s … he recognizes that that’s a hot button for, for a constituency that he needs to have.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s understood, that the whole Bush 43 opposition to stem cell research extended stem cell research registers as a kind of fundamentalist opposition … as a kind of very closed minded opposition?

HERTZBERG: Well, I’m not sure … I think what many of the people who are appalled by that position of Bush’s are, are thinking in much more concrete and practical terms. I mean they’ve got …

HEFFNER: That their own relatives …

HERTZBERG: … their own relatives who’ve got the diseases that can be, that can be helped by this kind of research. It is also a signifier, but whether it’s a signifier of, of sincere … whether behind it is a sincere belief that somehow by not permitting embryos that are going to be produced anyway because of invitro fertilization, not allowing them to be used for this humanitarian purpose is somehow a sincere effort to discourage the practice of abortion, or whether this is simply a cynical bone tossed to the … I guess it’s pretty obvious which I think it is. Because this was presented as a compromise, you know …

HEFFNER: Mmmm.

HERTZBERG: … this was presented as a compromise, the idea that you could use this cell lines developed before issuance of Bush’s policy, and now these lines have now proved to be completely inadequate.

I don’t know which it is, but there is, there is an element of pandering and of … and even of cowardice, too, because logically this crusade against stem cell research, should really be a crusade against invitro fertilization, it should really be a crusade against the production of these … and, indeed, when, when, when test-tube babies was a new phenomenon, or something that hadn’t actually happened yet, when there weren’t any actual cute little babies saying “goo-goo” and holding their teddy bears who had been produced in this way, it was viewed as the devil’s work.

Well now it’s a sacred part of American motherhood and apple pie. And so the, the blatant contradictions here and hypocrisies of this whole thing are just a playground for, for, for Kerry.

HEFFNER: But let me ask you is there any degree to which you might not use the phrase, “the devil’s work” …

HERTZBERG: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … but have real concerns about where science is taking us in these areas. Does Rick Hertzberg … Liberal …

HERTZBERG: Yeah. Yeah.

HEFFNER: … have any concern.

HERTZBERG: I have fewer than I probably should.

HEFFNER: What does that mean?

HERTZBERG: Well, I mean that, that the idea that it’s unnatural … look, I haven’t really figured out what I think about fooling around with the genetic code.

HEFFNER: But it worries you, I’ll bet.

HERTZBERG: Not as much as it … it worries me, but not more than it fascinates me and that I wonder if it might not … I sometimes like secretly think I haven’t written this, and I wouldn’t dare write it without thinking about it a lot. A lot more … but one can … in a situation like this … one can say things one wouldn’t write.

HEFFNER: No one’s watching anyway …

HERTZBERG: [laughter]

HEFFNER: … no one’s listening.

HERTZBERG: [laughter]

HEFFNER: … go ahead.

HERTZBERG: Maybe that’s the next stage of evolution. I mean maybe, maybe the way evolution works is that, that a species comes along that’s endowed with, with the ability to manipulate it’s own genetic code, and that’s what takes you one step further. I certainly … would I be against the manipulation of, of, of the genetic code, of DNA, whatever it is, I don’t know much about it, but the manipulation of it to extend life … to extend life of a good quality? I think it would be kind of great if, if people could live for 200 or 300 years.

HEFFNER: You do?

HERTZBERG: MmmmHmmm. Not forever. I think we … that would be an utter nightmare.

HEFFNER: [laughter] Where do you draw the line, Rick?

HERTZBERG: Well, I, I don’t know. I mean I guess maybe this is, this kind of goes back to my boyhood as a, as an avid reader of science fiction. The theme of longevity and kind of quasi-immortality is a common one in, in science fiction.

In fact there’s a wonderful series of novels by James Blish in which the two … one of the gimmicks is the invention of a, of a drug or a medicine that will … that prolongs high quality life for a long time. But it’s scarce. And so there, then if you want to talk about social conflict and about divisions in society and, and the “haves” versus the “have-nots”, imagine a society where the “haves” get another 100 years of life and the “have-nots” don’t.

I mean that’s … it worries me much more in that way … that, that the gains …the sort of wonderful sci fi things that could be accomplished through genetic manipulation, if they were, if they became just one more privilege of the “haves”, it would create … it would create a society infinitely uglier than the one we’ve got. And the one we’ve got has it’s un-pretty aspects.

HEFFNER: But it should appeal in a funny way to your notion about the newness of this, we may be creating the situation and in a sense, that’s very natural. It’s evolutionary.

HERTZBERG: It is natural and people, people maybe mis-use the word “natural”. It is … people are natural … people are part of nature …

HEFFNER: And people are doing this.

HERTZBERG: And people are doing it. It doesn’t really get you very far to say … to distinguish between what’s natural and what’s unnatural. I’m not sure what “unnatural” is. Can something exist if it’s unnatural? I know … of course, I know what … you know, that doesn’t stop me from shopping in Whole Foods, you know, and buying organic vegetables, though.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] We have a minute left. What are you going to do with your thoughts now. You’ve written Politics …

HERTZBERG: I’ve pretty much set out my thoughts, yeah. Well, for the time … I’m not sure. Kind of giving birth to this book, which was a practically 40 year process is something that I haven’t quite figured out, what, what the meaning of it is, or what comes next or if something comes next for me. And for the time being I’m going to keep on pumping out observations and arguments for The New Yorker. Which is how this came to be. I won’t have time to pump out quite so many to fill up another volume of that size. But I, I …

HEFFNER: With a little genetic manipulation?

HERTZBERG: [laughter]

HEFFNER: Come on.

HERTZBERG: Maybe and maybe … and then you’ll be there to help me promote it.

HEFFNER: Undoubtedly, but the only trouble is … we won’t be there on this program because I’ve just gotten the signal that it is over … and no amount of genetic manipulation will stretch that.

HERTZBERG: [laughter]

HEFFNER: Rick Hertzberg thank you so much for joining me today to talk about Politics: Observations and Arguments, you can’t be that old … 1966 to the present. Thanks a lot.

HERTZBERG: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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