Hendrik Hertzberg

There at the “New Yorker,” Part II

VTR Date: March 11, 2002

Guest: Hertzberg, Hendrik


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Hendrik Hertzberg
Title: “There At The New Yorker”, Part II
VTR: 3/11/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Hendrik Hertzberg, Senior Editor at The New Yorker magazine and the man, who along with other longer pieces, so often writes the editorial comments that make the magazine’s front of the book “Talk of the Town” such an absolutely “must read” delight.

Now, with some help from my guest I’ll try to pick up where we left off last time. Rick, what, what in all of this talk that we’ve indulged in about the press and the power of the press and the power of the editorial “we”, etc. … what does it lead to in terms of your own sense of what your sense of the nature of human nature … how your perspective about the nature of human nature has influenced, or has informed the editorial content that you write. What, what lies beneath Rick Hertzberg’s editorial commentary?

HERTZBERG: Mmmmph. Well, that’s a big and terrific question. I think there’s a, there’s a set of … there’s a fundamental set of, of values isn’t quite the right term, but something … some combination of values and sensibility that my experiences of a lifetime have bred into me and that I’ve come to trust. And these inform, these inform what I write. And I try … I very sensible of the responsibility that writing these, these little pieces entails. And, in a way, tone … it’s a matter of, of tone. Tone is … even though it’s nothing but words on paper, there’s a sort of, there’s an emotional vibration that I can’t really put into words but that, I hope effect the way I put words together. This is as an abstract an answer, in a way, as your question was.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s a …

HERTZBERG: … but you know, you asked for it.

HEFFNER: It’s a hell of a question. I mean I, I realize that. But, you remember the old Edward R. Murrow “This I Believe” series …


HEFFNER: … that, that really is what I’m asking. And I’ve always thought I ought to pick up that Murrow …

HERTZBERG: Well, I, I believe that, that … I believe in democracy, I believe in …

HEFFNER: You mean rule by the people.

HERTZBERG: Rule by the people, but not for its own sake. For the sake of liberty. I mean I think the bedrock … my bedrock value is, is liberty. And democracy just happens to be the best and, indeed, the only way that liberty can be guaranteed. If there was some other way to guarantee liberty, I’d be happy to hear about it. And go along with it. I don’t know of any. And, and a kind of fairness. Equality is a word we don’t hear much of any more. But I believe in civic equality and I believe that while the market is a wonderful mechanism for the ordering of economic activity and the distribution of goods that, that it is not a moral force. It has no morality and that we have to organize our society in a way the mitigates the, the inequalities that the market creates. That’s my basic … those are my basic politics.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting when you talk about the marketplace because it seems to have become the singular, moral principle, or immoral principle that guides us today everywhere you turn. Liberals, as well as Conservatives … there is this talk about “marketplace values.” That’s what destroyed the Soviet dictatorship, the triumph of our “marketplace values”. What’s your own feeling about that …



HEFFNER: … a rumor out of place?

HERTZBERG: No, I don’t believe that, I don’t think that’s what destroyed the Soviet Union. I think it was the triumph of these, of these other values; of democratic values, not, not of market values. And I also …

HEFFNER: I meant our market values …

HERTZBERG: They are …

HEFFNER: … that we were so superior in power, in our material power that it destroyed the Soviet Union, they couldn’t keep up with us. No?

HERTZBERG: I don’t believe it. I think, I think that the Soviet Union collapsed because it was so out of sync with human nature. It was an unnatural arrangement. And once the pall of fear was lifted from the Soviet Union by Gorbachev, the rest followed more or less, more or less automatically. And power, American power and material superiority and prosperity played a role … certainly American power played a role in containing the Soviet Union and in, and in preventing a catastrophic war between East and West. But that’s not what, that’s not what brought it down. And that’s not what brought South Africa’s repressive regime down. And that’s not what brought Mexico’s one party state down. These, these developments all over the world in the late eighties and early nineties were … it’s a mistake to think of them as a triumph of … simply of market capitalism. And we here in this country, I’m convinced that one of the reasons that we tend to think that way is that our political system, for all the liberty that it gives, doesn’t work terribly well. Doesn’t work as well as the … as other democratic systems around the world. And so we have come to think of the public sector in a democracy as inefficient and undependable and doesn’t really work.

HEFFNER: Because it doesn’t work, we have come to think of government as a villain …


HEFFNER: … government is the enemy, as we’ve heard …


HEFFNER: … candidate after candidate say.

HERTZBERG: Yes. And no one ever seems to notice that there’s a glaring contradiction between our pride in our Constitution and our way of life and our democracy on the one hand, and the idea that government is the problem and that politicians are all a bunch of, of selfish “no-goods”. On other, we hold these two ideas in our mind at the same time, and there’s a real contradiction between them. I believe that it’s because, I believe that our system needs reform. Our political system needs reform. And that most of the other countries of the world in the last decade or so, most of the other advanced and semi-advanced countries of the world have undergone some fairly dramatic reform.

HEFFNER: Okay, you put it on the table. What are the reforms?

HERTZBERG: Well, I’d certainly like to see, you know, this is one of my tiny crusades that, that I sneak into …

HEFFNER: A proportional representation?

HERTZBERG: Things like proportional representation; like instant run-off voting. Various ways to mitigate the undemocratic features of our 200 year old political arrangements. You know our political were established at, at the dawn of Democratic technology, you might say. The Framers did an incredibly good job, working with what they had to work with. But they were working form essentially no basis in experience, purely from theory. They did a hell of a job considering where they started. But I think they would be the first to be appalled that we regard … that we haven’t fixed up their handiwork. I read … there’s a wonderful library of American volume, called “The Debates on the Constitution. Full of letters back and forth among the framers. And basically what they say is “Well, this Constitution that we’ve drawn up, you know, it’s okay, it’s not what any of us really wanted, but thank God we put in that part about how you can amend it. So in ten years or twenty years the mistakes, whatever mistakes we’ve made, they’ll be fixed. So let’s not worry about it too much.”

HEFFNER: The framers really thought they were making it, I won’t say, easy, but at least, more possible than it has seemed to become.


HERTZBERG: They certainly underestimated …

HEFFNER: … to amend …

HERTZBERG: … yeah, they certainly underestimated how difficult amendment would be. They made it, essentially they made it as easy as they could, while still making a deal with the slave states … I mean … much of what’s wrong with our Constitution is there because the interests of slavery had to be accommodated. And I don’t mean just the three-fifths rule, just the open parts that accommodated slavery, but the building in of ways in which determined minorities can thwart the will of the majority was largely done in the service of preserving slavery. Because that was the only way to get deal. That was the only way to get the Union together and organized in something like a functioning national government. And as we saw, that national government was unable to solve the country’s most basis problems, namely slavery. The Constitution essentially collapsed in 1860 and that’s part of the story that’s always left out. You know, when we say, “gosh darn it, this Constitution of ours has served us well for 200 years … well, it didn’t serve us well when it came to solving the biggest problem America had. And it also didn’t serve us well in solving the, the successor problem to that, the problem of racial segregation. I mean it’s a tremendous failure of our Constitution that racial segregation, legalized racial segregation had to be abolished by a court rather than by the workings of democratic, political institutions.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting, in Robert Caro’s new third volume, of his massive wonderful biography of Lyndon Johnson, he begins with a magnificent section on the Senate of the United States, and that’s where you realize what you are saying was so true, that the impact of what initially was a question of slavery, then became a question of civil rights and race relations, tied up the Senate of the United State and with it’s being tied up through the filibuster, tied up so much of what our potential as country is.

HERTZBERG: And this is continued in so many ways. The great controversy over what went wrong with Clinton’s health plan, and we know all the standard explanations for why it failed. But the real explanation is that the Republicans, or a decisive part of the Republican Party decided to stop it and that they would be willing to us the filibuster to stop it. That’s what really happened. And that undemocratic feature of our Constitution has stymied us time and time again and it’s one of the reasons that … it’s the main reason, really, why we’re different from Europe. Why we’re, why we’re different in terms of, of equality and welfare and taking care of people.

HEFFNER: Rick, what do you think the consequences will be, not for the moment. But over time, of that difference. Of that problem.

HERTZBERG: Well, I hope that eventually the consequences will be that we’ll move in a move in a more democratic direction. There’s also … the Europeans … the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence, and when I talk to Europeans, and try to tell them about the advantages of way they govern themselves, they say, “Oh, but we love the way you have a voluntary sector. And the way your markets are so much more vigorous than ours.” And etc., etc., etc. I think that that America, America has to learn that it’s part of the world. And one of the things that keeps us from doing that as fully as we should is the peculiarity of our institutions. We don’t know other … we don’t know anything about other people’s institutions.

HEFFNER: But it’s interesting you talk about Americans must realize that we are part of the world … we were talking before the program about your, your father’s involvement before the Second World War in the “Save American First” groupies …


HEFFNER: And I was thinking then at the same time about certainly the early part of the present Bush Administration, and maybe even it continues … was predicated to a very large extent upon the notion of our separateness and let’s just cut ourselves off in certain ways from the rest of the world. Do you think that’s a lesson that September 11th taught us, that that’s impossible.


HERTZBERG: Well, it certainly seemed that way at first. That seemed to have profoundly shaken the idea of American exceptionalism. We certainly learned we were not protected by the oceans, that we’re vulnerable, just like the rest of the world. And it seemed as if we were about to abandon the sort of “go-it-alone”, unilateralism that had marked the Bush Administration’s foreign policy and to some extent the foreign policy of all American administrations. It seems to be … that seems to be slipping back now. And evidently it’s a lesson that every generation, every American generation has to learn for itself and learns the hard way and learns incompletely and forgets quickly.

HEFFNER: Well, you say “forgets quickly”, it’s only been six months …


HEFFNER: … how could we be forgetting so soon. What are the forces? What drives us to forget?

HERTZBERG: Well, our immense power, our immense military power enabled us to accomplish in Afghanistan something that, that … that was really unexpected, I think, by … even by the Administration itself. Certainly by any potential critics … most potential critics of the Administration, certainly by most of the Europeans. The rapidity with which the goal of removing the Taliban regime was accomplished was good news, I think. But it, it may have strengthened some retrograde .. It evidently has strengthened some retrograde tendencies in the Administration which reflect retrograde tendencies in a large part of the nation. We may have been misled by our success.

HEFFNER: Where we misinformed about our success, or misled?

HERTZBERG: I don’t think we were really misinformed in the sense that, that we’d been seriously misinformed about what actually happened in Afghanistan. The meaning of that victory, if you want to call it that, the interpretation .. we, we may have been, we have been misinformed, perhaps, in my judgment … this is not a factual question, it’s a question of interpretation, but I think we have been misinformed about the import of that, of that victory. It doesn’t mean that what happened in Afghanistan … doesn’t mean that a purely military approach to the problem of terrorism is, is tenable in the medium, even in the medium term. And, and I, I … part of the duty of people like me, and people like you, is to … I think is to, is to keep that discussion going, to remind, to remind, to remind that there are other ways of approaching these problems and that those ways are as important as the military way … perhaps more important … certainly in the longer term, they’re certainly more important.

HEFFNER: I guess the question I was raising was whether in your estimation the military victory, the military successes were as extensive as the media seemed to paint them. Certainly one would expect the Administration to, but …

HERTZBERG: Well, given the terms, given the terms through which the military action was understood, yes, I think they were as extensive as the Administration portrayed them. But there was an implication, there was an almost unstated implication behind the way the Administration presented the situation and the way the press followed them in presenting it in the media. That victory was a kind … was the end of the story, that that … what we have to worry about in Afghanistan ended with the fall of the Taliban. And we’re now seeing that that’s very far from the case. Afghanistan has … will continue to be trouble. It’s trouble now, it will be trouble in the future. And, it’s a common place, I guess, the idea that Americans want a tidy end to things …


HERTZBERG: We’re not going to get that.

HEFFNER: Well it is that tidiness that, it seems to me, is the problem here. And the definitions. Going back to my favorite whipping boy … your … where you sit … the media … is there anything in your estimation that Americans should be thinking? And perhaps doing about media? Or do you take the position about doing … one doesn’t do, one can’t do, one is prohibited from doing anything about the media.


HERTZBERG: You mean anything, anything that …

HEFFNER: What needs to be done.

HERTZBERG: … truly political institutions, someway of affecting the way the media operates through public action, through democratic government?

HEFFNER: What do the media need to do to make us a … it’s funny, I can’t think of the right word … happier? No, I don’t mean happier.


HEFFNER: Preserve the democracy and the individualistic values that you spoke about at the beginning of this program.

HERTZBERG: I, I don’t know because I don’t know … the media, the media is so … even as it is more centralized, with a few large corporations dominating the ownership anyway of the media, it’s also incredibly decentralized and mercurial and hard to get a fix on. It develops in odd ways. I just don’t know. I cultivate my garden. You know, I try to make sure that I don’t make, make the problem substantially worse thorough what I do. And I suppose I could recommend to all my brothers and sisters in the media that they do the same. You know that they just try to first do no harm. Perhaps a Hippocratic oath for journalists would be a place to start.

HEFFNER: Not a hypocritical, but a Hippocratic …

HERTZBERG: We already take a hypocritical …



HEFFNER: Question is, I guess again power. Do you feel as I do, that there is so much power residing in, in the media, in the press. How do we know what, what happens except as we hear, listen, read about it. We are … I don’t say this even in the negative way, the plaything of the press. But, where do we get … where do we get the ideas that make up who we are and what we are except from you fellas …


HEFFNER: … the press.

HERTZBERG: And it’s so hard to, it’s so hard to even discuss this without sounding naive …

HEFFNER: Censorious …

HERTZBERG: Hopelessly earnest. To talk about the importance of standards and that, that there are professional responsibilities here and that we have a responsibility to the public good and to an enlightened public.

HEFFNER: Sounds good to me.

HERTZBERG: But one feels a little foolish saying it. It, it doesn’t cut a lot of ice in the, in the dog-eat-dog world of the market, where the answer to it is, “well, if people want that, they’ll demand it, and it will be supplied.” And there’s not a thing you can do about it. That’s a … and that’s a hard … it’s hard to answer because it’s so hard to conceive of ways of forcing it to happen. So one falls back on exhortation and on, on education and on the bully pulpit or the not so bully pulpit and I don’t really know of more to do than that.

HEFFNER: Talking about bully pulpits, when you were writing speeches for Jimmy Carter, as President … I had to wear this sweater today just because it’s so damn cold in this studio …

HERTZBERG: [Laughter] But it’s a nice homage.

HEFFNER: But is it a tribute to something you wrote?

HERTZBERG: [Laughter] Actually I can’t take …

HEFFNER: True or false?

HERTZBERG: It’s false. I can’t take credit for the, for the sweater that Jimmy Carter famously wore when he gave his first energy address. That was, that was my friend Barry Jagoda, who calculated, quite rightly, that the sweater was worth a thousand words.

HEFFNER: Yes, but what those words were.

HERTZBERG: No one remembers. But we certainly remember the sweater.

HEFFNER: You’ve talked about character as so important in the, in the democratic process. You relate that to Carter. You felt strongly about the man, I gather and his character. What does that mean?

HERTZBERG: Well, it’s something that’s …

HEFFNER: I should say “in the two minutes we have remaining.”

HERTZBERG: Well, you know, character … character is a word, the meaning of which has been beaten up and knocked about the head in the political arena, especially in the last few years. It got narrowed to mean sexual behavior. It was not … that is not what it should mean in a public person. Character is half the, is half of what a great leader needs. A great leader also needs a concept, an ideology, if you will. A set of public values. It’s not enough to be a good person. Sometimes being a good person doesn’t get you anywhere. But character, character counts. But it’s when you come to define character that the, that it really gets interesting and contentious.


HEFFNER: Character attached to a good idea, you mean?


HEFFNER: Good character attached to good ideas?

HERTZBERG: That’s ideal. That’s ideal. And then with a little forceful personality behind it. And then you’re, then you’re cooking with gas.

HEFFNER: Okay … one last question, we have 30 seconds … who are the potential Presidential candidates on the scene now …

HERTZBERG: Well, right now looking at the Democratic side, which is the only one where’s there’s going to be a dispute. Well, you know, there’s Gore, still. There’s Daschle. And there’s John Edwards. And then there’s, there’s a set of mystery characters that we don’t even know about yet. I was thinking the other day, well Bob Reich is running for Governor of Massachusetts. Now, he might not even get the nomination, he might not get elected. But there are half a dozen Bob Reichs around the country that two years from now may be national figures. They may be just the fresh face that the Democratic Party is looking for. It’s wide open.

HEFFNER: Well, we’ll get you back here to expand the prophecy. Thank you so much for joining me today, Rick Hertzberg.

HERTZBERG: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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

Meanwhile, as an 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.