Hendrik Hertzberg

Back at ‘The New Yorker’, Part II

VTR Date: December 3, 2003

New Yorker writer Henrik Hertzberg discusses politics and the media.


GUEST: Hendrik Hertzberg
VTR: 12/03/2003

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

Well, last time we spoke at length about some of my guest’s “Talk of the Town” comments on talk radio, it’s largely, if not completely Conservative bent right now, but what may surface soon as a Liberal counterpart … radiolib versus radiocon. The still angrier and perhaps louder exchanges when what we really need here is good sense, good talk and if you’ll forgive me, open minds.

But, let’s move back now from talk to print and to The New Yorker itself. When Rick Hertzberg was here last time, not many months after 9/11, he expressed concerned that in a so-called “war against terrorism”, America’s tradition of dissent might well be checked.

But now there are some who argue that my guest has found himself, and I quote “regularly checked by Remnick. David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor. Who has weighed in a critical moments with “Talk of the Town” comments that after the usual hemming and hawing, inevitably concluded that the White House was right on track after all.”

Of course, it may be because I’m so far behind in my New Yorker reading …

HERTZBERG: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … but that’s not the impression I’ve gotten, so let me ask my New Yorker guest … just what is true and what’s not.

HERTZBERG: Well, oddly enough Comment, the Comment section of “Talk of the Town” and The New Yorker is not my personal property, it belongs to the magazine, and though I am a principle author of it, maybe two out of three, or, or three out of five times, it’s open to other contributors, other people at the magazine. That includes David Remnick.

He and I have both written about Iraq, the war in Iraq, the war on terror and I would say our opinions are slightly divergent, but in most ways consistent. It just happens that he’s … he has been a little bit more … our opinions have sort of fallen five degrees on either side of the dividing line between “yes” and “no” on the war in Iraq; or they did before the war, the war began. He’s …I think he’s grown more critical of it since the war.

But I can say that I have never been censored in the slightest or told what to write or, there’s never been a suggestion that if I want to say something in “Comment” I can’t say it. And that’s true of David, too. He writes it once in a while and there are several others who contribute to it.

HEFFNER: What does that mean, then, in terms of editorial voice … it’s editorial voices?

HERTZBERG: Well, we try to … we do worry about that … because there should be a kind of basic consistency in, in the voice and approach of “Comment”. It’s not really, it’s not a Hyde Park corner; it’s not a kind of forum, for every point of view and we don’t have any … feel the slightest obligation to have any kind of balance in it.

But, but we are, we are … all the people who contributed to it, most notably David and me are of more or less similar set of political values. So whatever differences sometimes emerge on a particular issue, the basis approach is pretty consistent.

HEFFNER: And about the war?

HERTZBERG: About the war … I can’t really speak for him, obviously, but I think … I, I felt all along that there was a kind of theoretical war that I could have supported.

HEFFNER: Theoretical war?

HERTZBERG: Well, if … that, that, that … if, if the Inspectors had been given the time that they should have been; if there had been as successful and I think there could have been a successful diplomatic effort to enlist international support in a good faith inspection regime, backed up by a threat of force … I can certainly imagine a set of circumstances in which I would have supported going to war.

And the so-called differences, and the differences between David Remnick and me on this issue, really amount more to, to a matter of emphasis. His support was always conditioned on certain caveats. And my opposition was also, was also “caveated” you might say …

HEFFNER: You might say [laughter].

HERTZBERG: Yeah, I might say. [Laughter] Or General Haig might say. Ah, so … I mean … in a way we’re kind of talking magazine inside baseball, but, but I felt, from the beginning that the war metaphor … from the beginning of the post-9/11 period; that the war metaphor had a lot of pitfalls. That, that as opposed to the crime metaphor. There are, there are big arguments to be made for each one.

But I worried all along that that war metaphor would, would lead us in certain directions … kind of unthinkingly in certain, unproductive directions.

HEFFNER: Have they?

HERTZBERG: And I think they have. I think, I think that the war in Iraq which … I think it’s undeniable that all other things being equal, one would want to get rid of the Saddam Hussein regime; and that for the people of Iraq, even with, even with the disastrous mis-handling of the post-war period, it’s probably been a net gain for them.

But the bigger picture is disturbing. The effect that it’s had on the struggle I would say; or the battle against terrorism, it’s far from certain that, that the war in Iraq has been a help rather than a hindrance in that effort.


HERTZBERG: The disastrous …the absolutely disastrous forfeiting of, of the global solidarity that followed 9/11, for the United States. We have been maneuvered essentially by Al Qaeda in exactly the direction they hoped we and the whole development would go in. It’s hard to see how it could be going much better from their point of view.

HEFFNER: You know, I know that has been said often, and I know it’s been written by you and others. Is that so true, do you think that, that world outpouring of sympathy would have been interpreted or translated into support for a Bush-kind of leadership that would go further and further in, into Iraq. Albeit there was not the kind of seeking that you wanted, except by our Secretary of State of world support. Do you think that … you say we “wasted” the world sympathy. Do you think that sympathy would have been support?

HERTZBERG: I think that with the right policies, on the part of, of an administration in Washington … yes. The enterprise may have been doomed by the inclinations of the Bush Administration, which, which were clear before 9/11 toward unilateralism, “going it alone”; renouncing international treaties. That … I, I thought and a great many people assumed that 9/11 was a wake-up call … would have served as a wake-up call to the Administration about the whole notion of going it alone. And for a while it looked as if it was, and the world did react, especially the Europeans, did react with this tremendous sympathy and more than just sympathy. You know, NATO for the first time in its history voted to … voted unanimously … to view this as an attack against one is an attack against all. That had never happened before. It was essentially brushed aside by the Administration.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s, let’s turn for a moment to, to this question of dissent. I use that as a vehicle to get as much inside information about The New Yorker as I could …

HERTZBERG: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: And I won’t apologize for that. But what about the nation’s media, the nation’s press and our population generally and this fear that you had expressed last time about dissent and disagreement not being, not being heard so much … that great tradition of American protest.

HERTZBERG: Well, that tradition has always proved more robust than, than, than we have sometimes feared. When we went into … well, it actually didn’t prove so robust in the World War I setting. World War II it did prove a lot more robust than we, than, than many people had feared. Vietnam, Korea …in all … there was no shortage of dissent against those policies. And essentially there has not been a serious threat to civil liberties in the large sense.


HERTZBERG: Now. During this so-called “War on Terror”.

HEFFNER: So your fear has not been borne out.

HERTZBERG: Well, there are other kinds of … there are other kinds of … you don’t have to have fascism to have something to worry about. You don’t have to have the wholesale cancellation of the Bill of Rights to still be concerned about the violations of rights of people who may be small in number, and may not … and may be unpopular and may not be well represented politically, but those violations are still worth protesting and … in themselves. Even if they don’t lead to a broader repression. And the Administration has been much too eager to, to trample on, on Constitutional Rights under cover of this, of the war on terrorism. And that, that needs to be protested.

Then there’s also a kind of self-censorship that takes hold. I suppose that’s something that’s happened before. But there is, there is often a kind of reluctance to bring the bad news to the public. It’s not a matter of civil liberties, it’s not a matter of any sort of overt censorship, but, but often the … particularly at the beginning and in the first year or two after 9/11, some … certain kinds of coverage were not what they should have been.

HEFFNER: You do feel that way. I, I, I’ve been waiting for … not the total calamity that … as you point out hasn’t happened … hasn’t been a wholesale undermining of our Constitution, but you’re so much more involved in what the press has done generally in this country. Have you seen a chilling effect? To go back to that phrase.

HERTZBERG: I don’t … I’m not sure I would describe it that way because it isn’t really … it isn’t really a matter of the State authority … the fear of State authority. But I think that this, this crisis, this … for the generation brought up on Vietnam, this, this has been different enough so that it’s kind of … it’s led to, to more caution.

This is not like Vietnam. We were … Vietnam was a case where there was no threat to us, to the United States and to our, to the safety of us and our families here …

HEFFNER: Except that LBJ used a domino theory as a, as a potential threat.

HERTZBERG: Yes. There was this, there was this kind of quadruple bank shot theory of why we should, we should … why Vietnam was a matter of national security. And, and that was … and the press did a good job of exploding that theory. This, this is a … people died here in New York City. And that creates, that creates a kind of a aura that the press has to be fairly vigilant in, in being aware of and, and guiding its coverage accordingly.

HEFFNER: Now, explain that for me. Are you saying that you feel that there must be some concern among press people that they not do violence to their readership’s memory of 9/11 and of how many Americans died?

HERTZBERG: I think they’re … and they feel … they feel … reporters and journalists and commentators, like everyone else, are citizens as well as, as their … as having their professional roles and in this and I suppose in other situations of national emergency, too, they are aware of that side of themselves. And, and the sort of traditional adversarial role of the press is kind of counteracted by that, that feeling of citizenly solidarity. And, and so, it’s a matter of professional discipline to, to guide oneself through that minefield.

HEFFNER: Do you think that in 2004 that concern will be maintained and will translate itself … excuse me … into more rather than less support for the Bush Administration?

HERTZBERG: I, I doubt it. I think that’s going to be … I think that there’s going to be a very healthy, robust debate in the Presidential campaign. I don’t think that Dem … whoever the Democratic candidate ends up being is, is going to be shy about expressing disagreement with the Administration’s policies. I think that if that … there are other factors, like, like the overwhelming preponderance of money on Bush’s side and on the Administration’s ability to control the agenda in such a way as to use national security and use the threat of terrorism as a political weapon against the Democrats. I think those factors will be more dangerous, you might say, from the point of view of the Democrats than any kind of self-censorship or overt censorship.

HEFFNER: You say, “controlling the agenda”. I guess the question that occurs to me immediately and I don’t mean to be pejorative in any way saying this, I don’t think I mean, … “How did the Republicans get so smart?”

HERTZBERG: Well, they got lucky. It’s important to remember that in the last Presidential election the Republicans did not get as many votes as the Democrats. And that much of what has followed in the past three years has been a direct result of that; the capture, the increase in Republican control of the House and Senate was a direct result of the original judicial coup that installed Bush in office. And then the increasing of his judiciary, which is a sort of actuarial coincidence in the case of the Supreme Court. That, too, is … that, too, the increasing control, that, too, is a result of, of the break that’s represented by the installation of Bush as President in, in 2000; after the 2000 election. That’s such an enormous event in our history, I think, bigger than it’s given credit for; it will be seen as bigger and bigger as the years, as the years pass. It’s … yes … yes … they’re smart … yes, they’re Republicans are terrific political tacticians, but it’s important for Democrats to remember that they got more votes. That in spite of this Republican tactical brilliance. In spite of talk radio, in spite of the money, in spite of all of those things, it’s possible, and in spite of even the fact that the Democratic candidate in 2000 had a less attractive personality in the Republican candidate. In spite of all that, still got more than half-a-million more votes. So I think that’s a reason for Democrats and Liberals to keep calm, to keep their heads about them as they enter the year building up to the Presidential election.

HEFFNER: Do you think that calm that you think is so important is well represented by this assumption that they can now …Liberal Democrats can build a “lib” rather than a “con” radio network?

HERTZBERG: A “lib” radio network and “lib” think tanks of the Conservative style, that is sort of fighting think tanks … you know the old Liberal think tanks were thinking think tanks. [Laughter] The Conservative ones are fighting think tanks, and now there’s an effort to build, to build a Democratic or Liberal fighting think tank. Those were all good … those were all important efforts, of course. Yeah.

HEFFNER: And you think they won’t back-fire?

HERTZBERG: No, I don’t think … well, I don’t know about the radio … the radio one is the most interesting of these experiments. I mean they’re really putting to the tests the, the proposition that the reasons that Conservative radio is so dominant is because it’s more fun and better entertainment. And, and you know, Rush Limbaugh always pictures himself as an entertainer first, and a political spokesman, second. So that theory will now be … will be … maybe will have a chance of being tested.

HEFFNER: Well, later this morning in this studio … because we’re taping in the morning … no secret …


HEFFNER: … Al Franken will come in and we’ll talk about that and you … with a little tongue and cheek and a little nastiness in your comments about “lib” radio … talk about political scientist Al Franken. There be a comedy writer, but the kind of comedy that appeals to the people who vote?

HERTZBERG: It might well. Al Franken is a political scientist, I should hasten to add. And his, his books are a wonderful public service, they actually are funny and entertaining and informative and pretty well researched. I don’t know of any persuasive or even attempted refutation of, of Al … of the collected works of Al Franken.

But again, it’s a question of whether, whether an audience is there for … I don’t think there is an audience there for the liberal equivalent of Conservative radio. That is, pure vituperation. But I don’t think that’s what’s going to be tried. I don’t think that’s what Liberal radio could be anyway. And I’m not sure what it’s going to be. It’s a wonderful challenge and it must be, it must be fun to be involved in trying to figure out how to make it work. The … simply aping the Conservative model isn’t going to work. And probably won’t be tried.

HEFFNER: Because Liberals aren’t that smart? Nasty? Sweet?

HERTZBERG: They’re …


HERTZBERG: They want to, they want to … they’re, they’re not that pessimistic, I guess. They’re not … they want to make something … they want to make things better. They are soft hearted; they have a tendency to, to think that well, maybe they don’t have a total monopoly on the truth, and maybe there is something to what the other guy is saying.

HEFFNER: So, it’s not very much of a fighting mechanism if you feel you don’t have a monopoly on the truth.

HERTZBERG: In the end … I think once you’re … when you’re finally cornered … you know, Liberals will fight hard once they’re, once they’re cornered. But not for sport. For, for a specific political purpose. But, but just as a way of whiling away the hours, just for entertainment, kind of a political version of bull baiting. That I don’t think there’s a market for, for … on the Liberal side. There obviously is a market for it on the Conservative side.

HEFFNER: Well, we’re down to the point where we have less than two minutes left. So I’ll swing over to the question of your choice for Democratic candidate … candidate … not “lib” radio. What are your thoughts?

HERTZBERG: The main thought at the moment … I don’t have a, I don’t have a candidate myself. But I do think that this is a better field than is generally assumed. It’s important to remember that every, every four years … especially when there’s an open … when it’s not an incumbent running for re-election on the Democratic side, we always think, “oh, it’s the seven dwarves and …


HERTZBERG: … look how little, and isn’t it pathetic, this Democratic field.” And usually it wasn’t that pathetic in the past, and I think it’s quite strong this time. I think that, that Dean, Gephardt, Kerry, Clark … any of these four would be, would be a strong candidate. I’ve watched them in debates and on the stump. I think they’re an impressive group. And, and I think once invested with the dignity of the nomination of the Democratic Party, you’ll see that one of these, one of these dwarves is going to look a lot bigger.

HEFFNER: And your choice? Can’t squeeze it out of you?

HERTZBERG: Who would I pick right now?


HERTZBERG: Right this second? I guess I might, I might marginally favor Kerry. But I’m open, but I like … I’m, I’m impressed by Dean, I think Clark has a lot of strengths. Gephardt … Gephardt has been wonderful in the debates. He’s, he’s the …I actually don’t … it would be a matter of flipping a four-sided coin for me. I think anyone of those four or any … for that matter Edwards … would be, would be a fine candidate.

HEFFNER: No four or five sided coin, I’m afraid.

HERTZBERG: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: But thank you very much, Rick Hertzberg, for joining me again today.

HERTZBERG: Thanks for having me.

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 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.