Hendrik Hertzberg

Back at The New Yorker with Hendrik Hertzberg

VTR Date: February 18, 2012

Henrik Hertzberg discusses President Obama's term and campaign.


GUEST: Hendrik Hertzberg
AIR DATE: 02/18/2012
VTR: 10/12/2011

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

And I don’t know why I’ve let today’s guest off the hook for quite so long now.

Hendrik Hertzberg, who writes “Comment” for The New Yorker, and has delighted us in and with its “Talk of the Town” for many years, joined us in 2002, 2003 and 2004…but then sort of disappeared from our table. Perhaps because his negative comments about George Bush, the Second – never mean ones, of course, because my guest is really such a sweet guy that he never could be mean – perhaps because those comments grew quite so familiar.

Perhaps, too, because his “take” on Barack Obama seems – to me at least – to have turned a bit sour, as well.

“Whatever”, as the kids say, you should know that Senior Editor Hertzberg was early on a staff writer at The New Yorker, became Jimmy Carter’s Chief Speech Writer – memorably taking the rap for the President’s much maligned “malaise” speech.

He was at the Liberal/Conservative or Conservative/Liberal New Republic for more than a decade, serving two terms as its Editor, then returned to The New Yorker, where – unless, of course, we’re in the White House – we so much enjoy reading him today.

But let me not put words in Rick Hertzberg’s mouth – of course – or even thoughts in his mind. Instead, let me just ask outright what his “take” on Barack Obama is these days. I’ll, I’ll … Rick … I’ll pass over this week’s comment that, that I just noted last night … talking about the “Occupy Wall Street” people and talking about the point that they may embolden Democrats … you write much including President Obama who lately and belatedly has begun to show signs of fight. What’s your “fix” on the President?

HERTZBERG: Well, the, the thing about … one of the things I most admired and do still admire about Barack Obama and I am still a Barack Obama supporter … is that temperament of his, which he showed during the campaign when the financial crisis first hit … his calm under fire. His deliberateness, his rationality … what has surprised me about his Presidency and I guess disappointed me, you might say … although I don’t count myself among the disillusioned … is …

HEFFNER: Just the disappointed.

HERTZBERG: Well, but my disappointment really is not in, in Obama … I’ll get back to the point I was making in a moment. But … for me the Obama Presidency has been kind of a controlled experiment.

I’ve always … for years I’ve been harping on the idea that our political system, or the hydraulics of our political system are a grave, grave problem that is eventually going to catch up with us.

With Barack Obama we have had a kind of a controlled experiment. I don’t expect to … there to be a better President than Barack Obama in my lifetime. In many ways he’s as good a President as we’ve had since World War II … I’d make that argument … in terms of just talent, rationality … a lot of, of values, intelligence.

So we’ve and we had a more or less Democratic Congress. Well that should have made the system work … if the system’s workable. The disappointments of the Obama Administration have been largely due to, to the perversities of the political system.

Where I fault him is that the kind of emotion that he evoked in the campaign and the kind of emotional satisfaction that voters who voted for him got … he has neglected, I think.

He focused so strongly on the inside game in that first year, year and a half … on, on getting the legislation. And he, he did not … he, he didn’t … he didn’t really … he just … he just hasn’t … he just hasn’t evoked the kind of emotion that he should have and feeling and satisfaction. And that has caused a lot of Progressives … a lot of the supporters to get depressed, to lose hope.

And it doesn’t take that much to brighten them up. As I, as I say in that piece and I guess the last one I did … he’s starting to show signs of fight. Which, by which I mean kind of say … getting back to first principles … saying what his values are … saying what he … the direction he wants to take the country in and not just focusing on kind of bi-partisanship and agreement and compromising.

HEFFNER: You reject, then, the notion that perhaps what this is all about is … his basic political philosophy and that, indeed, we may have misread him to begin with and that his choice of Geithner and Summers and others indicated his political philosophy, his economic philosophy. That he wasn’t and isn’t as much to the Left of Center as many of us thought.

HERTZBERG: That may be, but … but in fact, if, if the government, by which I mean the whole government … the, the Congress had adopted the policies recommended by Geithner and Larry Summers, particularly Larry Summers … Progressives would be pretty happy right now.

In fact, what, what … what Obama has proposed all along under the … with the advice of Geithner and Summers initially had to be and was watered down, truncated, turned into something much weaker than it would have been.

Now you can say that if he’d picked a different economic team, and I think he should have … and I put that down to some extent to inexperience … and, ah … that he didn’t … it might have turned out differently, it might not have. Its … it probably would have turned out differently … politically … it might not have turned out different substantively. You might not have gotten a bigger stimulus … but he probably would have proposed a bigger stimulus then the one that passed instead of presenting as a kind of victory that would make everything okay, he might have made it clear that this was just a first step, it wasn’t enough … there are still hard times ahead. And in that sense it would have been better.

HEFFNER: You put a lot of emphasis on the emotional make-up, the personality of the man in the White House. Should we have known more about that?

You know, I think back, and I’m sure you do, too, Rick, to the times when the attack on him by the Know Nothings was focused on “We don’t know this man” … I mean the implication was that he was an agent of a foreign country …


HEFFNER: … but we didn’t know him.

HERTZBERG: Well, I think if we read, if we, if we read Dreams From My Father, as I did … then we did know him. I felt, and still feel that I … that when Barack Obama took office I knew him better than I’ve known any President at the beginning of his first term … in my lifetime.

HEFFNER: But you’ve been surprised.

HERTZBERG: I, I think my surprise has more to do with circumstances than with a, with a … with a misapprehension of Barack Obama’s personality. The, the viciousness and bitterness of, of the Republicans, the seriousness of this economic horror that we’re in the midst of, which I don’t think anyone except a few … except perhaps a few prophets like Paul Krugman even tentatively predicted … that is … I think that is really at the root of all this disappointment.

Obama had great luck in becoming President. He got break after break after break and it was as if God had plucked him from nowhere to be President.

HEFFNER: Maybe she did.

HERTZBERG: (Laugh) But he’s had … but he had one very bad piece of luck and that is, that … unlike FDR … who took office three years after the Depression began … Obama took office just as it was beginning … just as the Great Recession was beginning before its effects had really hit big time. So it’s … it’s … so it’s very easy for people to get confused about who’s, who’s to blame …

HEFFNER: Who owns it?

HERTZBERG: Who owns it. Exactly. And I think that’s, that’s kind of the worst piece of luck he’s had personally.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t you think that the American people would know better or would you think … what you’ve come to know about the American people in your years of observation that, that’s just about what we could expect.


HEFFNER: … level of sophistication, of knowledge, of understanding.

HERTZBERG: I think that even very well informed people have … have had kind of … ah … pounded into them a sort of magical belief in, in the Presidency. People think the President is the government. And, and of course … and of course he’s not.

The Presidential campaigns inevitably feed this fantasy. You can’t run for President … if Barack Obama had run for President saying, “If elected, I promise to propose a probably inadequate stimulus program because I’ll calculate something bigger … won’t be able to get through Congress. It won’t help that much, but it might prevent us from going into another great Depression. We’re still going to have really high unemployment, but this I pledge to you.” You can’t campaign that way …

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t work.

HERTZBERG: … you campaign … every Presidential candidate campaigns on a kind of vision, on a fantasy of what he’d like to do and where he wants the country to go. That’s why they always break their promises … these visions are taken as promises. They never come true and I’m … and, and that’s true of all the great Presidents as well as all the bad ones … they never come true, people are always disappointed. That’s built in to this peculiar system we have.

Now I realize this may sound like I’m making excuses for Obama that I wouldn’t make for Bush.

HEFFNER: That’s true, isn’t it … you wouldn’t make for Bush excuses you would make for Obama … let’s face it.

HERTZBERG: Well, I’d have to think about that a little bit. I make some excuses for, for … well, let me give you an example of an excuse I, I did make for Reagan.

And maybe I’d make it for Bush a little bit, too … and that’s the, the … when, when Presidents behave in foreign policy in ways that seem to be, seem to kind of traduce the Constitution … that kind of thing.

For instance, when Reagan gave aid to the Contras. He … it, it turned out to be unlawful, it was all done in kind of quasi-legal/illegal way. But was it criminal? Was it criminal or, or was it just … was it just the frustration that’s built into the system, where a President can’t really conduct … even in foreign policy where he has the freer … freest hand of all … ah, he can’t conduct … he can’t conduct his own policy.

And so, I, I would make … I would make excuses … sometimes you’re saved from your worst impulses. I mean the original Reagan tax cuts that he proposed, were much bigger than the ones that, that were finally passed. Same with, with Bush. That’s the checks and balances that everybody loves. But the check and balance we don’t have is that … is really, really meaningful elections that can, that can change the government, give a new government a change to enact it’s program and be judged accordingly. That’s what we don’t have.

HEFFNER: The wonderful thing about this table is that it enables conversations to go on that bring up ideas that perhaps one … this one would never have thought of before. And you mentioned Reagan and you mentioned the Nicaragua business.

What about the Obama business. Leave out Bush II when it came to what you do by way of torture and the rest. What about Obama’s Administration and its targeting of American citizens and the feeling that I have, at least, that we’re once again back to the expansion of the President’s power through his view of what’s needed.

That’s what you’re saying Reagan needed. After all, every President finds that he needs to do certain things that can’t be accomplished within traditional frameworks. What’s your feeling about this Administration? And its expansion of power?

HERTZBERG: I think that this Administration has actually, has actually pursued its foreign policy in a lawful manner. This … what you’re talking about is the particular drone attack on this … al Qaeda leader spokesman in Yemen.

HEFFNER: Or drone attacks generally.

HERTZBERG: Well drone attacks generally … if … what seems to be so awful, I guess to a lot of people about the drone attacks is that they’re directed at a particular person or group of people

Now, if you’re in a war or a quasi-war people get killed. The, the … there don’t seem to be terribly many objections to bombing enemy soldiers. Or bombing cities of countries that we’re at war with. I think you can make an argument that it is more humane to, to, to choose who you’re going to kill and to kill not … and to kill not just random draftees or soldiers who are in the fight for … because they’ve been made to be or because they want to be soldiers and be heroes. But to go after the … to go after the heart of the, the enemy,

Drone attacks, drone attacks kill people. It’s objectionable, of course, when they kill … the collateral damage … as it’s … as it’s … as it’s so delicately put.

If an important al Qaeda leader is killed and five other people who are in the same house are killed, it’s morally troubling. All war is morally troubling. All, all … it’s always morally troubling.

I’m not sure it’s more morally troubling when you, when you kill … when you kill the guilty, as it were … rather than, rather then just killing everybody who’s in your way.

HEFFNER: I have the feeling that somehow or other, the present Administration is giving you more trouble rationalizing and justifying than the previous Administrations … two administrations have. Is that, that fair?

HERTZBERG: Well, of course, it’s, it’s a bit like … it’s a bit like the, the Israeli/Arab dispute. One has a double standard. I personally … I always expect more from the Israelis generally.

HEFFNER: Better.

HERTZBERG: Better. Better. I hold them to a higher standard. And, of course, a lot of people who are critical of, of the current Israeli government are accused of having a double standard. And of course, they do have a double standard and the people who defend it also have a double standard.

Yes, I have a higher standard for, for this Administration than I did for the last one. And in what I do, it’s my, it’s my job, it’s my duty to be honest … as honest as I can possibly be given my … given my still … my still strong love and admiration for Barack Obama to be, to be critical of him where I really think he’s going wrong.

HEFFNER: Let me, let me ask …

HERTZBERG: So I’ll criticize him for things that wouldn’t even make the top 10 of what I criticized for …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

HERTZBERG: … George Bush.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you about something that I realize I haven’t had the, the wit, the intelligence … the nerve to ask anyone else in the last few years. What role do you think race has played in the unfortunate position that Obama has found himself in? How much of the … I would say … and I think you would say “dirty opposition”, or at least the determined opposition … he’s going to be a one term President, and that’s my objective … that sort of thing. How much do you think race has played in this?

HERTZBERG: Well, it has to have …

HEFFNER: Just between us …

HERTZBERG: … yeah …

HEFFNER: … we wouldn’t talk about it in public.

HERTZBERG: (Laugh) That is such a complicated question. ‘Cause Obama is such a unique figure racially as, as, as he is in so many other ways.

I don’t know … I, I think it’s played, it’s played a role, maybe a smaller role than you would expect from the, from … during the Presidency of the first Black President.

And it’s a curiously … it’s a different role. It’s about otherness and Obama’s otherness is partly racial, it’s partly cultural, it’s partly kind of Ivy League educated professor.

I don’t know that his, his race was at least … at worst a wash … in the general election campaign. I’d argue that in some ways it might … it was an advantage.


HERTZBERG: Ahemm, but the … in the opposition to Obama and the, the hatred … the vituperativeness of it … I’m not so sure that, that, that race has added anything to what had been there anyway. Remember the vituperation and hatred against Clinton …


HERTZBERG: … it was just as strong. Maybe stronger than, than it is against Obama. Obama is still, still has high ratings … 50% higher, higher, higher than that as a person. As an individual. It’s, it’s so complicated and you … Obama … Obama’s background as, as the son of a Black African and a White American.

Yes, he’s the first African American President, but in a literal kind of way. He’s not descended from any enslaved people. These are all kind of under the surface … under the surface subtleties that affect the way people think about him or feel about him unconsciously in terms of race.

So I don’t think, I don’t think that, that it’s a simple, it’s a simple proposition. Race … to the extent that race determines people’s votes, I think that that was … has been … that if you’re a racist … if you’re an outright racist … White racist, White supremist kind of racist … the, the chances that you’re going to vote for a Democratic Presidential candidate are fairly minimal.

I’m not saying that that means, you know, the Republicans are racist. It’s just that when, when we’ve had this great realignment where the former Conservative White Democrats in the South, moved en masse into the Republican Party and the whole … and the Southern strategy in law and order … racism … White Supremist racism, which has declined hugely anyway, in any kind of conscious sense … people who are consciously racist … sort of became a “fixed” quantity. Fixed and declining quantity. And, and that’s what it is … that’s what it is now.

So, yeah, I think it’s, it’s kind of a shorthand, but I … I really don’t think that, that there’s much to be learned from, from, from blaming his troubles and his opposition on race.

HEFFNER: No, I, I certainly wasn’t blaming …but I was asking about the extent to which you think …


HEFFNER: … it’s a, it’s a factor. You seem … when you make the comparison with Clinton … make me bring up a question and that is … do you think the gap … and there certainly was a gap on so many levels between the Clintons and those who were so opposed to them … that it had to do with women’s rights, it had to do with sex … not his …


HEFFNER: … sexual escapade so much … as with Hilary Clinton, and a woman playing the role that she played. The age gap. Do you think we’re coming closer to the time when the old America is going to be gone and they’ll be a kind of new America. Maybe represented by the “Occupy Wall Street” people. But maybe not that far.

Something didn’t change in the nineties. Something was very, very strong here in the nineties with the opposition to the Clintons … no matter what the opposition, and they knew they were bringing it with them.

I think part of that and I think you think part of that is here today. When are we going to roll out of that old America versus New America?

HERTZBERG: Well, part of the, part of the kind of anger and confusion and Tea Party-ism of old America is a … it’s literally reactionary, a lot of it.

It’s a reaction to … it, it’s a change … its emergence as a change, but it’s a change that’s reacting to another change which is, which is America becoming a different kind of country.

America becoming a country where the default position is not middle-aged White male. Where, where there … where we really have a, a rainbow of people. Where, where popular culture reflects it and anticipates it. Where … this is a country where, where there’s … over here there’s a guy with an Indian accent and there’s a couple of Chinese Americans over there and there’s a Black guy over there with dreadlocks, wearing a dashiki and there’s another one over there in a business suit. And there’s five or six different kinds of White people. This is a … this is a … and there’s gay and there’s straight, and there’s, and there’s transgender … and this great big mixture of … is the new America.

And if there’s a hope for kind of progressivism in the future, things are probably going to get worse before they get better. But that America … that America is a different America and a better America. And it scares a lot of people. It scares a lot of people who think of themselves or who are in that, in that old America and who don’t realize that hey, they’re going to be part of the new America, too.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t scare you, does it?

HERTZBERG: That doesn’t scare me, no. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But things do and …

HERTZBERG: Oh, sure … yeah.

HEFFNER: … you stay at the table now because our time is over … we’ll do another program, we’ll talk about some of the things that scare you. Rick Hertzberg, thank you so much for joining me today.

HERTZBERG: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”