Politics: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004
by Hendrik Hertzberg
(The Penguin Press, 652 pages, $29.95)
I first heard the name “Hendrik Hertzberg” whispered in the corridors of the New Republic one afternoon in the mid-1970s. Unfamiliar with it, I was quickly informed that he was a friend of the proprietor, with Harvard connections, which put the staff on notice to remain inconspicuous and speak only when spoken to. In due course he arrived, was greeted with a warm embrace by the proprietor, and disappeared behind Martin Peretz’s closed door. I had only a fleeting glimpse of Hertzberg; but his slender construction, doe eyes, and flowing locks were consistent with other friends of the proprietor.
In subsequent years, the name would float to the surface on occasion. He wrote one or two pieces for the magazine, and in 1977 he joined Jimmy Carter’s speechwriting staff. By the time he became editor of the New Republic in the early 1980s I had long since been dispatched from the place, and while I had ceased reading the magazine, assumed that his name would become ubiquitous.
It did not. During the next decade or so the editorship of the New Republic became a plot device in a capital soap opera: Michael Kinsley would quarrel with Martin Peretz and leave, to be succeeded by Hendrik Hertzberg. Then Hertzberg would suffer a crisis of conscience, and Kinsley would return. On and on it went, as poor Peretz was obliged to rearrange the deck chairs while the steamship rolled on. Finally, Kinsley graduated to TV and Hertzberg repaired to the New Yorker, where he remains.
In the celebrity stakes, however, Kinsley earned considerably more points; and for Hertzberg, what promise there was in Peretz’s patronage was never fulfilled. Like an African potentate, or ex-foreign minister, he has periodically licked his wounds at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. At the New Republic he was clearly odd man out, and even in Jimmy Carter’s White House, he reported to James Fallows, five years behind him at Harvard. At the New Yorker it is Muhammed Ali’s biographer, David Remnick, not Hertzberg, who succeeded Tina Brown, and who furnishes a gently condescending introduction to this volume.
The purpose of which is slightly mysterious. If it were not for the grinning photograph of the author I would suspect that Hertzberg might be suffering from a fatal disease, and his friends had decided to honor his career with a door-stopping collection of his favorite pieces. These include “unpublished files” for Newsweek, an article for something called Win Magazine, and a salute to Carter “prepared” for PBS. There are dust-jacket testimonials, suitably exaggerated. “[He] is among the very best,” says Philip Roth, who pays tribute to the “unfailing common sense, the strong sentences, the wit, and the dedication to justice and fair play” of Hendrik Hertzberg. “Elegant writing in the service of surgical intelligence,” adds Toni Morrison. “Combining passion and common sense,” Michael Kinsley declares, “[Hertzberg] makes the liberal case on issue after issue seem not just true but obviously true.” At the end of the book, the acknowledgments consume four pages, and allow Hertzberg to thank colleagues at the New Yorker, the Harvard Crimson, the National Student Association, Newsweek, the New Republic, the Kennedy School, and, of course, his literary agent, the platoon of editors at Penguin Press, his wife, and dozens of friends, dead and alive.
TWO POINTS ARE IN order. The first is that the subtitle of this volume is misleading: There are innumerable observations over the course of 30-plus years, but few arguments. Except for an extended essay on the need for total revision of the U.S. Constitution, there is almost no discussion of ideas, no exploration of historical themes, few contending points in the clash of ideologies. Attitudes, by contrast, are frequently struck. Hertzberg is an astute, sometimes vulgar, name-caller. He is especially interested in the (unflattering) physical appearance of politicians he doesn’t like, and even stoops to lampooning their names — an odd habit for someone called Hendrik Hertzberg. He has an unerring eye for the unimportant detail. Assuming, probably correctly, that his readers don’t require much detail in dismissing George W. Bush, he repeatedly mentions such self-evident truths as the “second-rate dynasty” of the Bush clan, and the fact that the incumbent president attended Andover.
The other point is that any random collection of essays is bound to emphasize, to the point of physical pain, a writer’s stylistic quirks and eccentricities. As with any journalist who gives birth to propaganda, Hertzberg prefers to dismiss his adversaries rather than contend with them, and smother his heroes in hackneyed phrases. His political world seems to have collapsed with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and the subsequent 36 years have been agony. There are exceptions. Describing his onetime boss, he declares that “disclaimers out of the way, then, here is the executive summary of my assessment of Jimmy Carter’s character: Jimmy Carter is a saint.” There are several pieces celebrating Michael Dukakis’s 1988 campaign against George H.W. Bush. (“Dukakis will be a more formidable opponent than the Bush people could have imagined as recently as a month ago.”) In the following year he reports that “I left Managua with rather more respect for the intelligence and suppleness of the Sandinistas than I had brought with me.”
The flatulent prose can be comical at moments. Writing about rock ‘n’ roller Bruce Springsteen, Hertzberg suggests that “no other American artist has forged such a tender, reciprocally respectful relationship with such an enormous audience.” And who can resist the image of Martin Peretz, looming over the word processor at the New Republic, when Hertzberg exclaims in 1992 that “for those of us who thought the choice of [Albert] Gore would be a good one had no idea it would turn out to be a magical one.” When Toni Morrison talks about elegant writing in the service of surgical intelligence, she is probably thinking of such observations as “it takes a while for the full weirdness of the Reagan years to sink in” (1991) and “how long can a great nation afford to have silly leaders?” (1988).
In one sense, reading Hertzberg is comforting as well. He and his readers have circled the wagons, and the circle keeps shrinking. His anger at the political history of modern America has not rendered him mute, but inarticulate. Unable to explain the course of events, or comprehend them, he resorts to invective and schoolyard sarcasm, sour observations laced with pop culture references. This is not the wisdom of the scholar but the fury of a privileged class in eclipse. Like a squire lamenting the Reform Bill of 1832, Hertzberg is lachrymose, elegiac, enraged — and mistaken, in ways big and small. He misquotes Spiro Agnew, of all people, and places Kenyon College in Columbus, Ohio. My favorite is his identification of the press baron in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop as “Lord Zinc,” a howler that escaped not only his colleagues at the New Yorker, but the ten editors at Penguin Press listed in the acknowledgments. Things really have deteriorated, haven’t they?