April 2007

Paul Morton


An Interview with Hendrik Hertzberg

Perhaps because his columns appear one to two weeks after the events they discuss, well after the pundits’ talking points have solidified into the boring, usually half-true conventional wisdom, Hendrik Hertzberg may be better equipped to maintain an interesting voice. Consider this assessment of the 2006 midterm election:

Americans have had enough, and their disgust with the Administration and its congressional enablers turned out to be so powerful that even the battered, rusty, sound-bit, TV-spotted, Die-bolded old seismograph of an American midterm election was able to register it. Thanks to the computer-aided gerrymandering that is the only truly modern feature of our electoral machinery, the number of seats that changed hands was not particularly high by historical standards. Voters -- actual people -- are a truer measure of the swing’s magnitude. In 2000, the last time this year’s thirty-three Senate seats were up for grabs, the popular-vote totals in those races, like the popular-vote totals for President, were essentially a tie. Democrats got forty-eight per cent of the vote, Republicans slightly more than forty-seven per cent. This time, in those same thirty-three states, Democrats got fifty-five per cent of the vote, Republicans not quite forty-three per cent. In raw numbers, the national Democratic plurality in the 2000 senatorial races was the same as Al Gore’s: around half a million. This time, despite the inevitably smaller off-year turnout and the fact that there were Senate races in only two-thirds of the states, it was more than seven million.  

In that first sentence, with six well-chosen adjectives and a sure metaphor, Hertzberg brings up his signature talking point -- our 200-year-old electoral system needs a serious rewrite -- and then with a careful tabulation of the numbers, he points out the bleeding obvious: Bush suffered a brutal blow last November. This isn’t the finest paragraph Hertzberg has written, but there’s more wisdom, let alone information, packed into those eight sentences than in a 15-minute discussion on CNN. In an era in which op-ed columnists seem to be throwing out lame notes for their talks with George Stephanopoulos, Hertzberg shows us the value of the written word in political debate.

Not including a stint as Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter, Hertzberg, 63, has spent most of his career at magazines. He interviewed John Lennon for The New Yorker in the early '70s. He edited The New Republic in two four-year-long periods in the 1980s and 1990s. He’s been back at The New Yorker since the beginning of the Tina Brown era and his columns recently received a National Magazine Award. A collection of his work, Politics: Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004, came out three years ago. Reading it, you realize that Hertzberg is that rare breed of political commentator whose old musings on uninteresting figures like Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole are still somehow in depth and philosophical. His commentary survives, even if his subjects often do not.

We met at his office at The New Yorker on March 21 to discuss his thoughts on, among other things, Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter’s Israel book, and the significant problems with the U.S. Constitution.There were two letters from Carter on his wall. One of them, a short missive from 1980, chastises Hertzberg for his grammatical errors. Everyone’s an editor.

When Barack Obama appeared on Oprah, she picked out specific phrases in his speech that touched her. I can’t think of any other politician with whom she would do that.

No, and there are very few you would take that tack with because you would assume that someone else had written whatever the phrases are that you think are so revealing. But with Obama, you know that he wrote them. I think that’s a source of his appeal in a secondary sort of way. Most people won’t have read his books, but they will have a sense of him as genuine, as expressing himself carefully and honestly. And I think that’s a very big part of his appeal. His appeal is really across the board. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope he’ll win. I hope he’ll be the nominee and then president.

Unlike anything you’ve ever seen? Is this more impressive than Bobby Kennedy?

Well, Bobby Kennedy is the example that comes to mind when you think of Barack Obama. They don’t have an awful lot in common on the surface. What they do have in common is the quality of their appeal and this pent-up excitement that seems to surround them. He generates a kind of excitement and sympathy that Bobby did. Bobby’s the one I would compare him to most closely in terms of an emotional ambience that surrounds him.

You still have a copy of a Bobby Kennedy poster from 1968 in your living room. Did you feel nostalgic for him when you saw Obama?

No, in fact Obama had the effect of making nostalgia unnecessary. If you got Obama you don’t need nostalgia for anyone. That’s what it looks like now. Who knows what it will look like three months, six months, a year from now. Obama’s election would be such a cure for so much that ails the country.

In what way?

I think it would be a huge blow for anti-Americanism around the world.

Because of his international pedigree?

Because of his international pedigree. That’s more important to his global appeal than to his domestic appeal, which is based almost entirely on his personal carriage. When he went to Africa, you could see the possibilities of his international appeal. He would be a message to the world of what the United States is at its best, which has been grotesquely obscured over the past six years. So he seems to have a lot of imaginative sympathy for everyone. It would be a horrible irony if he were to be edged out on the basis of experience because it is precisely his experience that makes him such a formidable character. It’s just a different kind of experience. It’s not a machine-graded resume, where computer programmers would say he doesn’t have A, B and C. But he has categories of experience that other people don’t have.

People who dislike Hillary Clinton, and there are many people out there who do, liberals included, will point to her books as a reason why they dislike her. It Takes a Village can be summed up in the title. You don’t need to read the book. Living History was written by committee. Do you feel this dislike for her, and if not, do you understand it?

No, I don’t feel it, but I understand it. I think she’d be a good president. But I think that her real self is hidden away somewhere behind all these layers, or associations, most of which is not her doing or her fault. I think so much has been projected onto her, and it’s very hard to break out of that. It has nothing to do directly with her being a woman. I’m convinced the country is perfectly ready to have a woman to be president.

Are they ready for a black president?

I think they’re ready for Obama. The country is not now ready and never will be ready for a race man, for an Al Sharpton, or even a Jesse Jackson type, whose primary identity is as an African American.

You’re taking the two most incendiary examples. Do you think the country could take a John Lewis?

More easily, but probably not. I don’t think Jesse Jackson is so incendiary, more incendiary than John Lewis (long pause). I think the country will eventually be ready for a John Lewis, will never be ready for an Al Sharpton, and is now ready for a Barack Obama.

Al Gore may or may not be running for president. There’s something of a consensus that it would be a bad idea. He’s a lousy politician and a lousy candidate, but he happens to be a good private citizen.

Yes, but of course the presidency magnifies what you can do. I think he would be a very good president. I don’t think he was that bad a candidate. He did what a candidate is supposed to do, which is to get more votes than the other candidate. If you want to argue that he screwed up in 2000 then you would have to argue that Nixon screwed up in 1968 and Kennedy screwed up in 1960 because he did better than both of them. He got more votes than any Democrat had ever gotten in 2000.

In general, it’s a very strong field, one of the strongest in a generation. I think if Obama falters, Gore might go in. The impression is growing that he’s not interested, that he doesn’t want to do it. Whenever there’s a little flurry of “Is he going to run?” the Right Wing noise machine goes into action and demonizes him. When he won the Oscar, this fake public interest group in Tennessee published alleged facts about how much electricity he uses in his house. To my surprise, that nonsense made an impression on a lot of people. I think they’ll all be subjected to vicious attacks. I think they’ll hesitate with Obama, but I’m sure they’ll get over it in a heartbeat.

Jake Weisberg wrote a piece on Slate arguing that Gore has done more on global warming as a citizen than he did as vice president or would have done as president.

The presidency is a weaker office than it’s often given credit for, but I don’t think it’s that weak. If you’re president, even a weak president with a strong opposing party, you can still do more than a private citizen can do. But I do think if the Democrats win and a Democrat is elected president and if Gore remains on good terms with everyone, it would not be surprising if he was made a supra-cabinet chief for global warming issues. It’s not absolutely certain he would take that. The remedies he’s been proposing are exactly the right ones. The best one is to substitute a carbon tax for a payroll tax. Bill Drayton has been pushing that idea around for 10 years. The payroll tax is a terrible tax because it’s a direct tax on work. Tax cuts are always justified as being job-creating. The most job-creating tax cut would be a payroll tax cut. Substitute that with a tax on carbon. You tax what you want to discourage, not what you want to encourage. It would go after gigantic entrenched interests. Going out into the race those interests would go after it pretty hard and, who knows, probably succeed in stopping the enaction of that law.

I admire Gore. I think he would have been a very interesting, imaginative president. The Gore presidency would have been fascinating and innovative. I hope if he’s needed, he runs. I don’t think he’ll run unless there’s a wide feeling he’s needed.

Giuliani and McCain are more liberal than Republican candidates of the past.

More liberal than Bush II. It is peculiar that the two leading candidates so far -- and I doubt either will get the nomination -- are struggling to overcome their obvious liberal warts. McCain, until he went into this penitential mode, was known for becoming a liberal on every issue he carefully thought about. He remained a conservative on issues he didn’t think about. And now the spectacle of him, obviously against much of his own internal gyroscope, kissing butt to the Christian Right and presenting himself as someone who wants to criminalize abortion, varies between being an amusing spectacle and a sickening one. I guess because he’s doing it so publicly it’s protecting Rudy. Rudy’s doing the same thing.

The Giuliani presidency strikes me as the only one that could conceivably be worse than the one we have. His worst qualities are the very worst qualities of this presidency over the last six years.

Well, that would be one in which personal qualities would be decisive. The problem of Rudy is a problem of temperament. Foreign policy offers many opportunities for making a bad temperament manifest. He has a very strong authoritarian streak and that was so apparent in the wake of 9/11 when he suddenly tried to pull a coup d’etat and tried to make himself, not exactly mayor for life, but he tried to blackmail all the other candidates into extending his term. That’s not how we do it in this country. We have elections even in unfortunate circumstances, such as the Civil War. We still go ahead and have the election on schedule. He wanted to be granted emergency dictatorial powers. That was very revealing of his temperament.

You wrote in this book that you went back and forth on the Iraq war, but you eventually came down in opposition of it, with misgivings. Would you have supported the war if it had been Bill Clinton’s war?

Oh yeah, for sure. It would have been a very different war, if it was a war at all. I don’t think we would have had the war we had if Gore had been president. I think we would have the Afghanistan war. And I think a large part of the Left would have reacted to that by saying, “You see we were right to vote for Nader. Gore is just as bad as Bush. It makes no difference.”

The war in Afghanistan had seven percent opposition.

But there was opposition. I don’t think we would have had [the Iraq war] if Bill Clinton had been president or Al Gore or Hillary. And I think one reason why I was troubled or wasn’t as clear in my opposition to it, or as sure, was the same reason why so many people who supported it ended up supporting it: they could not imagine the incompetence of this administration. They could not imagine that it could be executed so badly. [We don’t know] whether a good execution could have saved this war somehow, whether a better outcome would have been possible. For a lot of people, it was a close call, like here with me and David Remnick. I was against it, with reservations. He was for it, with reservations. Our views were not all that far apart. They were 10 degrees apart. I think the war liberal hawks supported was a war they imagined, but they ended up supporting the war we had.

I remember reading Remnick’s piece about Iraq. And I felt bogged down in policy. It struck me that you could legitimatize any war. If Bush had come out and said, “We’re going into Burma,” you could have come out with an argument of why we should go into Burma.

I don’t think so. When it came out that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the evidence had been manipulated, David was really angry, more than I was. His support for the war was conditional, also. It called for giving the inspections more time. It was a horrendously tense situation, and the administration created a situation in which the tension was unbearable of when the war would start, and it would have been hard to maintain that tension. The people who gave us this war did not care about WMDs or connections to 9/11. They had a fantasy of how this would transform the Middle East and the world. And they thought that that belief in that fantasy and that end justified these means, the deception and the lying. I think a lot of the liberal hawks did not share that wholehearted embrace of that fantasy. They thought that would be a nice outcome.

But it was unlikely.

It certainly wasn’t worth gambling a war on. But if a war there had to be, because of these other reasons, then maybe it would have been a nice outcome. That is why I think if David Remnick had been president the war wouldn’t have happened. If George Packer or Paul Berman had been president the war wouldn’t have happened. I hope the campaign does not degenerate into a bitter struggle over Hillary’s and Edwards’ votes on Iraq. And if it doesn’t that will be a tribute to Obama.

Because it would be to his advantage to use it.

And I think the way he’s been talking about it has been totally legitimate and fine. He has not been baiting them about it. He’s been making the case for himself, quite legitimately, but without demonizing them. There’s a strain on the American Left, as there is on the American Right, of moralistic anger that, at least on the Left, gets frequently misdirected. And my answer to [that anger] is that they’re mad at the wrong thing. Our political system, despite what everybody says about the wisdom of our framers, does not sufficiently take human nature into account. That’s supposed to be its great strength but actually it’s a system that only works well if politicians are selfless. That’s not the way a system should work. It should harness the selfishness of politicians to the common good.

Pundits often seem to use the word “constitutional” as a synonym of “moral.” There certainly is something sacred about the Constitution. George Will certainly holds it in religious awe. How can you ask people to rise up and change it? It’s a bit like asking Christians to rewrite the Bible.

Well there was something called the Protestant Reformation. George Will is more Islamic in his faith. I revere the framers and think they did a magnificent job. But I think we should imitate them. I think they would be appalled at the way they’ve been set up as tin gods. They were very careful in the way they allowed the constitution to be amended in a way that, by their lights, was difficult but not impossible. The Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote among all the state legislatures, which is a way of saying it couldn’t be amended. So the framers lodged what was pretty much a coup d’etat in taking onto themselves the power to completely scrap the Articles of Confederation when they had only come up with suggestions to improve them and to come up with an outline for how to ratify an amendment to the Constitution which completely ran roughshod over the Articles of Confederation and how it would go about making change. Now, they miscalculated. They made the amending process just hard enough to accommodate the intransigent little states, especially Rhode Island, and the slave states, but they didn’t make it any harder than they had to accommodate those interests and they made a deal. They assumed, and George Washington wrote a letter to this effect, that their successors, after 20 years, would take another look and change what wasn’t working. Even though the Constitution failed.

During the Civil War?

Right, during the Civil War: a complete inability of the Constitution to solve this issue of slavery. Both sides fought this war as inheritors of the Constitution. Once the Union side won it was kind of psychologically impossible to turn around and fundamentally change this document that they had been fighting in the name of. There were more attempts than we remember. There were real attempts to introduce proportional representation, but still it failed. Post-Civil War amendments were substantive, but they weren’t procedural. They needed procedural reforms.

One of your arguments for more at-large candidates is simply that we would have more interesting candidates. Well we have some. We have Barack Obama. We may have Michael Bloomberg, who is an interesting character even if he had to pay out of pocket for where he is.

There are interesting presidential candidates. The quality of our members of Congress is lower than similar bodies in Europe. I don’t think the moral qualities are lower, but in terms of experience and expertise and knowledge of the world, they’re much lower. And it’s lower because the geographic basis for advancement is qualitatively different than any other field. Imagine if our music industry were geographically based, if hits were proportioned by district. Or literature or business...

So every politician should come out of New York and, if not, they better have a good reason for being where they are.

Well they should probably come to New York. New York is run by people who aren’t from here. And if not New York some other metropolis, like San Francisco. The size of a constituency that can create a politician is roughly similar to the size in other countries, but the constituency has to be localized. Every representative represents 500,000 people. But it has to be of voting age. So 300,000 people…

Then you have to consider the number of people who actually vote.

So it’s 150,000 people. We’ll pick that out as an order of magnitude. If you had 150,000 people who supported you nationally you would get a better level of excellence. And that’s the big difference between our representatives and those of Europe. England is sort of halfway in between. Often the MP is from somewhere else, you don’t have to be a member of the constituency to get a nomination. A few years ago I went on a junket to Brussels sponsored by the Social Democratic caucus of the European Parliament. They had a bunch of people meeting with a bunch of marginal left-of-center journalists. Paul Berman was one of them. The Europeans were pretty much like us. There were 20 Europeans and 20 Americans. At one point, I asked how many of our European friends had been elected to something. Some of them were former prime ministers. All of them had been elected to something, to the European Parliament, mostly. But none of them had won based on a local district. All of them had won based on a national list, where prominent citizens could be placed and then elected by national constituency. Maybe I like this system because it would take in more people like me.

You would also get more people like Ben Affleck.

You would get some of those, and Americans tend to think you would get a lot of them. The country that elects the most Ben Afflecks is India. A fairly hefty proportion of the Indian parliament is movie stars. Five percent.

Not the worst democracy in the world.

No, but it is one of the worst. It’s one of the few winner-take-all first-past-the-post democracies. You have England, us and other former British colonies, of which we happen to be one. I don’t think you would get a lot of Ben Afflecks. Maybe you would get George Clooney. I don’t know how smart he is. But I don’t think you would get Regis Philbin. You wouldn’t get people just because they are famous. You don’t have that in Europe.

I only throw this out to say that, even here, human nature would interfere.

Oh, I’m not preaching heaven on earth. It would give us a more energetic government but it wouldn’t give us the Promised Land. Eduard Bernstein said the purpose of socialism is to raise the level of human suffering from pain to tragedy. Substitute democracy for socialism there. You’re not going to get rid of human nature and you don’t want to.

You still haven’t given me a satisfactory answer of how you are going to get a large group of people to change this. It’s a boring issue. It’s unsexy. It takes an enormous amount of effort. It would cost about 75 percent of Congressmen their jobs, giving them a disincentive to change it.

That’s true. But the argument that we should avert our eyes, that we should believe in the mythology of “The World’s Greatest Democracy,” is wrong. I think it’s a bit like believing in God because it’s socially useful, because it’s good to tell people they’ll be punished for bad behavior in the next world. That is not evidence that there is a god. I think that there are important changes that are possible. The one I’m obsessed with is the national popular vote, the one part of the constitution that most people are aware of.

But you can’t even get that to change.

But there is a movement to change it under the radar called the National Popular Vote. It would consist of a series of bills passed in the state legislatures, identical bills, that would each say our state will cast our vote for the winner of the national popular vote. And it will do this when and only when enough states will do the same to constitute a majority of the electoral vote. You wouldn’t have to abolish the electoral vote. It would be a constitutional change without changing the constitution -- a change in the British sense. The British constitution has never been changed directly, but everybody understands that Elizabeth II does not wield the same clout that George III did. The Electoral College would meet and vote and there would be a popular vote. You see how the mechanism works. The only thing that matters is who gets the most votes. It would be a huge change. It wouldn’t only mean that we would never have another 2000. That hardly ever happens. It would change the way things happen right away, the way presidents run for president. It means political organizing and activism would be worthwhile from coast to coast. Every corner of the country would be worth organizing, not just the battleground states, which rarely number more than a dozen. The rest of the country would be democratized.

There are some who would call the mere comparison between the West Bank situation and apartheid anti-Semitic, as Jimmy Carter recently made in the title of his last book. It may not be completely out of line, but it seems to be at least unnecessarily provocative.

The comparison between the West Bank and apartheid is not an outrageous one. It’s provocative but it’s one that many Israelis have made. I haven’t read the book. But I have no doubt that it’s filled with errors of historical emphasis and errors of omission and all that. It’s eminently attackable, I’m sure. But it certainly makes the point that there’s an Israeli lobby that likes to shut down discussion. Everyone who has worked in the White House would probably agree.

All White Houses?

Well, since the Six Day War, yes. Anyway, it shows that Carter no longer has any electoral ambitions. If his purpose was to open up the space of permissible debate, I think it succeeded.

But has this only succeeded in making him persona non grata in the Democratic Party.

I haven’t thought of that. I don’t know how he’ll be perceived at the next Democratic Convention. He hasn’t paid that much attention to the Democratic Party. He grew up in a one-party atmosphere. He doesn’t give a damn whether he’s persona non grata or not. The people in charge of the last convention tried to impose a “be nice” rule. Don’t say too many mean things about Bush. But he did anyway. He agreed to remove one or two inflammatory lines and I think he regrets doing that, even, though he compromised less than anyone else at the convention. But, whether he’s right or wrong, that’s the way he is. The fact that he doesn’t give a damn is as much a strength as a weakness. It’s more of a strength in his ex-presidency and more of a weakness in his presidency.

You write about Ronald Reagan, in an essay first published in 1991 in The New Republic: “The emptiness of Reagan’s diary is one of many indications that the president’s narcissism was of the babyish, not the Byronic, variety. And a happy baby he was. His perfect obliviousness to the feelings and the thoughts of others protected him from emotional turmoil. And his emotional tranquility in turn helped to cushion him from what otherwise might have been the political impact of the contrast between his beliefs and his life.” You can say the same thing about our current president or the state of the Republican Party.

It’s curious that now even liberals have a tendency to look back on Reagan with a certain nostalgia. At least he was affable.

I find him charming in a way the current president is not.

I never hated him. I never had the sort of anger against him as I had against Bush.

But there’s an element of contempt in your piece.

But there was respect, too. And I underestimated him then. There’s been a lot of radio talks and things that have been published since. He certainly liked to talk politics and bull sessions, but not deep ones, and he liked to do all the talking. I think the piece I wrote about Reagan surprised me by being as sympathetic as it was. I don’t think he was such a bad guy. There’s a story I tell in that piece about how Reagan [as governor of California] fell into conversation with a janitor, and he was with a black family, and they explained to him that it was tough to get ahead if you were black. And Reagan listened to this and then he essentially embraced affirmative action even though he had no idea it was affirmative action. He had no idea it was against his own ideology. It was the same with the studio system of which he writes with such nostalgia. It was a cartel that had very little to do with individualistic capitalism. So he turned out to not really be an ideologue as much as he tried to be. That’s why he reacted to Gorbachev the way he did. He didn’t believe the Soviet Union was an evil empire. He thought it was changeable. If he could just show Gorbachev how an average American lives, Gorbachev would just forget about communism and they would change how we wanted it to change. And it was true. It turns out he was right.

Reagan wasn’t such a bad guy?

My point is that his grasp of hard conservative ideology was less than sure. And many conservatives project something onto him that isn’t there.

Well, couldn’t the same be said for this presidency where we have the grossest increase in spending in the last six years than we’ve had at any other time since. . .

Yeah, sure that’s the debate the conservatives have among themselves. “[Bush] is not a true conservative,” and all that. He spends too much. I’m not interested in that debate. That’s for them to hash out. Ronald Reagan was, from 1964 on, the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Like it or not, he was the advocate, the public face, the intellectual motor of the Republican Right, where Bush II is just a twerp. He’s a bundle of resentment. He’s never had any real interest in political ideology. It’s all an Oedipal drama. And ultimately that’s how it will be understood. I don’t think it’s comprehensible in any other way. His dad raised taxes, so he’s not going to raise taxes. Dad didn’t go to Baghdad, so he’s going to Baghdad. Dad hated Rumsfeld so he made Rumsfeld secretary of defense.

I saw you speak a few years ago and you said that you preferred Russia’s decision to reform politically before economically to China’s decision to reform economically before they did so politically. I don’t think that’s worked out so well.

I’m not sure how long ago I said that. I would be hesitant to say that now. As Chou En Lai said, when asked what he thought about the French Revolution, it’s too early to tell how it will turn out. The high economists are rooting for China. The social democrats are rooting for Russia. I think it’s partly our fault. I trace it back to our political blindness in thinking that a presidential system was the way to go [for Russia]. People thought it was, because Russia is used to having a strong executive leader. They were mindlessly imitating us to some extent. “We better get ourselves a president like they had.”