X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
“Politics: Observations & Arguments 1966-2004″ by Hendrik Hertzberg (Penguin Press, 683 pages, $30) “Maybe the tyranny of the written word is something that is going out,” Hendrik Hertzberg quotes Jerry Garcia in a story filed with Newsweek — and not published — 38 years ago. Repeated here in the first of 120 collected essays, it’s as if young Jerry was daring young Hendrik to do exactly what he’s done: to demonstrate that the written word is neither endangered nor tyrannical. Commentary begets commentary (if the rising generation has any budding Hertzbergs, they’re probably bloggers), and the power of the written word is resolutely democratic — derived from merit and, let’s face it, charisma. Hertzberg’s career as a magazine pundit has already lasted longer than Garcia’s life as a musician, even if you subtract a four-year sabbatical as a speechwriter in Jimmy Carter’s White House. Individually, his columns — mostly from The New Yorker and The New Republic — are timely yet grounded in timeless philosophy; collectively, they’re a time capsule. (“The Grateful Dead,” his 1966 piece continues, “may not make it big commercially; they might be too freaky.”) His writing is smart, delicately crafted, often mischievous or judiciously smart-alecky, decidedly progressive, but never shrill or naive. As he openly acknowledges, he tries to sneak big ideas into the magazine reader’s guarded little allowance of attention. Simply put, he’s the Aaron Sorkin of print media. Smart, yes, but he’s not always right. Covering Ronald Reagan’s 1966 campaign for governor of California, Hertzberg told his editors at Newsweek the actor “may go over big with the smug country-club crowd, but he lacks the common touch” and would never go beyond Sacramento. And although Hertzberg was one of the earliest pundits to mention Bill Clinton as presidential material, writing in 1988, he envisioned a scenario that now seems just absurd: Clinton replacing Lloyd Bentsen as a second-term running mate for President Michael Dukakis. He owns up to his own mistakes (his prediction about Reagan is recounted in his 2004 annotations), and he challenges other commentators to do likewise — with no statute of limitations. In 1989, when the U.S.S.R. withdrew from Afghanistan, Hertzberg played gotcha with George Will, who had predicted nine years earlier that Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., then 37, would not live to see the end of Soviet occupation. In another 1989 column, Hertzberg ridicules the then-secretary of defense — Dick Cheney — for insisting that destruction of the Berlin Wall was a ruse to trick the West into unilateral disarmament. “We must not be euphoric,” said Cheney of the peaceful end of the Cold War, and Hertzberg replied, “Of course not. Very sage advice. Quite right. Why be euphoric just because a nonviolent, leaderless, joyful, unvengeful civic revolution has erased the Berlin Wall overnight, eviscerating the strongest Stalinist regime in Europe and leaving its temporary custodians desperately promising free elections and a total transformation of society?” Another kind of political foul for which Hertzberg often blows a whistle is the missed opportunity, the pulled punch. Astonished that President Reagan never got in any real political trouble for making policy decisions in consultation with an astrologer, or on the basis of a literal belief in imminent Armageddon, Hertzberg blames not Reagan, not the media, not even the electorate, but Walter Mondale. In the 1984 presidential race, Hertzberg believes, “A little more drilling in Armageddon territory could have yielded a political gusher.” Similarly, the “striking mediocrity” of the first President George Bush he blames on a Democratic candidate who “gave ‘em neither hell nor heaven” — Dukakis, he writes in present-day retrospect, “was politically mugged but declined to press charges.” But as much as it’s about the substance of politics, Hertzberg’s collected work is about the art — writing, rhetoric, the tools of the trade. The former presidential speechwriter dissects the public word of one leader after another, professionally revealing insights into the characters as well as the ideologies of the people who shaped the late 20th century and launched the 21st. For instance, it is with tongue in cheek, sure, but also with sincere curiosity that he explores Ross Perot’s apparently unconscious fixation with rabbits and Newt Gingrich’s semiconscious fixation with dinosaurs. And, for its illuminating value, he appreciates bad writing as much as good: of a hasty, convoluted statement by then-Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., on flag-burning, he reflects, “That was a paragraph to savor, especially the way the antecedents chased each other like enraged bees.” (But, he concludes, “An America capable of writing this sort of tripe into its Constitution would be at once less serious and less funny than the country we thought we were living in.”) DEFENDING OUR INTELLIGENCE Hertzberg also patrols our leaders’ rhetoric to defend our intelligence from being insulted. In 1988, for example, he observed that Gary Hart was being driven from the presidential race not because he had been caught in a lie, but merely because he had been caught in a tryst. In Iran, Hertzberg wrote, where Hart might have been stoned to death, “the mullahs do not insult the condemned prisoner by telling him that he is being executed not for adultery but because of ‘concerns about his character,’ ‘questions about his judgment,’ or ‘doubts about his candor.’” A decade before anyone ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, Hertzberg mocked efforts to turn the Democratic presidential candidate’s adultery into a more general question of honesty, and particularly rejected comparisons to Richard Nixon: “Both men are proven liars, but from the standpoint of statecraft Hart’s lies have been uniformly trivial (why he changed his name, where he spent the night), while Nixon’s were about rather more important things, such as what countries he was bombing and whether or not he was committing high crimes and misdemeanors.” He doesn’t let Democrats get away with unreasonable escalation either. When Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign operatives tried to dismiss Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp as “out of the mainstream,” Hertzberg guffawed. Flaky and extreme, yes; Kemp’s rivals had used those words within reason. “But, by definition, the long-held, well-known views of a major-party candidate for national office cannot be outside the mainstream.” To many of the right wing’s greatest hits, Hertzberg responds with a speechwriter’s knack for crowd-pleasing one-liners. On William Bennett’s facile vision of America as a pious Judeo-Christian nation: “What was Mark Twain, a Russian?” On Canada’s calm acceptance of same-sex marriage, with no discernible damage to marriage as an institution: “[M]akes you proud to be a North American.” On Reagan’s tendency to commingle science fiction and old war movies with his own understanding of the Book of Revelation: “Hollywood always rewrites the classics.” He is, at times, borderline mean — for example, in his depiction of George H.W. Bush’s embattled Cabinet nominee, John Tower. But his mood perhaps was just matching the passion of the confirmation hearings, which, Hertzberg noted, had “boiled off the Senate’s usual oleaginous coating of courtesy.” But he lives up to his own standards — no pulled punches: “Clarence Thomas has won his seat on the Court, but he has forfeited his honor and besmirched his country.” Given his own politics and his loyalty to Carter (it isn’t easy to write a serious profile of one’s old boss, but Hertzberg nailed it for a PBS documentary in 1995), his few kind words for Reagan, however backhanded, are impressive. While he gives almost all of the credit for ending the Cold War to Mikhail Gorbachev, Hertzberg notes that the last Soviet leader’s efforts required a U.S. counterpart who sincerely believed in the triumph of Western ideas and therefore knew better than to listen to his more hawkish aides. Reagan was a stuffed shirt surrounded by professional Cold Warriors; but, unlike the generals and contractors, Reagan was actually open to the prospect of winning the Cold War. (Reagan did not say the collapse of the Berlin Wall was a ruse.) Hertzberg excels, though, at putting a bottom line of old-school rhetoric on classic liberal subjects such as the death penalty (these days, a “grotesque parody of medical procedure”) and free speech. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, dissenting from a 5-4 decision not to add an asterisk to the First Amendment, wrote in 1989 that we outlaw activities “offensive to the majority of people — whether it be murder, embezzlement, pollution, or flag burning.” Hertzberg responded: “We don’t, however, outlaw murder, embezzlement, and pollution because they’re offensive. We outlaw them because they inflict palpable harm on actual people. Flag burning merely offends, and it offends by what it says.” (Writing elsewhere on the Meese Commission report on pornography, Hertzberg notes that the First Amendment does not require speech to be harmless: “On the contrary, speech that somebody thinks is harmful is the only kind that needs protecting.”) But he also promotes ideas that don’t fall neatly onto an outdated axis of left-right, and he has a clear sympathy for third parties. He writes early and often in favor of instant-runoff voting (in which voters rank their preferences and, if no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot, voters’ second choices come into play) and proportional representation of parties in a nationwide election of 50 at-large Senate seats. He dared to suggest, on hearing the Nixon tapes in 1992, that maybe presidential conversations should be taped for future historians. He thinks it was a mistake for Carter to sell the presidential yacht Sequoia, as it cost the taxpayers a lot less to entertain a committee head on a boat than to serve a banquet of pork. Always the smart edge of the left — reminiscing in 1985 that he had belonged to the “wash the flag, not burn it” school of Vietnam War protest — he already, in 1970, tried to cool the heated rhetoric of the day: “The United States is a mess, but it is not, at this moment, a genocidal fascist police state. (Does a government have to be a genocidal fascist police state before we can rouse ourselves to oppose it?)” Activist David Horowitz, he wrote recently, “traded ’60s-style infantile leftist anger for ’80s-style infantile rightist anger,” and it’s clear that Hertzberg finds them equally annoying. Ultimately, he shares Sorkin’s faith in government’s good intentions: “A politician is by definition an egotist, but he is an egotist who identifies his ego with something larger.” And “in Washington there is real heroism, which is the practical attempt to build something decent out of materials that are decidedly imperfect.” Toby Ziegler couldn’t have put it better. THE CHALLENGE OF SEPT. 11 His greatest eloquence, though, is reserved for his greatest challenge: Sept. 11. In a way, he first wrote about Sept. 11 in 1990, covering a rally in Pakistan where a speaker accused the United States — ally of Israel and India — of “conspiring against Islam” on a global scale. Of course we weren’t, but if only we had paid attention to that perception! In the first issue of The New Yorker after the attacks, Hertzberg writes that the global society of the 21st century “relies increasingly on a kind of trust — the unsentimental expectation that people, individually and collectively, will behave more or less in their rational self-interest.” The terrorists, counting on that, “rode the flow of the world’s aerial circulatory system like lethal viruses.” To speak of a war on terror, however, is a “category mistake” that “ascribes to the perpetrators a dignity they do not merit, a status they cannot claim, and a strength they do not possess.” War is a lawful ritual between nation-states; we’re hunting a gang of outlaws. And in the months to follow, Hertzberg documents the outstretched hand of NATO solidarity getting brushed aside by U.S. unilateralism in Iraq, and unlike most pundits, Hertzberg never did shut up about the 2000 election just because al Qaeda had raised the stakes. The Supreme Court decision to halt the Florida recount was still a travesty, and any mandate Bush might claim — for instance, to put extreme right-wingers in his Cabinet — still untenable. But Hertzberg has seen the republic tested before, and seen it pass. “In American politics, weirdness is routine,” he wrote in the first spring of the century. He was referring to a Bush campaign rally at Bob Jones University, but in the end, you could pop that line onto any of these 600 pages and agree. Mike Livingston is a freelance writer based in Takoma Park, Md. He is the lead author of “The Newcomer’s Handbook for Washington, D.C.,” 3rd edition, published by First Books in 2002. His next book, “The Newcomer’s Handbook for the USA,” is due later this year from First Books.

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.