Hendrick Hertzberg: writer
I've mentioned quite a few times that I'm a long-time reader of the New Yorker. That's "long-time" as in long-time--my estimate is close to forty years or so. I still get the magazine delivered to my home, and I still enjoy about half of what's in it, which isn't a bad percentage.
But much of the other half drives me nuts, and has been doing so for a couple of years now. I recently went on a cleaning spree and threw out most of the copies that have been hanging around the house, the ones in which I'd taken to underlining offending passages with red pens, and writing little notes to myself in the margins. That's why I don't have any specific examples of the sort of thing I'm talking about at the moment. But, generally, it takes the form of a gratuitous, reflexive "we don't have to explain anything we say because of course all of our readers agree with us" Bush-bashing, as well as a number of distortions and strategic omissions.
One of their most highly-respected writers is Hendrick Hertzberg, the magazine's political specialist and frequent contributor to its "Talk of the Town" feature. Hertzberg never seems to miss a Bush-bashing opportunity, and is known for writing an especially fluid line of prose. I've wondered for some time whether Hertzberg might not be a good example of the sort of journalist I wrote about yesterday, one who is a writer above all else; whose experience and expertise are mostly, if not wholly, confined to that one endeavor.
There's nothing wrong with being a writer. I admire and enjoy writers who are good at their craft. I like writers (some of my best friends are...). But if a writer is influencing the viewpoints of an audience as vast as that of the New Yorker, it's nice to know a little bit about his/her expertise and experience in addition to reading the words.
Of course, the words and the thought process of a writer stand on their own--after all, isn't that what blogging is about? I write; you read (or not, as the case may be). But bloggers don't have the reputation, clout, and circulation of a magazine such as the New Yorker--or, for that matter, any periodical or newspaper of large readership--behind them. The words of a blogger, by definition, are taken with a grain of salt, or even a hefty block of it. The words of an editor of the New Yorker are often swallowed whole, I'm afraid.
So, who is Hertzberg? A lengthy profile of him appeared in the Jan-Feb 2003 issue of Harvard Magazine, chock-full of illuminating information. Reading it, I got the distinct impression that, from very early on, Hertzberg never really evinced an interest in much of anything except political writing and in politics. But the accent seems to have been on the "writing" part.
That's not exactly a crime, nor is Hertzberg a bad person. Not at all. For starters he is an excellent writer, something I admire. He's an Orwell fan as well, thus proving to me once again that Orwell appeals to people from an usually wide variety of political persuasions.
I happen to disagree with many of Hertzberg's conclusions, particularly about the greater war in which we are currently engaged (not just the Iraqi one), and on Bush's role in it (see this lengthy interview with Hertzberg for a taste of his Bush Drangement syndrome, for example).
But Hertzberg is no Chomsky or Michael Moore. He sounds like he'd be a great person to hang out with--funny, witty, friendly, charming, athletic, even modest (he also happens to resemble Warren Beatty, which isn't too shabby). And I don't think he's unique in his dedication to writing above all else, nor do I suspect this pattern exists only on the liberal/left end of things--I wouldn't be surprised if I found a parallel sort of story among some conservative writers, and if anyone wants to do some research and offer one, it would be of interest. I believe the phenomenon is mostly a journalism thing, not a Hertzberg thing. But Hertzberg himself does seems to be a rather extreme example of the genre.
So I think it's instructive to study Hertzberg's training and experience, particularly in light of yesterday's post of mine on the subject, and to marvel at the swiftness of his rise to the pinnacle of the profession.
Child of liberal socialist (although staunchly anti-Communist) parents, Hertzberg almost seems to have been fated to be a journalist. His father was a sometime contributor to the NY Times and Commentary; his mother a teacher at Columbia and great-grandniece of Walt Whitman (those writer genes!). Hertzberg went to Harvard, Class of '65 (and, by the way, until I researched this post, I had no idea how dominant Harvard was in the world of the New Yorker and the New Republic), where he studied under the ever-so-slightly older teaching assistant Martin Peretz, later editor of the New Republic. But, according to the article, "Hertzberg's real field of concentration was the Crimson, where he was managing editor."
The article paints a picture of a man with a mission:
Even as a boy Hertzberg had been obsessed with newspapers. He recalls a family trip by car from New York to Aspen, Colorado, when he was 9, before the interstate highways had been built. It was "a wonderful trip, on two-lane roads," he recalls. "I got the newspaper in every town where we stopped. Somewhere, I still have a huge pile of 1953 papers, like the Toledo Blade. I was fascinated by the way they looked—layout, typography. When I got to Harvard, this was a real icebreaker—whenever I met somebody I'd rattle off the name of their hometown paper and mention a few details."
The Crimson was such an all-consuming passion that Hertzberg was a stranger to his professors during his last two years. This wasn't unusual for a managing editor, but in Hertzberg's case it landed him on academic probation for a semester, which required him to withdraw from extracurricular activities.
So Hertzberg had a sort of tunnel vision early on--even compared to other Crimson editors known for a similar tunnel vision--to the detriment of his getting an education in much of anything else. That tunnel vision was soon rewarded. While still an undergraduate, he got a call from New Yorker editor Bill Shawn (father of Hertzberg's Harvard classmate Wallace Shawn) to talk about writing for the magazine. Pretty heady stuff indeed. Harvard's Class of 1965, by the way, seems to have been a sort of feeder school for the magazine; the article lists four more members of that class alone who ended up writing for the New Yorker, a fairly astounding percentage.
For various reasons, Hertzberg refused Shawn's offer. One reason was a charming and endearing modesty; another was more practical:
"My whole career has been so marked by advantages gained from Harvard's old-boy network that only in the last couple of years have I been getting over the debilitating sense of not deserving anything." Though he did meet with Shawn, he did not accept a New Yorker job in 1965, feeling on the one hand "too green," and on the other, highly susceptible to the draft
His draft-deferred job was as editorial assistant for the National Student Association. A year later he was writing for Newsweek. Then, feeling he could avoid the draft no longer, he took what was probably the only non-writing job of his entire lifetime and enlisted in the Navy, a la John Kerry. However, his Navy trajectory was different than Kerry's; he stayed in the US and saw no action, applied for CO status the next year but was refused. His entire tour lasted two years. On leaving the Navy in 1969, Hertzberg went straight to the New Yorker, and wrote his first "Talk" shortly thereafter. By my calculations, he would have been about twenty-five years old.
Hertzberg stayed for seven years, and left to become a political speechwriter, writing mainly for Jimmy Carter. He left that gig when Carter left office, at which point Hertzberg went on to the New Republic, hired by editor-in-chief and former Harvard teacher Peretz. Hertzberg held the post of editor, and alternated with another Harvard graduate Michael Kinsley in that role for the next ten years.
While at the New Republic, which was starting to have a neocon wing, Hertzberg and Peretz found themselves disagreeing quite often, with Hertzberg heading up the more traditional liberal point of view. Here's Peretz's take on Hertzberg:
...when Rick was editor, I was more involved with the magazine than I was with anybody else. I never quite trusted that he wouldn't slip something in that would truly and deeply offend me."
Rick thinks everyone in the world is at least potentially as civilized as he is. He has not been mugged by reality," Peretz continues. "I think he is just extremely squishy on foreign policy. He thinks foreign policy should aim at bringing out the best in your adversary; I think that's possible with very few adversaries."
Hertzberg finally tired of the arguments, and did a couple of years at the Kennedy School (Harvard again), writing all the while for various magazines. Then, back to the New Yorker, where he's been ensconced ever since.
In the Harvard article, those who speak about Hertzberg in laudable terms seem to be praising his writing style more than anything else:
"He's the political voice of the magazine," says David Remnick, the New Yorker's editor since 1998. "Rick's writing has a kind of moral tone that is irreplaceable—he has tone control the way Billie Holiday had tone control, and his sentences are as well-timed as the most brilliant joke or song phrasing. Attached to this is his way of thinking, his lack of cruelty or cheapness. 'Comment' is the first thing people read when they open the magazine; it has to be just right, and it invariably is." To author James Fallows '70, who hired him for the Carter speechwriting team, Hertzberg's "distinctive gift is his nearly unparalleled grace as a writer. Rick is the classic tormented scribe—up all night, pacing—but when they come out, his words fall in a seemingly inevitable order, as if they came to him in a dream. He's a master of the mot juste. When I read him, I think, 'Godspeed.' Rick is probably the most consistent and effective liberal voice in the media now."...
It seems to be mostly about Hertzberg's voice, his style and his tone. Even Hertzberg himself speaks in these terms:
New Yorker readers are drawn to the magazine for aesthetic reasons; you can assume a subtlety of taste and sensibility. It's a common ground you share, one that lets you address issues in a way you hope readers will find congenial. They might hold still long enough to hear out your argument, and if you can express it in fresh enough language, may even reconsider their views....
So, according to Hertzberg, it seems that language is the best way to convince people of the solidity of your point of view. Of course, language is always part of the picture, but it has a certain primacy for Hertzberg and for others in the article, so much so that the ideas seem at times to be secondary.
In the article, even Hertzberg's discussion of the Bush administration's declaration of a "war on terror" demonstrates this tendency. The Harvard Magazine article quotes Hertzberg as criticizing the "war" metaphor and suggesting the substitution of a "crime" metaphor:
The metaphor of war—and it is more metaphor than description—ascribes to the perpetrators a dignity they do not merit, a status they cannot claim, and a strength they do not possess." Instead, he recommended the rubric of international crime as the most useful way to deal with global terrorism.
As so often happens, however, the Bush administration disregarded Hertzberg's advice. "The president and the country instead went for a war metaphor, which has many pitfalls," he says now. "The crime metaphor has pitfalls, too—it lacks the feeling of urgency and enormity—but it also has advantages. Crime is something that can never be annihilated, but can be reduced, controlled, and discouraged; it takes place within a large framework of order and civilization. Crime is not committed by sovereign entities—it's committed by outlaws."...
I'm not above criticizing people for their use of words--for example, I also think that "war on terror" is not the best name for this struggle. But it's not the "war" part that bothers me; I happen to think it should have been called the "war on Islamofascism," although I think I understand why that name wasn't chosen--the "Islamo" part would have offended too many people.
But the word "war" in the phrase "war on terror" is not just a metaphor. In fact, it's not a metaphor at all; we're not talking about a "war on drugs" here, for example. The word "war" is in there because this is a war, and it was a war before Bush ever called it that. And calling it a mere "crime" instead doesn't make it so, nor does it make it any more controllable or manageable. Writers deal in words, and words have power. But not that much power.