Saturday, August 13, 2005

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.


At 4:33 PM, August 13, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

On Michael's Darfur post, I point out the issue of the Left being good with words, but not actions. There's some diversion on guys liking liberal, easy babes, who can use abortion as a mistake cleaner upper.

I claim too much image. What do you think?

At 5:20 PM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again you get close the bees that buzz in my head. The worst part of the PR disaster that is the WOT and OIF is not having names. What you call a thing is terribly important. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but Viagra by any other name... well my point is that the pharmaceuticals realize the importance of a name. Sloppy words lead to sloppy thinking. A War on Terrorism? Inexcusable wording.

At 5:34 PM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More good points, neo-neocon. Actually I enjoyed your post on the writing of reporters quite a bit and this one too. I'll be honest and say that I have a bit of a tendency, the more smoothly and well a piece is written, to distrust it, particularly if the story looks like it's a lot of "style" but when you pick it apart there aren't really that many ideas there. Maybe it comes from college--all too often in academia, slick and smooth writing styles are used to inflate the importance of ideas that are pretty banal and even ridiculous when you take the pretty style away.

At 5:38 PM, August 13, 2005, Blogger Brad said...

The association of the Left with words results in self-deception: A “debate” takes place in the abstract, which is the realm of the Left, and smart people who can dominate a debate become convinced of their worldview. They can then spend decades writing for a magazine or newspaper or preaching politics at a state-funded university and never have their perspectives challenged, because they never leave the abstract world. This yields tom grey’s “…the issue of the Left being good with words, but not actions.” It also results in a sort of comical situation: People who “do” provide the modern world with roads, buildings, food, washing machines, etc; i.e., all the things that make for a society in which the people of words can live peacefully and write nasty things about the people who “do.”

At 5:42 PM, August 13, 2005, Blogger Dr. Sanity said...

I subscribed to the New Yorker from age 12 (a gift from a teacher) until just a few years ago when I simply could not stand it anymore. Hertzberg was on of the reasons. I now get the Atlantic Monthly which has a better balance of writers from my perspective. Keeping the New Yorker for the cartoons and the (maybe) one unpoliticized article a week wasn't worth it.

At 9:24 PM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We continue to subscribe to the New Yorker. Why? Habit; an occasional interesting article; the cartoons. Even with the cartoons -- which, on the whole, are not nearly as funny as they were, I have detected a somewhat smarmy "political" trend (am I wrong in this, or do others see it, too?) As for the political commentary, I haven't read it in many years -- Hertzberg is writing for an audience that doesn't any more need convincing. I prefer reading writers who don't need to convince me.

At 2:59 AM, August 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Words can be powerful. Skillful use of language can sway readers. But unless the veracity of the message stands the test of time, the sway, like a brief seduction, is tenuous at best. No amount of smooth commentary and fluid prose
will produce "hardwired" converts
if the message is devoid of basic logic, common sense and truth.

At 6:36 AM, August 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I doubt that you will do so, but check out the "Oxford American" which has excellent writing on some normal and exotic subjects.

At 8:30 AM, August 14, 2005, Blogger cakreiz said...

I know you've written about this before but what's so interesting is the group-think surrounding Hertzberg and his ilk. I'm sure they fancy themselves as free-thinkers yet they isolate themselves in packs of like-thinkers. This is a common phenomenon; it's almost a cliche. But I'm confident they see themselves as being quite apart from others. Even elitists run in packs.

At 10:41 AM, August 14, 2005, Blogger Promethea said...

A lot of fine writers for magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic can be described in the immortal words of Spiro Agnew . . .

"Pointy-headed intellectuals who can't park their bicycles straight."

At 11:37 AM, August 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems that far too many people value style over substance. I have never been impressed by Hendrick Hertzberg. As matter of fact, I am also underwhelmed by the other mentioned Harvard University second raters. These individuals are so incredibly silly. Hertzberg was right to admit "My whole career has been so marked by advantages gained from Harvard's old-boy network ..." Truer words were rarely ever spoken. Do I have a right to describe him as a liberal slut? No, but I do suspect Hetzberg placed his wet finger into the air and saw which way the wind was blowing.

At 2:33 PM, August 14, 2005, Blogger cakreiz said...

Hertzerg is on Cspan 2 right now, lecturing on the inhe ent and contradictory inadequacies of US democracy. Guess the Founding Fathers didn't do that great of a job, IHHO. Knocking the FFs show a bit of confidence on his part.

At 4:51 PM, August 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

cakreiz: Just remember, even though he was a government major, his obsession with the Crimson caused him to go on academic probation for a semester. So maybe he missed some of the parts about the FFs :-).

Hertzberg does seem, however to evidence a certain amount of humility, at least in his public utterances about himself. Whether it's sincere or not is anyone's guess--certainly I'm in no position to know.

At 8:51 AM, August 15, 2005, Blogger cakreiz said...

I enjoyed watching him especially after reading your post. He's certainly not a demonic character- quite the contrary. Handsome, glib, self-confident- I can see why he has a following. I didn't sense much introspection- but that's very common in public figures.

It was novel to hear someone questioning the federalist system itself. I understood his critique but wanted to hear more.

At 9:24 AM, August 15, 2005, Blogger N. O'Brain said...

Some words of wisdom from a great American writer:

"Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."
-Robert Heinlein

At 11:58 PM, August 15, 2005, Blogger Bookworm said...

I'm becoming your own personal dittohead. I'd also noted both Hertzberg's reflexive anti-Bush stance and his elegant writing, albeit not with the depth you gave to the subject.

At 3:01 PM, February 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not about Bush. It is about freedom, and the greatest threat to it since the events of 4/7.

The key weakness of a free society is that it grants freedom to those who would eliminate that freedom and install their totalitarian view.

This was true of Nazis, Communists, and now the "real" NeoCons. If you do not know the founding thinking of the ideological father of NeoCons, a man named Leo Strausse, than you are no different than the folk who believed Communist propaganda without knowing about Stalin.

At the heart of Neocon thinking is a black nihilism that "Insiders" can enjoy while they enslave everyone else with totalitarian economics and religion, (backed up with bigotry as needed) with no values beyond winning the situation at the moment.

There are a wide range of policy possibilities that can be, and are properly argued in a free society (and my own do not fit most schemes), but without a free society all other arguments are pointless.

To measure one's liberalness or conservativeness by how much they love/hate Bush is just like the Communists who labled anyone who criticised them as reactionary royalists.


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