Hendrik Hertzberg has been one of the most influential and thoughtful essayists about American politics and culture over the past four decades. From his editorial posts at The New Republic andThe New Yorker he has written with wit and style about the evolution of public life during the last quarter of the twentieth century. He was a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter during the 1970's, so he has the perspective of a one-time insider and the insight of a careful critic of the foibles of politicians and their antics. Politics is one of those rare volumes of collected prose that will provide pleasure and stimulation even though much of what Hertzberg writes about seems now to be part of a very different past in the United States.
This book brings together Hertzberg's journalism over four decades. It thus provides the interested reader with a panoramic view of American life from the age of Lyndon Johnson to the presidency of George W. Bush. For such now-distant episodes as the election of 1988, which pitted Michael Dukakis as the Democratic nominee against the winner, President George H. W. Bush, Hertzberg recaptures the spirit of that empty campaign. He is equally thoughtful about those controversies which once seemed so important but now have faded from memory. He has some wise things to say, for example, about the failure of John Tower's nomination to be secretary of defense in 1989, the intellectual limits of Newt Gingrich as a political thinker, and the continuing controversy over the fairness and wisdom of the death penalty.
Hertzberg approaches politics from the perspective of a detached, skeptical liberal, but he is as hard on the foibles of the Democrats as the Republicans. He has a soft spot for the predicament of Bob Dole in the Republican primaries of 1988, when the sardonic senator from Kansas proved no match for the hardball tactics of the elder George H. W. Bush. While he is scathing about Vice President Dan Quayle's efforts as a young man to avoid the risks of service in Vietnam, he also provides an understanding analysis of Quayle's intellectual limits as a candidate and a person.
One of the strengths of Hertzberg's writing is his willingness to take a searching look at his own motives. In dealing with how young men such as Quayle responded to the choices that the Vietnam War posed, Hertzberg candidly outlines his own course as a draft-age male in the mid-1960's. No better brief explanation exists of the dilemmas that confronted men who opposed the war and faced the draft in that troubled period than Hertzberg provides.
At bottom, Hertzberg's best essays turn on his ability to get beyond the surface aspects of “personality” on which so much of modern print and television now depends. During the decades of Hertzberg's career, journalism and punditry have moved away from an engagement with serious policy issues and evolved instead into a concentration on the interplay of individual characteristics of prominent individuals. Many of the author's reporter colleagues believe they have said something meaningful when they opine that George W. Bush seemed like someone to have a beer with or that John Kerry seems “French.” This style of reportage enables scribes who have little interest, or perhaps even less competence with complex policy questions, to escape into high school-style gossip and innuendo, which are less demanding on their intellectual resources.
Hertzberg rejects such inane commentary in favor of probing into what public figures actually mean in their public statements and how their substantive choices will have consequences for the American public. In short, he treats his readers as adults rather than children with short attention spans. Thus, speaking about the differences between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 election, he notes the emphasis on their contrasting personalities: “Personality apparently excludes, if not intelligence itself, then such manifestations of it as intellectual curiosity, analytic ability, and a capacity for original thought, all of which Gore has in abundance and Bush not only lacks but scorns.”
This, then, is not a book for those with short attention spans and a disdain for nuance. Like H. L. Mencken and Murray Kempton, two of Hertzberg's distinguished ancestors in this format of essay journalism, Hertzberg expects the reader to have some knowledge of the context of daily events and an awareness of American culture beyond the scope of Fox News and...
(The entire section is 1831 words.)