Hendrik Hertzberg has been a political observer and writer for nearly 40 years. He wrote for Newsweek for many years. In the 1970s, he took a hiatus from magazine writing in order to scribe speeches for Jimmy Carter. Then, in the 1980s, he was the editor of The New Republic. Since 1992, he has been a senior editor and frequent contributor to The New Yorker.
Hertzberg most often writes analytically about politics du jour: reports from the campaign trails of various candidates, analyses of policies and idiocies (including crimes and misdemeanors) of elected officials, and the (often pernicious) portrayal of the above by the (as Eric Alterman says) so-called liberal media. Though Hertzberg usually works the denotational side of politics, he also frequently covers the connotational side, that is, pop culture. “The personal,” as we know from the Situationist slogan graffitied throughout Paris in 1968, “is political.” In this sense, then, Hertzberg is an ecological writer: we’re all connected in an environment of often-conflicting ideologies.
Politics collects Hertzberg’s writings from many sources and spans nearly 40 years. We get an account of John and Yoko in New York (Hertzberg’s base for much of his career) and a great deal of reflection on “2000 + 9/11 = 2004.” This huge collection is organized by more-or-less loose themes: “High Crimes,” “Yuppies and Other Leftovers” and “Judeo-Christians,” to name a few.
If you sat down to read this book from beginning to end, it would be easy to become overwhelmed. There is no grand theme, per se, here: it is all deeply topical material. The best purpose this book serves is as a reference: it is extremely useful as a guide to the recent history of the United States (and America’s foreign adventures and follies). Thus, it is a perfect resource for teachers of history, sociology, American studies and the like, as well as those of us who, for whatever reason, desire to understand our history. Make no mistake: Hertzberg is left-of-center—and the farther to the right the general population moves, the more left the consistent Hertzberg appears—and his writing does not pretend to ideological neutrality. Nevertheless, Hertzberg is transparent: he writes with passion and wit, but always bases his arguments and observations on rationality and what might be called “public knowledge.” This is deeply refreshing in an era of speechifying (which only appears argumentative, in the rhetorical sense of the word, but is in fact merely combative) based so frequently on private experience. Public knowledge, of which science is the best example, is available to all and is, to a certain extent, reproducible and falsifiable; private experience is, of course, private: it can never be either confirmed or denied. Hertzberg, in short, is a clarifying solution to the mud-slinging of what passes as “journalism.” He writes from a consistent liberal-left perspective that embraces and analyzes other perspectives—in other words, he is a living inheritor of the Enlightenment of reason that has characterized the best Euro-American writing and thinking of the last 250 years.