Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“Politics: Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004”, Hendrick Hertzberg

August 19th, 2009 · No Comments · History, Politics

politicsSynopsis: A thematically arranged collection of Hendrik Hertzberg’s political essays for the New Yorker and the New Republic stretching from the mid-1960s to the end of the Bush Era. Reading political journalism with the benefit of hindsight is fun!

My Take: Hendrik Hertzberg is like an over-sized red-velvet armchair in the corner of The New Yorker’s metaphorical living room. A relic of a past era now slightly out of fashion, but a comfortable favourite for those who’ve grown up with him.

I enjoy Hertzberg because while he is an unreconstructed 60s lefty (and a Jimmy Carter speechwriter at that!) he treats politics seriously without being self-righteous. He’s a rare breed – a long term left-wing commentator that hasn’t turned bitter and contemptuous as the world has changed around him. As a result, Hertzberg can be wry without being sarcastic and can be critical without being shrill. Equally rarely, he’s a political writer who isn’t so arrogant as to assume that he is always in right and that everyone else is motivated by stupidity or ill will. Combine this with the fact that he’s an extremely talented writer and Hertzberg is one of the most reliably enjoyable political columnists in America.

“Politics” is a collection of the best of Hertzberg’s political writing over the past forty years. It’s worth reading just to luxuriate in an extended dose of Hetrzberg’s writing, but the best part of this book are the tit-bits of trivia and minutia political life from eras past. For instance, it pains my soul that I wasn’t able to experience the unintentional comedy of the Dan Quayle era of US Politcs. While the 1988 Vice-Presidential Debate is infamous for Lloyd Bentson’s vicious take down of Quayle, the real highlight of the debate as recounted by Hertzberg was the eventual Vice-President’s total disconnection from reality:

“Tom Brokaw sadistically asked (Quayle) to describe the last time he had visited a poor family and to tell how he had explained to that family his votes against the school breakfast program, the school lunch program and the expansion of the child immunization program. In a quavering voice Quayle said he had too met with ‘those people’ and that ‘they didn’t ask me those questions on those votes, because they were glad that I took time out of my schedule to go down and talk about how we’re going to get a food bank going..”


“Asked to name a ‘work of literature or art’ that had impressed him lately, Quayle cited a book… by Richard Nixon…. One CBS guest commentator said that this answer ‘came across as non-prepared’.”

Also amusing was the coverage of the Gary Hart saga capped by this surreal exchange on Newshour highlighted by Hertzberg:

Lehrer: You don’t think it speaks to the question of judgement as to what a person would do as a candidate for president of the United States?

Hart: Jim, if I may call you Jim, let’s reverse the logic. Does it suggest that because Ronald Reagan used poor judgement on Irangate that therefore he’s unfaithful to his wife?

Lehrer: I don’t understand what you mean.

Reading contemporaneously written accounts of past political eras also offers provides the added amusement of allowing judge historical predictions against reality. Given his generally humble approach, Hertzberg comes out of this pretty well, but there are a few clangers. One example that springs readily to mind is an amusingly misguided article pimping Michael Dukakis’s Presidential prospects titled ‘The Tortoise’ and positing that Dukakis’s positive campaigning (“Good jobs at Good wages”) had George Bush on the defensive. The opinion of British journo quoted in the same article summing up Dukakis as ‘a hopeless wanker’ has held up rather better with time.

Tags: Hendrick Hertzberg

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