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Birnbaum v.

Hendrik Hertzberg

Our man in New Hampshire snags a fascinating conversation with the New Yorker’s principal political voice Hendrik Hertzberg about his new book, the president’s 12-step politics, and why the New York Times Book Review should avoid sexing up.

Hendrik, or as he prefers to be called, Rick Hertzberg, since his graduation from Harvard University in 1965, has pulled two stints as the New Republic’s editor, served as a naval officer, reported for Newsweek, been President Carter’s chief speech writer, and, since 1992, has been a staff writer and editor at the New Yorker (where he had been a staff writer in the early ‘70s under William Shawn). He lives in New York City with his wife and their young son, Wolf.

As New Yorker editor David Remnick points out in his introduction to Politics: Observations & Arguments 1966-2004, Hertzberg has “for the past dozen years and with increasing prominence…been the principal political voice of the New Yorker but the voice has always been his own. As an analyst of American public life Hertzberg is logical, human and morally acute….” It is worth noting as a signal of Hertzberg’s political education that although there are many books entitled Politics (30 by his count, in the New York Public Library’s catalog, not including two dozen translations of Aristotle’s famous tract) his thoughts were of the magazine, Politics, which Dwight Macdonald (Memoirs of a Revolutionist) founded in 1943 and edited through 1949, when he chose the title of his own compendium. Hertzberg’s Politics is a collection of his writings subdivided into a (baker’s) dozen themes: “Enough About the Sixties,” “Big Men,” “Speechifyin,’” “Judeo-Christians,” “A Campaign,” “Foreigners,” “Wingers,” “The Wayward Media,” “Wedge Issues,” “High Crimes,” “Ghosts in The Machine,” “Yuppies and Other Leftovers” and “2000 + 9/11.” Philip Roth, not someone ordinarily weighing in on matters overtly political, says of Hertzberg, “…no bellicosity, no moral righteousness, no silly punditry—just the intellectual scrupulosity, the innate skepticism, the uncommon journalistic modesty, the unfailing common sense, the strong sentences, the wit and the dedication to justice and fair play.”

In the chat that follows, certainly “the uncommon journalistic modesty” shines through. Also, in speaking of his political education, Hertzberg makes a claim that not many political commentators can legitimately make, “I am grateful for the whole atmosphere in which I was brought up. In particular for the political part of it. On the whole they [Hertzberg’s parents], and therefore I, following in their footsteps, have never really had much to apologize for politically or morally in the positions that we have taken and the views that we have had.” I leave it to you to judge the truth of that.
 

This interview took place at the author’s posh offices on Boston’s tony Newbury street.
All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum.

 

* * *


Robert Birnbaum: How did you work up the nerve to foist a large [683-page] book on the reading public?

Hendrik Hertzberg: It wasn’t my idea. Well, it was my idea, but [both laugh] but I didn’t dare really pursue it until Andrew Wylie reached down from wherever he lives and touched me and said, “You should have a collection.” So I said, “OK.” And I fired my old agent.

RB: [laughs]

HH: Who had come to me 20 years ago and said, “You should have a collection,” but then never followed through. And Andrew Wylie followed through. I wouldn’t have dared to foist this on the public unless someone with Andrew Wylie’s smarts—with that knowledge of the industry and everything—assured me that it might be a good idea. Everyone knows collections don’t sell and most of my friends who have done collections have done them as part of two-book deals where the collection is the bait. But this is a one-book deal.

RB: Were you ready to go? Did you already have sketched out the structure of the collection and the work that would be included? Did you revisit your archives?

HH: Not really. I just revisited that portion of my archive that I could find. Some of it I just haven’t found. Like the files of a magazine called Fusion, which used to be published in Boston; it was one of numerous Rolling Stone clones at the time. And I used to write a monthly column for that. I haven’t been able to find any of those.

RB: Do you think that stuff was good enough to republish?

HH: I think it probably wasn’t. So it’s OK. [both laugh]

RB: It’s like that first novel that you bury away somewhere.

HH: At first, I thought I should organize it chronologically. And my editor, whose name is Scott Moyers, now at the Penguin Press, said, “You should at least try to do it thematically.” And I found to my surprise that this stuff actually did fall into a dozen or so categories. And within those categories, it’s chronological, within those themes.


What could possibly be more self-indulgent than a collection of journalism beginning with juvenilia and going through to the present?


RB: In sports, that suggestion would be called a good “get” by Scott.

HH: Yeah, an assist.

RB: I was not prepared to start your book with an essay from the late ‘60s on the San Francisco music scene.

HH: 1966.

RB: ‘66. Oh my God.

HH: I didn’t imagine starting it that way at first. And I still wonder if it wasn’t a bit of a self-indulgence. It’s one of the few things in the book that has never been published. And when I ran across it again after 37 years or so, I was surprised that it was not that terrible.

RB: It’s not terrible.

HH: It’s naive—sort of. And it’s wide-eyed. But it’s actually kind of organized like an essay. It has an argument in it. Which is odd, because the purpose it was written for was simply to shovel raw material into the maw of the Newsweek rewrite machine, which emerged with a 700-word piece—

RB: [laughs]

HH:—accompanied by a photograph of Moby Grape miscaptioned as a photograph of Jefferson Airplane.

RB: How did that happen? Moby Grape didn’t have a woman. [Jefferson Airplane had Grace Slick.]

HH: Exactly, so I thought, but none of them were well-known enough at the time for that to be the case.

RB: 1966. Amazing!
Hertzberg, copyright 2004 Robert Birnbaum
HH: I took the photograph, too. Because in those days when you were at Newsweek the only way you get your name on your story was to take the picture accompanying it. There were no bylines. You had your name on the masthead, but thanks to the Magazine Photographers Association of America, I guess, they had long ago mau-maued the publishers into—

RB: Is that photo mounted on a wall somewhere?

HH: I have a copy of it on the floor of my office. [both laugh] That’s my filing system.

RB: I can’t let go unchallenged the statement that you didn’t want to be self-indulgent. Was there a part of the contract that stated that the writer could not be self-indulgent in any way?

HH: Not in the one with the publishing company, just in the one with my superego. But what could possibly be more self-indulgent than a collection of journalism beginning with juvenilia and going through to the present?

RB: I can think of a few things.

HH: [sniffs]

RB: There is a spirit of self-deprecation that may be a necessary counterbalance. Do you think your writing is any good?

HH: [breathes deeply] I guess—

RB: You must think it’s good. Would you continue to write if you didn’t?

HH: Yeah, because I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t know any other way to make a living.

RB: Lucky for you, other people think your work is good.

HH: It is, but even if they didn’t I’d probably have to go on doing it. Then I just wouldn’t have anything to counterbalance my sense of inferiority.

RB: [laughs]

HH: I never thought of myself—I have never really thought of myself as a writer. You know, I set out to be a newspaperman and kind of fell into magazines.

RB: Was your father a newspaperman?

HH: My father was a sort of a newspaperman, sort of a political agitator, kind of a freelance person with a lot of personal—

RB: Was he a gadfly?

HH: Yeah he was a gadfly. He was an agitator. He was in marginal left-wing politics

RB: As opposed to non-marginal left-wing politics? What is the mainstream of the left wing?

HH: The Democratic Party, I guess.

RB: Really?

HH: Yeah. But he was a socialist. He was a Socialist Party—type socialist. As was my mother. That’s how they met.

RB: Your mother was a Quaker, is that right?

HH: She was a Quaker by choice. She was a Congregationalist by birth. And a kind of Christian pacifist by inclination, and a socialist. She was national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League.

RB: Sounds like great bloodlines to come from. You came out pretty good.

HH: I am very grateful for it. I am grateful for the whole atmosphere in which I was brought up. In particular for the political part of it. On the whole they and therefore I, following in their footsteps, have never really had much to apologize for, politically or morally, in the positions that we have taken and the views that we have had.

RB: What a [great] feeling. I still feel that I naively was uncritical and thus supportive of the Soviet Union and Soviet policies up until I can’t remember when. I am ashamed to consider until when. I can say it was immaturity. Or my contrarian nature. Or a reaction to the anti-communism that was no better and that the American imperial state was a great evil, but still—

HH: I undoubtedly would have made that mistake, too, if I hadn’t had the guidance of people, my parents included but certainly not limited to them, who had a critique of Stalinism that did not—that was of a piece with a critique of capitalism and fascism and all sorts of other -isms. And so I am extremely lucky in that. So I didn’t fall into third worldism, particularly, or certainly not into Stalinism, but the only thing I knew about anti-communism was all from Orwell and Victor Serge and [Italian novelist Ignazio] Silone and people like that.

RB: As opposed to Joe McCarthy [and his chief counsel] Roy Cohn.

HH: Right. Or at a higher level [economist Friedrich] Hayek, as opposed to Hayek. As opposed to the idea that what was wrong with Stalinism in the Hayek view was that it favored equality and favored some sort of economic spreading of the wealth.

RB: I have come to see Stalinism as a cult of personality

HH: I do, too, but that’s what Hayek thought the key was, and therefore he thought there was a continuum from liberalism through democratic socialism. The view that sees Stalinism as the logical development of trying to give the little guy a break is the wrong view.

RB: Essentially you have reviewed the last 40 years in Politics, in a sense. In doing that, do you have a feeling about whether this is a particularly distinctive period in human history, in American history, in any sense? Is there anything special about the time we are living in?
Hertzberg, copyright 2004 Robert Birnbaum
HH: Well, there has to be. [both laugh] There is something special about all times and that 40 years—after all, by now it’s about 20 percent of history since the American Revolution. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that more has happened in that 40 years than in the previous 40 years or in the 40 years before that and so on, but a hell of a lot has happened and changed. And a lot more has changed than I would have imagined. Than I would have ever predicted or dreamed possible. Good and bad.

RB: Watching the Democratic Convention, to hear a black man with an African name get up as a candidate for Senate from Illinois to the accompaniment of Curtis Mayfield’s “Keep on Pushing” was not what I could ever have imagined when I was growing up in Chicago. It was astounding. And quite wonderful.

HH: And perhaps even more so, the thing that struck me was that 40 years ago the trump card of racism was miscegenation.

RB: [laughs]

HH: “If this whole civil-rights thing continues, you are going to have black people and white people having sex.” Not that it hadn’t been happening for the previous 200 years, but that was the trump card. Now Barak Obama gets up and his selling point, his connection to the American dream, is that he is the product of sex between black people and white people. So I thought it was an epic-making moment. It was certainly by far the high point of that convention. Of many conventions past—I have been to 10 Democratic conventions and four or five Republican ones.

RB: Were you in Chicago in ‘68?

HH: That’s the only one I missed. I was in the Navy. [both laugh] Sixty-four, yes; ‘68, no; and all the ones since.

RB: A number of people I that read on the internet were thrilled by the speech, effusive about it, and compared it to whatever other high benchmark they could remember—someone mentioned Mario Cuomo’s speech.

HH: That was the first one that came to mind for me.

RB: He is not being held to a very high standard because there aren’t any great public speakers, or extraordinary declaimers. Maybe Clinton, with all his artifice, and Cuomo. But who else is out there who can speak?

HH: The fact that the general run of speakers is bad—I am not grading Barak Obama on a curve. His performance was great in absolute as well as relative terms, and it was great literarily and ideologically as well as as a piece of performance. I have heard some very great speeches, I think. Cuomo’s was one of them. A speech I heard at the 1967 National Student Congress by Allard Lowenstein.

RB: Congressman from New York.

HH: Later he became a congressman from New York. At that time he was trying to organize the “Dump Johnson” movement. And that movement in many ways started with that speech. I guess it was at College Park, Md.

RB: Has it made Bill Safire’s collection of great speeches?

HH: I don’t think so. It’s like a Clinton speech; it doesn’t come through on the page as well as it does with the whole zeitgeist around it. Whereas Obama’s speech is great on paper and it’s as good on paper, virtually, as it was in performance. That’s really rare.

RB: I don’t disagree or want to take anything away from Obama. What I report to you is that’s the way people are seeing and making these judgements about political events. I didn’t see anyone say, “That’s a great speech,” and stop there.

HH: That’s because, partly, because of the devaluation of superlatives generally. They are just trying to persuade you that they really mean it was a great speech. I don’t mean it the way you usually mean it when you say, “It was a great speech,” I mean it the way you mean it when it really is a great speech.

RB: I resented that argument because it caused me to react contrarily. The speech that moved me—I don’t know why, I can’t even believe that I was intelligent enough to understand it—the great speech for me was Eugene McCarthy’s nomination of Adlai Stevenson in Los Angeles in 1960. I loved that speech.

HH: I loved it, too. It was a great speech and it was a cynical speech, we now know. I had no idea of that at the time. I had no idea of that until maybe 10 years ago. Perhaps I learned that in 1968. Yes, “Do not forsake this man.” Remember that line?

RB: No. My memory now is just that I was very moved then and for years to come no other convention speech compared. I haven’t revisited it since.

HH: It moved me too. One reason it was so moving is because it piggybacked on Stevenson’s career and his appeal. And what he represented. Which is hard to recapture now. Now the revisionist view of Stevenson is basically, well he was kind of—he was no good on race, and he was faintly anti-Semitic. He had no interest in economics.

RB: Where does that come from? Arthur Schlesinger?

HH: You mean as a pro-Kennedy thing. No, not Schlesinger. What he represented was something—well, to me he represented a possible way you could be a grownup and not be a jerk. Against the dullness of that era—

RB: You can’t replicate that now. Who would think that way?

HH: No, and it’s probably harder to capture that atmosphere of the ‘50s now than the atmosphere of the ‘60s, because we have so many artifacts of the ‘60s around us all the time. Although they give a distorted picture of it. Yes, that’s one of the ones that would be on my list.

RB: Here’s a seismic shift. Your statement about the ‘50s and the ‘60s really obtains because in the ‘60s it really became clear that people could start to market time and nostalgia, or just after the ‘60s. So there is no historical perspective of these things, it’s all marketing gimmicks. Did you think when you heard Bob Dylan songs that they would be used in car commercials?

HH: I remember having a nightmare at the time that I had heard a Bob Dylan song in a commercial. And when I woke up I was grateful.

RB: You went to Woodstock to see Dylan. [both laugh]

HH: I went to Woodstock to see Bob Dylan and I still believe that a good third of the people who went to Woodstock went to see Bob Dylan.

RB: Did they stay? [both laugh]

HH: You have to ask someone who didn’t leave after day one.

RB: Ever notice that more people say that they went to Woodstock than actually went? “Yeah, I went to Woodstock. Yeah.”

HH: There are a lot of places like that. Vietnam is another one of those places. A lot more people say they were there.

RB: Any interest in going to Woodstock II or III?

HH: None, really. I had no interest in going to those.

RB: There was an immediate sense that—

HH: It was fake. And that it was parasitical. It’s not completely because I no longer have the passion that I once had had for scene-making. I still like to make the scene. Not at as much. I can’t break the convention habit.

RB: Any guerrilla wars?

HH: I’ve been to Nicaragua.

RB: This would be a whole other tape/conversation.

HH: I went after—as the Sandinista thing was approaching its end. Actually, during the electoral campaign. That piece is in the book. I was one of the few who said that the Sandinistas would lose the election. I said it was going to be a fair election.

RB: People who knew the situation actually thought the Sandinistas would win? Why? The people were sick of the war and blamed the Frente [the Sandinista National Liberation Front]. That was it.
Hertzberg, copyright 2004 Robert Birnbaum
HH: It wasn’t clear that they entirely pinned it on them. After the fact. And the administration thought the Sandinistas were going to win. They thought they were going to win. They were quite sure they were going to win. They [the Sandinistas] thought they were going to win honestly. And the administration thought they were going to win dishonestly.

RB: Jimmy Carter monitored that election, didn’t he?

HH: Yes, he did. And the U.N. was there in strength. There were so many observers there that it would have been impossible to rig the election. Unless it had been as close as Florida in 2000.

RB: How did we get onto Nicaragua?

HH: Talking about Marcelle Clements?

RB: After I had talked to her, I talked to another writer who has been to Nicaragua, Joseph O’Connor. I had visions of organizing a kind of old-timers’ fantasy trip to Nicaragua.

HH: I don’t know if there will be an equivalent of that in the future. At least not in the future that we’ll get to experience.

RB: It did play out as many observers said. As soon as the hot war ended, U.S. interest and commitment to Central America dried up.

HH: Yeah, and that’s pretty much true across the spectrum. It’s not just the government that ignores it. The left ignores it, too. Everybody ignores it and probably to the best of their ability the Nicaraguans try to ignore it, too. I certainly would, if I were they.

RB: Do you think George Bush is criminally insane, going by a definition you offer in Politics and suggest applies to most American presidents?

HH: The definition being [having] an inability to tell right from wrong and a willingness to cause death on a large scale for cynical political purposes. I guess, no, I don’t think he approaches the cognitive level—

RB: [laughs]

HH:—at which you can become criminally insane. I don’t think he has enough of a grasp of what he is doing.

RB: Would you hesitate to forward that argument in the current climate?

HH: That he’s criminally insane? Yeah, but not because of a repressive atmosphere. Simply because—well, we’re in a bumper sticker 24/7 attack machine—

RB: I saw a good one—President Bush is an oxymoron.

HH: I certainly have felt that way. I find it difficult to say the phrase.

RB: [laughs]

HH: It’s certainly true that if I were to tell you that I thought President Bush was criminally insane and you were to put it your website, and it were to be googled the next time I go on Fox News or even if I don’t go on Fox News, that would be cited as an example of liberal hate speech and the long wry amusing argument leading up to it, the joke would not survive the political Cuisinart.


What we have is a kind of political correctness where you have to respect everybody else’s views. Now a slight exception is made for Islam.


RB: The American right wing—a phrase I never use—they so remind me of a character on Leave It to Beaver, Eddie Haskell. They do this nasty, underhanded stuff and then when someone does something like it, they are appalled that someone would do some nasty, underhanded stuff. It’s such bad form.

HH: There is definitely a schoolyard bully aspect to this, and part of it is to do something mean to the other guy and then to be a tattletale and go to the teacher when you do it to them. Which, alas they, or I should say, we do not do it to them nearly enough. But we are learning.

RB: Do the Dems have $250 million?

HH: Yes, we do. Even though in this campaign, the money spread is such that they [the Bush campaign] can’t win it by buying it. Miraculously, to everyone’s surprise, Kerry managed to raise, not as much money, of course, as the Republicans, but enough. And he managed to raise it in small increments, which only the Republicans have been able to do it recent years, the last five or six election cycles. So that’s a big plus. And they do have a much more disciplined media machine and what we have is what they refer to when they talk about Hollywood and the liberal media. The assumptions behind most forms of media and entertainment and that are behind most forms of anything that can be described as art, even implausibly such as made for TV movies. These assumptions are generally that gay people are as good as straight people. At least they are OK. That racism is a bad thing. And that we should get along among different groups and styles of life.

RB: People should have health care.

HH: Generally. There should be some fairness out there somewhere. Just because you are rich doesn’t mean you should have everything, just because you not so rich—those assumptions are embedded but they are not overt. So the right has the overt game pretty well wrapped up in terms of a disciplined kind of central committee—run Comintern of the Right, they’ve got that. And what the center-left has is much more diffuse and kind of watery. But it’s broader. Don’t forget, even Gore got more votes than Bush last time. Even Gore.


Bush II is much more of a tool who is manipulated through oedipal signals. He is a reformed alcoholic who is interested in a certain kind of one-dimensional religiosity that he has transferred from the AA level of religiosity and made that his model of world politics.


RB: It does strike me [that] to be a conservative is to hold fast to a very small number of precepts. To be a progressive suggests less dogma and doctrine.

HH: I find it an awful lot easier. Maybe it’s a failure of imagination but I don’t fully understand why people are attracted to hard-right conservatism. If they are so far off into fantasyland that they believe in a God that interferes in history at every moment and that that God is a right winger who is active in the pro-life movement and in the anti-tax movement, then I can kind of understand that. Then you are thinking, “There is a big authority figure out there who’s got a list of dos and don’ts and I have to obey them.” But for the neo-cons and for other kinds of conservatives I just don’t really get it. I don’t understand why they want to take from the poor and give to the rich. It’s just so unattractive.

RB: It’s perverse. We seem to live in an era where ethical discussion is almost nonexistent. People don’t seem to know the terms—that conversation doesn’t go on. What’s wrong with making sure people don’t starve?

HH: And essentially, starvation as an incentive to eating is kind of the conservative philosophy. I think you are right about the moral discussion. It’s partly because we have no religious discussion, either. What we have is a kind of political correctness where you have to respect everybody else’s views. Now a slight exception is made for Islam.

RB: I still think there is a hard-core anti-Semitism in this country, that bubbles under and that can hardly be contained.

HH: And now some of it takes the form of philo-Semitism. The idea that—the apocalyptic notion that once the Jews are all gathered into Israel/Palestine and the battle of Armageddon takes place, then the Jews will either have to go Christian or go to the fiery pit. But in the meanwhile we support the Israeli right.

RB: Will we ever get over having had Ronald Reagan as a president? You talk a good deal about one of his beliefs that there would be that battle of Armageddon. I was not at all aware of it.

HH: I became very agitated about it during the 1984 campaign. And kind of discovering all these things that Reagan had said about Armageddon. And I started out to make it a campaign issue and in fact I lobbied the questioners at the second Mondale-Reagan debate to ask a question about Armageddon, and I succeeded. I’m not sure it was Mort Kondracke or one of the others who asked. And Reagan just kind of got through it without too much mishap. A follow-up was needed and I think it could have become a big issue. On the other hand, years later in looking back on Reagan and reviewing books about Reagan and by Reagan, I realized he didn’t really mean it. That for him Armageddon was a science-fiction story. He was greatly influenced by The Day the Earth Stood Still. That was one of his favorite movies. For him, Armageddon was a bad thing that might happen unless the good guys won. And it wasn’t an inevitability and he didn’t have a Calvinist mentality at all. He was much sunnier than that, I have been forced to admit in my old age.

RB: Is there a way of looking at his presidency as a political coup?

HH: No. Tell me how you mean that.

RB: I didn’t think he was actually in charge. I don’t see evidence of policy discussions. I see him as a mannequin, an actor playing president, while Republican mandarins were governing.

HH: That’s a much better description of Bush II than of Reagan. Certainly Reagan didn’t have any particular interest in the specifics of policy or even of the generalities of policy. But he was interested in politics and in political theory. And in ideology.

RB: Theory doesn’t seem to attach itself to my sense of him.

HH: You’d get an argument from Jane Wyman about that. That’s why she divorced him, because he bored her to tears with his constant political theorizing. He genuinely—he did have these few core beliefs, as his staff called them. And they were more or less coherent. It turned out that his biggest core belief was that in the movie of his life he was going to ride off into the sunset and it was going to be a happy ending, and that’s why he was so ready to accept—relatively ready compared to his advisers—ready to accept Gorbachev and accept that something real was going on. Of course, he had a little urging from Margaret Thatcher, too. Bush II is much more of a tool who is manipulated through oedipal signals. He is a reformed alcoholic who is interested in a certain kind of one-dimensional religiosity that he has transferred from the AA level of religiosity and made that his model of world politics. And he is determined to show up his father, show that he is as good as or better than his father is, and he is easily manipulated through these two factors. He doesn’t have any real political beliefs. He is somebody who was really not interested in politics, if he is now. I think he is not particularly interested in politics even now.

RB: What must a discussion between he and Condoleezza Rice—who is very smart and has a great command of much information—what must those conversations be like? He apparently knows very little.

HH: The bar is pretty low for her when she goes in to brief him. She can certainly fill up the time just explaining there are two kinds of Muslims—Shiites and Sunnis. [both laugh]

RB: What’s in it for her?

HH: Position and power. It’s wonderful, it’s great fun to be a high White House aide. I can tell you that; you get to travel in the most magical way imaginable. Everybody treats you with deference. At least everybody that you run into, face to face. And you certainly have the feeling that whether things are good or bad in the administration that you are serving in, you are having the effect of somehow moving them toward good. So you can stomach quite a lot. And I think she has to stomach a lot. She started out as moderate hawk.

RB: As the national security adviser?

HH: As a thinker about foreign policy. She is a Soviet specialist, and she was fairly hawkish about the Soviet Union but not completely so. She would have been just as happy to be national security adviser to John McCain. Or maybe more so. And even conceivably could have been an adviser to a kind of middle-of-the-road or center-right Democrat. Like [Zbigniew] Brzezinski. Her views were not that different from his. I don’t sense that she has played much of a role in pushing the Bush agenda to where it’s gone. It’s much more Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially Cheney. Above all Cheney. [long pause] I hope it’s over soon.


I think it’s a mistake to try to make the New York Times Book Review interesting. It’s a public utility of a sort.


RB: Did you see the New York Times Book Review yesterday? The piece by Leon Wieseltier on Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint, it starts off with, “This scummy little book…”

HH: Um-huh. Well, uh, the New York Times Book Review is trying some new things. I was astonished to see Leon in the New York Times Book Review. I skimmed that piece. I plan to read that carefully, as I read everything Leon writes carefully.

RB: Really?

HH: I do. I have a great deal of respect and affection for him.

RB: I’m thinking of forming a retirement fund or Pay for New Medication fund for him.

HH: For the New York Times Book Review, I guess I was sort of a target—victim was too strong a word because the review I got from Richard Brookhiser in the New York Times Book Review was not all that bad, by a long shot. It’s a bit hollow to whine when you have been compared to H.L. Menken and Murray Kempton and William F. Buckley Jr., as he compared me to all of them before he got around to pointing out that I was nothing but a damned liberal. But Sam Tanenhaus is trying to liven up the book review. And assigning that book to Leon is certainly in the service of that.

RB: It specious and cynical. I couldn’t read past the first paragraph of that piece. I thought it was bogus and without the humor that even Dale Peck attempts for his invective-laden advertisements for himself.

HH: Well, how do you know if you didn’t read past the first paragraph?

RB: That would be a danger of my squeamishness. I criticize Mel Gibson’s film and I would never see it.

HH: I did see it and you can skip it. Your opinion is already correct.

RB: OK, I did skim it. I confess. He accuses the book of “begging for attention.” Oh my, terrible.

HH: I think it’s a mistake to try to make the New York Times Book Review interesting. It’s a public utility of a sort. It’s a piece that’s lively and provocative when it’s in the New Republic or if it’s on this website or on Slate or Salon. It has an entirely different meaning when you put it into the Times Book Review. I certainly have had the experience of writing for the Times Book Review and dulling it down. Because you feel a tremendous sense of responsibility. There is a lot at stake.

RB: You would really change the tone of something you would write because of the venue?

HH: Yes, I would. Just as I might yell “fire” if I were directing a firing squad but not in a crowded theater.

RB: The example is apt, but not convincing. But OK.

HH: The old-fashioned and dull virtues of fairness and even balance are important in a venue like the New York Times Book Review in a way they are totally dispensable and even pernicious in a different venue.

RB: There has been lots of outrage in my internet neighborhood. This little literary cabal is outraged about Deborah Treisman’s infamous statement about the New Yorker’s fiction slush pile, which you could argue is wonderful in that the readers have a proprietary interest in the magazine and expect things and want it to act right. In the same way, people have been fulminating on the internet since Charles McGrath’s announcement he was leaving [the Times Book Review]. Tanenhaus responded last week to an open letter.

HH: Really. I had no idea. Where do I find this stuff?

RB: Mark Sarvas’s weblog, The Elegant Variation, Michael Orthofer’s Literary Saloon, Carrie Frye’s Tingle Alley, and Dan Green’s Reading Experience.

HH: I’d love to see that stuff. What’s the tenor of the responses to Tanenhaus comments?

RB: Some were happy that he responded and was paying attention. I said—well, you can read what I wrote. But there is that concern which perhaps confirms your notion that the Times is a public utility. My sense is that the people who were concerned didn’t need the Book Review to find out about the books that the Times was reviewing. They already know about those books. So what? It seems to me that it’s a hollow abstraction. They don’t pay attention to books like this. [gestures to copies of The Road to Illegitimacy, by Mark Danner; The Big Chill, by Dennis Loy Johnson; and Irreparable Harm, by Renata Adler] Have you seen these books? [tape stops]

RB: We were off tape for a few minutes as I stopped so that you could look at those books. We were talking about Tina Brown’s career and I don’t think we got to the point where I said people should be happy that the Times didn’t make Tina Brown the new Book Review editor.

You said it might be a good match because—

HH: She’s always been good when her sensibility goes up against the sensibility of some existing institutions, and that was true of the Tattler, which was a very dull society magazine and she turned it into a happening magazine, and Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, which was the strongest—had the strongest DNA of any of the others. But that sort of creative tension between her sensibility and the sensibility of the institution she was brought in to revitalize—it could work at the Times Book Review.

RB: She does represent the British penchant for confrontational journalism.

HH: And much more raffish and more disinclined to take itself seriously. British journalists invariably refer to themselves as hacks. Now, they are being ironic, but they are being a hell of a lot less ironic than it might appear at first glance.

RB: And the Samuel Johnson quote is frequently trotted out.

HH: “Only a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” [To quote Mr. Johnson directly, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”—ed.]

RB: So Tina Brown crossing the Atlantic to deal with a stodgier journalism was not a big reach. But I wonder if the times have passed her by? I don’ t get that she has a grasp of anything other than her own celebrity.

HH: Do you watch her TV show?

RB: No, I occasionally read about it. I did hear about her questioning Stanley Crouch. “Stanley, I understand you’ve been naughty. You bitch-slapped someone?”

HH: Oh yeah, Dale Peck. I saw that [interview] because that it happened immediately after she raved about my book as her hot pick of the week.

RB: [laughs]

HH: So naturally, I was paying close attention. And it came while they were rolling the credits and Tina was talking. I guess she got into some trouble for saying “bitch-slapped.”

RB: On cable?

HH: Not with her employers, not with CNBC, but [with] various observers around the web. Is that considered homophobic? She was accused of homophobia. It was the use of the term “bitch-slapped.”

RB: Not for using black vernacular?

HH: Doesn’t it refer to the interaction between a pimp and his employee?

RB: I guess. That doesn’t make it homophobic.

HH: Given that Dale Peck is gay, it might be.

RB: Well, Crouch is certifiably homophobic, having referred to Peck as “a dissatisfied queen.” But, it seems to me Brown didn’t have a grasp of this issue. Crouch was “naughty”? This was criminal behavior. Reportedly, he first walked up to Dale Peck, introduced himself, shook his hand, and then slapped him.

HH: If he did something criminal, then it’s a matter for the criminal justice system. I am sure there are many, many authors out here who would be dishonest if they didn’t secretly sympathize with someone slugging a critic.

RB: Right. Of course.

HH: But it’s a failure—to resort to violence is a confession of failure.

RB: Harboring ill will toward someone who has done something bad to something you care about is—

HH: Hitting is the wrong way to go if you are intellectual.

RB: More reason to suggest these are odd times. In talking about the New Yorker, you echoed something that other New Yorker writers have said or suggested—the strength of the magazine’s DNA.

HH: Many of the changes that Tina made—bylines, photographs, bylines at the front of the article rather than at the end of the article—

RB: A contributor’s page.

HH: A letters page. All these things made the New Yorker more like other magazines rather than more distinct from other magazines. A lot of people reacted with sadness and mourned that, those changes. They were good, and it was part of a general demystification of the New Yorker, a self-demystification.

RB: Well, I “mourned” the introduction of lights and night games at Wrigley Field. I found the grousing and carping about the changes trivial. Even with these new shortcomings, I find the magazine to still be one of the best in the world.

HH: I’m not so sure the shortcomings were shortcomings, on the whole. The New Yorker has always been a commercial enterprise. Many of the special qualities of the Shawn New Yorker were made possible by the fact that it was a cash cow. So, for instance, the extraordinary freedom given to writers was partly a function of the fact that they were making so much money that they could afford to have people take two years writing a piece. And the magazine was hugely overstaffed. I was on the New Yorker under Shawn. And depression made the magazine go.

RB: [laughs]

HH: In a sense that all of those staff writers had, if they had been producing art at anything like a normal pace, let alone a rapid pace, then there would have been too much material to put in the magazine. So writer’s block was part of the ecology of the magazine.

RB: All the backstage stuff seemed to contribute to this culture and became self-perpetuating. People talking or not talking to each other, working for years without writing anything.

HH: Losing their minds.

RB: Can writers do that in the new offices?

HH: It’s harder to lose your mind there anymore, because you have to work pretty hard. [Before,] you could be put in a little cubicle by William Shawn and never heard from for three years.

RB: [laughs]

HH: One writer who he had hired who sat in a room growing increasingly depressed for three years then moved back to San Francisco, where he came from, for five years and was back in New York visiting a friend when he ran into Shawn in the hall and Shawn said, “Oh Mr. So-and-So, have you been on vacation?” [both laugh]
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum