Which brings me to my next question. I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been identified with the left throughout your entire career. But in both The Pornography of Power and Playing President, you’re surprisingly nonpartisan in your appraisal of the players.
Yeah. You know, my mother was an old garment worker who retired and came out from the Bronx to live with me. When I wrote my Nixon profile for the L.A. Times, she sat there for two hours reading it. Finally she finished, and I said, “So, Ma, what do you think?” She looked up at me, this eighty-six-year-old woman with her glasses at the tip of her nose, and said, “He needs you?”

She thought you were too kind.
Yes! And I’m getting that same thing with McCain now! But I don’t think there’s any sense in being a journalist if you’re not prepared to be surprised. If you can’t say, “Hey, I’m full of shit; this guy’s got something,” then you’re in the wrong line of work. Meanwhile, I’ve always rejected the idea that you couldn’t be on the left and also be honest and objective and truth-seeking. I admire guys like Paul Goodman or Murray Kempton or Sartre. Or Bertrand Russell, whom I interviewed when he was ninety-four.

Since you’ve just run down this pantheon of the left, who are some people on the right whom you admire in the same way?
This will get me into trouble with Gore Vidal, but I think Buckley falls into that category. He could be mean-spirited, as he was in that television debate with Gore, but he does fit the bill. And Graham Greene. I think he was the greatest journalist of all time, frankly.

How about conservatives who haven’t died yet?
You’re asking me which neoconservative or ideologue I respect. And there I’m really hard pressed. Tony Blankley seems to be a thoughtful fellow. Then there’s David Brooks at The New York Times, and [David] Frum; they’re both guys I respect.

You feel like you could have a real dialogue with them?
Oh, sure. Look, something terrible happened to the conservative moment. These people became—well, nasty. But my new book is dedicated to Eisenhower. And this is not just in retrospect: when Eisenhower was alive, I admired him; I had an “I Like Ike” button and everything. So if he’s a conservative, I don’t have any problems with conservatives.

But it’s not merely that you’re willing to give a fair shake to both sides of the aisle. When you write about, say, Richard Perle in The Pornography of Power, you seem genuinely perplexed about his motivations, and fascinated by them as well.
I’m not a religious person, but I do think we’re always struggling with our own innocence. Am I talking to you now because I really want to get across a better way of dealing with the world, or because I want to sell some books?

Let’s just say you’re a complicated person.
We all are! At least those of us that remain sane. I met Perle when he worked for Scoop Jackson. I followed him over the years, and he’s certainly not a simple person. But let me explain something. I was born in nineteen-thirty-six. My father was a German Lutheran with a thick accent. My mother was a Russian Jew, also with a thick accent. And as a kid, I had to struggle with this issue of why one part of my family was killing the other part. After the war, I met my father’s younger brother, who had remained in Germany and was wounded at Stalingrad. My uncle and his family were great people, terrific people, but there was one conversation that was very difficult to have: How did it happen? So I’ve spent a lot of time in my life thinking about the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt referred to it. Most evil is done by good people.

James Marcus is the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Eighteen Installments, will be published in 2015.