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.
There are no villains in the equation?
The villains are recognized, and people stay away from them. Richard Perle and John Yoo are not recognizable villains. They’re charming; they can talk a good game; they probably struggle with their own demons. So as a journalist, you simply can’t divide the world into good guys and bad guys.
In that vein, let me ask you something. You’ve clambered out onto many a limb in your career, often to impressive effect. But are there some positions you now regret?
The biggest error that I made is that I exaggerated the strength of the political center in America. I assumed you could up the ante, you could make demands upon it, and it would become better.
And this was when?
The sixties. Look, I never had a revolutionary notion. I’ve always believed in limited government and respect for the individual, which set me apart from people with a more cavalier attitude toward state power.
And what about your Red Family days in Berkeley?
The most radical thing I did in the Red Family—where I was never really allowed to be a member; I was on probation—was to take care of the food budget. I went out to the wine country and brought back five-gallon jugs and redistributed it to these other groups. And look, the irony is that I was ultimately pushed out of Ramparts because I wasn’t radical enough. They accused me of being too bourgeois.