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.

What, did you have a thing about clean linens?
Maybe. But I do want to answer your question about mistakes. I think the New Left critique of liberalism was wrong in many ways. I think I was too harsh about Bobby Kennedy. And let me tell you about my most recent error! If you read my book Playing President, which is a cautionary tale, it’s pretty hard to predict Obama.

Although it might have prepared you for Hillary.
Oh, it definitely prepares you for Hillary. You know, the amazing thing to me, and this is going to sound incredibly egotistical—

Fire away.
The amazing thing to me is that a significant percentage of what I’ve written has turned out to be valid. I’m one of these guys who gets up at four in the morning after I’ve handed in a column, thinking that I got it all wrong. But The Pornography of Power—I was really surprised. I read the galleys and I liked it. That’s something, considering that I don’t trust myself any more than I trust the politicians I write about. 

 

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.