Hendrik Hertzberg on Stupefaction, Sadness and “Outliars”

Hendrick Hertzberg
(Courtesy The New Yorker)

Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker. Since 1992 he has served as both editorial director and executive editor of the magazine. From 1979 until 1981, he was chief speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and served on the White House staff throughout the Carter administration. He began his career as a San Francisco correspondent for Newsweek. Earlier this year, his book, Politics: Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004, an anthology of his writing, was published. Hertzberg spoke with Campaign Desk as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators who covered the presidential election.

Susan Q. Stranahan: In your current Talk of the Town essay, you write that the election’s outcome “defies logic.” You note that the conservatives who supported George W. Bush were also voting for a party that “wants to tax work rather than wealth, that scorns thrift, that sees the natural world not as a common inheritance but as an object of exploitation, and that equates economic inequality with economic vitality …” Do you think that the national media (concentrated in Blue States) can ever hope to understand the motivations of this segment of the population, or is the cultural divide just too great?

Hendrik Hertzberg: I guess we’ll find out. Even as we speak, explorers commissioned by the Blue Media are trying on pith helmets and khaki shorts, readying themselves for the trek into the Heartland of Darkness, with nothing but a tattered copy of What’s the Matter with Kansas? to guide them. I wish them, you should excuse the expression, Godspeed.

SQS: In that same essay, you say: “We’ve got the blues, and we’ve got ‘em bad.” I gather that you include yourself in that category. At what point in the campaign did you find yourself emotionally caught up in the outcome? Did that help our hinder your writing and why?

HH: I got emotionally caught up in the outcome of the 2004 election sometime between Election Day and Christmas of 2000. The stakes spiked upward on September 11, 2001 and mounted steadily ever after. I can’t say whether four solid years of overwrought-ness has helped or hindered my writing. I would prefer to be living in less interesting times.

SQS: During the campaign, what media sources did you rely on for coverage and insight?

HH: Naturally I relied on the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, just as I rely on Con Edison and the New York City Board of Water Supply. I don’t say that slightingly. Just ask the citizens of Baghdad what it’s like to be deprived of basic utilities.

I watched cable TV, especially “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” to familiarize myself with the “mood in Washington.” I clicked to C-Span for Warholian documentary eavesdropping. I frequented Talkingpointsmemo.com, The Note, Media Matters, Romenesko, Slate, Salon, Campaigndesk.org, Andrewsullivan.com, Altercation.com, and Tapped.com. I read The American Prospect and The New York Review of Books. I found frequent solace in the columns of Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, E.J. Dionne, Jr., Richard Cohen, Harold Myerson, and Sidney Blumenthal. The Atlantic (especially James Fallows) and The New Republic (especially Peter Beinart and his squad of young reporters, and wise, clever Leon Wieseltier) were outstanding.

SQS: In hindsight, what did the media miss in this election cycle and why?

HH: I think my answer to this would be about the same as everybody else’s. The media had a hard time figuring out how to respond to the Big Lie techniques on which the Bush campaign and its outliers (or outliars) relied. There was plenty of good information out there if you knew how to look for it, but the big media, television especially, allowed itself to be manipulated too much of the time. I think this was a result less of cowardice and laziness than of a culture of “balance” and a reluctance to be “judgmental” about anything except “effectiveness,” but I could be wrong.

SQS: From a purely journalistic standpoint, which presidency would you prefer to cover: A Bush administration or a Kerry administration. Why?

HH: From a purely journalistic standpoint, I would much prefer to cover a Kerry administration. The prospect of four more years of Bush provokes not only anxiety but also stupefaction.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.