One of American journalism’s brightest intellectual lights shines forth in a fine—and long overdue—selection from four decades of work.
Borrowing his title from that of Dwight Macdonald’s left-leaning, mid-20th-century magazine, Hertzberg—who, as David Remnick notes in his foreword, is now “the political voice of The New Yorker”—offers a nicely catholic definition of what politics encompasses and who makes politics tick. In that vein, he opens this overstuffed anthology with a piece describing the San Francisco sound for Newsweek readers not yet hip to the scene, instructing them that the audiences for the likes of the politically astute Grateful Dead include people just like them, “like the crew-cut blond boy in chinos and poplin jacket, whose brunette date wears a plaid skirt and knee socks.” Newsweek didn’t run the essay, in which Jerry Garcia makes pronouncements worthy of Talleyrand (“Language is almost designed to be misunderstood”), but no matter: Hertzberg follows it with a generous sampling from the ’60s era, including pieces that hit on Woodstock, the Weather Underground, and the invasion of Cambodia, before moving on to his stride-hitting analyses of mainstream political culture. Organized thematically, these pieces visit and revisit actors and motifs. All are marked by Hertzberg’s touching insistence that humans are rational creatures and that our politics ought to reflect as much. Thus the fuss over Gary Hart’s dalliance with Donna Rice, way back in the pre-Monica days, is hurtful because it “diverts our attention from public questions; it makes us respond inappropriately and disproportionately”; thus the war on drugs emerges as a “costly jihad”—just the right word—that “has scared off some casual users, but it has done nothing to reduce the number of hard-core addicts”; thus the sitting president’s way of catching lucky breaks makes for an especially maddening spectacle: “The fact that the 9/11 terrorists gave Bush what he could not earn on his own, a political majority, deepens the bitterness.”
Superb writing, subtle thinking. Just the thing for politics junkies and journalism buffs, especially those wondering who merits wearing Izzy Stone’s mantle today.