MATTERS OF STATE by Philip Hamburger
Kirkus Star


A Political Excursion
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More than 50 years’ worth of reminiscences from a longtime political observer.

Hamburger (Friends Talking in the Night, 1998, etc.), a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1939, here reprints a selection of pieces he has written over the past six decades. The vast majority are his reports from presidential inaugurations—he’s attended 14 so far—but there are also several intimate sketches of New York mayors. Longer, and quite moving, portraits of Dean Acheson and Learned Hand are thrown into the mix for good measure, reinforcing the alternation between Washington and New York. The amazing thing is just how fresh and insightful these collected pieces seem. Hamburger writes wonderfully and has apparently done so for well over half a century. His gossipy, clever, passionate missives from the swearing-ins of various presidents are priceless, combining acute observations with dry wit and genuine wonder at the continuing success of American democracy. His conversations with New York mayors are far more intimate, and generally better lubricated with drink, but they are no less carefully wrought. And a brilliantly bleak description of the second Nixon inauguration, which the New Yorker refused to run, is a masterpiece of harrowing, foreshadowed tragedy. As a collection, these pieces stand as a monument to a life passionately lived and carefully noted. It is a monument constructed of the lives of others, though, for we learn little more about Hamburger than that he likes white bean soup, long underwear, and Vermeer—and, of course, that he has beautifully even-keeled stories to tell about the perpetual ebbing and flowing of American politics.

Marvelous, gentle, uncynical, lyrical—everything that American politics itself is not.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 1-58243-084-5
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2000