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The Pioneer Press

The Pioneer Press
Q&A With Hendrik Hertzberg
August 8, 2004

The New Yorker magazine writer is on the road talking about his new book 'Politics,' which tops the summer reading list for political junkies.

'They rode the flow of the world's aerial circulatory system like lethal viruses,'' Hendrik Hertzberg, essayist for the New Yorker magazine, wrote of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists. It is one of the more memorable phrases in 'Politics — Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004,'' a collection of Hertzberg's work, with most of those phrases written in the heat of the major events of those four decades. The New Yorker is an influential magazine, and Hertzberg uses his lofty perch to defend liberal politics, promote government reform and argue for secular dialogue in an age of religious fervor. Serious political readers will find his 'Politics' among the most insightful and provocative books among the flood of election-year political offerings — even if they don't agree with Hertzberg. He also has written for the New Republic and was a speechwriter for former President Jimmy Carter. He was in the Twin Cities last week promoting his book and sat down with political reporter Jim Ragsdale.

Q. You deal a lot with religion. We're going through this prolonged period of revivalist politics. One thing I wonder when I cover both sides in the culture wars is: Can they find a common language?

A. They have in the past. Certainly they did through most of the 19th century, when there were religious revivals that make the current one look watery. Lincoln managed to be president, managed to speak the language of faith, without himself being particularly a man of faith. …

Now there's a sort of fog of public piety that's settled over everything. … I was glad to see Kerry quote Lincoln … as saying that rather than claiming that God is on our side, we should pray humbly that we are on God's side.

QWhy is secularism worth defending, as you argue, in the same way that freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech are worth defending?

A. Because secularism is absolutely necessary for there to be the basis of a conversation. If your position is that you have a pipeline to God, that God has revealed to you the truth and that your case is built on the fact as you see it that God has spoken, there's no basis for a conversation. There's no basis for negotiation. There's no basis for discussion.

Q. You say that a better metaphor for what the terrorists did (on Sept. 11) is crime, as opposed to war.

A. I think crime is a better metaphor because the terrorists are stateless, because … their enemy is, as Bush says, civilization itself. … They are using the openness of modern civilization as a weapon against it. … Finding out who these people are, what their intentions are, what their plans are ,is more useful than being able to muster a large armed force against them.

Q. You wrote speeches for President Carter. You also critique presidential speeches. You were very complimentary of President (George W.) Bush's inaugural speech. What was your opinion of Senator Kerry's acceptance speech?

A. Bush's inaugural speech I thought was one of the very, very best of the century. … If he had followed the theme of that speech, which was a much more unifying theme, where he tried to put some meat on the bones of "compassionate conservatism" … then I think he would have been a powerful president.

I thought Kerry's acceptance speech was pretty good. I'd give it a 7 or an 8 on a scale of 10. And I'd give the delivery a six. He had to get the speech in before the networks cut out. It was a little bit rushed. He has a very old-fashioned kind of oratorical, declamatory style. … And he doesn't have the sort of jazz musician skill of playing the room like a musical instrument, the way Mario Cuomo has, the way Barack Obama did, to ride the waves of applause like a surfer.

Q. You wrote a lot about your own conflicted and torturous path during Vietnam. What do you make of the way Senator Kerry has handled his Vietnam experiences, which are on both sides of the divide?

A. Kerry is an almost unique moral figure, in that he passed both halves of the moral test set by the Vietnam War. He passed the half that called for service in the armed forces and in combat, and he passed the half that called for doing his share — and he did much more than his share — to extract the United States from this terrible mistake, this terrible disaster. … In this moral hierarchy, I think Kerry is at the very peak, the very top.

Q. On the subject of government reform, which is a favorite topic of yours, when the unicameral idea came out (under former Gov. Jesse Ventura), why did that attract your attention?

A. Because I firmly believe that many of the problems of American politics are rooted in the hydraulics of our government system, on every level. We essentially have an 18th century model here, and it's a matter of political technology. Unicameralism, which was on Jesse (Ventura's) agenda, would have been a real step in the right direction, not just for Minnesota, but for the whole country.

Q. In our elections, you would like more proportional representation. What does that mean?

A. It means that the vote for one political party or political philosophy is reflected in the number of seats held by that party or political philosophy. … Our system only represents minorities that are geographically based. … We pay attention to that when it involves racial minorities, but we don't pay much attention when it involves political minorities, like Democrats in Texas or Republicans in New York.

Q. What would that (proportional representation) do?

A. It would give rise to several political parties, probably. … It would greatly encourage participation.

Q. Who do you think's going to win the election?

A. I am way too superstitious to invite the evil eye by offering a prediction


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