'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
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
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
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
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