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Newsday. 25 July 2004

POLITICS: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004, by Hendrik Hertzberg. The Penguin Press, 683 pp.


To write about political affairs in these United States in prose that is clean and sharp and smart requires a knack that is not exactly common. Nor is it, in the present circumstances, all that valuable a skill. The demand is just too small. The texture of public life is now conditioned, in the deepest folds of its fabric, by the mutually reinforcing effects of cable television and the Internet. The resulting mixture is practically impervious to the use of intelligence -- though it rewards cynicism, which is the lazy person's substitute for thinking.

Increasingly, that cynicism is structural. Ideology and entertainment blur together. It is now possible to claim to be a political journalist while advertising one's complete indifference to facts. The best lack all conviction, while the worst burn with the passionate intensity born of wanting to get on television.

So Hendrik Hertzberg's Politics -- arriving in the middle of an election cycle, when all the usual symptoms flourish in excess -- is the most anomalous of cultural commodities: a book by an author who takes politics very seriously but does not yell, and who can be humorous without resorting to sarcasm. It collects almost 40 years' worth of reporting and commentary, beginning in the fog of one war (Vietnam) and ending in that of another (Iraq).

But the cumulative effect is not simply that of a chronicle of passing events. They cohere through the force of Hertzberg's style, which is, in turn, the outward form of a certain kind of engaged intelligence. His essays are alert to the moral stakes of politics (that is, to the way decisions have substantial consequences for whether or not people flourish) while also tending to the theatrical dimensions of public life.

These are presumably also the concerns of any politician who hasn't sold his or her soul to the devil in exchange for power (if any such exist). But Hertzberg is astute about the differences between these vocations. "Politicians are not essayists," he writes; "their purpose is not to make themselves clear but to make themselves, and their ideas, acceptable to a fleeting majority. The more precise a formulation is, the more it invites disagreement. If the essayist is a sculptor, chipping away at each thought until its significance is exact and unmistakable, the politician is a truck driver, hauling as much raw granite as his vehicle will hold. Both follow honorable trades, but each of them bears watching by the other."

The title of the book is not, as Hertzberg notes in the introduction, just a description of the contents. It refers to the legendary journal Politics, published in the 1940s by Dwight Macdonald, an erstwhile Trotskyist (and, strange to say, a former reporter for Fortune magazine). With its critique of the military-industrial complex, its support for civil rights and its perfect freedom from illusions about the totalitarian Left, Politics anticipated most of whatever was honorable in the social movements of the 1960s. Macdonald went on to write for The New Yorker, his radicalism transforming into an exceptional alertness to the manipulative nature of mass culture.

Without following in Macdonald's exact political footsteps, Hertzberg has, in effect, assimilated as much as possible of his predecessor's gift of fusing urbane humor with earnestness. They seem also to share a sense that political prose can be practiced as one of the minor but vital departments of literature -- charged with the civilizing mission of holding public life (including journalism itself) answerable to higher standards than those manifest at any given moment.

A case in point is the piece from 1987 analyzing the newspaper "scoop" concerning Gary Hart's fling with Donna Rice. When the candidate "noticed the carful of men parked in the gloom outside his house," writes Hertzberg, "he should have called the police and told them he had reason to believe a Libyan hit squad was shadowing him. A couple of reporters spread-eagled against a fender, surrounded by cruisers with red lights flashing and radios barking, might have done wonders for journalistic ethics."

Hertzberg's own politics -- as you probably suspect by now -- are unabashedly liberal, following the classic definition of a liberal as someone for whom cruelty is the one really intolerable human quality. He also embodies the liberal's distrust of both ideology ("a real time-saver, because it tells you what to think about things you know nothing about") and of "received ideas" (that is, commonplace truisms that short-circuit reflection).

Consider, for example, the thought-stopping powers of the term "mainstream." Hertzberg writes that "this sanctification of the mainstream as a political Ganges, a sacred river whose waters cleanse all impurities, is a thoroughly bad business. Mainstream-mongering suggests that the test of an idea is not logic, reason or merit but conventionality. It implies that an unpopular, or even an unfamiliar, idea is per se a bad idea. ... Without tributaries, the mainstream dries up."

The problem now, of course, is that the vaunted "mainstream" catches ever more of the run-off generated by the entertainment industry. Hertzberg's book reached me in galleys well before early June, when the nation said its epochal goodbye to the actor and president who shaped the past quarter century more than any other figure. In a review of the memoirs that Ronald Reagan (or someone) wrote after leaving office, Hertzberg wrote: "His head is full of stories. He is unable to think analytically. He is ignorant. He has notions about the way things work, but he doesn't notice when these notions contradict each other. He has difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. He believes fervently in happy endings. He is passive and fatalistic."

One plausible response to this situation is the defensive reflex of contempt. Hertzberg's prose can sting at times, but he is too intelligent to confuse satire, however pointed, with political efficacy. He sometimes manifests a greater faith in the political process than it may deserve. One essay even refers to Washington (in the Reagan era, no less) as the scene of "real heroism ... the practical attempt to build something decent out of materials that are exceedingly imperfect." There may be levels of irony to this sentiment. But it manifests a sense of irony much more complex, and much more honorable, than mere sarcasm.