DATE July 14, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Hendrik Hertzberg discusses his book "Politics:
Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Hendrik Hertzberg has been a staff writer and editor at The New
Yorker since 1992. He often writes Talk of the Town pieces. The magazine's
editor, David Remnick, describes Hertzberg as, quote, "the principal political
voice of The New Yorker. It is remarkable voice, at once courteous and
ferocious, seductive and caustic, tender and urbane," unquote. Hertzberg has
also been an editor at The New Republic and worked as President Carter's chief
His new book, "Politics," collects his essays from 1966 to 2004, beginning
with an article about the new hippie subculture, ending with articles
analyzing the presidency of George W. Bush.
Reading your book made me feel like I was watching, in part, my life and, in
part, you know, the recent history of America flash before my eyes. And I'm
wondering what it was like for you to collect all of this and reread it.
Mr. HENDRIK HERTZBERG (Author, "Politics: Observations & Arguments,
1966-2004"): Well, it's a pretty amazing experience. I've always been a
sprinter as a writer, and so the great missing piece was a book. And this
came along, and this is a way to have a book without actually having to write
it; you just sort of accumulate it over a lifetime. And it was like seeing
your life flash before you to go through these things from way back, I mean,
from when I was a kid, because to put the book together, I went farther back
than there is stuff here in the book. I mean, I went back to The Hertzberg
Times, the family newspaper I put out as a child.
GROSS: (Laughing) You're kidding?
Mr. HERTZBERG: You know, I went back to The Mountain Echo, this high school
newspaper for which I interviewed John Coltrane.
GROSS: Wow. Huh.
Mr. HERTZBERG: But I tried to keep too much of the juvenilia out of there,
but there's still a bit in there.
GROSS: (Laughs) Well, one of your early pieces in your new collection,
"Politics," is on the Weather Underground. And this is from February of 1970
for Win Magazine. And reading about the Weather Underground made me think
about how the expression `the far left' has changed in meaning. At the time
that you wrote this, the left was maybe the anti-war movement or maybe SDS,
but the far left was the militant groups, the Weather Underground. Now some
people are using the far left to describe people like, you know, John Kerry.
You know, how do you see the meaning of `far left' as having changed the way
it's commonly used?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, it's changed partly for polemical reasons and partly for
real, objective reasons. There is no active far left in the sense that there
was in the late 1960s. There's no equivalent, that I know of, of the Weather
Underground, unless you count some of the more extremely militant
environmental groups. The real equivalent of the Weather Underground is now
on the right. It's the militias and the kind of people who blew up the
building in Oklahoma City. And the left was actually a much larger
conglomeration in the '60s. We don't really have that kind of a left now.
Now, I would say, if you talk about the far left, maybe you talk about Michael
Moore. Obviously, to characterize John Kerry as being far left or even left
is just polemical name-calling. He's a liberal, and even that he might be
GROSS: How do you think the word `liberal' has changed in meaning?
Mr. HERTZBERG: It's been diabolized by the right, unfortunately. It's a
wonderful, perfectly good word. It's rooted in `liberty.' It has changed so
much that if you go back to 1952 when Richard Nixon gave his acceptance speech
at the Republican Convention when he was nominated for vice president, the
whole beginning of his speech was an argument that he, Nixon, and Eisenhower
and the Republicans were the real liberals. In those days, liberal was a word
that everybody wanted to have attached to them. And even Robert Taft would
pay homage to that word. I think it was a mistake for liberals to let go of
that word. I think it's a much better word than, say, the word `progressive'
because liberty is a better value than progress, in my book.
GROSS: Since your new book starts with articles you wrote about hippies in
San Francisco and the Weather Underground and the divisions in the country
then, I'm interested in how you see, you know, the so-called culture wars of
today as comparing with the cultural and political divide in the late '60s and
early '70s. Do you think that the issues and the values dividing the country
have changed between the '60s and today?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Absolutely, and in the same way that the political spectrum,
you might say, has shifted tectonically to the right. And that's been widely
noted, that the positions that Richard Nixon took in the '60s would now be too
far left for Democrats in the '00s. But by the same token, the kind of
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. Did you say too far left for Democrats?
Mr. HERTZBERG: For Democrats today, yeah. I mean, Richard Nixon had a
program for universal health insurance. I mean, the Nixon domestic policy
now, if you take some of it which never got enacted, but--minimum income,
universal health insurance--some of these things that Nixon went along with, I
mean, he wouldn't have gone along with them if there hadn't been overwhelming
public support for them. But that whole spectrum, the whole spectrum of
politics, has shifted dramatically to the right. But by the same token the
whole social spectrum, or what you might call social politics, has shifted
dramatically to the left.
And you see now how even the people, for example, who are pushing the gay
marriage amendment--many, many of them say, `Well, but, of course, civil
unions, that's all right,' or they'll say, `Oh, but, of course, I'm not
prejudiced against gays,' or, you know, `It's fine with me if people--people
should have their private lives if they wish.' That represents an enormous
change from the '60s and the '70s and even the '80s. So I think that the '60
revolution has been essentially consolidated on the cultural and social side.
You see it also, I think, in the struggle, if you can call it that, over
pornography. We had this absurd business of a huge fuss over Janet Jackson
baring her breast at the Super Bowl and, you know, great uproar, congressional
resolutions, enormous fines imposed on the networks. And yet at the same
time, in the vast majority of American homes, you can flip on the TV set 11,
12:00 at night and watch soft-core porn on Showtime and cable networks to your
heart's content. And you don't see any Republicans demanding that that be
taken off the air because they know the minute they did that, they would be
out of office at the next election. So the culture war goes on, but it's
being fought on a different territory.
GROSS: What's the closest you've ever come to being at the center of the
cross fire or, you know, being a target?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, when I worked for Carter; I was Jimmy Carter's
speechwriter. I have that profound distinction. And when I was working in
the White House, the then-nascent right-wing propaganda machine unearthed
some of the stuff that I had written for Win Magazine that you mentioned
earlier, this tiny little pacifist weekly, which I had written for during the
Vietnam War. And they pulled some quotes out and plastered them all over.
They went from right-wing column to right-wing column. Ronald Reagan even did
a radio broadcast about them. And I suppose that's the closest I came to
being under that sort of sustained attack. Interestingly, the Carter folks
just shrugged it off.
GROSS: What were the quotes that were singled out?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, there was a quote that was singled out where I said
something to the effect that, `The Communist victory in Vietnam was a victory
for something in the human spirit,' something along those lines. But what I
had actually written was that the Communists did not win in Vietnam. We chose
to lose because we could not win that war without so violating our own
principles that victory would not be worthwhile, so that, therefore, their
victory was a triumph for our conscience. They didn't win because they beat
us. They won because we would not do what we would have had to do to win that
war, which would have essentially been to kill everyone in North Vietnam. So
this tiny bit was--this is why I didn't worry about it too much, because the
quotes that were pulled out to attack me were just pretty much defined, the
whole idea of--out of context.
GROSS: Has that made you very skeptical as a journalist when you read quotes
that may be out of context that are being used, you know, to hurt the
reputation of somebody?
Mr. HERTZBERG: That sure has, and it happens over and over and over again.
And it happens especially in political advertising, where--to give a fake
sense of documentation of phrases and adjectives pulled out of editorials or
speeches and then presented as if they were the whole opinion of someone. And
it can be done in so many different ways, and it's misleading. And, yes, I am
very skeptical of it.
GROSS: My guest is Hendrik Hertzberg. He writes about politics for The New
Yorker. His new book is called "Politics." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Hendrik Hertzberg is my guest, and he's a staff writer and editor at
The New Yorker magazine. And a collection of his articles from The New
Yorker, The New Republic, where he used to be editor, and other publications
are collected in his new book, "Politics: Observations & Arguments,
In 1976 you became a speechwriter for President Carter. Did you have any
reservations about entering mainstream politics as opposed to either being on
the outside observing and writing about it or, you know, as opposed to being
on a more, you know, liberal or radical end of politics than you would be
entering mainstream politics and writing for the president?
Mr. HERTZBERG: I didn't have any doubts about that. Political politics, you
might say, and literary politics are different animals, but they're
complementary. In our political system it all comes down to two coalitions:
to a coalition that's sort of center-left and a coalition that's sort of
center-right. And that's the way the game is played. And compromise is
absolutely inherent in politics, in American politics perhaps even more than
some other kinds of democratic politics because we only have the two parties,
which are big coalitions. I didn't have a problem going into the White House
and making the compromises that I had to make. They were political
compromises. They were never compromises of conscience, really.
One thing that happened when I worked for Jimmy Carter is that I often
disagreed with his policies. And I was always waiting for the moment to come
when I would have a crisis of conscience. I know that many people who worked
for Lyndon Johnson had that kind of a crisis over the war in Vietnam and the
invasion of the Dominican Republic. With Jimmy Carter, who was in many ways
a failed president, who had--there was an awful lot wrong with him--not all of
his policies were what I would have hoped they would have been. But there was
never a problem of conscience for me working for Jimmy Carter. I never had a
troubled conscience. And that made working for him a kind of uplifting
experience in the end.
GROSS: You write a little bit about the unusual relationship between
speechwriter and the politician the speechwriter is writing for. Can you talk
about that a little bit, the unusual aspects on both sides of that
Mr. HERTZBERG: It is an uncomfortable relationship, maybe one of the more
uncomfortable ones that a politician gets into. The main thing politicians do
is talk. And if somebody else is writing what the politician says, well,
who's the politician anyway? All the other members of a president's staff or
a politician's staff kind of add to his glory and build him up. You know,
he's got the coat-holders and the guards and the assistants whispering in his
ear. They all add to his allure and his greatness. But the person who's
writing what he's saying, that's almost a shameful relationship. He should
be--shouldn't he be thinking up his own thoughts? Who is he if he's got
somebody else thinking his thoughts and writing his words? So it's always an
And, in fact, the whole idea of a speechwriter was kept under wraps until
relatively recently. It was only under Richard Nixon that there became--that
the title `speechwriter' began to be used in the White House. The people who
wrote presidents' speeches were always concealed in one way or another. In
fact, the first White House speechwriter, Judson Welliver, who worked for
Warren G. Harding--his salary was hidden in the budget of the White House
GROSS: (Laughs) That's how embarrassed they were to have a speechwriter?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Indeed. And FDR's speechwriters, you know, were people
who--there was Robert Sherwood, who was a playwright, and Judge Rosenman;
JFK's, Sorenson. They were usually people with a broader role than just
writing speeches. As the presidency has grown and metastasized into this kind
of enormous thing that's bigger than the entire federal bureaucracy was a
century ago, it's gotten more and more specialized. And now you have people
who have a ridiculous Gilbert and Sullivan title of `speechwriter to the
GROSS: Now President Carter was not famous for being, like, a riveting
Mr. HERTZBERG: Indeed.
GROSS: What were some of the frustrations that you faced writing for him,
knowing that he wasn't going to electrify an audience with his oratorical
Mr. HERTZBERG: It was less frustrating than you might imagine. It's true
that Carter usually did not electrify an audience, although when he wanted to,
when he had to, he could do it. When he set his mind to it, he could do it.
But he generally didn't bother setting his mind to it. However, he was
president of the United States, and people pay attention to you when you're
president of the United States. And they pay attention to your words when
you're saying them, and then they pay attention to them after you've said
GROSS: Do you have a favorite speech or a favorite phrase that you wrote for
Mr. HERTZBERG: Yeah, I have a few. I mean, in a funny way, my favorite
speech, which I can't claim that I wrote exactly, is the notorious, famous
`malaise speech,' which is probably the most famous speech Carter delivered.
It was at one of the low points of his presidency when there were long, long
gasoline lines, where he'd already announced two or three different energy
programs. He scheduled another speech, then canceled it, then had a kind of
domestic summit up at Camp David, where he brought people up there to
criticize him, to critique how he'd been leading the country and the
administration. He had kind of a two- or three-week session up there with
various people coming in to tell him what was wrong with him.
And then he came down from the mountain and gave a speech, which became known
as the malez speech and was broadly attacked as saying that it was all the
American people's fault. Well, that's not what the speech said. The speech
really was a piece of excoriating self-criticism, the first third of it. The
second third of it was an analysis of the crisis of confidence that the
country was in, a long-term crisis of confidence, rooted in the Vietnam War
and in Watergate and in the loss of faith in our institutions. And then the
third part was a discussion of how, by tackling the energy problem, we could
begin to pull ourselves out of this crisis of confidence. The word `malez'
was never used. But the speech is still well worth reading.
In the end, it was a failure, I have to say, because although Carter, I think
correctly, diagnosed what was ailing the country, he didn't really have a
solution for it. And a president should really not bring up a problem that he
doesn't have a solution for. But if you read that speech today, it's an
extraordinary diagnosis of where the country was then and continues to be in
many ways. And I think part of...
GROSS: Was the diagnosis something that Carter came up with and you wrote?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Carter and Patrick Caddell and a number of the intellectuals
that Carter invited up to Camp David came up with it. Carter himself wrote
the first third of the speech, which consisted mostly of criticisms of his own
leadership, where he had taken notes on what people had told him--you know,
`You're not inspiring the country; you're just administering it'--a lot of
extraordinarily critical things that he then repeated. In a way, he was
trying for a rebirth, he was trying--it was a kind of attempt at a political
version of his born-again religious experience: confession and redemption and
rebirth. In the end, though, I think he was kind of like John the Baptist and
the savior of his kind of Democratic politics. Big D Democratic politics
turned out to be Bill Clinton in the end.
GROSS: So what did you learn about speechwriting from writing that speech,
which you felt was a good speech, but it failed?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, when a president speaks, you can't do it all with the
talking. A president must act as well. And you can have the most wonderful
speech in the world, and unless it's accompanied by effective action, it will
not be memorable. You know, I once, in a talk to the Judson Welliver
Society--this is a group of White House speechwriters, past and present--I
talked about how Judson Welliver, the original White House speechwriter under
Harding, was the patron saint of the unquotables. It happens that Judson
Welliver and Warren Harding came up with a lot of really memorable phrases.
He was the one who coined the phrase `Founding Fathers,' for example. That's
one of the more memorable phrases any president or any president's
speechwriter has ever come up with. But nobody quotes Harding because to say,
`In the inimitable, immortal words of Warren G. Harding'--well, stop right
there. It doesn't really matter how...
Mr. HERTZBERG: ...eloquent what follows it.
GROSS: Hendrik Hertzberg writes about politics for The New Yorker. His new
book is called "Politics." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, more with journalist Hendrik Hertzberg. Also, Milo Miles
reviews the music of the X-Ecutioners, a group of hiphop deejays out of New
York. Their new CD is called "Revolutions."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Hendrik Hertzberg. He
writes about politics for The New Yorker. He's been a journalist since the
'60s but briefly left journalism to become President Carter's chief
speechwriter. Hertzberg's new book, "Politics: Observations & Arguments,"
collects his writing from 1966 to 2004.
During much of the 1980s you were at The New Republic, where you were an
editor. And so, you know, you leave the White House because Reagan wins the
election; Carter leaves, you leave. And now you're covering politics again.
How did it influence your coverage of politics to have been so close to the
president who was defeated by the president in the White House when you were
covering politics again?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, I think the main effect it had on me was that it had
given me an education in how politics really works at this highest level and
how much more it is like everything else than we imagine it to be. I mean,
we have a kind of fantasy that things are different in the corridors of power,
at the heights of things; that up there, there's somebody who's going to take
care of us. Actually, the White House is just like your office. You know,
it's just like anybody else's office.
GROSS: Don't say that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HERTZBERG: It is. I'm afraid it's true. The only difference is that
everything you do is in the paper the next day, which is a lot of fun or a big
horror show, depending on what's going on. But things are almost always less
intentional than you imagine they're going to be. Conspiracies are much
harder to pull off and maintain. People are generally better motivated than
you imagine them to be--I mean, not always but generally speaking. Now you
may say, `Well, you've drawn all these conclusions from the Carter White
House, and maybe they don't apply to the rest.' But I've talked to an awful
lot of people from an awful lot of White Houses, and I think that while the
Carter White House may have been a little bit heavier on the good intentions
than some of the others and a little bit lighter on the Machiavellian
ruthlessness, essentially on a human level they're all pretty much the same.
And that knowledge does color the way you cover politics. It's more that that
had an effect on me than it was the fact that Reagan had defeated my
You know, that defeat was so thorough and so complete that I could never
begrudge it. I never felt about Reagan the way I feel about George W. Bush;
that there is something illegitimate about his presence in the White House.
Reagan got there fair and square. He won that election, as Cheney would say,
`big time.' I can't say that about George W. Bush, and that's why I feel more
passionately and I think a great many people who share my politics feel more
passionately anti-Bush than they did anti-Reagan. It's not because they
dislike Bush personally or even disagree with his policies more. It has a lot
to do with the fact that he got there in a highly questionable way, in a way
that was in defiance of generally accepted democratic principles. It's
generally accepted that the candidate with the most votes generally gets to
have the office. When the candidate with the most votes does not get to have
the office, and the candidate with the second-most votes gets the office,
Constitution or no Constitution, there's something wrong with that from the
point of view of democracy. And...
GROSS: Well, there is the Electoral College.
Mr. HERTZBERG: Yeah, there is the Electoral College, a product of certain
18th century compromises that had to be reached in order to get the
Constitution signed. You know, the Constitution was a product of hard
political negotiations. One reason that the Electoral College is the way it
is is because the small states--they would not go along--it was the
deal-breaker for them that they would have to have equal representation in the
Senate. You know, Madison was passionately against the idea that each state
should have two senators. He thought that the states should have the number
of senators according to their population. But it was a deal-breaker for the
small states. And the Electoral College was cobbled together at the last
You know, for the first several drafts of the Constitution, the president was
going to be elected by Congress. There wasn't even going to be any
involvement of the voters. And there still isn't in the Constitution any
involvement of the voters. It's left to the states to decide. If the states
decide that their legislature is going to pick the presidential electorates,
that's constitutional. The people have no right to vote for president. That
right has accumulated over decades as democracy grew globally. And I think
that we still underestimate the degree to which the 2000 election was a
radical break in a century and more of progress toward democracy in this
country--it was a radical break in that. And simply to say that it was
according to the rules of the Electoral College doesn't change that.
GROSS: Well, you know, you write in your book that you remain bitter about
the election of 2000. The secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, has said
that he thinks we should consider postponing the presidential election this
year if there is a terrorist attack just before it. How do you interpret
that? What's your thoughts on that?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, I don't understand why he thinks it's a good idea to
discuss this publicly right now. It's certainly part of his responsibility to
think about that question. I mean, what would we do if there were an enormous
terrorist attack on Election Day or the day before the election? What would
we do? That's a legitimate question. But simply to put this out there as a
scare and to suggest that somehow he, Tom Ridge, or even the Bush
administration would have the exclusive right to decide whether the
re-election was postponed or went through--I think if they're serious about
this, then they should be putting together some sort of a commission drawn
from both parties, with representation from people who are in neither party,
to study this question and to be the body that makes the decision.
I think one reason that this piece of news, which is alarming and it has so
much resonance with people, is partly because of 2000. And so to be
discussing postponing the election now, which is--it resonates with people. I
worry, and I think a great many people worry, that the United States is
becoming, in a way, you know, less European and more Latin American, more like
Argentina or Brazil. And this just adds to that kind of dread. I don't think
that there's a plot afoot here for the Bush people to seize power and, you
know, if they see that they're behind in the polls on Election Day, to gin up
a terrorist incident and then say, `Well, we've got to have a government of
national salvation for the next three years, and we can't have the luxury of
an election.' I don't think that's going on, and I don't think that's going
to happen. But I do think that that paranoia is out there, and it's not
GROSS: My guest is Hendrik Hertzberg. He writes about politics for The New
Yorker. His new book is called "Politics." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Hendrik Hertzberg is my guest, and he's staff writer and editor at The
New Yorker magazine. And he has a new collection of articles dating back from
1966 all the way to 2004. It's called "Politics: Observations & Arguments."
One of the things you write in your book is this: `The atmosphere of piety in
American public life has become stifling.' And you also say, `Where is it
written that if you don't like religion, you are somehow disqualified from
being a legitimate American?' And you write, `I'm pretty sure there's no such
thing as God.' This is a position, I imagine, you've had most of your adult
life, that you're not a believer.
Mr. HERTZBERG: Indeed.
GROSS: And has the fact that you're not a believer resonated differently
professionally, personally and politically for you over the years?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, I don't know. It has never really been much of a
problem. Maybe it would have been if I'd gone the route of electoral
politics. I mean, I wouldn't call myself a kind of militant atheist. I'm
somewhere between an agnostic and a deist. But I think that's a good old
American thing to be. I mean, the nation--although we hear a lot about how
the country is--it's a Christian nation and we're grounded in the Bible and
all that, actually the Founding Fathers were mostly deists.
GROSS: Meaning what?
Mr. HERTZBERG: Meaning that they believed in a god, but they believed in a
god as a kind of prime mover, who sort of set things in motion, but not the
kind of god who interferes in history; you know, not a magical figure who
reaches down and puts, you know, LSU ahead of Georgia State in the Gator Bowl,
you know, or decides that George Bush or Al Gore should be president, not a
god who interferes in history and performs miracles on Earth, but rather a
creator and someone who sort of launches the laws of nature and then does not
interfere. And that's the kind of god that was commonplace in the beliefs of
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and most of the framers of the
Constitution. And the Declaration of Independence uses deist code language.
When it speaks of nature and nature's gods, when it speaks of the creator,
these are deist code words. In much the same way that some of George W.
Bush's speeches use fundamentalist or evangelical code words, the framers used
deist code words. So I think it's very firmly rooted in American history.
And secularism is firmly rooted in American history.
There was a big, big fight over this. This didn't happen without a struggle.
At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, one of the arguments used
against it by the anti-Federalists was, `Hey, this doesn't mention God. This
doesn't say about how God started everything.' And it was no accident that
the Constitution did not say that. This was fought out in the early days of
the republic, and it was fought out again around the time of the Civil War.
Lincoln, too, was a deist essentially. He had read Thomas Paine's "Age of
Reason" as a young man. He very much admired it. As his wife said, `My
husband was never a technical Christian.' And somehow there was much more
scope for this kind of religious discussion.
I was brought up--my mother was a Congregationalist and a Quaker. My father
was a non-observant Jew. I went for a year to a prep school, where I went to
Bible class and chapel. I'm very familiar with religion, and I respect
religion. But I do think that there should be room for all views and that, in
a way, there's a kind of atmosphere of stifling piety that has settled down on
the country in the last 15 or 20 years.
GROSS: You have a kind of complicated Vietnam draft story.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And I'm going to ask you to give a very kind of concise version of
that story and ask you how you feel about the fact that, you know, Vietnam
draft records are still coming into play in this presidential election with,
you know, President Kerry's record as a soldier and President Bush's record,
you know, and the question of: Did he show up? Did he not show up? You
know, did he fulfill his duty or not? So let's start with your complicated
Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, during the Vietnam War there was a kind of new
generation every couple of years. And I went on the early end of it, the
older end of it. By the time the draft became an issue for me, I still
believed in the draft. And my whole cohort people, most of my friends,
believed in the draft. We believed that this was an equalizer. This was a
way that, no matter how privileged you were, no matter how wealthy you were,
you were going to go into the Army, and you were going to meet people that you
would never otherwise meet. And it was a kind of enforcer of equality and was
a just and fair thing. So I was not against the draft per se.
I was against the Vietnam War. And I went through a long period of debating
what I should do about it: `Should I resist, go to jail? Should I try to
avoid it somehow?' Because it was not that hard to avoid. You know, you
could find a sympathetic psychiatrist who would certify you as being a little
too nervous to be drafted or a podiatrist who would say you had a bum foot.
It wasn't that hard to avoid. But I was too much of a straight arrow for
that. My choice, really, came down to, `Do I go in, or do I resist?' And in
the end I went in, and I'm not hugely proud of what I did. I went in, and I
signed up for the Navy. And I knew that in the Navy your chances of being
plunked into the jungle were fairly slim. And, in fact, in the Navy,
basically, you had to ask and ask again to be put in the line of fire, which,
by the way, is exactly what John Kerry did. I have the utmost admiration and
respect for John Kerry and the way he handled this. I think it's absolute
proof of his character.
I ended up in the Navy. I went to officer candidate school. I actually asked
to be sent to Vietnam at the end of, oh...
Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, because, again, this idea that I wanted to share the
experience of my generation. And it's not as brave as it sounds because, as a
naval officer, I would have been assigned to probably a naval--in fact, I
eventually was ordered to Vietnam after I had been in the Navy a year and a
half, and I was ordered to Cam Ranh Bay, where I would have been stationed on
a naval base in Vietnam, you know, doing some kind of administrative job. It
was not going to be particularly risky. It might have been just as risky to
stay in New York. So it's not as if I was saying, you know, `Throw me into
combat. Make me cannon fodder.' But I did ask to go to Vietnam. But
instead, catch-22, I was stationed in New York City. And I ended up living in
an apartment in Greenwich Village and going to an office at 90 Church Street.
And I became more and more convinced of the wrongness of the Vietnam War. I
was in correspondence with a couple of friends of mine, who were in the Army
in Vietnam. I was reading a great deal about it.
I ended up becoming a conscientious objector or at least becoming an objector
and And, when I was ordered to Vietnam, stating to my superiors that I was not
going to go; they should have sent me when I wanted to go. So in a great
anti-climax, it ended up that I went to get my teeth fixed before I was
expecting to be court-martialed and jailed and had talked to somebody who was
a guard at the Portsmouth Naval Prison. And his advice to me was, `If you
have any dental work you need done, get it done before you go to Portsmouth
'cause at Portsmouth they just pull your teeth out.' So I went and had a
wisdom tooth filled removed. It kept on bleeding. I ended up in the
hospital. Well, it turned out that I had a kind of blood-factor deficiency;
I'd been 4-H unqualified from day one. And--Boom--the next thing you know
I was out on the street.
But it was an incredibly character-building experience, you might say. And I
think the draft put lots of people--everyone had to face this question: `What
are you going to do?' You know, we were at age 20, 21. And the way you
answered that question tells a lot about you. And...
GROSS: So do you use that as a lens through which to see and evaluate
Mr. HERTZBERG: Absolutely. Absolutely. And seeing through that lens, you
can rank the candidates in order--and past candidates and politicians from
that generation. At the very top is John Kerry. He did not like the war; he
thought it was bad policy. But he went in. He served two tours in Vietnam.
He purposely put himself in harm's way. He is the sterling, state of the art,
top of the line. Just under him I'd put John McCain. John McCain had fewer
doubts about the war and was from a military family. His father was commander
in chief of naval forces, Pacific. He was fulfilling a family tradition when
he went into the Navy, but he went, he served. He's very non-judgmental, by
the way, about what people did. When Clinton was under attack for his
choices, McCain essentially said, you know, `I don't judge what people did
then. Maybe if I'd have been a couple of years younger, I would have done
what Clinton did.'
I would put at the bottom of the pile somebody like Dick Cheney, you know, who
had no fewer than five draft deferments and yet who was pro-war. I mean,
that's just beneath contempt, in my opinion. Close to the bottom, I would put
people like George W. Bush and Dan Quayle, who pulled strings to get into the
National Guard, so that they could have a picture of themselves in uniform to
put on a campaign brochure, but who, even though they were pro-the Vietnam
War, very assiduously made sure that they got nowhere near the fighting.
Al Gore--I put him pretty close to the top, too. Bill Clinton? Bill Clinton
I'd put in the middle. He, unlike Quayle or Cheney or a lot of these
people--Bill Clinton wrestled with his conscience over this. He took it
seriously. If he'd gotten a lower draft number, he would have gone in. And
then he worked in the anti-war movement. And, you know, I consider
Vietnam-era service to be of two kinds: There's service to the war, service
in the military, and then there's service in resisting and campaigning against
the war. That also deserves to be honored. And one of the reasons I'm so
high on Kerry is he did both.
GROSS: Hendrik Hertzberg, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HERTZBERG: Oh, thank you for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Hendrik Hertzberg writes about politics for The New Yorker. His new
book is called "Politics: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004."
Coming up, music critic Milo Miles reviews the music of the X-Ecutioners, a
group of hiphop deejays. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: X-Ecutioners' new album, "Revolutions"
TERRY GROSS, host:
In one form or another, the New York group of hiphop deejays known as the
X-Ecutioners has been around for more than 15 years. The three core
members, Roc Raida, Rob Swift and Total Eclipse, have become well-known
exponents of turntablism, the use of sound samples and old-fashioned record
manipulation, to create hiphop tracks. Music critic Milo Miles says their
latest album, "Revolutions," combines rhythms for the body with tricks for the
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Dance. What it is. We rock to the north. We
rock to the north. Dance. Dance. Come on.
MILO MILES reporting:
It's a cliche to say that hiphop has become the new rock 'n' roll, but
recently it's begun to make an eerie sort of sense to me. Kanye West's
"College Dropout" is the anti-education concept album Pink Floyd only
dreamed of making. Madvillain's "Madvillainy" is the pot album(ph) for our
times. And N.E.R.D.'s "Fly or Die" plainly wants to be a big, loud, dumb,
hard-rock album. Indeed, hard rock meets hiphop is a widespread tendency
right now. But hard rock has bumped up against hiphop for a long time.
Tough, thumping beats tend to flock together. When rappers Run-DMC figured
this out back in 1986, they joined with Aerosmith for the landmark remake of
"Walk This Way." Some thought it a novelty, but the style never really went
Big hiphop names like the Black Eyed Peas and Outkast aren't afraid of heavy
guitar whomp. But the block-rocking kicks this season come from the
X-Ecutioners' "Revolutions." The three deejays get it right from the start
when they proclaim themselves `proudly old school, home of the thick, chunky
(Soundbite of song)
X-ECUTIONERS: (Singing) Ladies and gentlemen, what's up? Are you ready for
the pool jam? Are you ready for the pool jam?
MILES: Critics might say that this hard-rock turntablism grows out of not
just '80s Run-DMC but the X-Ecutioners own 2002 hit "It's Going Down," a
collaboration with rockers Linkin Park. But the "Revolutions" album is an
improvement, at least partly because, well, it has clearer and bolder hooks
than Linkin Park.
(Soundbite of music; laughing)
MILES: There's some sex and social commentary sprinkled through
"Revolutions," but it's the tricky mixes and rhythm adventures that stick with
you. I have one complaint, however. So-called skits, brief-spoken scenes
with sound effects, are obviously dear to the hearts of Roc Raida, Rob Swift
and deejay Total Eclipse. They've had them on every album. Skits are also a
holdover from the old school, namely De La Soul's 1989 debut. But they are
nothing but pro forma and wrung dry by now. Why, the X-Ecutioners' little
radio spoofs even recycled De La Soul's earliest ideas. We need one more
revolution: Ditch the skits. In all other respects, the X-Ecutioners are
spinning far ahead of the competition.
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Cambridge. He reviewed "Revolutions" by the
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a song featuring the Canadian singer Susie Arioli and
guitarist Jordan Officer. They were our guests a couple of years ago. They
have a new CD called "That's for Me." Here's their version of "You Don't Know
(Soundbite of "You Don't Know Me")
Ms. SUSIE ARIOLI: (Singing) You give your hand to me, and then you say hello.
And I can hardly speak, my heart is beating so. Anyone can tell you think you
know me well, but you don't know me. No, you don't know the one dreams of you
at night and longs to kiss your lips and longs to hold you tight. I'm just a
friend; that's all I've ever been because you don't know me. For I never knew
the art of making love...
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