The first time Hendrik Hertzberg, the New Yorker political writer, met Barack Obama, the young Illinois senator tried to pay him a compliment. As Hertzberg later described the exchange, Obama said “he didn’t think of my work as being knee-jerk liberal.” Yowsers. Anyone who has read Hertzberg in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section over the years knows that he is—unapologetically, indefatigably—a liberal. And Obama’s election has Hertzberg kicking with both feet. Hertzberg’s rollicking new collection of columns, ¡Obámanos!—The Birth of a New Political Era, is a liberal knee-jerker doing an end zone dance.
So yes, these are happy days for Hertzberg. “I don’t expect to see a better president in my lifetime,” he says, sitting in his New Yorker office filled with piles of books and a twin mattress.
“I didn’t hate Bush the way I voluptuously, enjoyably hated Nixon,” says Hertzberg.
“We—vaguely progressive-minded, liberal Democrat-types—have a substantial majority in both houses of Congress,” Hertzberg continues, “which is larger than it’s likely to be in the next four, eight years. So this is it. This is it.”
The feeling of joy is magnified by the closing of the Bush era, which Hertzberg considers the worst presidency of his lifetime. He pauses, before qualifying it. “Well, the only reason I hesitate is because of Nixon. … I think Nixon was the worst human being to be president in my lifetime, but Bush was probably the worst president. I think he might have been the worst president ever.”
But, he adds, “I didn’t hate him the way I voluptuously, enjoyably hated Nixon.”
Voluptuous and enjoyable are two words you might select to describe a Rick Hertzberg column. The column can be about Obama,Bush, Chris Matthews or Mitt Romney: his prose always has a snappy assurance that makes it seem like he’s having fun even when he’s not, politically-speaking. Frank Rich and Paul Krugman are New York’s liberal mafia dons; Hertzberg is the wiseguy who sidles up at the subway entrance and tells you a breezy joke while he lifts his eyebrows.
This puckishness may be due to the fact that until Obama’s victory, Hertzberg, as if a victim of some giant cosmic joke, seemed fated to only write about Republican presidents. In his thirties, he was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter when Carter was thumped by Ronald Reagan in 1980. (“I brought that on myself,” he admits.) As two-time editor of The New Republic, Hertzberg covered Reagan and Bush I. He was hired by Tina Brown at The New Yorker in 1992, as Bill Clinton led the Democratic re-awakening, but was primarily an editor. During the first term of Bush: The Sequel, Hertzberg returned to writing full-time, usually batting leadoff in “The Talk of the Town.”
It was during this period that he became a strong voice of loyal opposition. You are not likely to be surprised by how he comes down on the Iraq War in ¡Obámanos!, but you are likely to admire the cleverness of his lead paragraphs, the range of reference and effortless deployment of history (he’s happy to time-warp back to the Founders, or further back, as necessary), and, of course, the witticisms (“Bring us the head of Donald Rumsfeld”). “It’s manna for the base,” says Franklin Foer, the current editor of The New Republic, “but it’s three-Michelin-starred manna.”
Hertzberg is one of the favorite MSM citations of the liberal blogosphere. “You could argue that bloggers love him,” says Ezra Klein, a staff reporter and blogger at The Washington Post, “because his crystalline, elegant prose is what we all wish we could do, and like to imagine we could do, if we simply had more time.”
The opening pages of ¡Obámanos!, which is a real-time chronicle of Obama’s ascension, begin with agony: Bush winning re-election in 2004. “We’ve got the blues, and we’ve got ‘em bad,” Hertzberg writes. From there, the plot takes a slow but unmistakably upward trajectory. Hertzberg chronicles the death spasms of the Bush-Cheney White House—the flop of Social Security privatization, the botched execution of Saddam Hussein, the 2006 midterm (for which he pronounced the nation should be “grateful”), Rummy’s ouster—before diving into the 2008 Democratic primaries, where he referees disputes between Obama and Hillary Clinton (even though he says he was rooting hard for the former). Then the happy ending: Obama’s general election victory, which has Hertzberg galloping down 125th Street with his wife and young son, shedding tears.
Hertzberg, of course, has voted for every Democratic nominee for president since Lyndon Johnson. Most of those ballots were cast with little reservation. But Obama offered particular enticements. For one thing, there was his muscularly liberal convention address in 2004, which appealed to the old speechwriter. There was Dreams from My Father. “When I read the book,” Hertzberg says, “I knew this was not just speechwriting. This was writing. I knew that this was a book that could properly be called literature.” Then—more to the point—there was the age thing. Hertzberg is 66, and, he thought, If not a great, liberal president now, when? “I’m at the stage of my career where one is spending one’s capital rather than accumulating new capital,” he says.
With Obama in office, Hertzberg says he will turn his attention to another of his long-time obsessions: the byzantine structures of American government. Triumphant Democrats have discovered that big victories in 2008 haven’t instantly led to policy outcomes like, say, health care reform. In the British system, the public option would have been a fait accompli; in what Hertzberg calls our “ridiculously undemocratic” Senate, health care can be single-handedly dynamited by a Max Baucus or a Joe Lieberman.
“Right now, we have a situation where the human occupants are about as good as we’re going to get,” Hertzberg says. “So my attention goes back to the structure they’re trapped in. That’s what Obama and the Democrats are in the grip of now. And that remains to be fixed.”
He is also worried about the Republican Party that has shaped itself in the lurid image of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. “People are going to get fed up with the Democrats at some point,” Hertzberg says, “and they will replace the Democrats with the Republicans. And if these are the Republicans, we are really up shit’s creek.”
During these happy days, Hertzberg has another book out, a pure enthusiasm. One Million is an update of a volume Hertzberg first published in 1970. It seeks to answer a simple question: How big is a million, really? The book has 200 pages with 5,000 dots on each, and Hertzberg has plucked out a few dots to illustrate the bigness of the numbers—i.e., there are 601,405 projected centenarians in the United States by 2050. I asked him if this wasn’t a boyish enthusiasm. “It is,” he says. “And it’s also a kind of remnant of quasi-hippie days.” Add those old feelings to the new liberal ascendancy and you’ve got a columnist who’s never felt better.
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.