Bob Herbert Q&A

(The Progressive, 1995)

Like Jacob Riis, whose 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, exposed the volcano under the city" of New York, Bob Herbert writes about America's lost and forgotten. His twice-weekly op-ed column in The New York Times, "In America," hammers away at the ugly reality of corporate greed and chicanery, the unending cycle of urban violence, the cowardice of politicians, and the declining living standard of the American worker. Like Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, and Jim Dwyer, Herbert is a storyteller, and his narratives seek to arouse indignation and fury among the Times's readership.

"In America" is refreshingly blunt, its prose style quite unlike the sedate tone of most Times writing. Here is Herbert on The Bell Curve: "A scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship." On US. corporations: "Most will follow the trail of profits no matter how gruesome the human costs." On inner-city schools: "Death is so prevalent that some schools are equipped with mourning rooms." On affirmative action: "If you believe there is a bias against white males in hiring, just pair up a white guy with a black guy and send them off in search of the same job."

Herbert is the first black op-ed columnist in the history of the Times. Before joining the paper in 1993, he worked for nearly seventeen years as a reporter, editor, and columnist for the New York Daily News. He began his career as a reporter on The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, and has worked as a correspondent for NBC Network News.

I spoke with Herbert on April 27 in his spacious, tenth-floor office at the Times, which affords a stunning view of Manhattan. Newspapers and magazines were scattered everywhere, and works by Thomas Mann, Norman Mailer, and Italo Calvino lined the bookshelves.

Q: How has the column been received?

Herbert: The column has been received really well. It's very gratifying.

Q: What inspired you to write when you were growing up?

Herbert: I was reading newspapers from the time I was five years old. I would read anything. I especially liked Dickens, and I read Oliver Twist when I was about nine. I remember being awed. It never occurred to me that there was this kind of power in literature. So my little mind was won over.

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment as a journalist?

Herbert: If I were to look back at old columns and saw a few well-crafted paragraphs, that would make me smile.

Q: It seems to me that you frequently pull your punches. If you were to write a series of pieces, for example, on the benefits of proportional representation compared to our current "winner-take-all" system of electing lawmakers, it would get people talking. A columnist such as William Safire writes with an incredible sense of confidence. He's not afraid to dispense advice to politicians and elites.

Herbert: When I write a column, I tend to think of the issue I'm writing about, the people I've talked to in connection with that issue, and my views, which are often very personal. And then it is crafted into 750 words. It is not my idea that I am sending these thunderbolts of enlightenment out there.

Q: Your column is filled with the eloquent voices of ordinary people. How do you win their trust?

Herbert: It has to do with empathy, and I think people pick up on that. But the most important thing is reporting skills. If you go out into the streets with a notebook and a pen and talk to people, you will get stories. For the most part, people want to talk about their lives. They want to talk about things that are important. They want attention paid to them. Moreover, people really have something to say.

Q: Why have so many Americans stopped caring about the plight of cities?

Herbert: It's a question of leadership. The public will follow strong leadership in almost any direction. It will follow Lyndon Johnson to the left or Reagan to the right. If Bill Clinton had been a very strong leader, the country would have followed him.

Q: How does it make you feel when Democrats and Republicans talk about finding "common ground" on welfare reform?

Herbert: The term "welfare reform" really upsets me because nobody is talking about welfare reform. What they are talking about is throwing people off welfare, throwing needy people to the wolves. Democrats and Republicans are both playing the same game. And I think it is an evil game.

Bill Clinton, when he started talking about changing "welfare as we know it," was playing the demagogue. That was his biggest applause line during the Presidential campaign. Well, the people were applauding him because they had it in their heads that when Clinton said change welfare, he's going to throw them off the rolls. That was divisive and racist on Clinton's part.

To do anything substantive about welfare, we have to do something about employment, something about jobs; we have to be able to move welfare recipients who are able-bodied into work situations, but work is not there for them. In order to prepare welfare recipients for the world of work we will have to spend an enormous amount of money. It will be cost-effective in the long run.

Q: Do you see Clinton as a man without a heart in the sense that he'll go whichever way the political winds are blowing?

Herbert: I see him as a man without a soul. He has a heart in the sense that his instincts are genuinely compassionate. But that compassion can vanish in the void where his soul should be. And then he is left buffeted about by the political winds, and then not only does he have a problem, but the rest of us have a

Q: Not long ago you quoted the following from Kevin Phillips's book, The Politics of Rich and Poor: the historical role of the Republican Party has been "to tilt power, policy, wealth, and income toward the richest portions of the population." Then how do Republicans keep winning?

Herbert: It is a question I often ask myself And I have written that people often vote against their own interests. The Republicans keep winning this way: instead of addressing the serious problems we face, they have been very good at taking symbolic, divisive issues and exploiting them. While they are funneling money to the rich from the bottom up, they are saying to ordinary working Americans, "The reason you're in a bad situation is because of the blacks, or welfare, or immigrants, or affirmative action, or the liberals."

They do not say that you are in a fix because of the policies of Reagan and Bush. Or corporate America. It wasn't people on welfare who downsized middle Americans out of their jobs, forcing them to sit at home as "consultants," leaving them without health care, without fringe benefits, without a pension plan, and without any reasonable way to pay the mortgage or send their kids through school. That was not the fault of all these entities cited by the Republican Party.

The Republicans also benefit from a tremendous amount of ineptitude by the Democrats. I don't think the Democrats have come up with legitimate or valid or compelling ways to deal with a lot of these problems. The Democratic Party became fat and comfortable. Tbere has not been a great deal of moral leadership shown by the Democrats for many years.

Q: A.M. Rosenthal recently wrote a column in The New York Times entitled, "American Class Struggle," in which he criticized the Republican plans to do away with the safety net. "I believe," he wrote, "that will be not only the prescription for class struggle but the beginning of its reality." To what extent are the Republicans playing with fire?

Herbert: The Republicans are playing with fire to an almost unbelievable extent. The potential for social catastrophe is great. There is an awful danger that we will have an even greater social breakdown in the streets of America's cities. The potential for devastation and riots is greater now than it was in past years.

I covered the aftermath of the L.A. riots for NBC, and one of the things that struck me was the extent to which enormous weapons depots-not gun shops, gun warehouses-were looted, people just went in and stole the guns and the ammunition. At some point these enormous amounts of weapons will come into play. And then we're going to have another incredible tragedy.

We need to be working now to ward off that sort of catastrophe. Instead, we are fanning the flames of divisiveness, of hatred. We are contributing, with the current policies, to a sense of hopelessness and despair. We are contributing to the idea among many people that they have nothing to lose. When all of those factors are set in motion the way they are now-with very little in the way of countervailing forces-we have a real recipe for social disaster. I am extremely worried about that.

It's not Republican policies per se that are so dangerous. Rather, the danger lies in these extremely conservative or rightwing policies, which, incidentally, have a fairly large Democratic component. So when we are talking about shredding the social safety net, there are many Democrats who are participating in that shredding.

We are flirting with disaster. I think we are doing more than flirting with disaster: we are actively provoking disaster. It seems so obvious to me. What do the people who are promoting and proposing these policies think is going to happen?

Q: They think they'll get reelected the next time around.

Herbert: Yes, and then what! It is incredibly irresponsible, and I wish that the public, to a greater extent, were able to see through this flimflam.

Q: The Clinton Administration has responded to the Republican onslaught by moving to the center, even though it was mostly "New Democrats" who were beaten in the last election. Clearly, the Democrats don't want to be too closely associated with blacks, Latinos, and the poor.

Herbert: This cuts to the heart of what I was talking about when I referred to moral leadership. If Democrats are afraid to say that racism is wrong and that politically divisive tactics based on race are wrong, then the Democrats themselves are left in a moral void.

Since the New Deal, the Democratic coalition has been very diverse. The Republicans obviously have a more homogeneous base, and they can more easily play the race card. When the Democrats turn to the right and try to play the Republican game, the Democrats inevitably have to lose. Why would anyone take an imitation Republican when you can have the real thing? When Clinton turns to the right, he cannot win because he's not going to get their votes anyway, even if he adopts their positions.

The Democrats need to rally the ordinary working men and women of this country. They need to rally the people who are struggling. They need to rally the people who are hurting. But the Democrats have been adrift for a very long time.

Q: Is it simply that the Democrats lack strong leadership, or is it that those who are capable of providing it-Ron Dellums, Paul Wellstone, Jesse Jackson-are being shunted off to the side in favor of the Democratic Leadership Council types?

Herbert: The DLC and the Republican Party do not represent the majority of Americans. I don't believe that for a minute. But the Democratic Party leadership has grown old, made mistakes, withered, and there wasn't strong leadership with new ideas to replace it. That is an enormous problem, and it continues to be a problem.

Q: With both parties moving to the right, many on the left would like to see the creation of a third party. Where do you stand on that?

Herbert: At the moment, it is not realistic. The natural vehicle is the Democratic Party. It would be easier to constitute new leadership within that party than it would be to create an entirely new entity. Americans, for the most part, are comfortable with the idea of the two-party system. I just can't say enough how important I think the idea of strong leadership in the Democratic Party is. If we had it, these issues could be clarified for the public, and I think the public would respond. That is not what is going on now, and I don't know how confident I am that that can be done effectively in a third party.

Q: What if the Democratic Party's problems go beyond the question of leadership? The party has been overrun by corporate lobbyists and business interests. What if the Democratic Party is corrupt at its core?

Herbert: Those corrupt influences are a big factor in moving the Democrats even closer to the Republicans. The leadership of the Democratic Party needs to be reconstituted. That leadership needs to be honest about what has gone wrong. They need to make clear the extent to which Democrats, like Republicans, are captive to special interests with lots of money.

Q: Where will the pressure to reform the Democratic Party come from?

Herbert: Protesting what is going on now is important. If there is a groundswell that continues to develop, it will have an effect. The way to hold public officials accountable is to use the power of the vote. And there ought to be forces organizing voter-registration drives. Politicians should be put on notice that they will be held accountable.

But the right's onslaught has become so extreme that it is difficult to attack the Democrats because there is a fear that things are only going to get worse. November 8 was the Democratic Party's wake-up call. They can't win by chasing after Republican issues.

If we have a combination of the Democrats continuing to lose elections, with a groundswell of effort by progressive individuals and groups hoping to create some kind of new political climate-one to the left of where we are now-perhaps it will bear fruit.

Q: You are one of the few newspaper columnists who writes about workers. But you seem exasperated by them. Not long ago you wrote: "There seems to be no limit to the docility of American workers. This is the one group that seems never to assert its rights, or even to acknowledge that it has any."

Herbert: I don't know why workers put up with it. I've seen people utterly humiliated by American corporations. Corporate executives like to use the term "right-sizing" when they are in fact talking about downsizing, which is to my mind outrageous. American workers are humiliated and abused to an extent that is shocking. Why they put up with it, I don't know. Why they are so docile, I don't know.

So when a company decides that they are going to fire 1,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 workers, you can hear a little bit of gnashing of teeth and see people weeping and see people take up smoking and drinking and binge eating, but in the end they quietly walk out the door and go about their business. There is no revolt, no sense of outrage. And these people are the biggest natural constituency in this country: working men and women. If that constituency can be pulled together it would be politically cataclysmic. But they are not organized. They are probably the only major group in this country that isn't organized, and they have no political clout.

Q: Many are undoubtedly gravitating to the right, blaming their troubles on blacks and immigrants.

Herbert: They are gravitating to the right for the wrong reasons, not recognizing the degree to which the right is responsible for their plight.

Q: You have very little to say in the column about the politics of the labor movement. Have you written it off?

Herbert: No. But it is a newspaper, and the tendency is to get caught up in the news of the day. I wrote about labor during the NAFTA debate. I just haven't gotten to all of it yet. But it's a complex issue. Labor, to such a great extent, was complicit in its own demise.

Q: You can't blame the labor movement. Without labor-law reform, workers who strike can be permanently replaced.

Herbert: That's another outrage. I don't understand why it hasn't generated more opposition from American workers. This idea of permanent replacement workers is a wacky idea, and workers ought not to put up with it.

Q: The Clinton Administration supported anti-scab legislation in July, but it fought much harder for NAFTA.

Herbert: I don't see the Clinton Administration really going to the mat on any issue. On NAFTA, it was an issue where he appeared to be going to the mat, but in fact he was carrying out the wishes of corporate America.

Q: You recently quoted a speech by Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, in which he said: "We must not let ourselves, and especially our children, fall into the paranoid trap of thinking that racism accounts for all that plagues us. The global realignment of work and wealth is, if anything, the bigger culprit." How do we fight that global realignment?

Herbert: To a great extent that global realignment has already occurred. What is, is. We need to pay more attention to the impact of this global realignment and how technological advances affect American workers. If it becomes clear what is going on, it's a little bit easier to begin to search for solutions. So many American workers aren't even aware of what is happening to them. They are caught up in the maelstrom.

One of the ways to fight it is to constantly look for ways to make economic advances here at home.

I've already said the idea of cutting taxes is absurd. I would have liked to have seen, in the early stages of the Clinton Administration, a modest gasoline tax and the revenues used to begin the rebuilding of America's infrastructure. It's going to have to be rebuilt anyway, and it will be cheaper now than later. We should have begun it on a large scale-in cities, suburbia, in rural America. It would have been a way to spark commercial investment and increase employment opportunities.

Clinton had a $16 billion stimulus package. It wasn't much of a package. But he signaled right at the start that this is not something that he was going to go to the mat for. It died. And everybody else looked up and said, "Hey, this guy can be taken. Let's take him." And they've been taking him ever since.

Q: Some readers call you an "ultra-liberal fanatic." How do you respond to that?

Herbert: The funny thing is that I don't consider myself nearly as liberal as most people tend to think. I tend to appear more liberal than I really am because of the political climate that is prevailing right now. So I am reacting to what I consider to be far-right or conservative excesses. That would tend to pigeonhole me as way over on the left somewhere, when in fact, I don't believe that is true. If you were to read over the years, for example, my views about crime, I don't think that it could fairly be described as a liberal view. I think I have a fairly conservative approach to the problem of crime.

Q: How so?

Herbert: I'll start by saying that I am opposed to the death penalty for a variety of reasons. But this society really ought to come down hard on criminals, and especially violent criminals. We let far too many of them off too easily. I don't understand why murderers are allowed to be released from prison. I am strongly in favor of life without parole for murder. Murder is the line that you should not be allowed to cross, and if you cross it, you get one shot and that's it.

People who physically harm other people should go to prison for long terms. That includes incidents that are perceived to be simple street muggings. I don't think there is such a thing as a simple" street mugging. There is often a terrible emotional impact that lasts for a long time.

Working at the Daily News, I've seen some of the most hideous things, including women who had just been slashed up by guys with razors and knives. The guys do minimal amounts of time, and then they walk. As a society we pay an enormous price for permitting that kind of violence. I've ranted and raved for years about the easy access to guns.

Q: You manage to point out that poverty and joblessness lead many youths into a life of crime.

Herbert: The problem of employment in this country is far and away the biggest problem. If we could take care of the employment problem in a reasonable way, we will have made great strides toward reducing the problem of crime and health care. If we remedy the problem of employment, the other problems would take on a reduced scale, and it would be easier to deal with them. All of these things are linked.

Q: You constantly assail the buffoonery and corruption of politicians. Are there any political figures you admire?

Herbert: In my heart of hearts, I think politics taints everything that it touches. There are not many politicians that I have a lot of respect for. We are in a period when the quality of our political leadership is particularly abysmal. We are suffering for it.

Q: What do you think about Jesse Jackson? Can he provide the kind of moral leadership you are talking about?

Herbert: Jesse Jackson is really good on most of the issues that I care about. I agree with many, if not most, of his political views. His views are progressive and admirable in most cases. But he is probably spread too thin. And I don't think he is grounded in a major national political organization, and does not have a political office or a specific position or a specific base from which to work. So it all emanates from Jesse Jackson, the man. It doesn't emanate from Jackson the Senator or Jackson the mayor. He has spoken out on so many issues-often courageously-but is now in the danger zone where not enough people take him seriously enough.

His most admirable moment was when he was running for President in 1988. He won the Michigan primary and came to New York and was sabotaged by Mayor Koch and others. It's been a long road since then. Jackson is always searching for the vehicle that will catapult him somewhere.

Q: A recent Business Week poll gave Jackson an approval rating of 46 percent. Would you like to see him challenge Clinton?

Herbert: Not particularly. The Democrats are hurting so much. There is really a good chance they are going to lose the Presidency. So having lost the Congress, we don't want to see them lose the Presidency. A very divisive primary battle can only harm Clinton. Clinton hasn't been a particularly good President, but he's the only Democratic President we've got.

Q: Are you writing a screenplay for Jonathan Demme?

Herbert: How did you hear about that? Yeah, one day Demme called and asked me to do it. I'm not going to discuss the plot, except it's an urban setting in the 1990s.

Q: Are you hopeful?

Herbert: Yes, but I tend to have a great deal of confidence - although sometimes it wavers-in humanity as a whole. We tend to overcome these enormous problems. And our situation is not as dire as it was in the 1930s. We can pull ourselves out of this. I'd like to see a little more progress.

It is easy, as a journalist, to be enclosed in an ivory tower and to look down at the masses. It is also easy in this business to become cynical. But when I go out into the streets and neighborhoods and speak to people, I am overwhelmed by what they have to say. The more you talk to ordinary men and women and kids, the less cynical you become because they are speaking with a sense of openness and honesty.

They still have a sense of optimism and a sense of hope about their lives.