BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bob Herbert, can you remember the first time you were told or asked or confronted with the idea to write a column twice a week for the “New York Times?”
BOB HERBERT, “New York Times” COLUMNIST: Yes, I remember. The first time I actually didn’t do it. Jack Rosenthal had come to me when I was at NBC and still writing for the “Daily News,” and we had discussions, and we never came to a conclusion of those discussions.
And then about I think about a year later, Howell Raines, who had taken over running the editorial department, gave me a ring, and I was surprised. I thought that this issue had been finished. And he said, can we talk to you again? And I said, sure. And so we went out to lunch and then we had some follow-up conversations. And the next thing I knew, it was kind of surprising to me how quickly it happened, I had accepted a job to work on the greatest page I think in journalism, the op-ed page of The “New York Times.”
LAMB: Why did you do it?
HERBERT: Well, one of the things was you know, I was having the question is not so much why I did it as why I didn’t initially jump at the opportunity. And part of it was, you know, doing TV was fun at NBC, and was writing a column also for the “Daily News” at the same time. And the “Times” did not want you to have another full time job.
I mean, you know, if you’re going to write an op-ed column, that’s your commitment. And but finally it just became clear that the influence of the page, the seriousness of the journalism that would be involved almost required that you make this move. And I made it.
LAMB: How do you feel, the impact?
HERBERT: Well, I remember initially how I felt, that I’d been working at the “Daily News.” I went over to The “New York Times.” Sometimes you would call exactly the same sources. And at the “Times” they call you back instantaneously, I was shocked at how quickly your phone calls got returned.
The impact, you can see it now, you can see it e-mails now that we’re in deep into the digital age. You know, you see it in the e-mails, you see it in telephone calls and regular mail. It’s immense. It’s kind of impressive.
If you thing about it too much, it will warp your perspective a little bit. the “Times” is such a widely respect, widely read, influential newspaper, that you could lose sort of perspective on yourself if you don’t distinguish between who you really and then how you’re perceived as a representative of the “Times.”
LAMB: I’ve always wanted to ask you this question since you wrote it one day, and I don’t remember the year. How did you get what was undoubtedly the last interview with William Manchester?
HERBERT: Oh, William Manchester had read a column that I had written in the “Times,” I can’t remember what it was. And he wrote a letter to the editor, a very kind letter to the editor that got published, surprisingly.
So I just called him up to say, thank you for the kind words. And you know, so we had a conversation that wasn’t about a story or anything else. But he’s such a fascinating guy that it was just wonderful talking to him. I mean, he would talk about everything under the sun.
He would talk about politics. He would talk about the Kennedy administration. He would talk about his experiences in the World War II. And I had long been a fan. And in fact, I had read his history, "The Glory and the Dream," twice. This is a big book and I’ve read it twice. It’s a fascinating book.
LAMB: About what?
HERBERT: So it’s a history of the United States from about probably the early ’30s to the early 1970s. And so then, you know, we had a long conversation and got along well. So every now and then we would just talk to one another.
LAMB: You remember what year it is that you got the exclusive on what he was going to do about the Churchill book.
HERBERT: I can’t remember what year it was. What I do remember is that for a long period of time, he was ill and very much under the weather. And he had lost his wife, and he was devastated about that. He was very depressed. And I remember that at the time I wasn’t thinking so much about journalism as I was just thinking about this guy who had actually become over the phone. I mean, I never met him in person. So, I mean, it was a few years ago, but I can’t remember what year it was.
LAMB: Where did he live at the time you’re talking about?
HERBERT: He was down in Virginia I mean, I’m sorry, he was down in Florida. He was on the west coast of Florida.
LAMB: And have we ever seen that book, that third volume?
HERBERT: Third volume never came out. And you know after I had written a column about one of our conversations, I started getting calls from all these readers who were fans of his, who had read the first two volumes. And they kept saying, when is it coming out, when is it coming out? I knew, you know, that it was unlikely that it was coming, but that was not something that he and I had discussed me writing about.
LAMB: Where do you do your writing from?
HERBERT: I actually work in the office at the “Times.” When I was at the “Daily News,” I never went into the office, I used to I had an office at the paper, but I used to write from my apartment on the West Side of Manhattan.
And when I came over to the “Times” where the “Times” will give you an assistant as well, that was like a step up for somebody from the “Daily News.” When I came over to the “Times,” I took over Tom Wicker’s office, and it’s a nice office on the 10th floor in the “Times” building and you have all those Times resources at your disposal.
And there is a cafeteria one floor up, you can run up and get coffee. And so it just became a comfortable place to work. It’s quiet. It’s not the normal hubbub of a newsroom. The newsroom at the times is down on the third floor. So I go in there and work, it’s great.
LAMB: And now what’s the number of Times columnists?
LAMB: In other words, you know, like the John Tierneys and the Maureen Dowds and
HERBERT: What is it? I should know that right off the top of my head. Is it six, I think?
LAMB: Six, seven, or eight, I mean, it’s in that but the things we’ve learned over the years that Times columnists have their either allowed to or do write their headlines?
HERBERT: That’s a little kind of a funny story with me. Yes. the “Times” columnists for the most part write their headlines. Although when I came over and they were giving me the rundown of the procedures, and they said, you know, and you get to write your headlines. And they said as though this was like a great thing.
And I remember that when I first came into the business, which was The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, a long time ago, I wasn’t making a lot of money. And my father was in the upholstery business. So in order to make ends meet, I’d work all day as a reporter and then I’d have to go, you know, wrestle with these sofas and chairs in the evening.
And The Ledger gave me an opportunity to make some overtime. They said, you know, you can work on a copy desk at the end of your work day for a few hours. And you do a little bit of editing, and you’ll write some headlines and stuff like that.
And I didn’t enjoy it that much, you know, the I could write decent headlines, but you’d struggle with it, trying to get just precise term, and it has to fit and all that kind of thing. So when I went to the “Times” and they said, you have the opportunity to write your own headlines, I said, well, you know what, I’m not really ready to jump at this.
They said, all right, tell you what, we’ll have the editors write your headlines, but you have to sign off on it. And that’s the way it has tended to be with me. And so if you know, sometimes I’ll come up with something that I think is a little better, and then I’ll say, you know, let’s go with this.
But most of the time, the editors are pretty creative and pretty good at that. They have an amazing staff of editors at The “New York Times.” I mean, I think that a lot of people would be surprised at how smart and how proficient and especially how dedicated they are. I mean, the smallest matters they’re trying very hard to get right. And they do make you better.
LAMB: Somebody started calling you the "conscience of The “New York Times.”" You don’t remember who
HERBERT: I don’t know who where that started. And it you know, now a fair number of people say it. It’s a very flattering term, to be called the "conscience of the “Times,”" but it’s not appropriate. It’s not accurate. I’m not a "conscience of The “New York Times.”" They don’t need me to be the conscience of that newspaper.
It’s a great newspaper and it has been a great newspaper for a tremendous number of years. But I think that I think it came up because in an era when people talk so much about values, and there has been sort of an argument, you know, of the left versus the right, on values issues, that I have take a pretty strong position on a lot of issues that are sort of value-laden. And anybody who reads the column can be pretty clear about what my values are. It’s a long leap from that to being a "conscience of The “New York Times.”"
LAMB: What’s your number one value?
HERBERT: I think that people should be treated fairly. You know, I think people keep saying you know, the title of the book that’s a collection of my columns is "Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream." And people ask me, you know, what promises have been betrayed?
And I always say that I think that in the United States, the cornerstone of the whole idea of the American dream are sort of that you’re going to be treated fairly and that there’s going to be expanding opportunity. So that if you work hard, you can do well, and certainly the idea is that your children can do well, the next generation will do better than their parents’ generation.
So this whole idea of fairness and expanding opportunity I think has been a cornerstone of what I think of as American values. And I think that even that fairness is even more important in my worldview than expanding opportunities, although, the opportunities are important too.
LAMB: Do you have children?
HERBERT: I do not, no.
HERBERT: I am married, yes.
LAMB: I was going to ask you whether or not
HERBERT: Married to the wonderful Deborah Bial.
LAMB: What does she do?
HERBERT: She created a foundation called The Posse Foundation which is just wonderful. It if I could take a quick moment to talk about this, this is a foundation where you send big city kids off to elite universities like Brandeis, for example, is where she had gone to school. She got her doctorate from Harvard, but also they send these kids off to Vanderbilt and DePaul, schools like that.
And the reason this thing got started is because 12 or 14 years ago when she was working with a youth agency in New York City, these kids from New York City would go off to college that they knew were bright kids, fully capable of doing college work.
And then six months or a year later they would see them back out there on the street again. And they would, you know, what happened? I thought you went off to school? And one kid said, you know, I would have never dropped out if I had had my posse with me.
And in those days that was your clique, that was your group in the big cities. And Debbie came up with the idea, well, why don’t we do that, why don’t we send kids off in a posse. So what they did was they got the schools to agree to full scholarships for these kids who were screened so that it’s known that they’re fully capable of doing college work, and they send them off in a group of eight or 10 kids at a time, a posse. And it has worked remarkably well.
Not only do these kids this is over a long period of time now, not only do they graduate at a higher rate than the national average in four years, they graduate at a higher rate than the elite institutions that they’ve gone off to. The Posse Foundation is wonderful, wonderful organization.
LAMB: It’s called The Posse Foundation?
HERBERT: The Posse Foundation.
LAMB: What kind of a kid gets to do this?
HERBERT: Well, it’s interesting because it’s a lot of the schools who are better interested in diversity go to an organization like Posse and they’ll get like good black or Latino candidates or that sort of thing. This is not that’s not the point of The Posse Foundation. That’s a great thing that happens. But these are just big city kids, they might be white kids, they might be Asian kids or whatever.
The kids have to go through a screening process where they exhibit sort of leadership qualities and the idea of being capable of doing the college work. And the whole point is that this would be the next generation of or part of the next generation of leaders to lead the United States.
So it’s like kind of important to give them an opportunity to really be able to do the things that they’re capable of doing.
LAMB: How many a kids a year and how many universities participate?
HERBERT: I imagine it’s several million dollars worth of scholarships every year. But the thing is, college is so expensive these days, so even if you get a couple of hundred kids a year, which doesn’t sound like a tremendous number in the scheme of things, if you can put them through these schools for four years and also mentor them along the way, it costs a tremendous amount of money.
But I think that that’s one of the issues that I have tried to address in some of the columns, that when I talk about you look for expanding opportunities in the United States. And I think those opportunities are now shrinking. And one of the reasons is because it has become education has become so important. It’s much more important than 40 or 50 years ago, even 30 years ago.
So that now if you don’t have a four-year college degree, it’s very hard for you to keep up with the mainstream in terms of standard of living. So at a time when it’s more important than ever to get a college education, it’s becoming more difficult for people of modest means to afford a college education. So, you know, there’s a real squeeze going on that I think that as matter of national policy we ought to be addressing.
LAMB: How long have you two been married?
HERBERT: We’ve been married for two years. Are we still newlyweds?
LAMB: If I read it right, you didn’t graduate from college until ’88.
HERBERT: That’s right. I went when I first came out of high school I was essentially a nitwit. It was all about
LAMB: What year?
HERBERT: It was 1963 in Montclair, New Jersey. It was all about cars and rock ’n’ roll and I had discovered girls and that sort of thing. And lo and behold, not surprisingly, I got drafted. I didn’t have a college deferment.
It turned out that that was very good for me. I mean, the Army experience, while it was tough and for a lot of my friends, tragic, it was a way to sort of jumpstart my growing up process. And I got drafted in the initial buildup for Vietnam. But through the luck of the draw, just got sent to Korea, I didn’t go to Vietnam. A lot of my buddies did go there, Vietnam. A lot of them did not come back from Vietnam.
And so after two years in the Army I came out, did a brief stint at Montclair State. Decided, what am I going to do for a living? Wanted to write, called up The Star-Ledger in New Jersey with the idea of not looking for a job. I get these jobs when I’m not looking for a job.
I called up with not with the idea of looking for a job, but trying to get some advice on what I ought to major in because I was going to go back to school. And the advice that I got was, come on down here, we’ll talk to you. And I said, fine. And when I got down there they gave me a job as a reporter.
So the idea of going off to college at that point didn’t happen. And then later, years later, I said, you know, you’ve got to get this degree thing. And so I went to the State University of New York, and they have this Empire State program. And I got a B.S. in journalism.
LAMB: You refer in one of your columns that you had have spent time down at the Vietnam Wall because of your buddies. How many of your buddies were killed?
HERBERT: I’ve had actually, I didn’t even know what the number is. Over the years, between the people that I knew when I was in high school and the people that I grew up with, the people that I met in the service, it was quite a few buddies.
One of the actually the first column in the book is the most personal column in the book. And it’s a story about when I got drafted, there was a fellow named Paul Conover (ph) who was a good friend of mine from Montclair who went into the Army on the same day. And there were a couple of other guys from Montclair, too.
So since we were from Montclair, we formed this clique down in basic training in Fort Dix. And I tell the story about how we’re just sitting there in basic training, shining boots and smoking cigarettes when this kid, Michael Farmer (ph), comes by, big good-looking kid from Atlantic City, wants to know can he sit down and shine boots.
I told him to get lost. I was arrogant and sort of the leader of the group. And I said, you know, get out of here. And my friend, Paul Conover, who was a really sweet guy, very nice guy, said, you know, let the guy sit down.
So, you know, he sits down, and sort of becomes a friend. And I mention in the column that he mumbled. He had a girlfriend whose name was Marilyn (ph), I always thought for the longest time that her name was Merlin (ph), you know, he didn’t even pronounce her name right.
He had enlisted in the Army. We thought that was nuts. Not only are you enlisted, you had a choice, you could enlist for three years or you could enlist for four years. He enlisted for four which made him, in our view, you know, a bigger nut.
Anyway, I get sent off to Korea, and Michael and my friend Paul Conover go over to Vietnam. And by that time, we had become good friends. They both come back from Vietnam and we have a reunion. My sister still has pictures of all of us, you know, all happy, toasting each other in the living room of my parents’ house.
And then, Michael Farmer gets sent back to Vietnam. He’s still in the Army because it’s a four-year enlistment. And we said, you just did your tour, you know, fight this, call your congressman or whatever. He didn’t come from the background that, you know, would really pursue that.
And he goes back over there and a few months later he was killed. Farmer was killed. So I remember being in the back of my father’s upholstery shop. And Paul Conover, who had really become tight with Farmer, coming through the curtains that separated the showroom from the back of his shop, and it’s like tears streaming down his face. And he just said to me, Farmer didn’t make it.
So then time goes by. I get a job at The Star-Ledger. Conover gets married. And I make the point that Farmer had been like insecure guy, and Conover had been this happy-go-lucky fellow, before they went to Vietnam. But when they came back it was like the roles had reversed. It was like Farmer had matured. He seemed more sure of himself. He was much less uncertain, and Conover was a wreck. He was nervous. He drank too much. And he had just been frightened to all get-out in Vietnam.
And then one night I was working the night shift at The Ledger, and then I came out and it was a story that at that point I was on the desk, it had not gone through me, I’m reading the paper. And in the paper was the story about my friend Paul Conover. And what had happened was he had got his hands on a gun. His wife he had got married, his wife had pulled up outside their home. He waited for her. He got out of the car, shot her to death and then put the gun to his head and then shot himself.
And what I said was that Paul Conover and his wife were as much victims of Vietnam as Michael Farmer had been, and that they were just three of the people that I associate with the 58,000 official deaths in Vietnam. And then there were many other people who suffered as a result of that war as well.
LAMB: A lot of what you write is about the Iraqi war. And you say strong things about George Bush, including that George Bush’s war was or is senseless. Anything about this Iraq war a positive?
HERBERT: Not that I can see.
HERBERT: I think we went to war for the wrong reasons. I think that the weapons of mass destruction were a cover story. The best that I can make out is that the you know, the primary point of the war was to establish, you know, an armed presence in the Middle East, the goal being to control the flow of oil out of the Middle East.
We see now that they’re talking about being there for years, maybe many years. Generals are pessimistic about the outcome at least in the short-term. But once you I mean, I was opposed to starting the war, but once you’re in a war, well, then, you know, wars are not things to be played with.
You fight a war to win. I’m an American. I do not want the United States losing any wars. I don’t want these kids that are fighting these wars, getting killed and maimed and lasting I don’t want that lasting any longer than necessary.
And it was, you know, a fellow in their own administration, Colin Powell, who said, the way to fight a war is to go in with overwhelming force, be clear about what your objective is, and have an exit strategy. And they didn’t do any of that.
They went in, the Army the military was understaffed when they went into the war. The objectives were never clear. Not only was it not made clear to the American people, I don’t think it was ever clear to the policy makers and to the commanders who were responsible for fighting the war. And there never has been an exit strategy. There still isn’t.
So how long you know, not as many people are being not as many Americans are being killed in this war as in Vietnam, but it’s up over 1,600. And thousands maimed, how long does this go on? And what is the clearly articulated reason for this war? We still don’t know. And I think the president and his administration have an obligation to make that clear to the American public.
LAMB: In your conclusion to your book see if my term is correct, you sound almost exasperated.
LAMB: You sound pessimistic. You sound I mean, we can read some of it. "The great task of the American people is to turn around a giant ship of state that has sailed off in a radically wrong direction, but that can’t be done by a large uninformed population. Ignorance is indeed blissful, but the bliss is experienced by those who reap the colossal benefits of exploiting the millions of Americans who are unaware, naive, undereducated, or otherwise out of touch with what is really going on."
You suggest people just turned off to everything.
HERBERT: I think that they are in large part turned off to things like the war. But I think that before you get to the point where you can be turned off to something, you need to have some grasp of it. And I think the bigger problem is that I think people don’t understand these ever more complex issues that are confronting Americans and that have a real impact on their lives and the lives of their families.
So if you talk about the reasons for going to war, for example, in the post-September 11th world, so many people in America thought that this war had something with the September 11th attacks and al Qaeda when, in fact, it didn’t.
When you talk about what’s going on in the workplace, workers are not represented by unions to the degrees that they used to be. So who looks out for the workers? Well, in many cases it’s nobody. So if you’re in a world of globalization and increased ever improved technology, then the need for workers here, there and everywhere contracts. Well, that’s a very complex issue. And many of the workers who are affected by that really don’t understand it that well.
When you talk about the need for higher education if you’re going to achieve a higher standard of living, ever more necessary, I’m not sure how clear that is to most Americans don’t have a four-year college degree. I’m sure how clear that is to the majority of workers who, when they get laid off, you know, they have that stunned look. You know, what happened? You know, although it’s becoming less stunned now because I think people are beginning to catch on that a job is not necessarily forever.
You look at complex issues like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, health insurance on the job. Who’s there to advise the vast public? And it has always been my belief that in representative democracy like the United States, the first people who are supposed to advise you are your elected representatives. You should be able to depend on the government.
But it is also incredibly important, the media, the news media in this country. Journalists, I mean, that’s our obligation, to take these complex issues, make it understandable, and put the information out there for everybody who wants to see it.
And then, of course, critical is the whole educational system. Well, we’ve seen a decline in the educational system. We’ve seen a contraction of the at the same time, a fragmenting of the mass media, which is becoming ever more commercialized.
And I think that we’ve had essentially a betrayal of the public by both democratic parties. I think it has been more egregious on the right than on the left, but I don’t think you can give any hosannas to anybody.
And I think that the public largely has been the losers here, which is why it’s only the upper strata that has really been consistently doing well over the past several years.
LAMB: Let me go back to your comment about the unions, the unions only have about 8 percent, a little bit less than 8 percent of the private industry in the country. Unemployment is just a little bit above 5. If the unions were so effective, why has membership gone down and unemployment isn’t that high compared to what it has been over the years? What’s going on there?
HERBERT: Well, one of the things that has eroded the effectiveness of the unions has been the loss of manufacturing jobs because so many of the unionized jobs were in manufacturing. But one of the things that has really gone on is that the unions, in many cases, were their own worst enemy, so they lost a lot of the trust of their workers.
But what I think has especially happened is that workers have become fearful because even though the unemployment rate is actually relatively low, the official unemployment rate, that’s really deceptive.
There is an awful lot of people out there who were not counted as unemployed. And then there are legions of people who are underemployed. These are people who are working part time, even though they’d like to work full time.
There are people who are working without benefits. There are people who call themselves contract workers, you know, but basically they’re freelancers. They’d like to work full time for a company.
There are people who are underpaid working at jobs that don’t really pay them enough to maintain a reasonable standard of living. So all these people are underemployed and they’re not reflected in the official jobless rates.
So what happens is when you have that kind of a labor squeeze, people become fearful, they don’t start asking for raises. And where they might ordinarily be willing to become involved in a labor movement on the job, an organizing effort, for example, they look at their employers and the employers are suggesting, you know, if you even start talking about a union you are going to be fired, you’re out of here.
They do fire some people. They make examples. It has become incredibly hard to unionize now. So all of this is working in tandem against the workers, the workers really don’t have any leverage in this battle now. The advantages are all with the employers, and the employers had the added enormous benefit of the full support of the national administration.
LAMB: What were your parents like and what did they are they alive and what do they do for a living?
HERBERT: They are not alive, and my parents were self-employed back in the 1950s. My father owned a couple of upholstery shops in New Jersey. He was an upholsterer and ran the business. My mother was a seamstress and I remember seeing her sew slipcovers and making draperies and that sort of thing.
And they made a decent living for us. And I think
LAMB: And how many
a lot of I had were you going to ask how many siblings?
HERBERT: Yes. I have a younger sister, four years younger. And who is in the same business, by the way.
LAMB: Writing or upholstery or seamstress?
HERBERT: She’s in the decorating business. I mean, she makes draperies too, which is sort of a carryover of the family business. She’s down in Georgia now. But I think that a lot of my values came just directly from my parents.
And they were folks who believed in fairness. I was in a benign surprisingly benign racial situation in Montclair, New Jersey, back in the 1950s and ’60s when I was growing up. And so I was taught that, you know, prejudice was a thing to be shunned. My parents were believers in integration and my parents were believers in hard work, just sort of what I think of as the traditional American values.
I hate when it gets politicized and the people on the right say that, you know, they are the champions of values and stuff. I mean, it’s just silly. And I also don’t believe that one person’s values are supposed to be used to trample another person’s values.
LAMB: Let me read a paragraph from a column that you wrote. This was back in 2003. "It is now absolutely normal in many circles for young black men and women, and for that matter, little black boys and girls, to refer to one another as “niggers” and “bitches” and “hos,” doing well in school is frequently disdained as a white thing, doing time in prison is widely accepted as a black thing and no cause for shame."
Where did that come from?
HERBERT: I guess it came out of sort of my view of life. Ever since I was a youngster
LAMB: Did you have that
HERBERT: We were talking about my parents, I mean, if my parents and my grandparents had seen some of the things that are in the culture now, I mean, they might keel over in a dead faint. No, you didn’t
LAMB: Give us an example, what?
HERBERT: You don’t have anybody and I’m not even just talking about at the dinner table, you don’t talk about niggers, you don’t talk hos, you don’t have these casual destructive references. I think that they are extremely destructive because I think that it lessens one’s view of oneself.
This idea that it can even be a source of pride to have done time in jail or prison is mind-boggling to me. When I was a kid, the idea of going to jail was such a shameful thing, you know, you were really repelled at the mere thought of it.
So I think that there are these cultural things that combine in a period when it is very difficult to make a living, to get a decent job, to get an education. If you combine that with sort of these internal cultural factors that are also destructive, then the end result is what we’re seeing.
So you see legions of young men and women, boys and girls, especially in the big cities who are out of work, in many cases not in school, or if they’re in school, not doing well. And I think in many cases pretty much out of hope in terms of establishing a productive life.
LAMB: Go back to the when did it become in the black community a white thing to get an education?
HERBERT: I think that it’s too broad to say that in the black community it is. I think there are elements in the black community among some youngsters to think that it is uncool, and they associate uncool with white, to excel in any intellectual matters.
LAMB: Where does that is that (INAUDIBLE)?
HERBERT: I’m not sure, to tell you the truth, how that developed. My best guess is that it developed among youngsters who just didn’t have a strong background in terms of family. You know, there were a lot of kids who were abandoned by parents, a lot kids who grew up without fathers, a lot of kids who were raised by grandparents who were essentially overwhelmed.
There are a lot of kids and I’m talking about now, over the past 30 years or more, a lot of kids who actually grew up out there on the street on their own, which is one of the reasons why gangs have been able to get such a stranglehold. Gangs become a substitute for the family.
So I can’t be too precise about where this kind of thinking developed. But it has emerged over the years. And it’s just so dangerous. A think that’s really interesting is that I was talking to a professor from Northeastern not too long ago, and in the course of the conversation this came up, and in the course of conversation he mentioned to me that this idea of shunning intellectual achievement is occurring also in working class white communities in some cases where he has had students who will be in class that he knows is capable of doing the work but who are reluctant to raise their hands.
And he’ll have conversations with them and say, you know, well, why didn’t you talk about blah blah blah. And they’re sort of embarrassed to show in front of their peers, you know, that they’re hitting the books, that they did their homework or whatever. It’s becoming an uncool thing.
LAMB: When did you teach?
HERBERT: I taught at Brooklyn College, I guess, back in 1980s. I taught basic journalism, and really enjoyed that. And then I went and taught as an adjunct at Columbia in the journalism school, the graduate school.
LAMB: What year?
HERBERT: And that was probably mid to late ’80s.
LAMB: So if you went in the classroom today and taught, what would you teach the students about the media today?
HERBERT: Well, one of the things that I was disappointed in at Columbia was that you were teaching at that time very similar things that I was teaching to the undergrads in Brooklyn, essentially how to write a news story.
What I would like to see and maybe they have done that at Columbia since then, there have been a lot of changes since then, but what I would like to see is the graduate school of journalism really mean something, that you’re teaching at a higher level, that you’re going to assume that these kids know the basics of journalism when they come in.
But if when I look around at the media right now, I think that the media has so fallen down on the job. I’m not sure that it’s should necessarily be shocking, because I think that the members of the media are drawn from the population as a whole, just like everybody else.
But, you know, success is the big mantra. People want to be close to power. And when you want to be close to power to some degree, you have to do the bidding of power, or if not the bidding, at least you can’t tick them off too much just because you’ll be shut out.
And so on a lot of the important issues of the day, I don’t think we’re getting the full story. I don’t think we’ve gotten the full story on Iraq. I don’t think we’ve gotten the full story on the treatment of detainees, on torture issues and that sort of thing. I don’t think that we’ve gotten the full story on the workings of the economy. I don’t think we’ve gotten the full story on important issues like Social Security and Medicare.
The labor movement, which used to be a standard beat on most newspapers, you don’t see coverage of the labor movement anymore.
LAMB: You can’t even get the full story out of The “New York Times?”
HERBERT: Yes. I think that it’s difficult. I think the “Times” does the best job. I mean, maybe one would expect me to say that. I think the “Times” does the best job of any paper out there. But when you look at the mass of the American people, 300 million or so people, you know, everybody doesn’t read The “New York Times.” And everybody who reads The “New York Times,” they don’t read it cover to cover every day.
I don’t think that you can if you talk about the media in the United States, I don’t think you can leave the entire burden to The “New York Times” because no one newspaper is up to that burden. So many people get their information from television. So many people get their information from FOX News. And then so many people don’t watch any news at all.
LAMB: A couple of weeks ago I interviewed a fellow on the West Coast that you have very little in common with except one thing, Thomas Sowell, he rarely appears on television. And you rarely appear on television. You made your living for a while on television, NBC. Why, as a columnist, have you not appeared many times on these shows?
HERBERT: Well, over the years I’ve appeared a fair number of times, but this idea of sort of running from one show to another, the talking head kind of thing, I’m not crazy about it. I think the issues are very complex, and television really wants you to deal with them in a sound bite.
I hate the idea of the point-counterpoint thing where the person on the left hollers at the person on the right and then vice-versa where, you know, you get so much more heat than light. So I haven’t been thrilled with it, I haven’t been thrilled with the journalism in general, as I guess I’m pretty much making clear hear.
LAMB: So what is your approach? When you write your column in your office, you do two a week. What days are they published now?
HERBERT: They’re on Mondays and Thursdays.
LAMB: And can people who are interested go to The “New York Times” Web site and find the archives on them?
HERBERT: They can go to the Web site, but they won’t be able to do it much longer. the “Times” is going to change the policy on the Web site to my
LAMB: (INAUDIBLE) money.
HERBERT: To my chagrin. Yes. It costs a lot of money to put out that newspaper. And it’s a profit-making business so you’ve got to make a few dollars. And so I think it’s in September that the policy that the policy is going to change and a lot of the columnists and the opinion writers will be separated on the Web site and you’ll have to pay a fee. I think it’s about $50 a year to have access.
LAMB: But you can buy your book, the "Promises Betrayed," which is
HERBERT: You can buy my book, right.
LAMB: But what kind of rules do you have yourself? I mean, what about going out in the field and talking to people or I mean, do you get to know these the elite, the power people, do you want to be their friends?
HERBERT: Well, I don’t want to be their friends, I mean
LAMB: You know what I mean, you mentioned earlier that people are getting too close to the
HERBERT: Yes. I mean, I’ll take care of my friendships on my own in my off-hours. I mean, this is a business and I think that it and I think, you know, most people do take it seriously. But the way I work is you have a lot of freedom on the op-ed page, and you can cover whatever you want and you can give your opinion. They’re not on your back at the “Times.”
And so what I do is I look at the interests at the stories or the issues that interest me. And then I go and begin to do some reporting. You make phones call, and in a lot of cases there’s leg work because I talked sort of a lot ordinary people because I like to see the effect that these big issues are having on real people. And that means that you have to get out there with a notebook or a tape recorded and do your interviews. And then you get a richer sense of what the issues are and how to tell a story, I think, than if you just are going to sit at a computer and sort of spin stuff off the top of your head.
LAMB: Which columns couple of columns in the last, what, we’re now 12 years, have gotten the most attention?
HERBERT: I’d have to say the Iraq columns and the series of columns that I did on a situation down in Tulia, Texas, where dozens of people, most of them black, were sort of railroaded into prison on drug charges. And that
LAMB: When did you write those?
HERBERT: Those were they were, I guess, I don’t know, it might be three years ago now. And I was really surprised that those columns got the attention that they did because I thought people wouldn’t be that interested in them, frankly.
A lot of people think that I broke the Tulia story, which is the farthest thing from the truth. This was a situation that happened in the late ’90s. And the reason I became interested in it is because when it was brought to my attention in detail it was clear that a grave injustice had taken place.
And what happened was a, I don’t know, 43 or 44 people were rounded up in this small town in the Texas Panhandle. They were either black or they were or they were a handful of whites who had relationships with black. And they were accused of being major drug dealers, narcotics traffickers.
And they were arrested as a result of an undercover investigation by this one fellow who turned out to be a major league whacko, a guy by the name of Tom Coleman. He worked for the sheriff’s department down there. It was a federally funded anti-drug program.
And this was a guy who turned out to be a racist, used the N-word frequently, said he didn’t think that it was an offensive word anymore. Didn’t have backup, he made these arrests, didn’t find any drugs, didn’t find any money, didn’t find any weapons. I had covered drug dealers when I was at the “Daily News.” And that’s not the case with major narcotics traffickers. You’ll find some money, you’ll find some weapons.
So there are a lot of groups that were working on this. And they were happy to provide me with information. And I went down there and did some investigation on my own and ended up doing a dozen columns on it. I couldn’t believe it. I got started on this issue and just had to stay with it.
To give you an example of what an outrage it was, there was one woman who was arrested in this thing and charged with being a drug dealer. And it turned out that at the time that she supposedly was selling drugs to Tom Coleman in Texas, she was actually in Oklahoma and luckily had a bank transaction that she had been involved in that proved where she was.
Another guy could prove that he was at work and it was the kind of job where you had to clock in and clock out. And his boss was aware of the fact that he was there. So they had to drop charges against these kinds of people.
But most of them just sort of got railroaded into prison.
LAMB: So you did 12 columns. What was the impact of those columns?
HERBERT: Well, the columns generated, you know, as I said, I thought that people wouldn’t be interested in sort of these poor folks in Texas who had got busted for on drug charges.
And it turned out that the column sparked a lot of interest nationally. And then when I stayed with it, sort of the interest grew. And then, you know, congressman and senators became involved and there were calls for justice and sort of I think the stories helped energize the situation to the extent that groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Moses Kunstler Fund and that sort of thing, were given new life in their effort to get these folks freed.
And then eventually the ones who were still in prison were freed, charges against everybody who had been involved in this thing were arrested. The charges were dropped. So it was a pretty big win.
LAMB: How do you, on the editorial or the op-ed page of The “New York Times,” how do you prevent the different columnists from writing about the same thing every day?
LAMB: I mean, is there a system that you have?
HERBERT: No, there’s no system. Sometimes you don’t prevent it, but surprisingly now because there I mean, it’s just such a mix of individuals and personalities that you don’t have that problem very often. And even if you do write on the same thing, because sometimes on a major story it’s inevitable, you don’t take the same approach.
I mean, I remember being on the page when Anna Quindlen was still there and the O.J. Simpson story was hot. And she wrote about O.J. and I wrote about O.J. and there were op-ed freelance submissions about O.J. And for all I know there was an editorial about O.J. on that day.
But each one of them really took a different approach. So it wasn’t like reading the same story over and over again. So it’s less of a problem than you would than you might think.
LAMB: I wrote down the name C. Penn Owen Jr. (ph), most powerful plantation owner in rural northern Mississippi, a column you wrote in ’99. I got the impression you went to see him.
HERBERT: I went to see C. Penn Owen
HERBERT: Junior. I was not surprisingly, I had never I’d grown up never being a big fan of Mississippi, so it wasn’t like a place where I expected to summer or anything like that, you know.
So there wasn’t much chance of me hanging out in Mississippi for any reason at all until this story came up, which is really a local story in Mississippi. But it just struck me. They were trying to build a subdivision which would be upscale housing. In that part of Mississippi they had brought in gambling so you had sort of an economic revival.
And they got caught up in a problem where if they’re going to have this upscale housing, they needed to have school for the upscale children of the families who would be living in the housing.
But because Mississippi had such an egregious record in terms of segregation and the quality of the public school system, if you just put the same kind of schools there that you had throughout the state, nobody would want to send their kids to the schools.
And what happened was after the Brown versus Board of Education decision back in 1954, and the years of desegregation, Mississippi balked and the whites set up these private academies that essentially were all white and they left the black kids in the public schools. And then they didn’t fund the schools and the schools were run down and that became a problem that lasted.
And so they were under federal government watch and you had to have a certain amount of integration if you’re going to start these new schools or whatever. And in Mississippi they were worried, well, we’re going to have these new schools for these upscale kids, but what, are we going to bring poor black kids and put them into the school?
So it became a whole brouhaha. And I went down there and I wrote about it.
LAMB: What did you think of C. Penn Owen Jr.?
HERBERT: I thought that he was a throwback. I thought that I was talking to somebody from the 19th Century, you know? He was talking about he was trying to convey how progressive Mississippi had become. And he was doing it in language that showed that how regressive Mississippi remained.
LAMB: Back to your conclusion in the book. At one point you have some solutions to all of this, the problems of America. But I just wonder if you think any of this is going to work. You say, do what you can, talk to your neighbors, call or write your elected officials, circulate petitions, attend meetings, protest, run for office, support good candidates who are running for office, volunteer to work in their campaigns, register people to vote, reach out to the young and the apathetic, raise money, stay informed and help others stay informed.
It almost sounds like you’re you know, you’re not desperate, but
HERBERT: It could sound Pollyannaish.
LAMB: And if not, what can change?
HERBERT: What prompted me to do that was that I get so many e-mails from people who really are outraged by what’s going on. I mean, one of the things that there’s a sense in the United States, and this has been promoted by the Bush administration, that the administration has some kind of a mandate, you know, that it won the last election and therefore it should be allowed to go ahead and do whatever it wants.
And in fact, the last two elections were very close. You know, and even the election against Kerry was not the kind of election that would give the administration a huge mandate. And as for Gore, you know, it’s still my firm belief that Gore won that election.
So that means that the electorate has split roughly in half. I mean, it’s a large percentage of this electorate is not happy about the policies of the United States going forward. But they don’t really know what to do. And I think that the Democratic Party has let them down in a lot of ways because I don’t think that the party has provided the kind of vigorous opposition that you would expect from it.
So people write and they ask, you know, what can an individual do? And these are the kinds of things that I think that an individual can do that in fact will have some effect. And it’s not that I think that that will change things in a day or a week or a month or a year, but I think that that’s how movements begin to get started.
I mean, you look at what happened on the right, they were devastated in 1964 with Barry Goldwater’s loss. And it was a question of whether the Republican Party was even going to survive, you know?
And in fact they took the White House back in 1968, just four years later. And they worked and worked and worked and worked right up until the present day to establish the influence that they have now.
The people on the other side are in a not in that bad a position right now. So I think that it’s time for people who are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States, who are not happy with the policies of this administration, to just sort of roll up their sleeves and get to work.
LAMB: This is 2005. It’s in the middle of the year. If you were to have your way, who would be the candidate in 2008?
HERBERT: You know, that is I think such a tough question. And the reason it’s so tough is because I think that the Democratic Party has not done a good job. I don’t think that they’ve developed good candidates. I think that they have not made it clear what their values are.
There has been this tendency on the part of the party every time they lose an election to the Republicans to decide, well, you know what, the way to counteract this is to become more like they are, become more like the opposition. Well, then, you know, talk about a betrayal, where does that leave the people who have been your supporters all these years?
And you’re supposed to represent them. That’s a crucially important function. And so I think they have not developed policies and alternatives and candidates that I’m aware of now that are ready to carry the day.
You know, my best guess is that leadership ultimately emerges, but how long does that take? I don’t know. If you just took the obvious candidates now, the big names, I don’t know how effective they could be.
I mean, you know, everybody talks about Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is still a figure that carries a fair amount of baggage and if you put her in a national election, you know, my best guess is despite what the Republicans might be saying now about being afraid of her, my best guess is that you might be a little there might be a little quiet applause in the GOP if Hillary became the standard-bearer.
And, you know, so if the question is, who do I think can win it all? I don’t have a name right now.
LAMB: Martin Luther King you bring up in your columns. You don’t think he really is understood.
HERBERT: I don’t think Martin Luther King is understood. I mean, Martin Luther King really should be one of the great American heroes. And he’s portrayed that way. I mean, everybody becomes almost reverential when they talk about Dr. King.
But then they behave in ways that I don’t he would approve of.
LAMB: Can you give us an example right there?
HERBERT: Yes, I can. You know, a big thing has been made about the fact of his last speech, the Mountaintop speech. And people talk about how sad he was and how he may even have had a premonition of his own assassination.
Well, obviously it’s impossible for me to know, but I’ve always felt that there was something different going on. I felt that there is no question that looked sad. He looked like a man who was depressed. But I always thought that it was because he had worked so hard for some principles that were so important to him and he did not see them carrying the day.
One, for example, was nonviolence. He was always such a big deal with him. And when he was killed in ’68, the riots in Detroit and in Newark, New Jersey, and in Watts out in Los Angeles, had already happened, and also smaller riots in many other places.
So, you know, this whole idea of nonviolence had lost steam. The war in Vietnam was raging. So I think that he was depressed by that.
He always carried the banner for integration. That was you know, he wanted to be the bridge between the people on one side who would say, never, and the people on the other side who would say, never. And that bridge didn’t seem to be working.
Not only by then were did the positions seem to be hardening, but there were more and more blacks who were saying, you know, forget this integration thing, we’re going to do it on our own. It’s going to be a black thing. And there were even people who called Martin Luther King, you know, an Uncle Tom. And so, you know, I think that must been an incredibly hurtful thing.
And then he also had evolved to the point where he saw that it was not just a racial struggle, but a struggle that would have to include the economic advancement of the people who were not doing well, whether they were black or white, in the United States. So he had taken up that banner too.
And people were saying to him, well, you know what, you know, yours is the civil rights issue. So why don’t you just stick with that and leave the economics alone. And by the way, stop harping on this Vietnam issues. If you’re opposed to the war, that’s not something you ought to be talking about.
So I thought that there were a fair number of things for him to be unhappy about toward the end of his life.
LAMB: Bob Herbert, thank you, your columns are all published in "Promises Betrayed," and “New York Times” columnist, we thank you very much for joining us.
HERBERT: Thanks so much, I appreciate it.