What About Bob (Herbert)? Reflections on History, Policy and the Progresive Illusions of a Times Liberal”

“Dominant state-capitalist media permits only a narrow spectrum of narrow, privilege-preserving debate into commentary upon current events. That,” I recently told a liberal-left quasi academic friend of mine, “is my story and I’m sticking to it.”   

The “story,” I added, is hardly just mine. I ticked off a number of the standard left texts on “mainstream” corporate media ownership and content, starting with Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s widely read and recently reissued book Manufacturing Consent. 

“But what,” my friend said, “about that black left writer over at the New York Times….Bob Herbert?” She cited a number of Times columns in which Herbert eloquently denounced the Bush administration for assaulting civil, labor, and human rights under the cover of the “moral issues” and “national security.”  She especially praised an excellent column in which Herbert brought attention to the large number of American soldiers maimed and crippled by Bush’s illegal War on Iraq and another piece in which Herbert wrote passionately about the invisible and deepening crisis of black American inner-city male. 

Herbert, she reminded me, has not been content merely to rip the in-power hard right.  He has also criticized the Democrats from the left for failing to articulate a consistent progressive and to function as a serious opposition party.  And he has criticized dominant media for becoming too corporate, gullible and conservative and for encouraging mindless passivity on the part of the populace. 

So what about Bob Herbert?  Confronted with some of his apparent progressive credentials, I started to hem and haw about how the ruling media system tends to marginalize left voices and pretends to prove its democratic nature and deny its corporate-imperial essence by permitting an occasional lone-wolf voice to be (almost) heard howling away in the wilderness of the opinion-editorial sections.  Didn’t the clever radical Alexander Cockburn used to hold down column space at the Wall Street Journal? 

And then I remembered: Herbert isn’t all that left.  My mind raced back to various columns in which Herbert adopted a practically Cosby-esque pose towards lower-class African-Americans.  He has repeatedly denounced inner-city African-Americans’ alleged “underclass” and “gangsta” culture of poverty, “self-sabotage” and violence, thereby approving to no small extent white suburbanites’ and neoconservatives’ victim-blaming explanation of the concentrated black poverty that predictably results – as many people on the left know – from persistent culturally impoverished structures and practices of white supremacy in the post-Civil Rights Era.  I thought of numerous columns in which Herbert took seriously – as no serious left commentator would – the Bush administration’s claims to have invaded Iraq out of an interest in exporting “freedom” and “democracy.”  I reflected on the fact that Herbert’s often eloquent reflections on the terrible human costs of Bush’s terrible war are practically always about U.S. soldiers and rare mention Iraqis, whose body count from “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (OIF) has reached 700,000.



And since I think History and how one interprets the past matter a great deal in shaping one’s current and future politics, I recalled numerous instances in which Herbert has referred uncritically and indeed often in practically worshipful terms to the supposed records and legacies of such past strong Democratic “leaders” as Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy (JFK).   

Besides responding in politically calculated lukewarm fashion to struggles for racial justice at home, both of these Cold War presidents inflicted massive racist and imperial mayhem abroad.  After ordering the two most heinous single-moment war crimes in history – the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (in announcing the attack on the first city Truman proclaimed the atom bomb “the greatest think in history”) – the Truman administration concocted a Soviet “communist” threat in Greece to justify a massive permanent imperial militarization campaign called the Cold War. Millions died in the execution of that policy, which assaulted civil liberties, diverted billions of dollars away from attacking poverty and racism and checked the positive, social-democratic impulses of the New Deal. Herbert nevertheless likes to refer to Truman as an example of the sort of tough and progressive “leadership” the nation needs today. 

For his part, the super-hawk JFK used blatantly false claims of a Soviet missile advantage to attain a presidency that sparked a deadly and expensive arms race, initiated the vicious U.S. military assault on the peasant nation of Vietnam, attempted repeatedly to under to the sovereign revolutionary government of Cuban, and helped bring the human race as close to nuclear annihilation as it ever came. Domestic needs suffered accordingly in a time when more than a fifth of the U.S. population lived below the poverty line.

Jack and (another Herbert hero) Bobby Kennedy were distinctly displeased with the Civil Rights Movements’ effort to expose and heal the superpower’s grave internal racial divisions.  When they and their FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover weren’t wire-tapping that movement’s leadership, the Kennedys were counseling top civil rights activists to “slow down,” “cool off,” and suspend the militant direct actions that drove civil rights success.   The Kennedy administration acted to censure the content of activist John Lewis’ speech at the famous 1963 March on Washington, an event the White House had initially tried to prevent and later sought to appropriate.  Kennedy intervened against the racist South and on behalf of racial justice only reluctantly and on the basis of the pragmatic imperial calculation that his aggressive foreign policy was harmed when Third World people saw racist violence occurring within the supposed homeland and headquarters of world freedom.    

The grateful beneficiaries of his overseas policy included the corrupt ruling-class of South Vietnam and the authoritarian military states of Latin America

Consistent with his status as the wealthiest U.S. president since George Washington, JFK’s policies were regularly aligned with the needs of privileged few.  This was seen in his preference for his regressive tax cuts and in his rejection of labor’s claim to a share of anything more than a marginal share in the nation’s  burgeoning economic surplus.



Herbert’s blindness towards the dark, not-so progressive records of his authoritarian heroes Truman and JFK raises real questions about whether he is a “left” progressive at all and not just another power-worshipping Times liberal. So and more directly do his comments during a question and answer session that took place at – appropriately enough – the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library last year (see “A Conversation With Bob Herbert,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, May 9, 2005)

Speaking about why he was angrier about the Bush administration’s Iraq War in 2005 than he had been in 2003, Herbert made a curious argument. “Once you launch a war, once you you’re in a war,” Herbert told his audience, “you have to win the war.  I mean, I don’t want the United States out there losing wars, that’s insane.” Herbert followed this “patriotic” statement up with some rambling reflections on the virtues of “the Powell Doctrine,” stating that “if you’re going to go to war, you’ve got to win the war… you need an overwhelming force going in.” Herbert was especially disgusted by the irony of “the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the history of the world,” going “to war with not enough troops.” By his perspective, stated well after some of the worst U.S. atrocities in Iraq (the bloody siege of Fallujah and the Ab Ghraib torture operations)  had come to light, it was irrelevant that the invasion of Iraq was an inherently and monumentally illegal, immoral, mass-murderous and (some might argue) “insane” operation.         

Most of the morally cognizant human race and certainly all serious “progressives” would reject Herbert’s contention that it would be “insane” to ever wish defeat on Uncle Sam at war. The U.S. is widely and justly seen around the world as a rogue imperial superpower (for reasons that are easily available in a large number of books that are routinely dismissed by book review editors at Herbet’s conservative newspaper), a gross violator of human rights, an agent of global inequality, and the greatest threat to peace on earth.   Hoping that resistance forces in U.S.-targeted states might educate Uncle Sam on the limits of his power is hardly a sign of madness.  The maddening war carnage inflicted by the insufficiently checked U.S. empire includes the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki(criminally butchered by “Give’Em Hell Harry” Truman in atomic assaults that occurred after Japan had been defeated and which were meant mainly to preemptively discipline Soviet foreign policy in the emerging post-WWII world order), 2 million Indochinese, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed by Desert Storm (conducted in accord with Powell’s doctrine of “overwhelming force”)and perhaps close to 2 million Iraqis (with “economic sanctions” deaths include) from Bush I to Bush II. .

Once you start an illegal, immoral, ands mass-murderous way, then you need to “win” the resulting conflict?  One wonders how Herbert would react to that argument being made in connection with the Third Reich’s invasion of Europe, Japan’s attack on U.S. imperial outposts in late 1941, or a hypothetical Chinese invasion of the western United States! Perhaps he believes that America possesses an exceptional goodness, a unique moral superiority rooted in guiding liberal principles – though presumably not in its centuries of slavery and aboriginal genocide – that give it the special right to follow insanely murderous actions to a “successful” conclusion.

Asked at the Kennedy Library by a retired military officer “how do we end” the invasion of Iraq “on a successful note,” Herbert responded that “it’s a tough question.”  Iraq, he said, “would fall into turmoil” and become “a haven for terrorists” if the U.S. called off its illegal and widely hated invasion in too precipitous a fashion. He was either unaware of, or indifferent to the fact that both of these feared consequences had already come into being and were being significantly driven precisely by the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.   

“So what needs to be done?,” the moderator asked Herbert at the Kennedy Library.  “You really need,” the columnist said, “leadership to come in.  I am just a big believer in leadership,” he added, “which is what I thought was so important that came out of the Kennedy family with Jack and Bobby and continuing with Ted Kennedy.   I think it’s very difficult,” the “progressive” columnist opined, “for big changes in society to occur without leadership that is both smart and energetic and also is positioned in a way to have some clout.”  If such vital leadership – of the sort that responded so poorly to the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s, that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and which initiated a colossal imperial assault on the people of Southeast Asia – could emerge again today, Herbert claimed, it would “see this stuff”(the empire’s problems in Iraq) “a little more clearly that I think the [Bush] administration sees it.’  It would “explain clearly to the public, and I’d like the media to convey it properly, how this is not a left or right issue, that if the country is at war, it really is a collective effort and you need to prosecute this war in the best, most efficient way possible. And, instead, you get…. all these weird things rather than the idea of a collective effort of a nation at war trying to achieve an objective.”

Never mind that the objective is morally wrong and monumental illegal or that its massive fiscal expense both reflects and exacerbates the savage domestic economic and racial inequalities that Herbert often documents and decries.  Never mind that the vast majority of Iraqis wanted (as discovered in a British Defense Ministry poll leaked prior to Herbert’s appearance at the Kennedy Library) the U.S. to withdraw its military forces from Iraq or that the majority of Americans (as discovered in a 2004 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll) thought the U.S should remove its troops if that’s what the majority of Iraqis wanted.  The nation, Herbert felt, should build on the proud legacy of Cold War heroes like Truman and Kennedy to unite in a “nonpartisan” and “collective” war effort to “achieve an objective.”  



In a recent column challenging the Democratic Party to build on its 2006 election victories to “find a vision for America” (“The Fading Dream,” New York Times, 13 November 2006, p, A27) Herbert looks back nostalgically to World II and “that extraordinary post-World War II period” when “the U.S. still knew how to win wars” and “when bold leadership and a sense of common purpose transformed the U.S. and made it the envy of the world.” 

It’s no wonder that Herbert has quickly become something of a cheerleader for Barack Obama, whose overnight celebrity is a monuments to the art of combining purported liberal concern for the oppressed with strict deference for existing national and imperial hierarchies.  Obama shares and embodies Herbst’s faith in nonpartisan, supposedly non-ideological corporate-liberal approaches to reigniting a lost sense of shared national purpose and to achieving “national objectives” from the top-down, through “smart” and “pragmatic” “leadership.”

Like his fellow black pseudo-“progressive,” Obama, Herbert has an odd and revealing propensity for speaking of the post-WWII “Golden Age” as if it were a time of consistent rising and color-blind prosperity for Americans of all races (see Obama’s recent book “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”  [2006], pp. 176-178). They might want to take a look at onetime liberal Democratic hero Lyndon Baines Johnson’s famous 1965 (“To Fulfill These Rights”) speech to Howard University – the one where the then-president Johnson admitted and highlighted the terrible fact that disparity between blacks and whites had widened despite the country’s prosperity.  For some relevant explanations of that all-too forgotten history,  Herbert and the junior Senator from Illinois can consult two critical books: Thomas Sugrue’s “Origins of Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” (1996/2005) and Ira Katznelson’s “When Affirmative Action Was White: An untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America” (2005).



On repeated occasions, Herbert has criticized the contemporary Democratic Party for not providing a full-blown progressive vision and alternative to the Republicans and for lacking the courage of their supposedly left convictions.   But Herbert’s convictions don’t seem all that progressive, left, or courageous.  And they aren’t well grounded in any sort of reasonable sense of how progressive change occurs.  Herbert can pine all he wants for the lost “leadership” of such criminal executives as Harry Truman and JFK, but he’d do better to consult books like Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,” Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s “Poor People’s Movements,” or Lizabeth Cohen’s “Making a New Deal.” The social and democratic progress that has occurred in U.S. History before, during, and since the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and Great Society was forced from below by rank and file activists and masses of ordinary people who acted courageously on the their democratic and solidaristic convictions against the combined and interrelated imperatives of Empire and Inequality at home and abroad. It is peoples’ movements, not the supposedly wise and benevolent “leadership” of liberal national elites that the world and the U.S. needs to see reinvented.                                                                   

Paul Street is an independent writer, speaker, historian, and social policy researcher in Iowa City, IA.  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, November 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005); and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007). Street can be reached at [email protected]


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