Bob Herbert Views the American Dream: But Can It Still Be Found?
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
I donít think this is a right-wing nation. I donít think the public
in general is in favor of most of the policies and priorities of the
Bush Administration. I think that, if the other side fights a little
harder and a little smarter, there may be a chance to reverse what have
been some significant losses over the past few years.
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Bob Herbert goes to work every day at the 10th floor of The New
York Times. As an op-ed columnist for the Times, he writes
about race relations, criminal justice, politics and the problems of Everyman.
In fact, much like another well-known reporter whose idealism and super-human
feats captured our nation's imagination -- he has very effectively battled
for truth, justice and the American way. But Bob Herbert sees trouble
in Metropolis and across America. His reports, collected in a new book
called Promises Betrayed,
reveal the serious roadblocks encountered by real people in their pursuit
of the American dream. He talks with BuzzFlash here about America's values
and our dreams. Go ahead and picture him in black-framed glasses.
* * *
Betrayed: Waking Up From the American Dream consists of many
of your wonderful, compassionate columns woven together into a story of
American injustice today, revealing how far we are from something called
the American dream. But I want to ask you specifically about the concept
of "the American dream." It has tremendous resonance and power
to it. In your mind, what is the American dream?
Bob Herbert: When I think about it, I go back to my own
experience growing up, which was in suburban New Jersey in the fifties
and sixties. That was a time when you heard people speak more frequently
about the American dream than they do now. In that context, it tended
to mean a dream of opportunity and fairness and justice. It was the post-World
War II period when the sky seemed to be the limit for the United States,
and things were going really well in the sense that jobs were easy to
find. It was becoming easier for kids to go to college. There was a boom
in home ownership. The country was on a real high. But in addition to
those sort of economic-related factors, there was also the civil rights
movement going on then. And then we would see the womenís movement and
the environmental movement. We saw, from the Warren Court, a shoring up
of civil liberties in this country. There was really a sense that the
United States was moving in the right direction, even though there still
was a tremendous amount of injustice going on.
Iím not trying to say that life was better in the United States then than
it is now. I donít think it was; I think itís better now. The difference
is that there was the belief that the United States was moving in the
right direction, and that is not the feeling I get now. I get the feeling
now that weíre either static or sliding backwards. And I think that you
donít hear people talking that much about the American dream now, because
there isnít the confidence that, letís say, the children of this generation
would do better than the Baby Boomers. I think thatís a real setback for
the United States, and thatís one of the reasons that we put this book
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you about one word which we often
struggle with at BuzzFlash in trying to understand the pickle weíre in
in the United States now politically -- and that word is ďcommunity.Ē
If you look back at World War II, we had a sense of community as a nation.
Bob Herbert: Very much so.
BuzzFlash: It was a war of the people. We felt as one
nation, fighting a common enemy. Americans of all different backgrounds
were thrown together in the military, although the armed forces were still
segregated until Korea. Now we have a war in Iraq about which thereís
really no sense of community involvement. Thereís approval or disapproval
ratings, but itís hardly on the radar of everyoneís daily life here. Itís
almost like the U.S. is running a business overseas or something.
Bob Herbert: I think thatís an extremely important point
because itís the opposite to the idea of a sense of community. If you
talk to ordinary citizens about this, to people who are doing well financially
and who are pretty well educated, say, to kids on college campuses who
are looking ahead to a career, they might have a feeling pro or con about
the war. But if you ask them if they would ever consider joining the service
and fighting in that war, the answer is invariably no. If you ask parents
who are reasonably well off whether they would allow their children to
go and fight in Iraq, the answer is absolutely no. Thatís one of the reasons
the military is having trouble meeting its recruitment goals. Parents
are saying, hey, my kid might go to Iraq and get killed in this thing.
No, weíre not going to encourage the kid to sign up for the military.
A lot of the young people who are off fighting in Iraq,
some doing two or three tours over there, are people who joined the service
or maybe the reserves or the National Guard to get an education, to get
a little bit of extra income Ė that sort of thing. They did not join up
with the idea that they would actually have to go off to the Middle East
and fight in a war like this. So you lose the sense of community. You
have a split between the people who are actually doing the hard work of
fighting the war, and then the people back home for whom, as you point
out, the war is just a peripheral issue at best.
BuzzFlash: One of the things that certainly gets our
goat is the young Republicans on campuses who tend to be rather militant
and radical, and will disrupt people who are anti-war, yet do not seem
to be volunteering to serve in Iraq.
Bob Herbert: Theyíre not volunteering to serve in Iraq,
and neither did many of our public officials who promoted this war. They
had an opportunity to fight for their country in Vietnam. They didnít
do that either. And it sort of gets my goat. Iím a veteran. I got drafted
during the big build-up to the war in Vietnam. Luckily, I did not get
sent to Vietnam. I went to Korea. But I lost a lot of friends in that
war. I saw the split, then, between the people who were drafted or enlisted
and had to fight the war, and the people who were able to get deferments.
I had friends on both sides of that divide.
War is something that is not just dangerous wherever youíre
fighting and dangerous for the troops involved. War is something that
wounds the spirit of the country here at home, and creates splits that
take an awful long time to heal. We saw that in Vietnam and Iím afraid
weíre going to see that again in Iraq.
BuzzFlash: Your book really brings home
the fact that weíve become increasingly fragmented. The Republicans now
are weighing whether they should try to suppress the filibuster in the
Senate. In Louisville, the Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, addressed
a group of religious fanatics who want the federal courts to adopt a Biblical
world view. That community believes it has a right to assert its very
doctrinaire, fundamentalist, Biblical vision of the American dream on
the rest of the country. To a certain extent, weíve already seen the fundamentalist
Biblical vision creeping in through the Bush Administration.
Bob Herbert: Well, I donít see that as a variation on
the American dream. I see it as an attack on the American dream. Whenever
I think of the American dream, I think in terms of tolerance. I think
in terms of making an attempt, even if itís not always successful, to
reach out to disparate groups, and try to find a common ground and bring
them together. And itís obviously not just on matters of race, but also
a matter of religion. This is a country that was founded because people
were fleeing religious oppression. Itís supposed to be a nation that stands
for religious tolerance.
The exploitation of religion by politicians and others flies in the face
of that, and I see that as a potential long-running tragedy for the United
States. If that kind of thing prevailed, it would be an indication to
me that the United States was losing its soul. That is something that
we just should not tolerate.
BuzzFlash: In Part 1 of your book there's a chapter called
ďChange the Channel,Ē where you talk about how weíve become an entertainment
society. Have we become such an entertainment society that we canít stop
being entertained long enough to recognize the reality, which is sometimes
a very sobering, difficult and sad one to deal with?
Bob Herbert: Itís a big problem. Itís impossible to deal
with solutions in terms of sound bites. What you need is bright people
of good will coming together and spending time attempting to fashion a
solution. But itís like the viewers expect you to pop an aspirin that
can make the solution just magically appear, or the problems go away,
like a headache is supposed to go away. But it doesnít work like that.
I think one reason so many people have succumbed to this thinking is because
of an absence of leadership, and that goes for the Democratic Party and
the Republican Party and the different groups in this country. I donít
think thereís been good political leadership for several years, and people
have been sold a bill of goods that there is a quick solution to these
very difficult problems. Thatís extremely dangerous.
Another problem is the vast ignorance that is afoot in the land. Many
Americans just do not understand the issues that affect them directly,
that affect them and their families. And so theyíre prone to follow leaders
who are frankly going to hoodwink them, who are going to sell them a bill
of goods and exploit them for whatever their reasons. Iíve just been watching
this go on for many years now. Itís one of the reasons we have these awful
tax policies that result in the transfer of wealth away from working people.
BuzzFlash: One of your colleagues at The New York
Times, David Cay Johnston, has written a book called Perfectly
Legal about how the income gap in this country has continued to widen
over thirty years into what is now basically a Grand Canyon.
Bob Herbert: It's like a return to
the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th Century. If I have this figure correct,
and I think itís correct, the top 1% in this country now have as much
wealth as the bottom 90% combined. That doesnít make a lot of sense to
BuzzFlash: And yet Bush is still claiming that the wealthy
are overburdened by taxes.
Bob Herbert: But Iíll tell you something. And hereís
where you can get to a sense of reality. Just think about the situation
of working people in this country a bit. And by working people, I include
middle-class families that have to go to work every day -- in most cases,
husbands and wives both. They are now mortgaged up to their ears. Their
credit cards are maxed out. They donít have much in the way of savings.
And because theyíve taken out so many mortgages with a low interest rate,
they donít have a lot of equity in their homes. So whatís the next step?
How are they prepared for any kind of a downturn in the economy or some
unfortunate event in their family? A lot of American families are really
traveling right along the edge.
BuzzFlash: In a series of your columns, which are included
in Promises Betrayed,
you championed the cause of a group of mostly African American citizens
in Tulia, Texas, who were rounded up by a white sheriff and then railroaded
into prison on drug trafficking charges. You were the person who turned
that around and helped expose the truth and attain justice. But you also
write about many other injustices in our justice system. We still have,
in some states, "three strikes youíre out," which means you
can be sent to prison for life for writing three bad ten-dollar checks.
But if youíre Ken Lay, youíre out on bail and living the life of Riley.
Corporate executives tend to get off. But if youíre poor and you steal
a candy bar three times, you go to jail for life. Is there some sort of
Bob Herbert: Thereís extreme inequality at the hands
of the criminal justice system, just as weíre getting increasing economic
inequality. Thatís something that seemed to have been turning around back
in the fifties and sixties, especially as a result of the Warren Court.
Those days are long gone, I believe.
I'll give you a quick example of some of the problems here.
In New York a few years ago, when Rudy Guiliani was Mayor, a Broadway
actor got arrested in the lobby of his apartment building during a "crime
crackdown." The cops just came in and swept up everybody in the lobby
and arrested them and took them downtown. But he hadnít done anything.
So, when I was doing a column, I called the spokesperson for the Police
Commissioner and asked why this guy was arrested? He hadnít done anything.
Did the police make a mistake or what? What went on? She said, ďWell,
we went in there and we decided we werenít sure what was going on. We
believed a crime had been committed, so we decided to arrest everybody
and sort it out later.Ē
Well, thatís not the way itís supposed to work in the United
States. They sorted it out later, and eventually the charges were dropped
against this guy. But if you fast-forward a few years, youíll see that
in terms of the detainees in the so-called terror cases we're doing the
same thing Ė we're making these vast sweeps, with the idea that weíll
sort it out later. But in the meantime, if youíre innocent and caught
in those sweeps, youíre locked up. You donít have access to an attorney.
You canít appeal the charges. You canít confront your accuser. Itís really
a terrible thing. And we found out that at Abu Ghraib, a majority of the
prisoners had not done anything wrong. Many of the people at Guantanamo
were not guilty of anything. So these things that may seem unimportant,
initially, lead to much bigger problems when you backslide on principles.
We really need to be more careful about these things.
BuzzFlash: Recently in New York it was revealed the police
arrested more than 400 people who didnít commit any crime. The police
said they had committed crimes, but the videotapes showed they didnít.
The police said, well, they were planning on it. They were intending to.
Bob Herbert: Isnít that something? Is that a little bit
frightening? And thatís New York, supposedly one of the most liberal cities
in this country. Whatís happened to us? Videotapes catch a number of these
things, but obviously not nearly enough. One of the things Iíve learned
from covering the criminal justice system over the years is the extent
to which police and prosecutors just flat-out lie about what went on.
People have been convicted and sent to prison who are just absolutely
innocent. And when people have been falsely imprisoned, the prosecutors
don't do anything about it.
BuzzFlash: I just want to mention the case of all the
activists who have been prevented from attending taxpayer-funded events
where Bush has been trying to sell Social Security.
Bob Herbert: Truly outrageous.
BuzzFlash: This goes back to the campaign of 2000, when
the events werenít taxpayer-funded, but they were public, and people were
arrested and excluded. One of the White House spokesmen is quoted in the
Washington Post as saying, well, we arenít going to let people in who
intend to protest and make this a disrespectful event. And the White House
blames it on "volunteers," although thereís just too much of
a pattern here for volunteers to keep making the same mistake. All the
White House has to do is ...
Bob Herbert: Oh, they could stop it easily.
BuzzFlash: Easily, but one of the so-called "Denver
Three" was excluded from an event apparently because someone spotted
a "No War For Oil" bumper sticker in the parking lot. He had
done nothing. And the White House said they have a right to exclude people
who intend to protest Ė like they can read their minds.
Bob Herbert: Itís incredible. You have a right to protest
in the United States, so you should not be precluded from political functions
just simply because you are protesting. But this administration is actually
going beyond that. Theyíre not only complaining about and attempting to
silence protesters. Theyíre complaining about anyone whoís in opposition.
If you just hold a different view, even if itís not a formal or active
protest, they would like to exclude you from the process. That is not
what the United States is supposed to be. If you follow this pattern to
its logical end, we become an absolutely different kind of country. Weíre
allegedly fighting these wars around the world in the name of freedom,
and at the same time, we are rolling back freedom right here at home in
the United States. We need to take care of whatís happening in terms of
freedom and democracy here.
BuzzFlash: Republican Senator Johnny Isakson (Georgia),
speaking on the floor of the Senate, said that he wasnít concerned about
the majority Shiites overrunning the Kurds in the Iraqi government Iraq
because a Kurdish leader had assured him that in their Parliament, they
had one tool that would ensure democracy -- ďa filibuster.Ē And he was
a Republican Senator, of course, who was going to vote for breaking down
our filibuster rule.
Bob Herbert: I had missed that. Thatís great. By the
way, on the filibuster issue, whatís really at stake in the filibuster
battle is the whole idea of retaining this concept of checks and balances
in the United States. Itís been a crucial aspect of the U.S. system established
by the forefathers. This Administration has tried to run roughshod over
the whole idea of checks and balances. I never thought that Iíd become
a champion of the filibuster, which was used to thwart civil rights legislation
back in the fifties and sixties. But the loss of the filibuster is emblematic
of the loss of the protections enshrined in the whole idea of checks and
BuzzFlash: Well, Karl Rove and Grover Norquist have indicated
they want a one-party state for at least four years. And we do have a
one-party national government.
Bob Herbert: Itís so clear that they want a one-party
state. Iím surprised that has not gotten much attention. Itís not like
thatís been a secret.
BuzzFlash: Getting back to this issue of the American
dream and community, to quote George Clooney in "O Brother, Where
Art Thou?," weíre in rather a tight spot here.
Bob Herbert: We are in a tight spot.
BuzzFlash: At BuzzFlash, for instance, we feel we are
the patriots and the real Constitutionalists. We view Antonin Scalia as
a right-wing activist who hopes to impose a narrow Christian view on a
constitution that guarantees the governed the right to form their own
government, in direct contrast to European governments which emanated
from divine right monarchies. How do you reconcile these divergent viewpoints
and rebuild our American community?
Bob Herbert: It seems to me that whatís happened is
that the people who are calling themselves conservative have actually
become the radicals in this society. Antonin Scalia is a good example.
The Bush Administration in general is a better example. Itís amazing to
me that folks at an organization like BuzzFlash are really standing up
for far more conservative principles Ė principles that are truly the cornerstone
of what this nation is.
BuzzFlash: Ainít it ironic?
Bob Herbert: Exactly. Just for a faint bit of hope --
and this may be wishful thinking on my part, but I hope itís true -- I
think maybe the right wingers, who I do not think are anywhere near a
majority in this country -- I think that their influence may have peaked
sometime soon after George Bushís reelection. They seem to have been on
somewhat of a downward slope since then. The Terri Schiavo case was a
political disaster. The President has not gotten traction on his Social
Security proposal Ė these so-called personal accounts. You see the Presidentís
approval numbers going down. You see people dissatisfied with the way
the economy is going.
I think thereís an opportunity for the other side to make
hay. Now, whether the Democrats -- which seem to be a terminally timid
party to me Ė whether they can take advantage of that, I donít know. But
I do think that the opportunity is there. I donít think this is a right-wing
nation. I donít think the public in general is in favor of most of the
policies and priorities of the Bush Administration. I think that, if the
other side fights a little harder and a little smarter, there may be a
chance to reverse what have been some significant losses over the past
BuzzFlash: Bob Herbert, thank you very much.
Bob Herbert: Thank you. I really enjoyed talking to you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream
by Bob Herbert