In Conversation

Katrina vanden Heuvel with Theodore Hamm

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is now both editor and publisher of the Nation. At the end of November, Rail editor Theodore Hamm sat down with her to discuss the state of the world, and the future of the Nation.

Theodore Hamm (Rail): Why do you think the war has suddenly blown up into an issue of political debate in the last month or so?

Katrina vanden Heuvel: I think the grinding brutality of it can’t be hidden, and more and more people understand that the war has undermined our security, that it had nothing to do with the “war on terror,” and that we’ve been misled and lied to. Then the hurricane and devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast ripped the veil off this administration’s competence. I think that tipped the scale. People are also beginning to understand that there is no military solution to this occupation. The more men and women die, and the more communities and families are affected, people begin to wake up and ask why? I can’t say it’s a tipping point yet, but I do think that you’re beginning to see alliances made between democratic hawks like John Murtha or Republicans like Walter Jones, for example, with progressive Democrats, who’ve understood all along that this was a debacle. And those alliances may lead to opening up the country on the issue.

Rail: Regarding your point about competence and the hurricane named after you (laughter), isn’t that similar to what mainstream Democrats say—that if they were in charge, they would manage this war more “competently,” and could win it?

Vanden Heuvel: I think from the beginning, this war was a travesty, it was illegal, immoral. The whole concept of preemptive war, of which this is a part, is illegal and destabilizing. So, of course, it’s not solely about competence. What I’m saying is that politically, people of all stripes can now see that this administration is incompetent. At The Nation, we’ve been arguing for a long time against the war on much deeper grounds and at a deeper level about the immorality of this war, the administration’s lying and more. But it’s the incompetence factor that, I think, tipped the scales in the country—possibly allowing a deeper argument to seep in. And it also opened up people’s eyes to George Bush’s lack of trustworthiness, lack of honesty. This is important, because so much of the support for Bush, I believe, had to do with the (wrongheaded) perception that he was resolute, that he was competent, that he was tough, and that he was trustworthy. And now that is sinking.

But I do think that the argument that if we could manage this war more competently, we could win it, is folly. Occupations—and this is not really a war now, it’s an occupation—are by their very nature unwinnable. These arguments are more difficult to make, not only in the wasteland of sound-bites of mainstream television, but even on the best op-ed pages of the “liberal media.” I mean the Washington Post is possibly more dangerous than the Wall Street Journal, because it legitimizes the view that the war can be won—if we only trained more Iraqi troops. With the Wall Street Journal, you know where it’s coming from, but the Washington Post represents the establishment.

Rail: And The Washington Post quickly came out against Murtha’s position. What do you think of Murtha’s stance?

Vanden Heuvel: I think he’s an honest man, and I think what moved him—and I say moved him—is an emotional response to what he sees in his own district, because he comes from a state which, after California and Texas, I believe, has more casualties, more men and women maimed, than any other. I think it’s an honest position. I suspect Murtha is also speaking for many in the military who are furious because they’ve been stretched thin by these neocons, like five-deferment Cheney. However, Murtha doesn’t fully reflect the position of those who believe that we must also make sure that the Iraqis are given back their country with a measure of aid and reconstruction assistance—that we can’t just walk away. This is more the left position, a human rights position, if you will: that there must be an understanding of, a reckoning with, what we’ve done to ravage the Iraqi country, its people, women and children, that we need to participate with international institutions in helping to rebuild and reconstruct the country in non-Halliburton, non-corrupt ways. Murtha just wants to pull out. Okay. What is essential, at this moment, is that he is a barometer for those in America who may not share The Nation’s politics on a range of issues, but who believe that the military’s stretched thin, that we’ve done our mission, and it’s time to come home.

Rail: The Nation recently took a powerful stand in its cover editorial about the war, stating that it wouldn’t support Democrats who refused to call for a “speedy withdrawal.” So where does that leave you with Hillary in 2006?

Vanden Heuvel: Well, first of all, our endorsement of Kerry in 2004 was less an endorsement of the candidate. at the very top, we criticized his stance on the war, for example. it was more about telling people to vote against Bush because we cared deeply about defending our imperiled democracy. So in terms of Hillary Clinton, we’re not naïve; we understand that she is very likely going to win in 2006. On the other hand, The Nation might consider taking the principled stand of endorsing her opponent in the Democratic primary—as we did in 1988, by the way, when we endorsed Jesse Jackson, in New York’s Presidential primary. But Hillary may change. She is already moving, shift-shaping, following the pressures of public opinion. Look at her recent statements about the war. Hillary is a shrewd politician, and she can read the writing is on the wall. But the question remains: is this a time for tactics, ducking, hiding, biting one’s tongue, biding one’s time—or is it a time that cries out for passionate and bold leadership?

Rail: But Hillary did come out against Murtha’s position.

Vanden Heuvel: Who knows? There are still several months and weeks ahead in the 2006 campaign. At the same time, The Nation, if it took a stance, would be very cautious. First of all, we’d be very critical of her long-term stance, while recognizing that she may have shifted. I think that there are people who feel that if a politician didn’t oppose the war from the outset, they’re never going to support that person. But my view is that politics is about organizing and moving politicians to take certain stances.

Rail: But if she dramatically changes her stance on the war, doesn’t she then run the risk of being called a flip-flopper?

Vanden Heuvel: You know, Bobby Kennedy evolved. There are other examples. One of the reasons I did this little Dictionary of Republicanisms—a satirical guide to Republican doublespeak—was to skewer, with satire, the deceptions, lies of the GOP spinmeisters who come up with terms like “flip-flopper.” I mean, what is flip-flopper? In republican dictionary land it’s a noun: “one who understands that certain issues are complex, with no black-or-white answers.” In any case, I guarantee you that the Clinton war room can deal with charges of being called a flip-flopper. They would never have let those swift-boating thugs go unanswered for days on end. Of course, I want politicians who are principled and passionate and progressive, but I also think that part of what politics is about is to make clear to politicians that they will face a penalty —if they abdicate principle, go for pay-to-play politics—from strong, organized constituencies. Now, fortunately, our organizing is getting more effective—though we still need to get stronger and more powerful.

Rail: What if the Democrats’ general strategy is just to let the Republicans self-destruct?

Vanden Heuvel: I think that’s a cynical strategy. There has to be some smart political thinking about how you can both hold this administration accountable and watch it self-destruct, while proposing a sensible way out. But listen, if the Democratic leadership continues to sit back and let the administration self-destruct, The Nation will continue to hold that leadership accountable. Part of what The Nation is all about is a belief that there is a morality to politics. After all, we were founded by abolitionists who in their day were considered too extreme, because there were more incremental steps to be taken at that time to end slavery. We still refuse to concede that idealism is irrelevant and we take seriously the power of ideas, of conviction, of conscience, of fighting for causes lost—and found. Maybe that’s one reason we’re the oldest weekly of political opinion in America!

Rail: What’s your analysis of why John Kerry’s campaign failed?

Vanden Heuvel: I don’t buy the argument that it was largely about moral values. In fact, there’s been a great deal of literature and argument about how that’s not the case. I think that what we were talking about earlier, this sense that George Bush was resolute, decisive, a man of faith who would keep us secure—that played a large role in the election. And at that time, largely due to the lies of this administration and a media that was intimidated by a White House that labeled its critics traitors, used fear to make its case for war and which worked assiduously to silence opposition, rebellious, questioning voices, a majority of Americans still linked 9/11 to Iraq. So George W. Bush was “the Man who was going to wage the War on Terror most effectively.” I’m also sad to say—as a woman—that the gender gap that has usually favored Democrats, didn’t work well last election. There was this new group of security moms who went for George W. Bush. And finally, there was the rightwing “counter-cultural” movement that was going on in the mega-churches and with the cynical use of wedge issues. That’s where some of the morality political action was strong. And, unfortunately, even with a lot of new organizing work, progressives didn’t have an effective counter—that is, organizations, civic groups with deep local roots in communities—in ways the labor movement used to have. And then the right-wing, wedge morality message was not countered effectively by a strong economic populist message—which I still believe is the most effective answer against the right’s cynical use of “Gods, Guns and Gays.” We desperately need a strong economic message, which the Democratic leadership doesn’t really have. Then, of course, there was the flip-flopper charge, which we were talking about. Sure, it had some truth to it; but it was also a manipulated message, developed by Karl Rove and GOP spinmeisters. The end result: the perception that John Kerry was not going to be resolute was not going to be decisive, would not be an adequate defender of this country. And then there was that ugly month in august when the GOP smeared Kerry—a war hero—with the swift-boat charges—charges which were abetted by too many in the media. There was very little done to counter those lies—another measure of the Kerry campaign’s ineffectiveness. In the end, however, the vote showed a very divided country in a very close election. Kerry got more votes than Gore did.

Rail: Many people have said that one of the bright sides about the 2004 campaign was that it showed the emergence of a new progressive infrastructure, in terms of both activism and media. Where does The Nation fit in? Now that you’re Publisher as well, you’ve said that you have a sort of blueprint for the future.

Vanden Heuvel: Well, I’ve just returned from Russia, where five-year plans didn’t help that country all that much! So in terms of blueprints, I am not quite sure (laughter). But I do think this is 1964 for the progressive movement. After the Goldwater defeat, the conservative movement began to rethink its strategy. Part of the right’s long-term building involved the support of institutions, think tanks, the work of magazines like the National Review, which was really putting forth bold ideas that at the time might not have seemed politically viable. This is a moment for The Nation to be independent and bold. We should seek to unshackle our readers’(and other people’s) imaginations. Provide ideas and strategies and dispatches and lessons and hope (with some verve and voice). Open our pages to provocative, smart, creative ideas—ones that aren’t necessarily tested or tempered by electoral calculations but emerge from independent thought and imagination. Articulate concepts around with movements might rally—or even be built—connecting to movements and their members and the energy there. All the while, my hope is that our ideas, our reporting helps influence and shape the national debate, agenda, future. I wake up every morning, somewhat slowed by the outrages on the front pages and on various listservs and blogs, but then charged up to help make this a country we can be proud to live in.

I also care about making sure that The Nation is read by people in political power. Not necessarily in Washington, because I think a lot of the action today is in the states—an ironic twist for progressives, who used to resist states’ power. But I really do think that we’ve returned to a moment where many states are once again laboratories for democracy. For example, progressives can do some things at the state level, whether it’s increasing minimum wage, getting through clean money campaign finance reform, building the Apollo Alliance—a terrific coalition between enviros and labor around creating good jobs and developing renewable, alternative energy.

Rail: So you see The Nation as both an ideas magazine as well as a nexus of activism.

Vanden Heuvel: Ideas, policy, activism, reporting, investigative reporting, as well as cultural pieces, reviews, writing. I hope people understand that about a third of this magazine, every week, is a very well edited, fascinating, cultural section, featuring reviews to people’s of the big books as well as some of the under-appreciated, under-the-radar, independent books and films and art. But the main part of The Nation is to put on the agenda the ideas and views and news that might not otherwise be there, to comment—from our perspective—on the news of the week—and to provide strategies and some measure of hope in these times.

Rail: What about in terms of style, in terms of both layout and writing? Do you foresee The Nation changing in distinct ways in the next few years?

Vanden Heuvel: Yes, more visual elements (we introduced “Comix Nation” earlier this year,) more voice, younger voices, more investigative reporting, because newspapers are retrenching in this area, more on the intersection of culture and politics, more reporting on the media, the impact of blogs on our society. More coverage of the left in the world, and how we might form transnational coalitions. Next year (2006) marks the tenth anniversary of our first centerfold, depicting “the national entertainment state” and the big media oligopolies and the impact of conglomeratization on the news we get. We plan to do a tenth anniversary reprise of this feature. We’re also ramping up our website, developing a magazine blog, with several provocative voices, and even adding a studentnation site in early 2006—with articles and blogs from student papers around the country.

Rail: Do you see yourself as having any particularly special role as a prominent woman on the left?

Vanden Heuvel: You know, it’s funny, I was just thinking today with what is going on in the blogosphere in terms of a gender gap. The sexism that we see in some of the media’s is replicated in this blogosphere. In general, I would like to see more women editing and publishing major publications, more women columnists (with Naomi Klein, Katha Pollitt and Patricia Williams, the nation has the most powerful bloc of women columnists in America!). We also need more women on our TV screens as serious commentators and reporters, and on our radios. I’d also like to bring more women into this magazine writing about a range of subjects. But I don’t come to work everyday—

Rail: And play Helen Reddy? (laughter).

Vanden Heuvel: Actually, I do play Helen Reddy and Gloria Gaynor on my iPod—I am woman, I will survive. And Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin—“ Respect” is my personal anthem. My 14-year old daughter, a basketball player—she’s just become the youngest member of her high school varsity team— is a great role model. But the economic situation for women in this country hasn’t improved much, and there is still a divide in the women’s movement in terms of race and class. I do have doubts about the White House Project, which is dedicated to getting a woman in the white house. I wouldn’t want to see an American Margaret Thatcher there. Or Condi Rice for that matter. I’d rather support a progressive man than a woman who is against reproductive rights, who is supportive of the war in Iraq and against national healthcare. On the other hand, I do believe that until there is a critical mass of women in elected office, at all levels, it’s hard to craft a real progressive politics.

Contributor

Theodore Hamm

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