Bob Herbert had no childhood dreams of becoming a journalist. As he explained in a recent interview, he grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, in an African American family that he once described as “working-class with a middle-class sensibility.” In the early 1960s he joined the family upholstery business and made good money—enough to buy a coveted Thunderbird while he was still in high school. But then the US government drafted Herbert and sent him to Korea (instead of Vietnam, thank goodness), where he worked in military intelligence. When he returned home, he decided he wanted to be a journalist, and, apparently, (my aspiring writer students will blanch to read this), all he had to do was call the New Jersey Star Ledger. It helped that he was super smart.
Herbert moved up quickly in the newspaper world. He went from the Star Ledger to the New York Daily News, where he was a reporter and then an editor. In 1992, he started an eighteen-year stint writing a bi-weekly column for The New York Times. During this period, he also worked in television, as a founding panelist of Sunday Edition in New York. He was also a national correspondent for NBC in the early 1990s and a regular guest on The Today Show and NBC Nightly News.
Throughout his career, and especially at The New York Times, Herbert became known as a champion of ordinary people, especially working people, black people, women, the impoverished, and the downtrodden. Famed NYT columnist William Sapphire used to tease him: “How are the people doing this week?”
But Herbert did not see himself as on the “working-class” beat or the “race” beat. He was simply writing out of the concerns that he had always had, concerns that grew organically out of his own life experience: “I have always thought about the concerns, desires, and aspirations of working people: poor, middle-class, working-class. Isn’t it funny that we have a separate category for poverty? Aren’t poor people also working people?”
But Herbert was conscious of filling one key gap at the Times. He noticed that for the most part, “the press tended to cover issues and events from the perspective of people in power.” By contrast, he explained, “I always tried to [do the opposite].” Instead, Herbert focused on “the victims of crime, victims of the system, victims of racism.” Anyone stuck with the “short end of the stick.”
Herbert also noticed that newspapers and their readers were practically allergic to talking about class: “We talk very seldom about class is this country, because class is so entwined with race…People are very uncomfortable talking about one for fear that it will lead to the other.”
In 2011, Herbert stepped down from the Times and went to work for Demos, a public policy organization whose name means “the people” and which works for an America “where we all have an equal say in our democracy and…in our economy.” For the last several years Herbert has also been working on a book, which, he jokes, is about the least sexy word in English: infrastructure. Originally titled Wounded Colossus, a reference to Emma Lazarus’s Statue of Liberty poem, “A New Colossus,” Herbert’s book is now called Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America.
Infrastructure may not be sexy, but it is fundamental: we depend on the safety of our roads and bridges, the cleanliness of our water and air, the functionality of our energy grid, and the efficacy of our public schools. Herbert argues that we used to take pride in building up our infrastructure, as when the Tennessee Valley Authority brought water and electricity to millions in the South, or when the WPA improved bridges, roads, parks, and trails, or when Eisenhower gave us the interstate highway system we still enjoy today. How did we lose our way? And what has been (and what will be) the human cost?
Losing Our Way tells, as promised, some gripping and intimate stories about people for whom our de-investment in infrastructure has been catastrophic. Herbert introduces us to Mercedes Gordon, a young woman, recently promoted at work and engaged to the love of her life, who suffered life-changing injuries when she drove over the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis as it was collapsing. In telling Gordon’s story Herbert highlights our failure to invest in our roads and bridges, lamenting that we know how to fix them and we can afford to but that “[w]e just don’t.”
We also meet an Afghanistan war veteran, Dan Berschinski, who lost both legs when he and his platoon stepped on a land mine in Kandahar Province. An irony emerges as Herbert meditates on how war impacts our national spending. As the theorist Elaine Scarry has noted, we think of killing as the goal of war. But Scarry argues that the “central activity of war is injuring and the central goal of war is to out-injure the opponent.” Given our devastating wars in the Middle East, with more than 50,000 soldiers wounded, as our veterans age and worsen, the war will cost exponentially more as time wears on. Herbert points out that the most expensive year of WWI compensations payments, for a war that ended in 1918, was 1969!
Herbert ties these very personal stories to a more collective story about a group of parent activists in Pittsburgh, PA, and especially blogger Jessie B. Ramey, who has led the demand for the return of state education cuts on her blog and in the streets since the January of 2012. Herbert explains that the 1 billion in education cuts in Pennsylvania were part of a national trend of education defunding in the wake of the great recession. But Herbert also makes a metaphorical connection between his other stories and the story of education activism. If Gordon and Berschinski lost their actual legs in their devastating accidents, the education cuts, in Ramey’s words, were similarly catastrophic: “They were cutting the legs out from under our system and we knew we had to fight back.”
But how does focusing on the crumbling American infrastructure highlight issues of class? Herbert reminds us that fixing infrastructure problems creates jobs. The New America Foundation, Herbert points out, shows that 1.2 trillion dollars of infrastructure investment would create at least 5 million new jobs—more than all the jobs created since the start of the great recession. Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve lost nearly 30,000 teachers and other school personnel to Governor Tom Corbett’s education cuts.
If you are anywhere within driving distance of Pittsburgh this week, you can see Bob Herbert in person and buy a signed copy of his new book. Herbert is launching his national book tour in Pittsburgh, and those of us who have been fighting for public education, along with many others, will be there to hear his message, and, equally exciting, to see our own movement for education justice featured in his book.
Herbert is one of the few opinion leaders with a national platform who understands that “[o]rdinary people in America are not heard, and that’s insane, when we’ve come through this communication revolution.” Herbert hopes that “readers will see themselves in the stories about people who are struggling, and who are learning how to fight back.”
Herbert’s message is ultimately one of hope: we may have lost our way, but we’re not utterly broken. We can, and we must, through democratic action, make our wounded colossus new again!
Kathy M. Newman