Columnist voices opinion on U.S. condition

Journalist Bob Herbert advocated for building up the country's infrastructure, both literal and figurative, in Tuesday's University Lecture.

Before former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert spoke Tuesday night, he paused for brief introspection before sternly addressing the crowd at Hendricks Chapel.

“It’s customary to start a talk like this with a couple of jokes, but there’s nothing funny about what’s going on in the United States,” Herbert said.

In his hour-long speech, Herbert analyzed major issues plaguing the world’s foremost superpower, from crumbling political infrastructure to actual physically degrading roads and bridges. He also discussed other major sticking points such as a “Rambo-esque” foreign policy and fledgling public education system.

Photo: Elizabeth Reyes
In his lecture titled "Wounded Colossus," Herbert spoke about the major issues plaguing the United States.

More from Bob Herbert

  • Video interview with Herbert
  • Replay of live updates from Tuesday's lecture
  • Herbert, a columnist for 18 years at The New York Times and previously a reporter and editor at the New York Daily News, walked away from the Times in March to pursue an activist career with progressive think-tank organization Demos. He’s also working on a new book, "Wounded Colossus," about the current issues facing the country.

    Herbert shared the lead anecdote from his upcoming book, about a 31-year-old Minnesotan woman plunged from a bridge after it collapsed underneath her Ford Escort. He said these issues that go unnoticed, such as cracks in roadwork and architecture, could have grave consequences for Americans.

    “We’ve got to stop inflicting those wounds on ourselves,” Herbert said.

    But most prominently, Herbert urged the crowd to be active in political and social issues. Indifference and passive behavior isn't helping anyone, he said.

    He also said democracy is built on these principles and needs to work its way from the bottom up. The only way change can occur is if the American people “fight” for it, Herbert said.

    “It’s about sounding the alarm about the injustices of our society,” Herbert said. “Just like the women’s rights and gay rights movements, we need to fight to secure fair treatment.”
    The theme of the night was activism –- across all platforms -- the main factor in Herbert’s departure from the Times’ editorial page. But the transition from bi-weekly opinion page condemnations to longform, narrative storytelling in his work-in-progress book helped him ignite Americans’ passion for its glaring issues.

    One of those pressing issues remains the perceived and, in Herbert’s opinion, evident, inactivity of Congress. He recalled an article he wrote on John Boehner (R-OH) handing out lobbyist checks from tobacco companies on the floor of the House during a speech, and the hypocrisy in the highest levels of government.

    “They talk about institutions are too big to fail, then talk about how they can’t extend unemployment benefits,” he said.

    Boehner, currently Speaker of the House, wasn’t the only official Herbert targeted in government. Though Herbert echoed President Barack Obama’s sentiment of peaceful disagreement, he took issue with Obama’s passive nature toward racial issues.

    “If you won’t go to bat for the right of our fellow citizens to vote, then what are you willing to go to bat for?” he said.

    Herbert admitted he’s a history buff. Looking back at history has taught him, if nothing else, that change takes time to develop, but that the lack of change in the short term shouldn’t discourage people from activism.

    “The kind of changes I think the country needs are going to take an awfully long time to bring about,” Herbert said.

    And though some of his responses to questions were drawn out, Herbert said it just comes natural to him.

    “Be careful when you ask a former columnist if he has an opinion,” Herbert said, cracking a smile.


    We had a one-on-one chat with Bob Herbert, former op-ed columnist of the The New York Times and national correspondent of NBC. Known as "the conscience of The New York Times" for shining a spotlight on societal injustices, Herbert's working on a book entitled "Wounded Colossus" about the greatest challenges facing the United States today. Produced for by Jessica Cunnington with host Katrina Tulloch and production assistants Theodore Rysz III and Julia Palmer.

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