Front Page With a Human Face
More novelist than political analyst or journalist in his understanding of his subjects, Kempton sees both Chambers and Hiss as victims of the "shabby gentility" of the world they grew up in, a class illuminated by Ellen Glasgow's novel The Sheltered Life. After reading it, Kempton "began to wonder whether Hiss and Chambers were not products of a private rather than a social passion."
With irony and self-questioning, Kempton did cast a cold eye on his time, saying "there was less kindness, justice, and brotherhood in the radicals of the thirties than in any other group of radicals in our history.... We were only part of our time; it was our illusion that we were the most important part, but most Americans knew that we were not, and they were right."
He has little patience for the "new breed of radical" he saw in Lee Pressman, the lawyer who "says he left the Party a year after he joined it," although "he responded to its tug" throughout most of his career, as counsel to John L. Lewis and Philip Murray of the CIO. Kempton describes Pressman as being like a character in Dostoyevsky's The Possessed: "His language was the language of operations; he burned not nor blazed about the goal; he offered only to tell you how to get there.... He seemed blessed as though born without innocence; he looked pure function."
Kempton's affection is saved for "the old breed of radical" represented by Gardner Jackson (who is contrasted with Pressman), who started as a reporter at the Boston Globe, was radicalized by the Sacco/ Vanzetti trial, worked briefly for the New Deal, then for John L. Lewis and the CIO until he was told by Pressman he cared too much for individuals rather than the movement, and, besides, he was now too old. He started over as Washington correspondent for the newspaper PM and later was invited back to the CIO by Philip Murray.
Holding up Jackson as a model of "the old breed of radical," Kempton writes that it was "a breed that knew disaster and pain and bereavement. But after all they were the disasters of others, and they had passed; and there were new endeavors and fresh disasters, because they are the way of life, and the art of life is to save enough of yourself from every disaster to begin again in something like your old image."
I know those words by heart, for when Part of Our Time was published in 1955, my freshly minted college-grad friends and I in New York were all avid Kempton fans (we read his column religiously in the Post), and we absorbed his book as if it were Holy Writ, referring to it with self-mocking solemnity as "The Good Book." Kempton was only 38 at the time, but we took his words as the guidance of a wise elder--one who was still young enough to stir the idealism that moved us. We resented the boring label of "Silent Generation," finding our own activism and idols in Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, in the young clergy of the storefront churches of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, in the protests and demonstrations against the civil defense drills alleged to protect us against atomic attack by hiding us out in the subways, and the inspiring if doomed campaigns of Adlai Stevenson that caught the imagination of the millions of Americans who did not like Ike.
Max Frankel, former executive editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, denies the accuracy of the denigrating dog tag hung on those of us who came of age in the fifties: "pop historians notwithstanding, we were not a 'silent generation.'" (Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post has called the description "a libel.") In his new autobiography Frankel points out that as editor of The Columbia Daily Spectator in 1952 (three years before Kempton's book was published), he and his staff wrote editorials exposing the university's hypocrisy in trying to ban radical speakers, urged a boycott of fraternities practicing racial or religious discrimination, and didn't like Ike for putting his political ambitions above his duties as our university's president (when he ran for US President,Spectator strongly endorsed Stevenson).
As a sophomore cub reporter at the time, I was not only in awe of Frankel for his editorship of "Spec" but even more for his position as campus correspondent for the New York Times, a lofty position that I thought explained his being the only student I knew who seemed always to wear a suit and tie. His own "Spec" editor, Dave Wise, thought Frankel was more suited to be Columbia's Times correspondent and took the Herald Tribune position for himself: "Dave had already cast me as the more Timesian by temperament, a judgment that I stuffily took to be a compliment." Frankel was still trying to shake the stuffy image when he became executive editor of the Times in 1986: "I could bubble with genuine excitement about the triumphs of the New York Mets, which must have helped to offset my unfair reputation as a sober intellectual."
The combination of Frankel's dauntingly formal image and his long devotion to the Times as "a unique institution whose success I had come to regard as a patriotic cause," sounds like the formula for a stiff, close-to-his-Timesian-vest memoir, an official record of life at the paper known by the adjectives "good" and "gray." Happily, the more unbuttoned Frankel emerged to give us a strong, colorful, surprisingly intimate look at the paper and its former editor and star reporter.