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Front Page With a Human Face | The Nation

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Front Page With a Human Face

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Back in the fifties, before the term "new journalism" was coined, back when Gay Talese was writing minor obituaries for the New York Times, Tom Wolfe was a grad student at Yale and Joan Didion came out of Berkeley to serve as a college guest editor at Mademoiselle, Murray Kempton was contributing a fresh, personal, novelistic style of writing about current events and characters three times a week in the columns of the New York Post. Kempton would have been the last to call what he did "journalism" of any variety (much less "new"), for he scorned the term as pretentious, preferring the plain, old-fashioned--and to him more honorable--designation "reporter."

About the Author

Dan Wakefield
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By the same token, he eschewed the title "columnist," though his columns in the Post and, later, in Newsday made him famous and even revered in his profession and earned him the Pulitzer Prize. Rather than observe the world from his office and spin lofty opinions in the manner of traditional columnists, Kempton took to the streets (on foot, by cab and, in later years, on his bicycle), assigning himself stories, covering courtrooms, political campaigns, union elections, papal politics, gang wars, mob rivalries and jazz and sports events (his pieces on boxer Archie Moore and New York Giants pitcher Sal Maglie are classics), salting them with literary references. He might quote the likes of Yeats to illuminate the ways of mobsters and Ford Madox Ford to explain internecine union wars. At the Teamsters convention I covered for The Nation that elected Jimmy Hoffa president, Murray assured me that the only way to truly understand the proceedings was to read literary critic Robie Macauley's introduction to Parade's End.

Kempton won the 1974 National Book Award in contemporary affairs for his book on the Black Panthers, The Briar Patch: The People of the State of New York vs. Lumumba Shakur et al., and he published two collections of columns (America Comes of Middle Age and Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events), but I believe that Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (which, happily, has been reissued by the Modern Library) will stand as his major and lasting contribution to the literature of journalism and the history of this country.

Kempton called the ten chapters of the book "a series of novellas which happen to be about real persons"--people who were, like Kempton himself, swept up in the passions of their time and became radicalized, people like Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, the Reuther brothers, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, the writers of the Hollywood Ten, the "Rebel Girls" like Elizabeth Bentley and Anne Moos Remington, and all those during that decade, from Ivy League students to dockworkers, poets to grape pickers, who created "the myth of the nineteen thirties." Kempton says, "The heart of the myth of the thirties was that there were no neutrals," but the reality he sees looking back from the fifties is that "most people are neutral." Kempton is concerned with the committed minority who wanted to count and be counted, who could not live on the sidelines: "The dustbin of history was, to the revolutionary of the thirties, what Hell was to the Maine farmer."

Known for his compassion for the underdog and the defeated, Kempton had a special feeling for the "ruins" as well as the "monuments" he writes about, for he too was caught up in what he calls the myth of his time: "I have my own stake in the thirties. I was in high school when Roosevelt was inaugurated; I belonged for a little while to the Young Communist League, and thereafter to the Socialist party." He makes clear that he is not the objective journalistic observer but that "the eye which I bring to this inquiry is neither as cold nor as detached as I might wish it to be."

He does not, however, romanticize the faith he briefly adopted: "I cannot conceal the sense that those of my subjects who became Communists were terribly flawed by their acceptance of a gospel which had no room in it for doubt or pity or mercy, and that, clutching its standard, it was inevitable that so many would set out to be redeemers and end up either policemen or the targets of policemen."

Perhaps because he wrote so openly about his tenure in the Young Communist League, Kempton was never called before the primary witch-hunting tribunals of the era, the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joe McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation. Or maybe they sensed that his testimony would bring them more trouble than reward, for he made clear his position in the introduction to this book:

The thirties were a part of my life like any other; I am aware that there are things in it for which I must apologize; I am also aware that in the whole of my life, there will be many things for which I must apologize, under what have to be compulsions stronger than a Congressional subpoena.

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.

Frankel pulls no punches--especially against his editorial predecessor and rival, A.M. "Abe" Rosenthal, who may have been a "masterful foreign correspondent" but whose manner as editor was "too often confrontational or condescending." (Rosenthal is now a columnist on the Times Op-Ed page.) Frankel reports that when Rosenthal was faced with "his executive mortality," he concluded his reign "in a Lear-like tempest." One of publisher Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger's orders to Frankel as the new editor was to "make the newsroom a happy place again," which he followed by determining to be "not-Abe."

Nor is Rosenthal the only colleague to feel the sharpness of Frankel's pen: The venerable Arthur Krock was "the pompous head of The Times Washington bureau," Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty "a brilliant but callous self-promoter," former Sunday editor Lester Markel an "often abusive boss," while correspondent R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr. had fallen prey to "pomposity and gluttony" before Frankel as editor "welcomed the challenge of reigniting his career." As I read such characterizations I began to wonder if this was indeed Max Frankel's autobiography or an updated version of Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the Power.

Frankel also deftly skewers non-Timesians such as former mayor Ed Koch, whose letters "rebutting even the most trivial imputations of error" were "Herzogian missives that had to be judiciously answered because all would be reprinted in his self-satisfying memoirs." Always the balanced reporter, however, Frankel doesn't spare himself hard judgments, admitting to being envious of Washington bureau chief Tom Wicker and lamenting "my own swelling sense of importance" in the heady days of JFK's Washington.

The main heroes of the story are Frankel's mentor, James "Scotty" Reston, "the most admired newspaperman of the day," who had "perfected his colorful, probing style as a sportswriter and war correspondent," and publisher "Punch," a "wise and witty" man who defended his editor and never asked him to bend to the complaints of any advertiser or concerns other than what was newsworthy.

What was "newsworthy" changed as the patriotic press stance of World War II--withholding news that might hurt or reflect badly on the government--was slowly altered. The alleged "newspaper of record" omitted from its pages knowledge it had of our U-2 spy flights over the Soviet Union under Eisenhower, preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion under Kennedy and JFK's plan for blockading Cuba in the missile crisis. Vietnam brought the first refusal of the Times to honor the government's cover-ups. The paper refused JFK's demand that it take David Halberstam out of the war zone (for his negative dispatches); when the coup against Diem occurred, the Times printed on page one Frankel's exposé of government dissembling. In March 1971, when Neil Sheehan brought Frankel "a brown paper bag containing a small sample of the Pentagon Papers," Frankel was instrumental in gaining Sulzberger's support to publish them.

Frankel won the Pulitzer for his coverage of Nixon in China, rising in good old "Front Page" fashion to the President's "petty vendetta" against the Times (one of his many enemies), which was allotted but a single seat on the press plane to Beijing, a slight that "unwittingly stoked all my reportorial embers." Frankel covered events all day and wrote all night, with only an hour or two of sleep. Trying to compete with television, he devised "another kind of article that has since become a staple of Times coverage: a 'Reporter's Notebook' that mixed informal observation and commentary in ways not usually countenanced in conventional newswriting."

This was the kind of "new journalism" (though Frankel doesn't use the term) that had made Kempton's columns famous in the fifties, and that former Timesman Talese pioneered in Esquire in the sixties and inspired Tom Wolfe. After bringing this style to the formerly stolid, gray pages of The Times, Frankel "became more certain than ever that full and fair newswriting not only allowed but required a deft weave of fact and analysis, drama and humor."

He promoted less conventional news as worthy of page one--subjects that would have shocked the good, gray paper of old, such as trends in country music, changing hemlines and the "voice mail" revolution. The starchy Times had seemed appropriate for the fifties, when I felt it only right that their Columbia correspondent dress like a diplomat, matching the stately columns of the "paper of record." (It also seemed right that Kempton's adventurous prose appear in the casual format of the tabloid Post.) By the eighties, the Times and times were ripe for a Mets-rooting editor like Frankel, who wanted to tear down "the artificial wall between 'facts' and their meaning."

His own best writing is on display at the opening of this book, a harrowing tale of his family's escape from Nazi Germany against all odds that reads as much like a novella as any of Kempton's true stories in Part of Our Time. Joan Didion has said that Kempton's book should be required reading in all journalism schools; I agree, and I would add to that list of essential texts The Times of My Life.

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