In RFK: A Memoir, the finest of the shelf full of books he produced during a career that was as prolific as it was meaningful, Jack Newfield succeeded in explaining the late Robert F. Kennedy better than any of the late New York senator’s many biographers. “Part of him was soldier, priest, radical, and football coach. But he was none of these,” wrote Newfield, who had chronicled his subject’s transition from President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s “first-brother” to presidential candidate in his own right. “He was a politician. His enemies said he was consumed with selfish ambition, a ruthless opportunist exploiting his brother’s legend. But he was too passionate and too vulnerable ever to be the cool and confident operator his brother was.”
With Newfield’s death Monday night at age 66, there will be a search for the words to describe the late journalist. In the end, if that search is successful, it will find its way back to the words that Newfield employed to describe Kennedy.
Newfield, who most of us came to know as the star reporter for New York’s Village Voice newspaper from the 1960s to the 1980s, and who most recently was a regular contributor to The Nation, had many passions – from boxing to baseball to civil rights and civil liberties. But the thing I loved best about Jack Newfield was that he loved politics. When he described Kennedy as a politician, he was not dismissing the man whose majestic 1968 presidential campaign he chronicled in an up-close-and-personal fashion that put the reporter just a short distance away from the scene where that campaign – and so many of the hopes of Newfield’s decade, the 1960s – were dashed. Rather, Newfield was honoring Kennedy, about whom the reporter would say, “Though it’s really unknowable, I think that if Bobby had lived to be president we would have ended the Vietnam War much sooner, renewed the war on poverty; we would have had a totally different policy toward blacks than Richard Nixon had.”
All of those things mattered to Newfield, whose progressive passions were never obscured by his reporter’s pen and notepad. Like all great reporters, he knew that slogans like “fair-and-balanced” were merely camouflage for laziness and the lie of relativism. The point was to get at the truth. And Newfield knew that the most important arena in which to go seeking for truth, in all its ugliness and glory, was the political fray.
Newfield understood that politics ought to be a noble endeavor. Yet, he recognized that it seldom was. He had a facility for spotting both the failings of those who gave politics its bad name — especially those of the political bosses of Brooklyn and Queens — and the potential of those who sought to redeem the enterprises of electioneering and governing. And he saw redemption in participatory democracy; among the final articles by this veteran of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s was an optimistic report on the increasingly important role that African-American voters would play in the 2004 election.
One of Newfield’s last endeavors was the editing of a pair of books of essays, American Rebels and American Monsters. Newfield was on the side of the rebels. He celebrated them when they were beating the monsters in the 1960s, and when they were frequently beaten by those same monsters in the decades that followed.
Jack Newfield saw a world of heroes and villains, and he recognized that when they battled in the political arena it was the job of the journalist to go beyond merely reporting. He understood that the search for truth led, ultimately, to the point where the journalist had to take a side. He took the side of civil rights marchers, of anti-poverty crusaders, of reformers and radicals who believed that the promise of social and economic equity would be made real if the better angels of the American experiment could only be awoken by an article or a book. And so he wrote, passionately, powerfully and with a faith in the potential of a word well chosen to change the world.
Jack Newfield defined journalism for this reporter, and for thousands of others. His passing robs the craft not just of an able practitioner, but of a man who taught the rest of us that the combination of pen and ink could produce the rarest of all commodities: truth, and sometimes justice.