Our friend Jack Newfield, who died on December 20, was a fight fan. Although his heart was with the peace movement, his love for this violent sport was appropriate in a number of ways. First and foremost because he was himself a fighter–for the dispossessed, the underdog, the underclass; against racism, anti-Semitism, corruption, the powers that be.
Second, he wasn’t merely a fighter; he was an infighter. He called himself an advocacy journalist, which meant he considered himself a participatory journalist who believed in participatory politics. He investigated and reported, but he also conspired and connived on behalf of his causes, his friends, his heroes (from Bobby Kennedy to Muhammad Ali), against his public enemies (the ten worst judges, Don King, Rudy Giuliani).
Third, even as he held his own fight nights showing grainy tapes of boxing classics on the ground floor of his Charlton Street home in Manhattan, he crusaded for reform, writing a piece in this magazine that set forth practical proposals to clean up the sport he called “my guilty pleasure.”
Jack was principally known for his career at the Village Voice and his later columns and investigations for the Daily News (which he quit in 1990 because he refused to cross a picket line) and the New York Post (from which he was fired) and for his many books. But The Nation is proud to have played a modest role in the launching of his book-writing career. As he tells it in his memoir, Somebody’s Gotta Tell It, in 1965 Nation editor Carey McWilliams invited him to lunch and asked him to cover the upcoming march in Washington against the Vietnam War. “I agreed and wrote the piece that led to my first book, A Prophetic Minority, about the origins of 1960s campus radicalism,” he recalled.
Carey invited Jack to recruit younger writers for The Nation, and in his memoir, The Education of Carey McWilliams, he describes Jack as opening a door to a new generation. Many years later, in June 2001, we heard that the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post‘s new Australian editor, Col Allan, had fired Jack, the paper’s only liberal columnist. We got on the phone and from that day on Jack started writing pieces for The Nation and books for Nation Books. He wrote on right-wing judicial nominees, New York pols, Tom DeLay, Bush’s neglect of Jack’s beloved city. Perhaps most characteristic was the article “How the Other Half Still Lives,” which led off with the lines, “The poor are still largely invisible to the complacent majority. Most Americans don’t see the everydayness of poverty.” He proceeded to show them.
We already miss Jack, his passion, his politics, his wit, the gaggle of Runyonesque characters who trailed in his wake. Jack had a way of romanticizing his enthusiasms. “My Brooklyn,” he wrote, “was the working-class Brooklyn of the Dodgers, Democrats, unions, optimism and pluralism.” His favorite sport he called “a ballet with blood,” “geometry with guile.” He believed, in the words of the old Wobbly slogan (and title of one of his books) in “bread and roses too.” And given his gritty, passionate reporting, it is hard not to believe with him.