By David Owen
Esquire, March 1982
At the Democratic National Convention in 1980, a small brigade of young reporters dogged the footsteps of a man in a dark green suit. The man picked his way through the crush on the floor of the convention hall, pausing now and then to glance up at the podium. When he paused, the young reporters paused too. Then the man moved on again, puffing on his pipe and cradling a spiral notebook in his arm. None of the young reporters had a pipe to puff on, but most of them had notebooks cradled in their arms, and when the man in the green suit stopped to scribble an observation, the young reporters scribbled too. They looked like obedient goslings learning the lay of the barnyard from their beloved mother goose.
The man in the green suit wasn’t a candidate or a kingmaker or an undercover cop. He was a newspaper columnist named Murray Kempton, and the reporters following him (I was one of them) were a band of his admirers. Something like this happens almost everywhere he goes: when Kempton covers an important story, other reporters cover him.
Murray Kempton is a sixty-four-year-old columnist for the Long Island paper Newsday and one of the real heroes of his profession. He is an old-fashioned reporter who knocks himself out in his search for stories and then writes them up in an elegant style that combines the pithy wickedness of Martial’s epigrams with the restrained excess of late Augustan prose. He is an eloquent champion of the lowly and a tireless persecutor of the corrupt and unjust. A dramatist at heart, he plies his trade wherever circumstances have contrived to build a stage, leading him one day to a hearing of the National Labor Relations Board, another to the sentencing of John Lennon’s murderer, another to a screening of a movie about crooked policemen. His nose for news is eclectic but exacting. For more than thirty years he has covered politics, labor, sports, literature, and a dozen other topics with such consummate skill and wit that in some circles he is spoken of in the same breath with H.L. Mencken. And yet, Kempton’s career has been mostly an obscure one. His colleagues and readers revere him, but in the vast territory beyond the suburbs of New York he is virtually unknown. He won a National Book Award a decade ago and a handful of other prizes, but he has never had anything resembling nationwide acclaim. His columns have never been syndicated, his books are out of print, he has never won a Pulitzer Prize. Murray Kempton is the best-kept secret in American journalism.
I first encountered Kempton’s writing in college in a back issue of The New York Review of Books. The piece I read was so graceful and so incisive that I was astonished to learn that its author earned his living as a columnist for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. The Post was a lively leftist paper when Kempton started out there in 1942, but under Murdoch it has been known less for its editorial quality than for its sensational full-page headlines. When Kempton left the Post for Newsday last year, most of his fans believed he had taken a step in the right direction, but the move cost him the heart of an already limited readership: Newsday is virtually unobtainable in New York City.
Kempton has occasionally done what his admirers have hoped he would do and broken away from newspapers to find a form in which he could reach a wider audience (and write at greater length). But his defections have never been long-lived. He left the Post for an editorship at The New Republic in 1963 but resigned a year later after discovering he preferred New York to Washington and daily deadlines to weekly ones. In 1969, he left the Post again, this time to become a free-lance writer. He excelled and even flourished at his new undertaking, and he did some of the best work of his career; but the newspaper eventually drew him back.
“I really do like newspaper reporting … This is just the perfect life. You get up in the morning, look at the AP schedule, and just go out and do something. I expect to do this until I drop dead.”
Born and raised in Mencken’s Baltimore, Kempton has journalism in his blood. He was weaned on the sort of newspapers that people tuned their lives to, and the fact that such newspapers don’t exist anymore has never entirely daunted him. Murdoch’s Post isn’t Mencken’s Sun, but Kempton has learned to make do with what’s available.
“I like outrageous newspapers,” he explains. “And I loved working for the Post. I enjoyed all that nonsense. The Post’s headlines are like those signs in restaurants that say HOME COOKING: nobody believes them. My only objection to the Post is that it has that British view of political coverage. If you have a job like mine, you have to go around a lot, and it gets kind of embarrassing if the paper is knifing somebody. It was the kind of paper I’d rather read than write for.”
“But why write for newspapers at all?” I ask.
“I really do like newspaper reporting,” Kempton says. “I suppose it’s the fraternity of journalism that I love. And there’s also the fact that you’re paid a living wage. This is just the perfect life. You get up in the morning, look at the AP schedule, and just go out and do something. I expect to do this until I drop dead.”
“What about books?” I ask. Kempton has written four: Part of Our Time in 1955, America Comes of Middle Age in 1963, The Briar Patch, which won a National Book Award in 1973, and a book about the 1950s, which has not yet been published.
“I’ll never do another one, “ he says. “I can’t see the possibility. And I can’t work as a freelance magazine writer because, one, there isn’t that much money in it, and two, it takes so long. I’ve never wanted to be a syndicated columnist. I’m not a good familiar essayist, and I never have been, and I’m not about to become one now. I think I’m fairly smart, and if I see something happen and think about it awhile, my mind absorbs it; but I have to have something to react to. It’s the difference between a heavy hitter and a counterpuncher.”
As always, Kempton is self-deprecating to a fault. As a writer he could climb into the ring with anyone, but saying he couldn’t is as much a part of him as journalism is. With typical modesty he brushes aside all praise: “I’ve always thought I lacked the moral fiber that makes enemies, “ he says. A slim, professorial figure with horn-rimmed glasses and a discrete collection of permanently rumpled suits, he is steeped in the faultless manners of his Confederate forebears. He “ma’am”s congresswomen and secretaries with equal deference and is never less than civil, even to the politicians he eviscerates in print. His face is scholarly but kind. His voice, a tobacco-thickened mixture of resonances with a hint of a southern drawl, is what Mark Twain’s must have been—a storyteller’s voice.
“You know,” he says, “Murdoch once paid me a great compliment. He said, ‘I don’t think you’re much of a writer, but where do you find these stories?’ A city is full of extremely good stories. I’m very lazy. I can’t go out and interview little old ladies, because I think that’s just an invasion of privacy. So what I like to cover is some sort of set scene. And since the papers don’t cover these things to a very great extent, I have a kind of monopoly.”
In an era when reporters thrust themselves into the foreground of their stories, Kempton is a man apart. He is a perpetual outsider, a careful observer who learns by keeping his eyes and ears open. His obscurity is one of the secrets of his craft. “It is a fundamental fact about journalism—” he has written, “and might even be a rule if it had the attention it deserves—that it is next to impossible to judge any public figure with the proper detachment once you begin calling him by his first name.”
In the fall of 1955, Murray Kempton traveled to Lexington, Mississippi, on one of many journeys he took through the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The local sheriff was a man named Richard E Byrd, a former Chevrolet salesman who had been elected under the slogan, Just ask the Boy Scouts about me. As sheriff, Byrd allowed his friends to prosper in the bootlegging business and spent spare moments beating up Negroes.
One night in 1954, Byrd drove up to a small group of law-abiding blacks and told them to “get goin’.” As they dispersed, Byrd pulled out his gun, aimed at random, and shot one of them in the back. A few days later, Hazel Brannon Smith, the editor of the local paper, found the courage to run a signed, front-page editorial condemning the sheriff. Hers was the only voice, official or otherwise, ever raised against him. Kempton visited her a year and a half after the shooting and then walked across the street to talk to the sheriff. He wrote in the Post:
There was a shoving of the door, and its jamb was filled by Richard E. Byrd, himself, angling his shoulders to get through, a great, stubby, pearl-handled pistol cradled flat in his right hand as though he were carrying an ice-cream cone starting to melt.
[Deputy Sheriff] Coy Farmer backed off to a corner, and the sheriff of Holmes County—the strong right arm of the bootleggers and the Citizens Council—his pale hat drawn down to his steel glasses, a thick vein beating in his neck, pulled open the desk drawer and laid his weapon beside all its pretty sisters, another revolver, two blackjacks and a sap. He was like a collector savoring his treasures, and then he turned the eye of a basilisk upon his visitor….
“What’s yer name,” he said. “You’ve been around here before, haven’t ye?” The visitor said no, and gave his name and the sheriff wrote it down as slowly as though the pencil were a blunt knife and he were cutting flesh. There was a slow recognition beginning at the ankles and rising to the knee-hinges that the sheriff of Holmes County was sitting there balancing the pleasure and the peril involved in working over his visitor right there in the office. What need is there here for the sheriff to carry a gun in the daylight? Of course, the need is interior; Richard E. Byrd needs the feel of a weapon by daylight as some of us need whisky for breakfast; the only lawless, violent man in sight in Lexington at high noon is the appointed guardian of its law.
Kempton’s columns exposed the villainies of the time and celebrated the small acts of courage and humanity that marked the beginnings of the civil rights movement.
The visitor went back to say good-by to Hazel Smith, and said that he calculated his supply of adrenalin was good for just three minutes more in town. Hazel Smith rolled back her curly head and laughed; it was the laugh of a debutante. It will take a braver man than I to look Richard Byrd in the eye again; but, praise God, it takes a braver man than he to look Hazel in the eye.
Northern journalists by the dozen descended on the South in the 1950s, but only one of them sent back dispatches that captured more than a shadow of what he had seen. Kempton’s columns exposed the villainies of the time and celebrated the small acts of courage and humanity that marked the beginnings of the civil rights movement. While other reporters filed bloodless summaries of the trials and demonstrations, Kempton wrote what were essentially short stories, and all contained within the columnist’s eight-hundred-word limitation. He compresses volumes into the exasperating one-sentence paragraphs that are the stock-in-trade of daily journalism, and can set scene and mood as succinctly as O. Henry.
Over the course of his career, Kempton has written brilliantly about figures as diverse as Jimmy Hoffa and Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Reagan and Willie Mays, Nikita Khrushchev and H.L. Mencken, Jean Harris and Machiavelli. He is an expert on Italian opera, the Catholic Church, Henry James, the New York Giants. His reporting on the political conventions of the past thirty years is unequaled. His book The Briar Patch, a close study of the “Panther 21” trial of the early 1970s, not only remains the best account of the New York Black Panthers; it is also considered one of the two or three finest books ever written about the clash between radicals and government in that period. In 1967, he wrote a groundbreaking essay on Dwight D. Eisenhower from which historians have been pilfering ever since.
In his article Kempton overturned the view, which at the time was the consensus, that Eisenhower had been little more than an ineffective bumbler in the White House. Looking deeper, Kempton discovered a shrewd leader who had maintained his power by hiding his hand in everything he did and by allowing Nixon and Dulles, his Vice-President and Secretary of State, to catch the flak. Kempton also found in Eisenhower a general who was unromantic about military matters and who coolly anticipated the certain doom of the French at Dien Bien Phu. He wrote:
Never thereafter could he contemplate the war in Indochina except in the frozen tones of a War College report on a maneuver by officers who can henceforth abandon all hope of promotion. The French, he instructs Foster Dulles, have committed the classic military blunder. In Geneva, Dulles is said to have hinted that the United States might use the atom bomb to save the French; there is no evidence that he would have dared transmit that suggestion to a President who plainly would not have trusted him with a stick of dynamite to blow up a fishpond.
Two years later Garry Wills took Kempton’s article and reassembled it virtually paragraph by paragraph in a fine chapter in Nixon Agonistes. “I stole all my stuff on Eisenhower from Murray,” Wills cheerfully admits. (There’s a fair amount of Kempton in the rest of Nixon Agonistes, too.) Almost every historian who has written about Eisenhower since then has done the same. Kempton’s revisionism of fifteen years ago is the party line today.
This sort of thing happens all the time with Kempton. It happened with his pieces on Joe McCarthy, it happened with his pieces on Richard Nixon, it happened with his pieces on Vietnam. For decades first-rate writers have been sifting through the fragments of important stories only to find that Kempton has been there first and made off with most of the booty.
“Going around” is what Kempton calls it. Some days he walks for miles through New York City peering into courtrooms, dropping by government offices, turning over rocks looking for a story. Tagging along behind him at the Democratic convention, I heard him reveal the secret of his method: “I have no sources.” He insists on seeing things for himself. He will sit for hours at some excruciatingly boring hearing, working a crossword puzzle in his lap, waiting for nothing more than a moment of drama he can turn into one of his incomparable vignettes.
This morning I am waiting in the hallway outside Newsday’s Manhattan bureau just after nine when he emerges from the rush-hour mob of the elevator. He is pushing the battered red bicycle that has been his preferred mode of transportation for years. The basket over the front wheel is crammed with this morning’s newspapers, the rack over the back wheel holds a dog-eared briefcase. Kempton unlocks the door, and we step inside.
Newsday’s Manhattan office isn’t much to look at. There are a dozen desks, a copying machine, a drinking fountain, and a closet full of wire-service Teletypes. Kempton’s desk is just like all the others, a paper-clogged little perch over next to one of the walls, and he has to share an electronic composing terminal with the reporter next to him. He pounds the bowl of his pipe on the edge of his ashtray, then fishes a gooey pipe cleaner from somewhere on his desk and reams it through the stem.
“I went to see The Magic Flute last night,” he says, “and I must say that Tamino reminds me of Prince Charles. Have you seen The Magic Flute?”
“No,” I say.
“It’s so beautiful. And so boring.”
A woman across the office shouts that the Associated Press schedule for today has just come over the wire. I go to fetch a copy, then return to Kempton’s desk.
“Thank you, sir, “ he says as he scans the paper.
“Anything good in there?” I ask.
Kempton shakes his head. “Not a damn thing.” He rummages around in one of his drawers, pulls out a can of butane, and begins to fill his lighter. “I’ve got two bad stories now,” he says. “If nothing else turns up, we’ll go to the criminal court.”
He approaches every story as though he were in competition with half a dozen other reporters, all of them scrambling for a scoop. It doesn’t seem to bother him that he is often the only reporter on the beat.
Back in the old days at the Post, Kempton and labor columnist Victor Riesel worked out of an upstairs office with a window that opened onto the roof. Kempton, who began as Riesel’s assistant and took over his job two years later, would stroll in, chewing on his pipe, and greet Riesel by saying, “Hello, fellow worker. Whom do we hack today?” They would then climb out onto the roof, which they treated as a private terrace, and pace back and forth in deep conversation, filling the air with smoke and fleshing out an idea for that day’s column.
The world has changed a great deal since those days, but Kempton’s journalistic instincts have survived intact. He works hard. He approaches every story as though he were in competition with half a dozen other reporters, all of them scrambling for a scoop. And it doesn’t seem to bother him that there aren’t half a dozen papers in New York anymore, or that he is often the only reporter on the beat.
Coupled with Kempton’s unstinting diligence is a moral and artistic perfectionism that has brought him into conflict with his editors over the years. “Murray resigned roughly every other day,” says former Post managing editor Paul Sann. “I used to keep a file of his resignations, but I had to throw it out because it took up so much room.” Sometimes Kempton actually left the Post when he quit, but he usually came back within twenty-four hours.
Sann remembers one experience in particular. It was the final night of a political convention, and the Post’s reporters were filing their stories from the floor. Kempton was seated next to Sann, working on what was intended to be the paper’s main wrap-up of the convention.
“Murray would write a take and put it under his portable,” Sann recalls, “and then go out for a walk on the floor, puffing on his pipe. Then he would come back and write another take and put it under his portable.” This continued until Kempton had piled up seven or eight pages under his typewriter, at which point he headed back out onto the floor of the convention hall and disappeared.
“Finally,” says Sann, “about four A.M. Murray reappeared from somewhere and said he had nothing he could file, because what he had written was just no good. So I lifted up the portable and took out the copy and read it. And it was absolutely priceless. It was Kempton at his best.”
While Sann was reading, Kempton, dejected, got up to leave. Sann pulled him back into his chair. “I said, ‘Murray, you ain’t gonna write better than this no matter how long you live. Now you gotta wrap it up, because if you don’t, I’m gonna.’ So he puffed on his pipe for a minute and then said, ‘All right, fellow worker. I’m ashamed of this copy, but you’re my friend, and I’ll write another take.’”
Similar anxieties still crop up from time to time. For several years he has been working on his book about the 1950s. “I struggled along,” he says, “but I didn’t have any particular feeling for it after a while. What I was afraid of was that I’d get lousy reviews, and I never have gotten lousy reviews—although I think the way I’ve magnificently avoided success has been to my benefit; the party of envy does not fall upon me as it does upon so many others. And, of course, if the book is never published, everybody will think it’s a masterpiece that never saw the light of day. I mean, Arthur Schlesinger keeps stopping me on the street and saying, ‘When is your book coming out?’ It doesn’t seem to be absolutely required that it appear.”
At a little before ten this morning we set out to track down the handful of story ideas that Kempton has come up with for today. One of them involves Jack Abbott, the convicted murderer who was paroled at the urging of Norman Mailer and who is now the author of a popular book about prison life. Yesterday the police announced that Abbott is a suspect in the weekend murder of a waiter at a Lower East Side restaurant. Kempton has decided to go down to the criminal court building, on the chance that Abbott will turn himself in.
“If anyone should call for me,” he hollers over his shoulder as we leave the office together, “tell them I’m in search of Norman Mailer’s last sound decision.”
On the subway downtown Kempton examines our fellow passengers and says, “Every composite drawing I’ve ever seen has looked exactly like the people sitting in whatever subway car I happened to be riding in at the time.” Kempton himself looks a little damp just now: we had to walk through the rain to get here. The blond-gray curls at the back of his head are glistening, and there are droplets on the lenses of his glasses. Even moist, though, he is an impressive figure. He also has an uncanny power to make you want to emulate him. It’s only our second meeting, but already I’m dressed exactly as he is (gray suit, white shirt, blue tie). When David Halberstam was a young reporter in Mississippi in the 1950s, he used to make weekend pilgrimages and gaze across a courtroom at Kempton, who was covering a trial. Halberstam couldn’t find the nerve to introduce himself until several years later. Kempton in those days had a collection of jazz records that he carried on the road, and for years afterward David Halberstam did too.
Even the victims of Kempton’s pen tend to find him irresistible. When he moved to The New Republic in 1963, he decided to do a piece on McCarthy hatchet man Roy Cohn, about whom he had written several nasty newspaper columns. Cohn later told a Newsweek reporter what happened: “When he called me for an appointment, he told my secretary he had discussed the piece with his editors and there wasn’t the slightest possibility he could give me a fair shake. I wasn’t going to see him, but when someone tells you that, how can you possibly refuse?”
Kempton’s effect on others is perhaps not the first thing one would expect from a man whose life has been filled with more than the usual sorrows. His first marriage ended in divorce, his second in a separation. A son, James Murray Jr., was killed in an automobile accident ten years ago. Another son was born with a serious learning disability. A daughter, the (former) writer Sally Kempton, now a disciple of the guru Muktananda, once lashed out at her father in a bitter feminist memoir published in this magazine. Money has always been tight. Kempton now lives frugally and alone in a tiny apartment in Manhattan.
At the courthouse Kempton leads me to the dungeonlike pressroom, where he is immediately welcomed as a favorite son. Mike Pearl, who has covered the courts since the Early Cretaceous Period, immediately surrenders his desk and phone, the throne and scepter of his epochal reign. Pearl is king here, but Kempton takes precedence. For an hour he keeps our corner of the pressroom in stitches.
“This is the only murder case I know of where the possible hideout is The New York Review of Books,” he says, referring to the fact that part of Jack Abbott’s prison book was published in that magazine. “I don’t know, do you think he may surrender to The Hudson Review? He’s classy, you know. Maybe he’ll wait to turn himself in at the National Book Awards ceremony.”
When it becomes clear that Abbott isn’t going to show up, we head over to City Hall, where Kempton receives another royal reception. “Murray the K!” someone bellows when he steps into the pressroom. On the front steps we run into Mayor Koch, who is polite but wary, and with good reason: Kempton can give any politician the willies. At a City Hall press conference once, Kempton sat in a chair that broke beneath him, and Koch said, “Here comes Murray Kempton, breaking my furniture.” Kempton quickly corrected him. “It’s the people’s furniture, Mr. Mayor.”
“I was born in Baltimore,” Kempton says, thereby summarizing virtually all he chooses to reveal about his life. He is an extremely private man who seldom talks about his background and almost never about his personal life. Even his close friends find they know little about him. At the heart of Kempton’s reticence is a feeling, amounting almost to a code of honor, that one simply doesn’t talk about these things. Kempton is a very proud man, a man for whom “carrying on” has all the personal necessity of some great and ancient ancestral duty. When things go wrong, he takes pains to keep the injury to himself and to keep the people around him from shouldering what he believes to be a private grief. “I don’t think you talk about your troubles,” he says.
When Kempton was three, his father died of bronchitis and his mother moved her two sons into a modest Baltimore row house owned by her father, a judge. The four of them shared the house with Mrs. Kempton’s sister, who had never married. Kempton and his brother, now a Baltimore lawyer, walked a couple of blocks in one direction to school, a couple of blocks in another to church, and never ventured very far beyond the close confines of the neighborhood, which was in the gradual process of falling apart. He spent much of his youth buried in books.
“What was your childhood like?” I asked.
“Unattractive,” he said. “I mean, I was.”
“What did you want to be when you grew up?”
“I don’t have any idea what I wanted to be,” he said. “I was such a wet young man that all I wanted to be was left alone. No, I guess my ambition was to be an editorial writer. I think my dream was to write those things where you endorse Warren G. Harding for President. I had a kind of hortatory side to me then. I don’t know what I wanted to be. I wanted to be beloved of women, which I didn’t succeed in doing. Rich. A senator.” He paused for a moment. “My idea of a good senator is Howard Cosell.”
While in college, at Johns Hopkins, Kempton was editor of the student newspaper. He was also a campus legend. For years after his graduation, student journalists looked back on the period of his editorship as something of a golden age in the paper’s history. He became a member of the Young Communist League and, later, of the Socialist party. After graduation his first thought was to move away from Baltimore, and especially away from his neighborhood, whose decay he found oppressive. He worked briefly as publicity director of the American Labor party, then signed on at the Post in 1942.
In all the years since then he has lived a life true to the sort of ideals that most people shed as a matter of course.
“There used to be an old game that [Nation editor] Vic Navasky played,” says Russell Baker. “He’d send you a questionnaire to fill out for a magazine he was editing. The question was, ‘Why did you sell out?’ Murray is the only guy I can think of who would be able to answer, ‘I never did.’”
“I never interview anyone,” Kempton said, “because I’m an atrocious interviewer. I’ll make a long speech, and then the guy I’m interviewing will say, ‘You may be right,’ and that’s the end of the interview.”
We were sitting in a Chinese restaurant around the corner from my apartment. Kempton had pedaled his bicycle uptown from Newsday’s Times Square office to meet me there, and when he arrived, he had a sack of groceries under his arm: he had picked up his breakfast on the way.
Kempton is a masterful conversationalist. One doesn’t so much interview him as interrupt his train of thought.
Kempton sipped red wine and glanced over the menu. He mentioned that he had once tried to interest a publisher in subsidizing him for two years while he compiled a “collection of history as written by losers.” The project came to nothing, but there is something wonderfully typical about his having thought of it in the first place. Kempton has a maverick’s affection for dignified failures, and some of his best columns have concerned people who, for one reason or another, didn’t measure up. In 1956, on the day after Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in the history of the World Series, Kempton devoted his column to Sal Maglie, who was the losing pitcher in that contest. While every other sportswriter in the country turned his attention to Larsen, Kempton stole quietly into the loser’s locker room and came away with undoubtedly the best piece on the series.
“He worked his arm a little,” Kempton wrote, “and blew on his hands as though he came from a world no sun could warm.” Maglie was an old man, forty years old. He pitched what was in some ways the greatest game of his life, and he lost. That’s exactly the sort of story Kempton loves.
“Did you watch the royal wedding?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I kept hoping Lady Diana would run away with John McEnroe. You know, I thought that Borg match at Wimbledon was one of the most wonderful things I’d ever seen in my life. As time goes on I’ve come to hate the British. I don’t think anyone likes them anymore.”
Athletes fascinate Kempton (“You know what I like about them? They have statistics”), and one of the athletes who fascinates him most is Muhammad Ali.
“I have the most terrible awe of the man who has to fight the fight,” he said. “I remember the night before the Liston fight I was over in a black hotel in Miami having a cup of coffee with Malcolm X. I was being pompous about the Muslims, and I said to Malcolm, ‘You know, I have a lot of differences with you guys, but the thing is, I’ve known black nationalists for years—city black nationalists—and what always struck me about them was that they were terrified whenever they came into the white world. And the thing that fascinates me about your people is that they’re not afraid.’
“And Malcolm said to me, ‘That’s it! I’ve got to tell Cassius!’
“Clay was staying at the hotel, and there was a wonderful kid named Archie who worked for him. So Malcolm said to him in his imperial way, ‘Archie, go get Cassius. This is how he can win. He’s got to understand that he’s not afraid.’
“Well, Archie came back very shamefaced and said, ‘Cassius ain’t here.’ Malcolm said, ‘Where is he?’ And Archie said, ‘He took the car to meet Ray Robinson, and he hasn’t been seen for two hours.’”
Kempton laughed heartily. “The point was that he was on a wavelength that none of us could understand. I mean, it’s something to have been the only heavyweight champion of the world, in my lifetime, who was his own man.”
Kempton is a masterful conversationalist. One doesn’t so much interview him as interrupt his train of thought.
“Someone once told me that you and Nixon were drinking buddies,” I said. “Is that true?”
“My social connection with Nixon, “ he said, “consists of a series of moments in which I would run into him in the course of stories I was covering and he would say, ‘Slumming?’ And I would say, ‘Mr. Vice-President, I don’t live in a terribly high-rent district as it is.’ That was—the extent of our conversation, but it happened again and again. Then, early in his administration, I was at the White House for some reason, and Nixon spotted me and stuck out his hand, and I had this horrible feeling that he was about to say, ‘Slumming?’” Kempton laughed. “I mean, the man knew how to conduct himself.
“Anyway, that was the absolute extent of our friendship, from which I profited greatly, because the son of a bitch—no offense meant—the man they snatched the golden bough from, is the single most brilliant political analyst I’ve ever known in my life. You give him any business except his own, and he would have been the greatest political manager alive. You know, I met him for lunch once. I had just seen John V. Lindsay, and I said to Nixon, ‘Lindsay has the greatest political future of anybody I’ve seen.’ And Nixon said, ‘Lindsay has no political future. In four years he’ll have some terrible fight with Nelson Rockefeller and he’ll end up a Democrat.’ Incredible!
“I’ve never understood him,” Kempton continued. “He had this incredibly keen political sense, which would just stop your breath, aesthetically, but he was always a bit ashamed of it. Maybe he wanted to be a tyrant, I don’t know. But whatever else he wanted to be, he wanted to be a great historical figure. And then he would collapse in awe before all these eastern Republicans. Intellectually he was worth a hundred of those people, but he could never escape being a figure of irony and ridiculousness, because whenever he came in the presence of some biggy, he immediately closed his eyes and thought, ‘Poor little me, listening to the sound of the railroad tracks in Whittier, California, now I’m in the big time.’ And who was it? John Mitchell. The big time!”
Shortly after Kempton’s son was killed in 1971, a mysterious messenger left a note at Kempton’s door. Although the note was handwritten on White House stationery, Kempton at first had no idea who had sent it.
“To the best of my memory,” he said, “the letter said something like, ‘When I read of your son’s death, I thought of you at the time we first met, and I remembered the idealism you showed.’ Now, I’m reading this letter addressing me as an old friend in this handwriting with which I am not familiar, and I figure maybe it’s from Steve Hess [at that time, national chairman of the White House Conference on Children and Youth]. But it was from Nixon. Now, what the hell was he talking about? My son was a member of the resistance and stood in total opposition to everything Nixon was doing; and as for my idealism, the first time I met Nixon I was trying to get something on Alger Hiss.
“You know, Nixon meant it in some way. I mean, he wanted to mean it. I don’t understand him. Hitler, Stalin, any of these people—they just didn’t have those dimensions. The sad thing about Nixon is that he’s capable of quite sincere emotions, and yet he invents. He didn’t write me a letter because he thought he would gain anything by it—with his rotten reputation, what did he have to gain? He wrote me a letter because he imagined this community. The fascinating thing about Nixon is that he social-climbs down.”
Four mornings a week Murray Kempton, the Huckleberry Finn of American journalism, climbs onto his bicycle and pedals out into the world in search of what may be there.
We sipped tea and Kempton lit his pipe. It was getting late.
“What’s your favorite book?” I asked.
Kempton puffed a moment. “Do you know Mencken’s comment about being hit on the head by Huckleberry Finn?”
“Well,” he said, “I suppose Huckleberry Finn is the greatest book I have ever read.” A gentleman present, as Boswell used to say, responded with something drunken and unintelligible about “Huck’s freedom,” and Kempton shook his head.
“People who talk about freedom don’t know what it’s like,” he said. “Huck doesn’t say, I want to be free. He says, I’m going to light out for the territory—something beyond where you are. It’s not to escape, it’s to find. And that’s what makes it such a great book.
“I have more freedom than I can live with. I don’t want freedom; I’d like to be responsible. I guess what I love about Huck is his sense of responsibility. It would not be a good book if he didn’t have a moral sense. And I always like to think that Huck wanted to light out for the territory not because of what he was escaping but because of what might be there.”
Four mornings a week Murray Kempton, the Huckleberry Finn of American journalism, climbs onto his bicycle and pedals out into the world in search of what may be there. For more than thirty years he has been finding things other writers have not even thought to look for, and he has done so with a compelling humanity that is rare not just in his profession but in the human race as well. I have followed him as he made his regular rounds, and I have eaten at his table, and I am not all that certain that he is not the greatest man I have ever met.
I admire in him what he admires in Huck: his moral sense and his sense of responsibility. At the end of our dinner I dragged him back to my apartment to meet my wife. He was too polite to refuse, then too polite to stay. Our dachshund danced around his feet as he hesitated in our doorway. I felt a little silly afterward, but that’s just the sort of effect Kempton can have on you: you want to tow him all over town, introducing him to your relatives.
“The great lives are lived against the perceived current of their times,” Kempton wrote recently in a column eulogizing the late Cardinal Wyszynski. He would object strenuously to the suggestion that his statement might also be applied to himself, but Kempton’s career has certainly been great, and it has been conducted in large measure against the current of his time. He is like a visitor from another era. “Churchill would have ceased to be Churchill the first moment he decided to be someone more up-to-date than a seventeenth-century Whig,” he continued in his column. “Wyszynski could not have been Wyszynski if he had ever left off being a thirteenth-century bishop.”
And Kempton would not be Kempton if he ever left off being—what? The obvious archetype is Mencken, whom Kempton adores, but I think first of Dr. Johnson. Kempton is more a creature of the eighteenth century than he is of Mencken’s, and although he is a Whig to Johnson’s Tory, the two men have much in common. Johnson used to trudge out into the streets of London to buy oysters for his cat, because he was afraid that if he left the task to a servant, the servant might come to hate the cat. It’s easy to imagine Kempton doing the same thing, except that he would probably pick up something for the servant as well. His prose style owes as much to Johnson as it does to anyone now breathing. His personality seems as inextricably bound up with New York as Johnson’s was with London. His happiness, like Johnson’s, has been built around a core of sorrow.
The last time I saw Murray Kempton it was after midnight and he was unchaining his bicycle from a parking meter in front of a grocery store on Third Avenue. An empty taxi slowed for a moment, then zoomed past. “God bless you,” he said, as he almost always says when saying goodbye. And then he loaded his breakfast into his basket, snapped a rubber band around each cuff, and rode off into the night.