- Historic Sites
A veteran columnist who defies summarization has published a dazzling new compendium of his work
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
His asides alone are worth the price of admission. Whittaker Chambers “engaged no subject without coming back very quickly to himself … [and no matter which side he was on] could not overcome the habit of anointing himself as legate from some Other Shore; he had carried the Mystery too long to put it aside; one’s impression of him on stage is of someone perpetually explaining, and still as much a stranger as when he appeared.” Paul Robeson’s blackness “conscripted him to a lifetime of being held only on approval, first with a wide-spreading acceptance that thought itself particularly kind, and last with a near universal casting out that felt itself particularly wounded.” Richard Nixon, Kempton wrote in a prescient column in 1966, two years before the greatest of his comebacks, “is a man who, say what you choose of him, came to run the course. He will, with time, be a landmark in the history of quiet, determined desperation. The years will go by and, so long as we live, Richard Nixon’s name will be put forth as the only visible alternative to the especially dreadful candidate who is about to be the choice of the Republican delegates. We will end surprised to discover that we love him, the alternative having always been worse.”
“The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower,” perhaps Kempton’s best-remembered piece, ran in Esquire in 1967, long before academics woke up to the fact there had been a lot more to the general than either his enemies or his admirers like to admit. Here is its characteristically shrewd and selfdepreciating conclusion:
Kempton is a kindly writer, on the whole, until forced to deal with those he believes clearly lacking in honor.
“I talked to [Elsenhower] just once. He was in Denver, getting ready for the 1952 campaign when he would have to run with Republicans like Senator [Albert] Jenner who had called General Marshall, the chief agent of Eisenhower’s promotion, ‘a living lie.’ I had thought that anyone so innocent as Eisenhower would be embarrassed by this comrade and proposed to ask what he thought about what Jenner had said. It seemed cruel to spring any such trap to anyone this innocent, so I told [press secretary Jim] Hagerty that I intended to ask the question.
“The time came and I asked, ‘General, what do you think of those people who call General Marshall a living lie?’
“He leaped to his feet and contrived the purpling of his face. How dare anyone say that about the greatest man who walks in America? He shook his finger in marvelous counterfeit of the palsy of outrage.
“He would die for General Marshall. He could barely stand to be in the room with anyone who would utter such a profanation. The moment passed while the enlisted man in garrison endured his ordeal as example to the rest of the troops; and suddenly I realized that in his magnificent rage at me, he had been careful not to mention Senator Jenner at all.
“Afterward Hagerty took me aside and the General offered the sunshine of his smile; there was not the slightest indication that he was thinking that there was anything for him to forgive or me either. It had simply been the appointed ceremony. I was too dumb to understand him then. It would take ten years before I looked at his picture and realized that the smile was always a grin.”
Murray Kempton has been writing like that nearly every day for more than half a century now, and it would be entirely understandable if he were to coast a little. “‘We all end up as packaged goods,’ Westbrook Pegler remarked a little while before he died,” Kempton reminds us. “The dreary road to the wrapping and bundling counter is probably inescapable: there is the hunt for the discovery of what works, then the erosion of curiosity about what else might work, then the disappearance of all curiosity about anything unfamiliar, and at last the prison of one’s own accepted manner.”
Kempton’s own accepted manner has been remarkably consistent over the decades—long, looping sentences, laced with references to literary heroes like Burke and Gibbon and Proust who must be mysteries to most of his daily readers. But he remains cheerfully unpackaged and unpackageable, his own man—and, I believe, about the best we have.