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Unpackaged Goods

June 2024
6min read

A veteran columnist who defies summarization has published a dazzling new compendium of his work

To be a real New Yorker—an especially important goal for those of us who were neither born nor raised here—is to remain cool in the presence of celebrities. The Upper West Side, where I live, is peppered with them, mostly because its rents were once low and Broadway, Lincoln Center, and the network studios are all only minutes away. One is careful not to acknowledge the presence of the Broadway star squeezing melons at the produce store, the anchorman picking up his morning paper, the movie stars nuzzling at the next table, the diva buying fish.

But there is one frequent morning apparition in my neighborhood that never fails to catch and hold my full, gaping attention, a slender man in a dark double-breasted suit riding a bicycle, his ankle clips exposing an alarming measure of pale shank, his white hair whipping behind him as he spins in and out of traffic. He looks a bit as I think the Wizard of Oz might look were he to take to the city streets, but he is an authentic hero of mine—the columnist Murray Kempton setting off at seventy-six to cover still another story.

If journalism is merely history’s first draft, as has surely been said too often in these pages, Kempton’s journalism needs far less editing that that of most of his contemporaries. He is a legend among reporters—Carry Wills spoke for many recently when he called Kempton’s journalism “the most perceptive of our time”—and it is hard for me to see how any historian writing about events that he covered firsth-and could dream of doing so without first seeing what he had had to say about them.

That hasn’t always been easy to do. Kempton has published just three books over his long career: Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1955), America Comes of Middle Age: Columns, 1950–1962 (1963), and The Briar Patch: The People of the State of New York v. Lumumba Shakur, et al. (1973). All of them are brilliant, but all are also sadly out of print. And since he has also served time mostly with Manhattan tabloids whose gaudy pages more sober-sided scholars have been taught to disdain—the New York Post for many years, and now New York Newsday —his work is too often overlooked.

The whole Kempton canon, it seems to me, deserves to be reissued on microfilm, ASAP. In the meantime, a fat new compendium, Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events (Times Books, $27.50), provides a dazzling introduction for those out-of-towners lucky enough to be meeting him for the first time.

Kempton defies summarization; his sensibility is too lively and his chosen topics are too varied for ' that. There are shrewd, surprising pieces here on everything from Machiavelli to being mugged, Mafia wiretaps to the election of the pope. The best a Kempton enthusiast like me can do is offer a sampling and hope the reader’s appetite is whetted for more.

Born in Baltimore in what he has himself called “shabby gentility,” Kempton is the direct descendant of George Mason of Virginia, champion of the Bill of Rights and implacable foe of slavery—and of James Murray Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Act and wouldbe Confederate ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. He is therefore perhaps better schooled than most to recognize both the contradictions in American life and the stubborn persistence of class in an America fond of claiming it recognizes no such thing.

Despite the gentility of his upbringing—or perhaps because of it—Kempton has leaned more often left than right during his long career. He was briefly a member of the Young Communist League during the 1930s and then a member of the Socialist party. But it is honor, not ideology, the willingness to stick to one’s guns, even when those guns have long since been spiked, that means the most to him. Here, for example, he reacts to the news that G. Gordon Liddy, the unrepentant Watergate bungler, newly sprung from jail, plans to make his living teaching techniques of counterterrorism: ”… all of us ought to pray that he can come up with some means half as effective as the only sovereign remedy, which would be to produce a strain of terrorists as inept as G. Gordon Liddy. No matter, there are higher qualities than competence. The rarest and highest is honor; … Liddy put his to the test and endured; and no one has a better right to franchise it. He can be to the market in honor what McDonald’s is to the market in hamburgers, and he has less reason to worry about competition, since knights errant are an otherwise extinct species.”

Kempton is a kindly writer, on the whole, careful to keep the blade of his scorn sheathed until forced to deal with those he believes clearly lacking in honor, individuals as disparate as Roy Cohn and Huey P. Newton and the director EHa Kazan, who, he writes, “decided that it was necessary for him, as they used to say in those days, to ‘come clean’ with the Committee on Un-American Activities. Kazan is one of those persons who would have especially profited from the injunction, ‘Never Apologize, Never Explain.’ As it was, in his ignorance, he spread apologies for his small sins and explanations of his vast redemption all over the advertising pages of The New York Times , and lifted them like prayers to heaven to Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century Fox. That was an acceptance of humiliation for the sake of survival in a confiscatory tax bracket.”

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.

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