Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine



By daily newspaper standards, Murray Kempton's words were never easy reading. But they were always worth the effort.

H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

Imperishable Prose
By Theo Lippman Jr.

Murray Kempton '39, who died in May at the age of 79, was without a doubt the best newspaperman that Johns Hopkins ever produced. That's saying a lot. Russell Baker followed him to Homewood a few years later. But even that praise doesn't do full justice to Kempton. It can also truthfully be said that he was the second best newspaperman Baltimore ever produced. H.L. Mencken preceded him through the streets and alleys and libraries of the Monumental City. Kempton was second only to Mencken not only in his native city, but also in the nation. By "best" I mean the same thing The New Yorker probably meant when it referred to Kempton in an obituary in its The Talk of the Town section as "the greatest newspaper columnist since Mencken." My adjective is better. "Greatness" is not something found in newspaper scribblers. The word implies vast influence or power. Kempton had little of that. What he had was the ability to write beautifully about almost everything a newspaper is supposed to report on and comment on. That is almost as rare as greatness.

"Great" newspapermen write perishable prose. Walter Lippmann was great. James Reston was great. But a generation or two or perhaps 10 from now, newspaper men and women, if there are still newspapers, and maybe, especially if there are not, will read old Kempton columns, not those of Lippmann and Reston and others like them.

Lippmann once described the newspaper columnist as "a puzzled man making notes, drawing sketches in the sand, which the sea will wash away." When Reston published a collection of his own New York Times columns, he titled the volume Sketches in the Sand, and he went further to disparage his product this way: "A newspaper column, like a fish, should be consumed when fresh; otherwise it is not only undigestible but unspeakable."

Some Kempton columns are already 30 and 40 years old, and they are both digestible and speakable. Kempton left Hopkins after a student career that included editorship of the News-Letter and active participation in the political life of the New Deal era far left. He went into the military and saw service in the Pacific. He returned home to a job as a reporter and commentator on labor matters for the New York Post (which was then a liberal-- and sometimes intellectual--journal). He soon branched out, covering just about any story or topic that caught his fancy. And like many a newspaperman of his generation, he also became something of a "tramp"-- working for several newspapers, one after another. (Though in his case, unlike the classic one, not in various cities, but always in New York.)

Government and politics were his staples, as they are to most newspaper columnists, but he could write authoritatively and entertainingly about labor, crime, the popular and fine arts, religion, sports, civil rights, the human condition .... To read the index of his 1963 collection of Post columns, America Comes of Middle Age, is to be informed (or reminded, if you are of a certain age) of most of what was interesting in this country in the years 1950 to 1962.

I am of a certain age, and I can tell you that Kempton had a way of thinking new thoughts and dressing up old thoughts in brilliant fashion so that a reader had or has an epiphany with almost every reading. For example, he covered the trial of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, who was being represented by Edward Bennett Williams. "To watch Williams and then to watch a Department of Justice lawyer contending with him is to understand the essential superiority of free enterprise to government ownership," he wrote.

No doubt many of his friends on the left found that remark obnoxious, or at least saddening, but it perfectly shows the essential superiority of Kempton to the average fixed-view columnist. He knows what he sees and he writes what he knows.

That column on Williams appeared in 1957, and by then Kempton's friends and adversaries knew better than to expect doctrinaire opinions from him, even on such old passions as the political left. In 1955 he wrote a book about the politics of the 1930s: Part of Our Time/Some Monuments and Ruins of the Thirties. The first chapter dealt with Alger Hiss. Like Kempton, Hiss was a Hopkins man. They both grew up in Bolton Hill. At a time when most liberals and many establishment conservatives chose not to believe the accusations of espionage leveled against Hiss, and when those who did see him as a traitor felt neither compassion nor pity for him--chose not to understand him--Kempton believed Hiss was what the accusers said he was. He also believed there was a private nobility in Hiss's behavior when he was exposed and when he went to prison. (Kempton later expressed respect for G. Gordon Liddy in much the same way.)

Much new information on the "Hiss case" would come to light in the 1960s and 1970s that convinced most of Hiss's supporters of his guilt. Nothing in that mass of facts and the books they produced contradicted anything in Kempton's assessment.

Part of Our Time was not a newspaperman's book. The pieces were produced without the pressure of a daily deadline, and they would not appear in print till long after the writer was finished with them. Kempton wrote many pieces of journalism that were of that sort, rather than his favored newspaper column. He turned out some very good work for The New Republic, Esquire, The New York Review of Books, and a few other magazines.

Perhaps his best-known piece was his 1967 reassessment of Dwight Eisenhower as president. Ike, the so-called "non-politician," was in fact, Kempton explained, every bit the political leader. "He was the great tortoise shell upon whose back the world sat for eight years. We laughed at him; we talked wistfully about moving; and all the while we never knew the cunning beneath the shell."

In the mid-1960s historians and political journalists alike gave Ike low marks. Thirty years later, polls of academics and other specialists in national government and politics have raised him to a very respectable level compared to his 20th-century peers.

But magazine writing was not for Kempton. Garry Wills, who has written op-ed page columns, magazine articles, and books, was asked to comment on his friend Kempton for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper where Kempton ended his career (he was still writing for it when he died). "He was frustrated by his work at The New Republic, where he was expected to write feature articles," Wills said. "He claimed, 'My typewriter jams when it reaches 750 words,' his column length."

The best collection of Kempton's journalism is his 1994 Rebellions, Perversities and Main Events. His own perversity about embracing the public figures whom his friends of the left love to hate had not diminished in the decades since his early New York Post columns were collected. He dedicated the book in part to William F. Buckley Jr., and in his introduction he heaped praise on Westbrook Pegler, not so much to provoke, it appears, but to explain his own professional persona. Pegler, a right-wing columnist of the 1930s, was discredited and marginalized after a long feud with Eleanor Roosevelt. "He observed at lunch," Kempton wrote, "that he had been misunderstood by those who imagined that he had been driven crazy by Mrs. Roosevelt. That, he said, was not the case at all. 'It began,' Peg explained, 'when I quit sports and went cosmic. It finished when I began writing on Monday to be printed on Friday.'

"That gospel has been so rooted in my heart [Kempton continued] that I write every day for the next and walk wide of the cosmic and settle most happily for the local, a precinct less modest than I make it sound, since my local happens to be the only city under the eye of God where the librettist for 'Don Giovanni' could find his closest friend in the author of 'The Night Before Christmas.'" That long, beautiful, knowing sentence is pure Kempton. Not even the best of his peers produce a sentence a year like that. He produced them every Monday.

Arguing whether Kempton was a liberal or conservative as those words are used in political discussion today is fruitless, actually. Liberals and conservatives can both quote the Kempton scripture.
Can a man who says nice things about Dwight Eisenhower, G. Gordon Liddy, William F. Buckley, Westbrook Pegler (and numerous others viewed with some degree of disgust by the left, such as, for one notorious example, the gangster Frank Costello) really be a liberal? Certainly. His work is also rich with his appreciation of such characters of the left as Huey Newton and Malcolm X. One of his favorite and best pieces was written for the New York World-Telegram in 1966 when the Department of Defense denied the family of Robert Thompson the right to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Thompson had won the Distinguished Service Cross in the South Pacific in World War II. But he was a Communist organizer, and the Johnson Administration bowed to public pressure from the right and denied Arlington to Thompson.

"And so," Kempton wrote, "an American who was brave has been judged and disposed of by Americans who are cowards of the least excusable sort, cowards who have very little to fear. Yesterday the Army called Robert Thompson's widow and said that it would send his ashes wherever she wished. Wherever those ashes go, the glory of America goes with them."(Arguing whether Kempton was a liberal or conservative as those words are used in political discussion today is fruitless, actually. Liberals and conservatives can both quote the Kempton scripture. But in the other sense of the word "liberal," there can be no doubt that he was one: "marked by generosity, not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms." And he was certainly liberal as in "liberal arts"--a student "of general knowledge and the development of general intellectual capacities such as reason and judgment.")

There is a great temptation to quote Kempton's columns in soundbites, as I have done, and as a Newsday colleague, Marie Cocco, did for that paper's "farewell" to him. She had met him in the 1984 presidential campaign and remembered most his early assessment of that ordeal. When most of his peers were writing feverishly about the horse race between Gary Hart and Walter Mondale, she wrote, "Murray produced the only account of that election that endures: 'One of the last authentic heroes [John Glenn] is fading out in the age of inauthentic ones.'"

The "master of the short read" in 1988
Though I have, in my own copy book or memory bank many, many Kempton lines that, like that one, the sea will not wash away, I also think it a mistake to place too much emphasis on them. It runs the risk of reducing him to an aphorist. He was much more than that. A reader gets the essential Kempton in reading his 750-word pieces rather than his 3,000-word pieces, but it is necessary to read all 750 of those words, not just the most perfect 30 or 40. In an article on Kempton in this magazine in 1988, one of his editors took note of the fact that some of his sentences were not easy reading by newspaper standards. "But it's always worth the effort reading him--his prescience is incredible. And with all that, he's the master of the column length, he's a short read--you don't have to light a fire and pull up a rocking chair to take in his column."

Are there any "short reads" writing for newspapers today whose style and content come close to Kempton's? I'm not aware of any. Thank God there are not a lot of would-be clones. As The New Yorker said, "No one has been foolish enough to imitate Kempton, for that would have required a sensibility so original and a prose style so ornate that the well-intended homage would quickly turn ridiculous."

Offhand I can think of only two living newspaper columnists who come even close to writing that appears to have the staying power Kempton's does. (Russell Baker's columns may endure, but like Mencken, and unlike Kempton, he's a humorist at heart. Mencken would be as forgotten today as Reston if he weren't so funny.) One is his friend Garry Wills. Wills is like Kempton in that he has much the same broadness of knowledge and interest.

But Wills's writing, while praiseworthy, is not in the same class as Kempton's, and he soon came to care more for his books and long magazine pieces than for his column. The other is George Will. His columns sometimes approach the Kemptonesque in language, but his range of expertise is much more limited, and he gives the impression that he is showing off, while waiting for the television viewer, not the newspaper subscriber. More important, he is not above faking it when it suits his political and/or philosophical purposes. That is very un-Kemptonesque.

I sometimes wonder if those two writers have been burdened by their educations. Probably shouldn't say this in a university's magazine, but I believe their PhDs are a liability. Kempton learned his understanding of and compassion for all his subjects in a different discipline. He explained in his introduction to that 1963 collection of columns: "They are exercises submitted to a school from which I have since graduated. There are worse schools than daily newspapers. And, reading over these 12 years, I began to feel more and more that they formed most of the education I have."

It goes without saying that he graduated summa cum laude, then went back for more, and never stopped learning and improving.

Theo Lippman Jr. wrote editorials and columns for The Baltimore Sun from 1965 to 1995, and taught Opinion Writing in The Writing Seminars from 1987 to 1996.