This year is chock-a-block with centennial celebrations. It is the anniversary of the Russian Revolution and President John F. Kennedy’s birth. In researching some material for Boys’ Latin School, where I teach history, I came across another centennial for a lesser known individual, an alumnus of the school: the late journalist Murray Kempton, who won the Pulitzer Prize (which is also celebrating its centennial in 2017) for distinguished commentary in 1985.
After graduating from Boys’ Latin, Kempton went to Johns Hopkins University and worked briefly in Baltimore as a social worker before leaving to take a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Kempton was described as a socialist and a Communist (J. Edgar Hoover called him a “rat,” a “snake,” and “a real stinker” in files the FBI kept on him). He later outgrew the labels, but he did not abandon his liberalism. Instead, he put it to use as a reporter and columnist for a succession of New York City daily newspapers before his death in 1997.
A devout transplanted New Yorker, Kempton still occasionally mentioned his hometown in his work and referred to himself as a “hybrid Southerner,” owing to his mother’s ancestral Southern roots.
Kempton wrote for ordinary people about issues that were important to many of them in the mid- to late- 20th century: fairness, equality, justice for everyone. He was as adept writing about Oedipus’ mother, Clytemnestra, as he was about the unsavory New York pornographer Ralph Ginzburg. French writers Stendhal and Colette, Irish writer Edmund Burke and Spanish artist Francisco Goya were all characters at one time or another in Kempton’s columns. But even among such elite company as this, he had a soft spot in his heart for disgraced former president Richard Nixon when he met vehement opposition buying a New York City co-op after his fall from grace.
His style of writing is described as baroque. Kempton wrote long sentences full of dependent clauses and words readers had to look up to find their meaning. In many of his columns you were apt to find any number of doozies, such as fundament, abjuration, appurtenances, exigent, seigneurial and contumely. Reading his columns required deep concentration, intelligence and an open mind, given his strong brand of liberalism. One reason national readers weren’t familiar with him was his dense writing style and his commitment to being New York-centric, two characteristics that don’t endear you to syndicators. “I walk wide of the cosmic and settle most happily for the local,” Kempton explained.
Arguably Kempton’s most significant attribute as a journalist was his belief that honor was the highest — and rarest — quality a person could achieve, and he found it in some of the most unlikely places, particularly in various low-level New York courtroom proceedings he covered.
Kempton also was prone to forgiveness. “The closer the years draw toward one’s own appointment with the Recording Angel, the stronger swells the claim of duty to be gentle with the pleadings of one’s brother sinner,” he wrote in the early 1990s. Still, in the same column, he found it hard to forgive junk-bond trader Michael Milken and his firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert, for their financial high jinks. Milken’s plea for mercy at his sentencing hearing was “as false and as sincere as any junk-bond prospectus its author ever distributed for Braniff or Memorex Telex.”
The past few years have also been chock-a-block with discord — in our politics, in our government, in matters of race, in just about every measurable barometer that defines a progressive, happy and healthy society. What would Kempton, by all accounts a gentleman whose work was written with “congenital compassion,” say about our current situation, one that steeps daily in a toxic brew of Internet, broadcast and print brine and vinegar? I can’t say for sure. But his friendships might give us a hint. A collection of his columns and essays, “Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events” was dedicated to his good friend William F. Buckley, the godfather of the modern conservative movement. Kempton the liberal and Buckley the conservative were unlikely friends. They were also “unlikely rebels, blessed with cool minds and warm hearts, entering the arena armed with reason, civility, and wit rather than pitchfork passion,” John Avlon, now editor in chief of The Daily Beast, wrote in the National Review in 2013.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see some of that same behavior among our citizenry, politicians, and communicators today? I think Kempton, like many of us, would say yes.
Lee McC. Kennedy (email@example.com) teaches history at the Boys' Latin School of Maryland.