Columns, Newspapers
May 09, 1997


May 8, 1997

In the days before curiosity died — killed by TV and a dwindling attention span — imagination and a wider world arrived in two basic forms and cost about five cents. Daily newspapers and voices over any radio walked readers and listeners through murders, wars, ballparks, different cities and foreign countries as well as intricate universes woven by electronic neighbors like Sam Spade, The Shadow, and Dick Tracy.

It was a world of bulletins and breakfast-table talk where the dated phrase “Stop the presses” actually meant something significant had just occurred. It is hard now to believe but life was so much simpler then that it could take hours, perhaps a day, to learn that MacArthur got fired, Bobby Thompson homered, Sam Sheppard was guilty, or Ike was hospitalized with a heart attack. CNN was something out of science fiction Impressions — visual as well as verbal — meant more and lasted longer. Travel was defined as leaving the block and few could measure events beyond the borders of small, proud lives bounded by the bus stop and the bedroom, so the captains of any voyage became people like Walter Winchell, Harry Wismer, Curt Gowdy, John Cameron Swayze, Bob Considine, Westbrook Pegler, Bill Cunningham, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Murray Kempton.

Kempton died the other day in New York. He was 79 and had been writing for newspapers for 60 years. Most of you probably never read a line he wrote because the bulk of his work was largely restricted to five boroughs of the big town with all the bright lights. And to those familiar with the man’s constant efforts, I bet there was a part, perhaps a paragraph or two, of any Kempton piece that felt like homework because it was heavy and made you pause and go, “Huh?”

That’s because Kempton was different: He was thoughtful. In a business where so many occupy the pages and airwaves of our life simply to beat the same drum loudly, over and over, Murray Kempton was a symphony all by himself. Who else could describe Walter Reuther, the late head of the United Auto Workers, as a guy “capable of reminiscing about the future?”

While the media have become magnets for boasters and shameless self-promoters, Murray Kempton managed to present his audience a daily gift of modesty married to insight. In the introduction to a collection of his own essays on the 1930s, he wrote: “I have my own stake in the thirties. I was in high school when Roosevelt was inaugurated; I belonged for a little while to the Young Communist League . . .

“The thirties were a part of my life like any other; I am aware that there are things in it for which I must apologize; I am also aware that in the whole of my life there will be many things for which I must apologize, under what have to be compulsions stronger than a Congressional subpoena.”

The final time I saw him, he was standing on a street corner in the sultry dusk of a July evening last year near the federal building in lower Manhattan. A greeting quickly became a conversation that encompassed topics ranging from his respect for the honesty of Jim Kallstrom, an assistant director of the FBI, to his admiration of Bob Dole’s integrity, his disgust at Bill Clinton’s charming duplicity, and his fondness for those in his newspaper life who remained attentive and eager for each day’s developments as a chance to educate, entertain or inform a reader, rather than assassinate a subject.

The last time I spoke with him, in January, he was thrilled that Pete Hamill had taken over the New York Daily News. Hamill was an unusual pick as editor, chosen at a period when more and more media conglomerates are managed by accountants thrilled to hire those who seem incapable of curiosity and write with a trowel, their sentences totally interchangeable with the copy of a Ralph Lauren ad.

Murray Kempton was a warm and generous soul. He represented honor in an industry quaking beneath the weight of whores, in it only for ego, riches, prizes, or the kill. He would have been pleased by Hamill’s latest novel, “Snow in August,” because the book captures the magic of a childhood Kempton represented each time he tapped out a column: Simply a wonderful story and well told.

An argument can be made today that there is no more “news” in the shattering sense of decades past; there is only a constant coverage of process, procedures, and trends. And with Murray Kempton’s death, you sure can make a solid argument that there is far less elegance and genteel wisdom on our printed pages because a great man is gone.