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Decline and Fall

Murray Kempton disdained the word “journalist.” He was a reporter, he said. To news people of his generation, it was an important distinction. For those who had taken a fancy to the trade, as he had, in the 1930s, “journalist” had the ridiculous sound of the local society reporter giving himself airs. A seasoned foreign correspondent whom I consulted in 1952 for advice about reporting from London cautioned that, over there, reporters actually called themselves “journalists.” It seemed hilarious to both of us, but I was astonished, on arriving in Fleet Street, to discover that it was true.

Kempton, in his elliptical manner, explained his view of the matter by recalling a luncheon conversation with Westbrook Pegler. Once a much respected sportswriter, Pegler had turned columnist and, in that role, incessantly attacked Eleanor Roosevelt with such fury that many of his colleagues suspected he had become unhinged. During their lunch, Kempton recalled, Pegler said “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,” said Kempton, “has been so rooted in my heart ever since that I write every day for the next and walk wide of the cosmic and settle most happily for the local….”

The modesty is beguiling, but there is about it the touch of the confidence man pretending to be a simple country lad with mud between his toes. Kempton’s long career shows us a man with much more in mind than the simplicities of newspaper reporting. To make open confession of higher ambition was, of course, out of the question. The conventions of the newsroom demanded that anyone with complex ambitions keep quiet about them or accept the ridicule reserved for those who admitted to dreams of becoming the next Hemingway. High aspirations were permissible and even commonplace in every newsroom, but it was terribly bad form to announce them.

Born in 1917, Kempton had come of age during the Depression, when movies were celebrating the newspaper reporter as a glamorous champion of the persecuted and dispossessed. This movie reporter was outwardly a wisecracking cynic hardened by exposure to too many bad cops and rotten politicians, but, deep within, he was a man of moral principle. It being the 1930s, his sympathies ran against the rich and the powerful. He was Hildy Johnson saving a condemned innocent from the gallows in The Front Page, and he was Clark Gable teaching the snobby society dame Claudette Colbert how to dunk a working stiff’s doughnut. He was, above all, one with the plain people, a man with the cheek to insult mayors, police chiefs, and bankers. With a press card stuck in the greasy band of his battered fedora, he might be miserably underpaid, but he was gloriously independent and licked no man’s boots. This mythic hero of Kempton’s youth was a reporter—just a plain reporter.

Well, Kempton was not just a plain reporter. He was a reporter of exceeding elegance. His prose had an intricacy that few newspaper editors would have tolerated. He was a master of irony and had the wit of a first-rate humorist, yet he brought moral judgment to bear on the day’s most humdrum news events. He was concerned with sin. His grasp of the historical context of the day’s headlines would have flabbergasted the plain reporters of my youth. All would have considered much of his reporting a flagrant violation of the reporter’s license.

Here, chosen at random from a collection of his journalism, is a sentence he wrote while reporting a national political convention:

But if for [Lord] Acton there was no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it, there is for journalism no credo more sacred than that victory, however seedy, certifies the brilliance of the victor.*

This is not a sentence to be lightly skimmed, as reporters’ sentences are supposed to be. It is an intricately filigreed eighteenth-century construction completely alien to modern American news writing. It will be utterly baffling to most newspaper readers unwilling to pause in the day’s hurlyburly, reread it two or three times, find out who Lord Acton was, then struggle with the puzzling parallel between Acton’s view of heresy and journalism’s sacred credo.

It is the creation of a writer, not a plain reporter. It is the work of a man learned in history, acrobatic in grammar, skilled in irony and willing to use it—as with that jeer at journalism’s sacred credo—to laugh at the pretensions of his own trade. A plain reporter? Hardly. Then what? Perhaps a historian writing the story of his own time.

Kempton was a loving student of history, especially history written on the classic English model. His style is sometimes reminiscent of Gibbon, sometimes of Macaulay. Kempton himself said he most admired the Earl of Clarendon, whose seventeenth-century History of the Rebellion predated Gibbon by a full century.

Clarendon seems a curious passion in a man obliged to please readers of the breezier dailies, but please them Kempton did, and American reporters, most of whom would never have dared try it themselves, revered him for pulling it off. He was evidence that, though theirs might be a raffish trade, there was more to it than those tired old corpses lying in pools of blood and eternally posturing presidents droning away in ghostwritten prose.

In the mid-1950s Kempton published Part of Our Time, his one full-length book about the history of the era of his youth, which has been out of print since the Sixties. It is now reissued in the Modern Library series, which confers “classic” status, I suppose. Classic or not, it is good to have it back in print, for it is a valuable and entertaining text on the destruction of the radical left in American politics. In a society where many now recoil from the word “liberal,” how many even know that not so long ago there was a real American left? And that the word “radical” did not refer to Republican Christers out to turn government into an agent of Puritanism but to people dreaming of a society economically perfected, if necessary, through violence?

Kempton, himself a man of the left, cannot resist an ironic smile at the way the dream ended.

The social revolutionary of the thirties thought that he was prepared to die by violence. He thought that he was prepared for an America destroyed by war and fascism. His imagination covered, in fact, almost every disaster except the one which has now overtaken him.

For he could not have known that, within twenty years, he would live in an America made glorious according to every dream of the economic materialist. Its wealth, its resources, its almost universally exalted living standards would not have seemed to him possible except in the triumph of his own revolutionary program.

The leftists of his study had been young and vital in the Thirties but, at the time Kempton wrote, most were relics of interest only to Red-hunting congressmen. His subtitle calls them “Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties,” but ruins far outnumber monuments in his cast. Walter Reuther and maybe John L. Lewis and Paul Robeson are names that still have weight among people interested in American history. Even among these few, however, only geezers are likely to remember J.B. Matthews, who abandoned revolution to track Communists for the House Un-American Activities Committee, or Elizabeth Bentley, the “Red Spy Queen” of a thousand headlines.

Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers are here, of course. Almost everyone still remembers them. Though both were already ruins when Kempton wrote, the world always prefers a good story to a political manifesto; theirs was a good story indeed and will probably preserve them in memory for ages to come, the most subtle treatment of them remaining Kempton’s.

Communism dominated the radical movement of the Thirties, and most of Kempton’s subjects were Communists at one time or another. Some, like Elizabeth Bentley, turned against it and became famous for anticommunism in the Fifties. Some, like Julius Rosenberg, stayed with it and became Soviet agents.

As a student at Johns Hopkins Kempton himself belonged briefly to the Young Communist League. Joining was required, he said, to get work during his short career as a seaman. When he left the sea, he took to socialism. Part of Our Time has a pronounced anti-Communist flavor, at least when it comes to the Party itself. Kempton seems to believe that some of the Communists were chiefly to blame for the destruction of the traditional and honorable American radical movement. He is gentle toward the Thirties radicals who left the Party and he can be hard on some who stayed.

He returns time and again to the evil effect of communism. Clearly, Kempton was profoundly and authentically Christian, and communism’s contempt for New Testament values appalled him. Throughout his book we encounter reflections on sin, mercy, pity, and the loss of innocence. He talks of the “secular hell” awaiting those “born without innocence.” He had no patience for those who were indifferent to such matters. The Communist view of them went beyond indifference into open contempt.

Thus:

…The Communists offer one precious, fatal boon: they take away the sense of sin. It may or may not be debatable whether a man can live without God; but, if it were possible, we should pass a law forbidding a man to live without the sense of sin.

And:

I cannot conceal the sense that those of my subjects who became Communists were terribly flawed by their acceptance of a gospel which had no room in it for doubt or pity or mercy, and that, clutching its standard, it was inevitable that so many would set out to be redeemers and end up either policemen or the targets of policemen.

Lee Pressman is the dark figure of Kempton’s story. He had arrived in Washington in the early Thirties as a legal do-gooder, but soon revealed a ruthlessness that made him valuable to men like John L. Lewis. He met Lewis when the CIO was being forged and eventually became its general counsel. Curiously, though Kempton obviously dislikes Pressman for his indifference to Christian morality, he sketches the equally ruthless Lewis as a Homeric figure too grand to be judged by normal moral standards.

Pressman had never met a man like Lewis; there is only one. They understood each other because they understood that the price of power and victory is a man’s innocence. John Lewis had once killed a mad mule in a mine with his bare fist; and, since in those days a mule’s life was worth more than a miner’s, he had saved his job by covering his victim’s wound with mud and telling the superintendent that it died of heart failure. He was the two prime Homeric heroes in one mold, at once Achilles and Ulysses; he went as far as strength would take him and thereafter proceeded by guile. He respected force and cunning alike; and he expected devotion.

Kempton’s obvious admiration for Lewis is not diminished by the fact that he “lived somewhere beyond innocence” and “simply fought without conscience.” But then, Lewis’s moral deficiencies do not arise from loyalty to communism. Lee Pressman’s do.

By accepting Lenin as his model, Pressman had violated the tradition of American radicalism. How so? Because Leninism was “an image of Christ inverted”: whereas Christ taught that we should love our enemies, Lenin taught that we should hate our friends “if they were detected in the sin of being wrong.”

Though Pressman said he had left the Party in 1935, Kempton contends he remained devoted to the Soviet Union “as the repository of the gospel in its highest form. History was enthroned there.” Pressman was governed by a “religious fantasy” of communism. To a close colleague who had spoken critically of the 1937 Moscow show trials, in which Stalin was having the old Bolsheviks “tried” and shot, Pressman’s reply was curt: “Do you mean, J.B., that you reject the Terror?” After that, writes Kempton, “things were never the same between them.”

The Terror and Stalin’s show trials had dealt a shocking blow to Americans who had once given their hearts to communism. They did not make Pressman, however, recoil from the gospel, and Kempton is unforgiving. His attitude may owe something to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Kempton would almost certainly have read it, for it was widely read and debated in the Forties by those with an intellectual interest in the Soviet Union. In a story based on the Moscow trials, Koestler created a nightmare vision of the Stalinist state, and its effect on the American left was profound.

The novel depicts the clash between the new Communist man, Gletkin, and Rubashov, a composite of the old Bolsheviks whom Stalin had liquidated with the 1937 trials. Reviewing it in 1941, Harold Strauss noted that these legalistic travesties, like the confrontation between Gletkin and Rubashov, were “a clash between pragmatic absolutism and humanitarian democracy.”

For Kempton, a champion of humanitarian democracy, Pressman was, like Gletkin, too much the pragmatic absolutist: “He seemed like a naked sword. He did not make his way by charm and sympathy but because he was an instrument more serviceable than any other in the locker. His language was the language of operations; he burned not nor blazed about the goal; he offered only to tell you how to get there.”

His disapproval of Pressman should not be taken as evidence that Kempton was writing a conventional anti-Communist screed of the 1950s. Toward most of his aging radicals he was evenhanded and, toward some, affectionate. His chapter on radical novelists and playwrights of the Thirties is an amused reflection on the absurdity of trying to turn political theory into fiction. His chapter on Joseph Curran, who fought his way to the top of the National Maritime Union, could have been written by a loving son.

The Hollywood Ten leave him marveling at the disparity between the fame heaped on them by congressional investigators and the triviality of their leftist accomplishments. He presents a representative list of movies written by apparent Communists in the Thirties. It includes Little Orphan Annie, The Saint in New York, and Algiers, a romance in which Charles Boyer, playing Pepe le Moko, asked Hedy Lamarr to “come with me to the Casbah.” Kempton finds them vain, ineffectual, and slightly contemptible: “Life was a scenario to most of them: the Comintern was a musical and Spain the Rose Bowl.”

He gives us Paul Robeson as a noble but sad and lonely giant, isolated from America’s less talented, less lucky, less well-schooled black masses. To them, the white man’s radical politics had no apparent relevance to the black condition in America. Kempton is sympathetic to the suffering Robeson underwent for his leftist political views, but his black hero is A. Philip Randolph, who taught Pullman porters that black people had to take their destiny in their own hands.

Kempton’s chapter on Hiss and Chambers flows from his belief that Hiss was indeed a Communist as Chambers said. It is the why of Hiss’s communism that interests him, and his own past prompts him to a curious theory. Like Hiss, Kempton had grown up in the Bolton Hill section of Baltimore, the city’s “heartland of shabby gentility.” Both had gone to Johns Hopkins University. Reflecting on how that dull, bourgeois world had affected his own life, Kempton wonders about Hiss: Could it have been a sense of guilt that made Hiss a disciplined Communist?

Men like Alger Hiss do not have to become Communists, at least in the West; it is an act of will. Membership in the Party is an inconvenience; its duties are much more material than its rewards. There are a variety of reasons that could impel a man toward this unattractive discipline. One of them may be the sense of guilt—the guilt of inaction in a time of action, the guilt of serving oneself first in the face of the knowledge that it is better to serve others, the guilt of unexpressed aspirations which are different from the aspirations of your own kind.

The men who become Communists out of that sense of guilt are spoiled priests.

…The terrible conflict between [Hiss’s] private self and his public conduct is the most compelling reason why he could have joined the Communist Party.

The left discussed in Part of Our Time was destroyed in the 1950s. It had been born of economic suffering in the Depression and seemed irrelevant during the postwar boom. There was something slightly musty about its bellicose rhetoric, left over from the bellicose Thirties. It all seemed rather long ago and far away. Who remembered Hoovervilles? The Okies were about to turn Orange County into a fortress of Republican conservatism. A new generation didn’t know that Spain had once been important or that Joe Hill had been killed by the copper bosses or that Douglas MacArthur had routed the Bonus Army out of Washington. They had forgotten the sit-down strikes, the Homestead riot, Henry Ford’s goons, dish night at the movies, and the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

It is a terrible thing in America to be out-of-date, but the radical left had an even heavier burden to shoulder. There was something suspiciously foreign about it. Karl Marx, communism, faraway Russia, all that about uniting the world’s workers, overthrowing reactionary capitalism—it was definitely suspiciously foreign.

The dominance that communism had gained in the Thirties became lethal to the movement once Stalin’s terror spread into Europe. Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb and Soviet seizure of the Central European states created a suspicion in America that communism was a very nasty enemy. The American left, with its old Communist influences, was about to be crushed. The flood of former Communists talking about Red spies concealed in high places and eating away at democracy’s innards made for sensational headlines. Now it took courage to admit that one had once been a warrior of the left. The summer of 1950 brought war in Korea—against communism. And of course there was, for the left, news that American communism had helped provide Stalin with the atomic bomb.

The unsurprising results included Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, loyalty oaths, suppression of the right to travel, and jailings of persons too principled to “name names” of people they knew to be Communists. Those who were “named” could expect to be fired from whatever job they might hold. For the American left, it was a slaughter. Kempton’s history was being written as the last remnants of the movement were being mopped up by congressional committees.

To speak of “the left” in American politics today betrays either indifference to political reality or a taste for demagoguery. There has been no left of intellectual consequence since Kempton wrote. The Vietnam era produced a transient movement called “the New Left,” but it had no discernible intellectual roots. It was born in a spontaneous combustion of hatred for the Vietnam War, but, with such slogans as “make love, not war,” it was scarcely a threat to the capitalist system.

It is hard to determine what conservative pamphleteers have in mind when they whack away at “the left” and “leftists.” They are like ghost hunters searching an abandoned house. More careful conservatives use the words sparingly and concentrate on expunging “liberalism.” Today’s meaningless political language asks us to think of “liberalism” as a malevolent doctrine which, if not stamped out, could replace communism as chief threat to the republic.

Such malarkey has replaced ideological debate in American politics, with the result that recent presidential campaigns have seemed brain dead. The Reagan campaign of 1984 pleaded with the electorate to reelect the Gipper because it was morning in America. George Bush spoke of “the vision thing” in a way that made it clear he didn’t have one. He also made it clear that anybody who could be identified by “the L-word”—yes, sinister old “liberalism”—ought to be shunned.

The spreading inanity found President Clinton in 1996 coming out firmly against smoking by children. He was elected as a New Democrat. Yes, Virginia, there is a New Democrat. A New Democrat is a Democrat who stands slightly to the right of President Eisenhower. By New Democrat standards, Nelson Rockefeller would have been—do we dare use the L-word?

  1. *

    Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events (Times Books, 1994), p. 526.

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