Murray Kempton
Murray Kempton; drawing by David Levine

My late friend Charles Ives, a conservative columnist for the Baltimore Sun, was so modest that he signed his writings “C.P. Ives,” lest anyone think he presumed relationship with the composer, whom he revered. His modesty made him reluctant to boast that he had received a letter of profuse thanks from Murray Kempton, whose journalism he also revered. Ives had met, at some Baltimore function, Kempton’s mother, a stalwart of that “shabby genteel” class Kempton has described, in various places, with rueful semi-affection. When Ives said it was an honor to meet Kempton’s mother, she responded with surprise. How could a good fellow-conservative like Ives admire her raffish and radical son’s work? Kempton was soon writing to Ives a heartfelt letter expressing gratitude for indicating to his mother that he was not entirely a traitor to his class.

One of the things that informs Kempton’s journalism—the most perceptive of our time—is his uncomfortable awareness of class issues and differences. People like Barbara Ehrenreich periodically rediscover the reality of class in our “classless” society. Kempton never lost or forgot it. The real truth about FDR, in Kempton’s eyes, was that he was regrettably far from becoming a traitor to his class:

It seems odd that their chance should have come to a pair [Franklin and Eleanor] who were so close to obsolescence even sixty years ago. That chance was owed to the Depression, which did their country the signal service of transiently diminishing its veneration for the newly rich. By 1933 every climber was pretty much tumbling in the heap with the poor souls he had climbed over; and the old, slightly shabby, aristocratic elegance had its time of authority once more.

Kempton, the descendant of Episcopal bishops and Confederate officers, is withering in his scorn for such descendants’ airs:

All doubt that the true aristocrat defines himself by his arrival at being the entire democrat has been resolved for anyone who has had the luck to observe the egalitarian fraternity with which Joseph Alsop reminds the waiter that their shared duty to the standards they are sworn to preserve requires that the hollandaise sauce be carried back and thrust under the cook’s nose.

Trust Kempton to elicit from FDR’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, this excuse for the New Deal’s failings with regard to black Americans: “After all, we had always had white servants.” (It was Kempton, too, who observed Robert Kennedy asking what blacks want without any apparent awareness that black waiters were serving him as he talked.)

Much of Kempton’s humor is based on the comedy of manners in a society that denies its class basis. A short apparently flippant column about the trial of a woman who hired a man to kill her husband turns on the shopping habits of the rich and would-be rich. Middle-class housewives now look for hit men as matrons once tried to get tips on good gardeners:

Paul Turchen remembered that one afternoon he and his partner were installing a shrub and Stella Valenza stopped her car and said she needed to find a killer for Felice.

It was Kempton’s affinity with Alger Hiss, as a fellow scion of Baltimore’s “shabby gentility” schooled at “the Hopkins” in its more parochial days, that let him see through Hiss’s claim to innocence from the outset. He did not wonder at or mind Hiss’s becoming a Communist, or even a spy. If Kempton had become a more serious Communist, he could have ended up being a spy (given his sense of duty), but not a good one (given his candor). But he could not have done what Hiss did to the wife of a fellow spy—tipped the Soviets that the United States government would not protect her. Kempton saw, in this small event, the real traitor to his class.

He knows, of course, that class is not a matter of manners only (he has no quarrel with manners), but of property. That equips him to notice what others overlook. In his analysis of the J. Robert Oppenheimer case, he registers the difference between physicists’ angry treatment of Edward Teller, who merely facilitated Oppenheimer’s downfall, and their continuing sycophancy to Lewis Strauss, who engineered the downfall: “An unassailable immunity is reserved for the man who pays.” Even Kempton’s rare bizarreries have a class basis. His odd affection for Westbrook Pegler is based on the workingman’s honor which made “Peg” keep giving his publishers hard labor when he knew they had too much money to understand value.

This collection of Kempton’s journalism arrives just in time for me. The ragged and loopholed articles I have been saving for years were about to disintegrate from time and thumbing. The 1967 Esquire article on Eisenhower has already crumbled through my fingers—but no matter: I long ago knew it almost by heart. Now most of my floppy clippings are here under hard covers. Most, but not all. I miss the review (in National Review) of Theodore White’s first campaign book. Long before the rest of us caught on, Kempton was embarrassed to see a journalist so quick to drop onto his knees before any successful politician. (This is also the place where Kempton wrote the immortal line about Kennedy’s election: “Once again we have been cheated of the prospect of a Catholic President.”) I also miss, here, the 1973 essay (in this journal) on Jefferson. No one should write another word about that great man without pondering what Kempton calls “the moral earnestness of his refusal to make acquaintance with his own sins.”


But most of the great stuff is included—e.g., the 1967 New Republic article on Machiavelli. I have been arguing with this piece for years. I think Kempton is wrong on Machiavelli; but so many things he says are right that I have to convince myself all over again that he is wrong on the main points. Briefly, he thinks the power of chance, Fortuna, is the rock on which Machiavelli’s system shattered, while I think it is the rock on which Machiavelli’s non-system is built. But who has better seen the relation of Machiavelli with his one embattled patron, Piero Soderini? “The arriviste in Machiavelli cannot always have found it easy to respect a man who would take his advice.”

I cannot ever feel comfortable in disagreeing with Kempton, given his record of being right on so many occasions when nearly everyone else was wrong—on Eisenhower, on Hiss, on Truman, on Kennedy, on Theodore White. The only time I think him clearly wrong is when he contradicts himself. In this collection, he derides black studies as an academic discipline in one column (on Leonard Jeffries), only to write, twelve pages later: “The rest of us ought long ago to have recognized how much easier it is to learn about America with an all-else- excluding concentration on the history of Afro-Americans than it ever has been to depend on histories that scarcely mention them.” This latter passage reminds me of Richard Wright’s complaint, in Black Boy (American Hunger), that the schools gave him no answers to his questions about the place of blacks in America, so he had to settle for half-baked answers from Communist street orators, who at least addressed the subject.

I go away from most Kempton pieces feeling that no one has better caught his subject. Reagan, a repository of “tested untruths,” proved that “when it is your style to be against government, nothing can succeed for you like failure to govern.” Whittaker Chambers “engaged no subject without coming back very quickly to himself…he could not overcome the habit of anointing himself as legate from some Other Shore.” Goya is haunted by “witches half-mocked and half-believed in.” Malraux writing on De Gaulle gives us “Europe’s last great mythic figure in the arms of her last grand mythomaniac.” George Bush was hollowed out because he considered it “worse to be dismissed as a wimp by the boorish than thought a cad by the refined.” The Sixties pullulated with radicals “who became tragic figures without ever managing to seem serious ones.”

The marks of his mentors are everywhere in this collection—Marx and Burke, Gibbon and Proust, the two Henrys (Adams and James). He repeats certain guiding (continually useful) principles—e.g., that most disasters occur at the point where action is taken to its logical conclusion, and liars succeed only when they have taken care to believe their own lies before trying them on others. We are continually made aware of Kempton’s great love of Italy (where he taught on a Fulbright grant in 1958). One of his few boasts is that he was in St. Peter’s Square when the elections of two popes were revealed, “and not Henry James, nor Stendhal nor, for that matter, Michelangelo could ever have said the same.” His visit to Sicily prompts one of his better essays; but perhaps the very best thing in this book is the article on Mussolini, a writers’ master class on the subjects of biography, journalism, fascism, Italy, and political “destiny.” On the latter point he writes:

When anyone comes to power cutting as mangy a figure as Hitler’s or as ridiculous a one as Mussolini’s, his bearing is all the more apt to overcome the observer because it looks so inappropriate: He could not have come to this great stage if the gods had not appointed him.

If I were a foundation, I would throw any amount of money at Kempton on condition that he leave for Italy tomorrow and write a book about anything he sees there.


I cannot leave the matter here. I have to do something difficult, something that embarrasses me because it will embarrass him. Kempton is the journalists’ journalist. We all wonder at his erudition, his verbal pyrotechnics, his power to wound (used with great reluctance—he often suffocates in euthanasia when he so clearly has the power to execute with a single bullet). But what one hears about him and about no other journalist, when his peers are praising him, is the odd admission that “he is just so good”—not good at writing, good at analyzing, good at reportage. He is a good man. It somehow bakes off of him. I first experienced this in 1957, when I was sent by William Buckley to pick his brain on the subject of Jimmy Hoffa. Not only did he empty his files out for me, a stranger, a graduate student who had not published, at that point, a single word. He took me to his home, cooked dinner, talked into the night, gave me a bed, and told me he would do anything else if I would just give him a call.

Others tell similar stories. He is so generous people hesitate to ask him for a favor, knowing he will give twice as much as they were seeking. Other journalists hoard their findings till they can use them. Those who cluster around Kempton at political events sometimes feel as if they are stealing his livelihood—he gives them his findings and aphorisms as they occur to him, though he cannot write them down until later that night or the next morning. He claims people are fooled about him—he is not a good man; he just has good manners. (Thanks, Mom!) It is true that he is polite to the point, almost, of self-caricature. One of his funnier columns in this collection recounts his early morning trip out to buy a newspaper, when he regretted he had nothing to give two hardworking muggers. After he proved, at knife point, that he had no bills, he called out to the departing robbers, “At least take the change!”

Whatever his regret that Roosevelt could not really transcend his class, Kempton is at least glad that FDR kept its high personal standards—which is more than George Bush could do. Hiss only offends Kempton when he hurts a person, not when he espouses some erroneous cause. Looking about for something good to say about a particularly frowsy Sixties radical, all he can come up with is this:

The impression of being at bottom a good woman that Jane Alpert conveyed even when she was a fanatic and that can still somehow survive the otherwise alienating tone of her autobiography can in some measure be credited to the fine character of her mother and father.

But gentility does not take one far. It is as easily made a cloak for exploitation as a basis for virtue. That Kempton has made it the latter comes from his sense of obligation. He is a man of elite tastes and populist principles. What sets him apart from Joe Alsop or Frances Perkins is that he is aware of the conflict. He knows that others have the right to resent his privileges. (He is not conventionally rich, or even always solvent. But he carries his riches in his ear, listening to Schubert; in his eye, loving Goya; in his tools, rolling Gibbon in his head as his fingers move over the typewriter.)

He has a sense of duty that shows up in his code toward employers (who deserve hard work from him though they often do not know what “deserving” means), toward his country (he served in combat in the Philippines), toward his readers (who deserve to get whatever he can find to give them that day). This code comes out best in his long fascinating account of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, which he attended as a Eugene McCarthy delegate from New York’s twentieth congressional district. At each turn of that turbulent convention, he asked himself what he owed to the people who sent him there. When he could no longer vote for a peace candidate, he felt his constituents would want him to work for peace on the streets. When he decided to interpose a delegate’s credentials between the cops and the kids, Norman Mailer said that he (Mailer) would not have “the guts” to face Chicago’s cops without at least two hundred delegates by his side. Kempton is amazed that Mailer could so far miss the putative meaning of his own life. His reflections blow to smithereens the whole huff and puff of Hemingwayism:

I wondered again, as I often have, how insubstantialities like guts can worry men so much more intelligent than I…The one thing that guts is not is a quality that can be depended on. That is why it is useless continually to test it, because there is always a time when it fails almost anyone. Bravery is irrelevant; unless you have the dangerous good fortune of not knowing you are in danger, the trick is to anticipate; as often as not, you will act badly any time you are surprised. Dignity, not courage, is all anyone can hope to keep.

These thoughts, born of his experience in the Philippines, return to him when he is dealing with his disappointed muggers. He knows that bravery is not produced by a cult of bravery. It can be produced by irrational anger—he had felt some of this earlier at the ’68 convention, and was ashamed of it. It can be produced by a sense of honor—as even G. Gordon Liddy demonstrates. (A bit of the old Confederate soldier in Kempton salutes Liddy’s silly but indisputable sense of honor.) Or it can be produced by a sense of duty—which is why Kempton went to jail in Chicago and Mailer did not.

So Kempton’s mother did not have to worry that he would let down the shabby-genteel cause. Though he did everything to make himself shabbier, he could never be less than a gentleman. He understands that no one deserves to be called a gentleman, in the first place, unless he is something better.

This Issue

May 12, 1994