Murray Kempton wrote about eleven thousand newspaper columns in his time, and, like all practitioners of the trade, he devoted a fair percentage of them to the deflation of the pompous and the unmasking of the fake. Early in the campaign of 1992, he determined Bill Clinton to be a disappointment to integrity and the Democratic Party, and so Murray moved toward his Maker still sticking fine pins in the President’s bloviated self-esteem; it was with a healing smile that one read of Bill and Hillary’s declaration to the wire services of their heartfelt sadness at his passing.
But unlike most of his colleagues, Murray Kempton did not rise in the morning with the desire to attack. Part of what made him unique as a newspaperman was his impulse for praise and forgiveness, his pleasure in shining a light of glory on a legitimate hero (on Mose Wright or Adlai Stevenson) or, more difficult, to find a particle of worth in reputations routinely trammeled. He found instruction (if not glory) in Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa, Richard Nixon and Jean Harris. Were not their failings, their greed and jealousies, the failings of us all? Like Chekhov’s stories, Murray’s dispatches were finally about weakness, desperation, forgiveness, losing, and love. His technique was to begin with the immediate and the local—a shooting, a trial, a strike—and end with a greater speculation. When writing, for instance, about the myriad political misjudgments of Paul Robeson, he wondered if perhaps Robeson “was, at the end, one of those of us who turn back to our youth because it asserts itself in clouded memory as purer and freer of spite than pretty much everything we have met since. It wasn’t of course; but what else are we old men to do?”
Murray Kempton grew up on the left, but he was predictable only from a moral—and never a political—point of view. Which is to say he had no “character issue.” He was always dubious of the self-appointed saint pretending to absolute virtue. When Carmine DeSapio finally lost his municipal throne in September 1961, Kempton spent that election night at the side of the fallen Tammany king and finished his column with an arch warning against the pretensions of those masquerading in the cloak of reform. He describes how he took leave of DeSapio that night and “walked into the streets and noticed that there were no slums any more, and no landlords, and the Age of Pericles had begun because we were rid of Carmine DeSapio. One had to walk carefully to avoid being stabbed by the lilies bursting in the pavements. I wish the reformers luck—with less Christian sincerity than Carmine DeSapio does. I will be a long time forgiving them this one.”
There was, of course, high comedy in the way Kempton could pretend to find the redeeming feature in every low scoundrel: “Matthew Ianniello has been lost to Mulberry Street and on long-term lease to the federal prison system since 1986, and…
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