Here that my "summer reading" was Dan Quayle's...

I WROTE

August 01, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

I WROTE here that my "summer reading" was Dan Quayle's autobiography. A lie. Reading Quayle is my job. For pleasure this summer I've been reading "Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events."

It's a collection of writings by a man I've always thought of as the Babe Ruth of newspapering: Baltimore boy who went to New York and did what he does far better than anyone else, before or since. What he does is write newspaper columns.

Murray Kempton was born and raised here (Hopkins '39), then went to the big city to became a columnist for the New York Post, the New York World-Telegram and Sun and now New York Newsday.

I'm not reading his whole book. Just the 47 short pieces (of a total of 78 in this anthology; 150 pages of a book 549 pages long) written on deadline for those daily newspapers. I've read lots of his longer pieces, written now for the New York Review of Books, and they're good. Polished. But Kempton writing rapidly on deadline for a short hole on the editorial page or op ed page and always doing it so well -- that's Ruthian. Lots of us try, but none of us succeeds.

Though he has said something to the contrary, I would guess Kempton prefers this work to all other. He introduces this book with Westbrook Pegler's assertion that his own downfall "began when I quit sports and went cosmic. It finished when I began writing on Monday to be printed on Friday."

Kempton is a man of the left. Yet he dedicates this book to William Buckley and makes it clear his only hero is Pegler, the rabid right wing anti-Roosevelt columnist. Among the many subjects of sympathetic appraisals are Richard Nixon and Whittaker Chambers -- but also Alger Hiss and Thurgood Marshall.

Newspaper cubs love Kempton for his irreverence toward authority. He has written, "There's no excuse for kicking somebody unless he's up." And he says, with admiration, of the reporters in a 1969 revival of the play "The Front Page":

"They are casual about suffering; they are harsh about losers; but they know something that has escaped those of us their juniors who have lunch with the White House assistants. They know that the sheriff is a thief and that when the mayor says that he stands against the Red Peril he means only that he confronts the approach of the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. They know, in other words, what Lord Acton studied for years to find out: 'Great men are almost always bad men . . .' "

Another time Kempton instructed, "write about politicians and businessmen as if they were Mafiosi." It's easy to miss the whole point of that unless you read a lot of Kempton. He writes about Mafiosi with tolerance and understanding.

He is the most human and humane newspaper columnist I have ever read. If I were a politician or a businessman or a great and bad man, I would rather be kicked by Murray Kempton than praised by the most talented worshiper alive.

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