Murray Kempton: philosopher in the guise of a police reporter

May 09, 1997|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Murray Kempton, who died the other day at 79, graced the New York newspaper scene for half a century with his elegantly written column, and for nearly as long informed and beguiled generations of reporters on the national political campaign trail.

In a world of grubby little men (and only later women) chasing political candidates around the country scribbling in their notebooks while puffing on dangling cigarettes, the sartorially proper Mr. Kempton more often than not hovered above, taking in the panorama.

He dressed nattily and puffed on a pipe that would have been more at home on a college campus than in the back of a press bus. But the bus was where he always could be found during a presidential campaign, not so much covering the event as critiquing it out of his years on the trail and his love affair with the exercise and the players.

This is not to say that a good part of Murray Kempton was not the old-fashioned reporter who lived by expending his shoe leather. He worked the beat as tirelessly as any rookie, often pedaling around his beloved Manhattan on a bike. He was a philosopher in the guise of a police reporter, hanging around the New York courts and the cops, with interludes on the campaign trail beyond.

ZTC Mr. Kempton was never content with pouring his reporting and his conclusions into his column. His day was never done until he had regaled all those within earshot in newsroom or on press bus with priceless recollections of similar scenes of the past, usually casting the present-day characters as poor imitations of those who went before.

Inside pontification

He was never hesitant to arrive on a story, whether in Albany, Washington or points around and between, and instruct the reporters who had been covering it regularly about what was really going on. Such pontifications often drew snickers, but he usually went away with a column of insight and wisdom for his readers back in New York.

Not only younger reporters but political candidates as well could be expected in Mr. Kempton's presence to be told the old stories. His interviews might often turn more into monologues for the edification of his subject than vehicles for extracting what the candidate thought.

A hopeless provincial

He was, in one sense, a hopeless New York provincial, but the world was his beat, taking him in his columns well beyond the courthouse and the campaign trail to the sports arena, the theater and, yes, the library from which he regularly culled rich literary phrases and references.

Although he was unabashedly and unswervingly liberal, he did not let that fact inhibit him from skewering errant behavior on the left as well as the right. And although he despised the politics of Richard Nixon and often said so in print, he wrote a column in Newsday in 1984 going to bat for Nixon when tenants of a Manhattan apartment rose up against accepting him as a neighbor.

Mr. Kempton started out as a social worker in Baltimore, where he was born, worked for the liberal International Ladies Garment Workers Union and had a brief flirtation with a Communist labor group before associating himself with the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas.

He got his first major reporting job at the New York Post, where he spent many of his best years as reporter and eventually columnist, focusing first on labor issues and then politics.

It seemed almost an afterthought when Mr. Kempton won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1985, more than 40 years after his beginnings at the Post, which in that time had gone from a liberal beacon to an ultraconservative scold.

He won many other awards as well, but he probably would regard as his greatest achievement remaining through all those years a newspaperman who worked in the trenches, yet was always willing and able to climb out and describe the larger picture with wry humor, elegance and style.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/09/97

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