The three greatest columnists all came out of Baltimore

The Argument

A rereading of their work concludes that H. L. Mencken, though a bully, reigns, followed by Murray Kempton and Russell Baker.

Books

July 07, 2002|By Theo Lippman Jr. | By Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

When Baltimore's Murray Kempton died in 1997, I wrote for Johns Hopkins Magazine an appreciation of his columns in various New York newspapers over a long career. I said he was the second best at it that the city -- and the nation -- had ever produced. The best in both cases was H.L. Mencken. By "best," I meant the newspaper columnist whose work was most enjoyable and meaningful not only when the ink was coming off on a reader's hands, but also decades later.

I said Russell Baker, a Hopkins man as was Kempton and a Sunpapers man as was Mencken, was closer in writing skill to those two than any other columnist and that his New York Times columns "may endure," but qualified that by saying it was because he was a humorist.

I've reflected on that over the years. Had I gone overboard in awarding the gold, silver and bronze for column-writing to Baltimoreans? I recently reread them and some of the few competitors for whom a medal could be considered.

I was right.

Except maybe I shouldn't have said Mencken's journalism is better than Kempton's. And maybe I shouldn't have implied that humorous journalism of the Baker type is a sub-category with lesser standards. A column can be funny and still be serious.

Baker retired from The Times in 1998. The year before, he had begun writing occasional essays for the New York Review of Books. Eleven have just been collected in a book, Looking Back (New York Review Books, 185 pages, $19.95).

They are not funny. He has gone from Bakeresque to Kemptonesque. I don't mean he is imitative. I mean that his description of Kempton's writing in his first piece for the Review after he retired from the Times could be said of his own: "the work of a man learned in history, acrobatic in grammar, skilled in irony and willing to use it."

In that same piece, Baker noted this important element of the Kempton style: "He brought moral judgment to bear on the day's most humdrum news events." Kempton, probably alone among newspaper columnists, could do that day in and day out, in 750-word pieces, often written on deadline about matters that were not yet fully played out or understood, and do it with no trace of pomposity or affectation.

Baker seldom if ever took a stab at that sort of moral judgment in his Times columns. The "moral" in his columns was Aesopian, the practical lesson of a made-up story. Funny, thoughtful stories about everything. (His out-of-print column collections, such as There's a Country in My Basement, are available from used book sellers and at libraries.)

He has taken a stab at the other sort of moral writing in his Review pieces. Here's one example. He writes of Taylor Branch's saga of Martin Luther King Jr., Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire: "What grips us is the melodrama of the civil rights movement, the bravery of the people who made it, the cruelty of the people who hated it, and in the end the nobility of Martin Luther King, who always knew he might be murdered at any moment, and always expected to be, and yet persisted." That is an almost perfect sentence.

Baker, obviously, is a liberal. So was Kempton. Jack Newfield, one of the most leftist of mainstream New York newspapermen, says in his new memoir Somebody's Gotta Tell It (St. Martin's Press, 336 pages, $25.95) that reading Kempton lured him into journalism. He calls him "my hero." In an earlier book, he called him his "mentor."

But Kempton was hardly a doctrinaire liberal. He thought Dwight Eisenhower was "underestimated." He "worshipped" the anti-Roosevelt columnist Westbrook Pegler. He dedicated his 1994 book Rebellions, Perversity and Main Events to William F. Buckley.

Rebellions is the best collection of newspaper and magazine opinion writing I have ever read. It is also out of print, but it, too, is available at libraries and from sellers of used books (signed hardcover first editions bring up to $150).

It is hard to resist quoting from it. I would also like to quote more of Baker's best sentences. But if I did, I wouldn't have space left for anything else. Besides, both writers are best appreciated by reading a column or essay whole. They are not aphorists.

I will quote one Kempton sentence in the same vein as Baker's above. It was written for the then failing New York World Telegram in 1966. It's my favorite. It dealt with the refusal of the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, pressured by conservative political groups, to honor a World War II Army hero's request to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery because he had been a Communist.

"And so," Kempton wrote, "an American who was brave has been judged and disposed of by Americans who are cowards of the least excusable sort, cowards who have very little to fear."

A perfect sentence. Written on a daily deadline. For a second-rate newspaper.

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