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Murray Kempton
Murray Kempton
Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events
ISBN: 9780812922943
Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events
Murray Kempton discussed his book, "Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events," which deals with several lesser-known African-American leaders in U.S. history.

This is the best of Murray Kempton's columns, essays, reviews, and reportage. In the words of David Remnick, author of Lenin's Tomb, "(this book is) like watching an endless parade of the great characters of American life . . . as rich as a great novel."
—from the publisher's website

Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events
Program Air Date: July 3, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Murray Kempton, at what point did you decide to divide your book into rebellions, perversities and main events?
MURRAY KEMPTON, AUTHOR, "REBELLIONS, PERVERSITIES AND MAIN EVENTS": To tell you the truth, I handed my editor a great mass of stuff, and I wrote rather artful, not artful but art-intending introductions to everything, and then the editor picked them all himself, picked the title and everything else. And that was it. I think it's much better. Editors on newspapers, I've always liked editors very much. I may think I'm smarter than they are, but their ideas for some reason or other always turn out to be better than mine. I was perfectly satisfied to go along with this.
LAMB: Under "Rebellions," which is the first section, your first topic of conversation is the fate of Paul -- is it Robeson or Robison?
KEMPTON: Robeson. Goodness, gracious, that's true; you are a young man.
LAMB: How come you picked that to lead?
KEMPTON: My editor picked it. I was very interested in it because I thought I intended to write as best I could an article about a successful man of color of the `20s and what happened to him -- the adoration he faced, which is always tinged with condescension of a sort, and then when he strayed from the path of orthodoxy, the particular punishment he received, all of which I felt had to do with the fact that he was a man of color.
LAMB: Who was he?
KEMPTON: Paul Robeson was a great many things; he was the second black All-American football player at Rutgers; he was on Walter Camp's All-American team, which was then the All-American team. Then he was also a Phi Beta Kappa at Rutgers, so there he was, black, Phi Beta Kappa and an All-American football player. He then went to a law firm where he didn't do too well, partly because they weren't very anxious to take him into court. It was a very distinguished downtown law firm.

Then he was discovered as an actor, and he became a famous actor -- The Emperor Jones he did for O'Neill. After The Emperor Jones he then became a concert singer and became something of a movie star; I think you see him on AMC and various other things. Then he fell in love with the Soviet Union and Stalin, and then was absolutely drummed out of American society. He came back to the United States, died here. They took his picture -- they used to do that when I was a boy; they don't do it anymore. But they took the listing of Walter Camp's past All-Americans, I believe in one of the sports guides they took Paul Robeson's name out, and he'd been the All-American some time in the teens. They took his name out because he was such a scandal. This is sort of a piece about this, and at the time when I was a young reporter, I used to be very derisive of him and so I -- it didn't seem to me to make sense that someone had liked Joseph Stalin. He did, but that was only part of his life and we made it the whole of his life -- well, not me; I didn't go quite that far, but America did.
LAMB: You wrote the piece in the book in 1964, and you were with the New Republic then.
KEMPTON: No, I think I wrote that piece about three years ago. Maybe the date's wrong.
LAMB: I'm sorry, it says, "The New Republic, 1964."
KEMPTON: And that's the Robeson piece?
LAMB: Let me see here. I may have -- no, I think you're right. I apologize. This is the New York Review of Books. You wrote it in 1989.
KEMPTON: Yes, I thought so.
LAMB: I had jumped to the next piece, which is about Cassius Clay. The New York Review of Books -- how much work have you done for them?
KEMPTON: They were very sweet to me because I worked for them for about two years after I left daily journalism, not a good idea. So I used to write a piece a month for them and then every now and then I'll do articles for them.
LAMB: What is the New York Review of Books?
KEMPTON: The New York Review of Books is a wonderful literary magazine which is full of my betters, and it has a very distinguished reputation and I've sort of known them. It was formed originally during one of the newspaper strikes -- '62, I think `62 -- and it was formed to compete with the New York Times Book Review, which many publishers were annoyed at, as people always get annoyed at these things. Then it developed, and it has an enormous amount of prestige in a way. Every now and then they'll pick up a newspaper piece of mine, and I always find out -- I hate to say this about my delightful employers, but I always find more people read it in the New York Review than do in Newsday. It's one of the things that happens if you write in daily newspapers.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
KEMPTON: I live on the West Side of Manhattan.
LAMB: How long have you lived there?
KEMPTON: I've lived in and around New York for about -- I used to live in Princeton; I left Princeton and moved here. I've been living in New York, physically, since about 1960, except for a brief trip here in Washington.
LAMB: Are you still doing daily writing?
KEMPTON: Yes, I write four days a week. Four newspaper columns a week.
LAMB: For Newsday?
LAMB: And is that syndicated nationally?
KEMPTON: Not so as you'd notice. I have a tiny syndication.
LAMB: Let me go to the second piece, which was in the New Republic in `64 and ask you what you were doing then.
KEMPTON: I was editor-at-large at the New Republic between 1962 and 1963.
LAMB: Living where?
KEMPTON: Here in Washington.
LAMB: And this piece is about Cassius Clay. Again it's under the section Rebellions" -- "The Champ and the Chump." What was the point?
KEMPTON: That was just Clay's first fight with Sonny Liston, when he surprised everybody by winning the heavyweight championship. And it was just that kind of piece; I mean, it was just a piece of reporting on a fight, not a very good piece of reporting on a fight, by the way.
LAMB: And the next piece was also back in that era, 1963. It's about a gentleman -- if you walk about a block from here you can see a statue to him over in the Union Station -- A. Philip Randolph. What was the point of that one? "The Clarity of A. Philip Randolph" was the title.
KEMPTON: Everybody, no matter how young, has probably heard of the march on Washington. He was organizing the march on Washington. Randolph was president of the Pullman porters union, a very tiny union, when they had Pullman porters, which they have in a few places still left. It had at most about 10,000 members, all black, Pullman porters union. He used that to organize a civil rights movement in 1942; then he ran the march on Washington.
LAMB: He started the idea of it?
KEMPTON: Of the march on Washington?
LAMB: Yes.
KEMPTON: Yes, yes. It was his idea. He had wanted to do one during wartime, in `42, but he was dissuaded from that, and then he came back and ran this one in `62, which was an effort to push the civil rights laws. But he was about as close to universal recognition as a saint as any black leader. I think of all of them he was, because he was a man utterly without envy, entirely without ambition, no style, no pomposity.
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
KEMPTON: Yes, I saw him once or twice.
LAMB: You say that he was polite.
KEMPTON: Very much the old-fashioned gentleman.
LAMB: "Malcolm X came to his office. Randolph patiently explained how the Negro and the white will have to live together and how wrong he thought the Muslims were not to think so." How did he get along with Malcolm X?
KEMPTON: Malcolm said he was less confused than almost any other black leader he knew, but Mr. Malcolm thought he was very confused. Then Mr. Malcolm found out that life is very confusing, as time went on, too.
LAMB: Did you know him?
LAMB: How well?
KEMPTON: I always called him Mr. Malcolm. I didn't know him that well; our relations were kind of ambassadorial. He was a very classy guy. I always think that one of the problems with journalism is -- I mean, one of the mistakes in journalism is thinking people are coming your way and will agree with you. I don't think Mr. Malcolm was ever coming my way or agreeing with me, but he was very interesting. Actually, when I was doing the Clay-Liston fight, I spent the longest time with Mr. Malcolm because he was there with the then Cassius, now Muhammad Ali. We sat and talked for about, I guess, four or five hours, at the Gaston Motor Inn -- it wasn't the Gaston, but it was the motor inn of color in Miami. Clay was staying there and Malcolm was staying there.

At one point -- this is a deviation -- but at one point I said to him -- I was talking about the Black Muslims because I had covered a lot of black nationalists before -- and his Muslims, a lot of whom he'd lost were all -- I said the thing I liked about him, I mean, impressed me about him, was they weren't frightened, that most black nationalists when they would come down to our neighborhood, if you touched them they would think you hit them. So Mr. Malcolm said, "This is great. I've got to get Cassius Clay in. This man will tell him that Muslims cannot be afraid," because Clay was fighting this dreadful specter, Sonny Liston, the heavy-weight champion at the time. Mr. Malcolm's secretary came back from looking for Cassius Clay, and Cassius Clay had gone to the airport to meet Ray Robinson, so I said to him -- Ray Robinson was a very famous fighter of our time -- I said, "Mr. Malcolm, I think any advice he gets from Ray Robinson will probably be more serviceable than any he gets from me." But there was something very moving about Mr. Malcolm; I think that he was a genuinely splendid guy in many ways. It was a very sad story because you know -- you get killed by your own in this business. He was killed by tribal cops who wouldn't lay a hand on me or you.
LAMB: You wrote a piece called, "The Fruit of Islam."
KEMPTON: Which is about after Mr. Malcolm died, yes.
LAMB: In 1965 you were writing for the New York World-Telegram. What was that paper?
KEMPTON: A very respectable paper. I worked for it, and then it went out of business and then I went back to the New York Post. But the Telegram was a very nice place to work.
LAMB: Why did it go out of business?
KEMPTON: If you could answer, Mr. Lamb, why newspapers go out of business, I'm not sure you may not have something to do with it in your time.
LAMB: Who owned it?
KEMPTON: MTV has rather made life difficult. It was owned by Scripps-Howard, and it was a very famous paper in its time, very distinguished. It was an amalgamation of the old New York World with the old New York Telegram with the old New York Sun. Its full name was the World-Telegram and Sun, and then it too headed for losses. We had a tremendous number of papers in New York. When I first got there we had -- I can remember seven or eight, and then they kept getting together all the time as time went on. Then finally there was then a grand amalgamation of the New York Journal American, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York World -Telegram and Sun into one paper. It went like that, didn't last. So I left and went to the New York Post and then I got really sort of fed up with journalism, not with journalism, with daily papers. I was very disillusioned because I had loved working for the Telegram, so respectable; if you got hate letters, they were signed with the full name of the man who wrote them, which always makes you feel you're in the high-rent district.
LAMB: Where were you born?
KEMPTON: Baltimore. Well, actually -- yes, I was born in Baltimore and spent my first three years in Philadelphia. Then my father died, and my mother went back to Baltimore with her family.
LAMB: What was your father's profession?
KEMPTON: My father, I suppose, lives in history for having been one of the victims of the great flu epidemic of 1920. He was a stockbroker. I don't think the Kemptons were people of vast luck. I think if things had gone, if he hadn't gotten the flu, I think the 1929 stock market crash might well have . . .
LAMB: How about your mom? What did she do?
KEMPTON: My mom went back to Baltimore, and she worked, which is considered both admirable and a little embarrassing. She worked for a department store in Baltimore called Hutzlers. I had the only mother I knew when I was growing up who worked, so I thought it was very strange. But she was wonderful. She worked up until the time she was about 60. She was a buyer in a department store, and in her way -- well, she wasn't a pioneer because there were an awful lot of buyers in department stores and they were all women in those days, but in the sort of shabby genteel world from which I came it was sort of odd to have a mother who worked.
LAMB: Did you have brothers and sisters?
KEMPTON: I had an older brother, wonderful guy. He died last year or two years ago, sort of collapsed. So I don't know anybody, I think, in Baltimore.
LAMB: Did you go to college?
KEMPTON: Johns Hopkins.
LAMB: Studied what?
KEMPTON: Political science, which I don't recommend.
LAMB: Why not?
KEMPTON: It's a waste of time, in a way. It certainly was a waste of time in my time because we studied the governments of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, which sticks in my mind, and of course Germany and Italy went bottom up. We studied Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and they went bottom up. The Soviet Union hung around a few more years, but it too went bottom up so that my education in foreign governments has been very much overtaken by events, which is the problem.
LAMB: What was your first job out of college?
KEMPTON: What was my first job? I was a social worker, welfare worker, and I did very badly at that. Then I came to New York and worked for labor unions. Then I went to the New York Post, and I was there, I guess, about a year. Then I went in the Army.
LAMB: Where did you serve in the Army?
KEMPTON: New Guinea and the Philippines and Tampa and Camp Wood, N.J. I don't want to sound as though -- I went to New Guinea in 1943 and stayed there until `45. I think that's about right.
LAMB: How would you define your political beliefs back in 1945?
KEMPTON: In 1945 I don't know what I was. I guess I was a Democrat. I was very briefly, in college, a member of the Young Communist League, and then I left that and became a socialist. Then when I went in the Army, before I went in the Army, about that time I was pretty much nothing, except I used to vote Democratic fairly loyally. When I came out in `45, I was pretty much nothing politically except a Democrat. I believed that Roosevelt had done all sorts of marvelous things and the country had no social problems, and then I covered labor for a long time. I had a view up until maybe 1950 that America was this perfect country produced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, I guess, the CIO, which was then the progressive labor movement. Then about 1951 or 1952, I began to get a little cynical about all those things.
LAMB: This book has a caricature of you on the cover. Are you a bicycle rider? Every day?
KEMPTON: Yes, pretty much every day. I didn't do too well in winter quarters like most citizens of the United States.
LAMB: Who did the caricature?
KEMPTON: I don't know who did it. I'm not wildly fond of it.
LAMB: Why not?
KEMPTON: I couldn't really look that unpleasant. I look like William Kunstler if he lost his -- but anyway, it was nice. Random House wanted to use it.
LAMB: They've got a Walkman around your neck. Is this from a photograph or just from what you told them?
KEMPTON: I don't know where it came from, but the New Yorker had done it. They sent me around to have Avedon take my picture, and he gasped and said he couldn't take a picture of me. The next thing I saw when this piece came out was this caricature of me.
LAMB: What number of books does this make for you?
KEMPTON: I think only four. I think this is only my fourth book. I have been rather kind to the history of literature as far as turning out these things.
LAMB: This is "For William F. Buckley, genius at friendships of the kind that passes all understanding. And for the whole army of those gone to be unforgotten and those still here to be thankful for." Why William F. Buckley?
KEMPTON: The most generous person I've ever known.
LAMB: In what way? Did you ever work for him?
KEMPTON: I used to write one or two things for the National Review, but they didn't work out terribly well and they were very sweet about them, but -- no, I've just known for a long time. He wasn't the first person to teach me that asking a man his political views is not necessarily the soundest way to find out about his character, and I've always just found Buckley remarkably generous. I once told him, because of his capacity to overrate people, that I wished he were president of the United States because if he were, every unemployable person in America would have a job. He took that with a certain amount of grace, but he's addicted to generosity the way a junkie is to heroin, and I do like him. I mean, I just wasn't being perverse.
LAMB: You write about "Karl Marx: Reporter." Why? This is from the New York Review of Books, June 1967.
KEMPTON: Yes. This was a piece on the reporting that Karl Marx wrote for the Herald Tribune, and it's really an appreciation of Marx's way of looking at things and describing them, and his intuitions.
LAMB: When did he live?
KEMPTON: Marx. Now you're giving me trouble. Let's see, he wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, and I suppose he died -- this is very embarrassing. He went to the Civil War, he was active, he died in 1880 and I think when he wrote the Communist Manifesto -- I don't even remember Marx's dates; it's awful. However, he was a magnificent social analyst, and this is really an effort to be an appreciation of Marx's power of analysis in these articles. He wrote from London; he was the London correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, largely I think because they could get him cheap. These dispatches were picked up in this book I was reviewing, and the insights were very interesting because Marx had -- this is a whole problem with journalism -- Marx had no sources whatsoever except the papers and the British Museum.

Of course, he had a great break because the British -- anywhere else in the world, if you had a cholera epidemic they didn't count the bodies, but the British were apparently magnificent about counting the bodies. So he liked England because he could trust the statistics, where he couldn't anywhere else that he ever lived. But what happened was, you would read these pieces and then I happened to be reading once or twice in the same period when he'd have an article on the British parliamentary situation; I was reading the letters of Disraeli, who was in the Parliament at the time, an insider, and Disraeli's analysis of the balance of power in British politics and Marx's analysis as a complete outsider were exactly alike, and that has always told me that, one of the problems in journalism is that people think, If I could just get access to people who are making the decisions, I will know what is going on; when the truth is -- I've never been able to do it -- that you can look at the situation from the outside and do almost as well.

Henry Kissinger used to say that he could always tell what the quarterback was doing in a football game, and I used to think, Well, so can I, but I'm not being hit over the head. So that the outside analyst can be better in many cases than the insider because the insider's being hit over the head. But the idea that if I could only get to talk to the president I would know what we're doing in Bosnia -- now, my suspicion is, if you look at the president's record in this area for the last year, I don't think the president knows what he's doing in Bosnia so that the insider, unless he's very, very smart and very, very keen, the insider isn't worth much more than our using our heads and trying to figure out what's happening.
LAMB: Where do you write from; in other words, do you go to the office?
KEMPTON: I go to the office, yes. I usually go down to the street and try to find something to cover. The inside of my head is really not a terribly populated premise, so I usually try to go around and get a story about somebody else, not me, and then feed off -- I've often said I've never written a good piece that didn't have a quote from somebody else, even if it was only in a book, so that I do like to get around. I think that's the fun of journalism. I don't know how long newspapers will last, but they're wonderful places to work, probably better than to work on television, although it depends on where you get sent. I mean, I've gotten so old nobody sends me out on stories much anymore so that obviously if you're sent to someplace that's really very exciting, then television's fun, but I think most of the time the newspapers are just -- they're more fun to work on. Maybe people will look back -- I was saying to somebody today, you know, we're constantly looking back on ages of lead and saying they're ages of gold, and so I don't know whether newspapers were as much more fun in my youth because I was having much more fun, but I think you can still have a lot of fun on newspapers.
LAMB: So if we saw you on a given day, you'd be on the Upper West Side of New York, getting on your bicycle with your Walkman -- listening to what?
KEMPTON: Well, it is an affectation. I tend usually to listen now in my declining years to classical music, what is called serious music, not classical music. And I don't listen too closely; I usually listen in the office. I put the Walkman on because we had a mayor who shot his mouth off a lot, and I did not want to be taken unawares by his voice in the street so I started playing this and I've stuck to it.
LAMB: Which mayor?
KEMPTON: Edward Koch, who as he got to his third term, as happens to most politicians, just got to be really very annoying. You'd hear him screech on the street if you were not careful, which is why I did it. I'm very fond of Koch; I didn't mean to criticize him, but his rap got a little tiresome after a while.
LAMB: So what time do you go to the office?
KEMPTON: I try to leave the house about 8:00; then usually I go to the street and mess around, see if I can find something to write about.
LAMB: What do you mean?
KEMPTON: Then come in at 4:00 and write.
LAMB: What do you mean, "go to the street"?
KEMPTON: Oh, just go around town -- maybe I'll go cover a trial or maybe I'll cover a press conference; maybe I'll cover, if there's an event.
LAMB: What do you read every day?
KEMPTON: I read the Washington Post, which I'm terribly fond of; I read the New York Times. I just go through it before I go out. I look at television news shows. We have a very good local, Channel 1, which they took away from me because my building went another cable, and I look at that. That's about it, I think. Generally speaking, I don't read contemporary material; I'm really too old. I mean, I read novels.
LAMB: You keep talking about being in your declining years, and you're too old for this and too old for that. Do you really feel that old?
KEMPTON: No, I don't really feel that old. But I am that old. And my assumption is that people -- I am 70 -- am I 76 or 77? -- 76. I can't imagine working more than another four years. And that gets a little pressing because you really think that there are a lot of things that you would sort of like to cover that you won't cover -- or do you see what I'm trying to say? I'm not being dramatic, but you do feel there's just not that much time actuarially, and so I would like the next four years or the next five years or whatever it is not to be sedentary. As you get older you write more slowly, and I think that's probably because things don't seem quite as simple. Everything gets a little more complicated.

When people say something, you say, "Oh, he's not that bad." Or they say something congratulatory, I mean, laudatory about someone; you say, "He's not that good." The business of trying to keep a balance is very, very hard, and as a reporter there's only one or two things that I am reasonably proud of. I always thought Truman was very underrated in, say, 1952. And I think now he's rather overrated. I was dead wrong about Eisenhower. I didn't begin to realize the sovereign virtues of his detachment and, if you don't mind the word, coldness of his eye on situations. I missed that totally, and having not found out about Eisenhower's peculiar genius -- I guess we all know who Eisenhower was; he was president of the United States -- much fun was made of him by us liberals. But having made the discovery around 1963 that he was an administrative genius, or at least drawn the inference that he was, I determined never to be that wrong about anybody again if I can help it, so I always like feeling very much the same way about people all the way through. But one of the good things about that is, if you take this rather detached attitude about the people you're covering, every now and then they'll do something perfectly awful, and then you'll be ready to get the whole shock of this experience, whereas if you were prejudiced against him in the first place, you wouldn't have the emotional experience of thinking, God, that man is really just bad. And it can work the other way. You'll say, "That man is just that good." So you don't make up your mind too quickly about anybody.
LAMB: On the back of your book, a man who is at least half your age, David Remnick, who has been a guest on this show.
KEMPTON: Actually, he's younger than all but one of my children, so he's more than half my age.
LAMB: How many kids do you have?
KEMPTON: I had five; I have four.
LAMB: Anyone in journalism?
KEMPTON: My daughter was in journalism and now she's a Buddhist, and I don't think any of them are in journalism. Only one of them is writing at the present time, and that would be my fourth child, and he's writing. He's in education, and he writes articles on various things -- very bright, very conscientious.
LAMB: I just want to read this David Remnick thing and just get your reaction to it. David Remnick, who writes for the New Yorker, used to write for the Washington Post -- says this on your book: "Murray Kempton is the greatest of all living newspapermen."
KEMPTON: I think it's awfully nice said, but it just isn't so. I mean, the greatest of all newspapermen and women are probably the people in Sarajevo now or Rwanda, those people. That's what newspapers are; it isn't commentary. It's awfully nice of David to say that, but David's a much better newspaperman, at least when he was, and he still is, but when he was on the Washington Post, his copy was much better than anything I can think about that I wrote recently. And that's not false modesty.
LAMB: Do you know him?
KEMPTON: Yes. When did I meet him? I met him very early. I don't think I met him when I was in the Soviet Union, but, you know, he's been around.
LAMB: He says, as a matter of fact, that your beat stretches from the Vatican to the social clubs of the mob. But you write about the pope in here.
KEMPTON: Yes, I did do the pope.
LAMB: You ever known a pope?
KEMPTON: Personally? I used to take walks when I lived in Rome with a cardinal who was a perfectly wonderful guy. He was the greatest authority in the Vatican on Freud. And we used to coincide and walk. He was a very right-wing pope; he worked up Freud, I think, for the purposes of heresy trials. And he was a wonderful guy, Felici.
LAMB: Why would you write about the pope?
KEMPTON: I was in Rome at the time, and I think the Catholic Church is immensely interesting. I tend to feel that the Catholic Church has been the most important human rights institution in the world in the last 25 years.
LAMB: Are you Catholic?
KEMPTON: No. I grew up as an Episcopalian. I'm sometimes rather sorry that my family, whoever my ancestors may have been, that they went with Henry VIII rather than William Byrd, the composer. No, but I find the church fascinating. Anything involving a history that long is per se interesting. I think one of the mistakes we make is we do have a habit of abolishing every century but our own. Now we've taken to abolishing every decade but our own, so that I think if you have an institution like the Catholic Church, which has endured for -- what would it be? -- 1900 . . .
LAMB: You write about Ronald Reagan. There's one paragraph I want to ask you about: "He had moved by now across 15 years through a succession of private political roles, from one-world liberal to anti-Stalin liberal to anti-communist liberal to anti-liberal anti-communist and, at last, anti-liberal anti-welfare statist." Have you done any of that yourself?
KEMPTON: Well, certainly not quite as successfully. I'm not in the National Archives.
LAMB: But you were socialist.
LAMB: Were you a communist?
KEMPTON: I was a Young Communist. I suppose I thought I was; I was there about a year. President Reagan was never communist. He started all as liberal, then as a liberal -- no, the change I don't think is quite the same. I would have been more extreme on the left than Mr. Reagan was. On the other hand, I think he was more far over to the right than I could ever think of being.
LAMB: Where are you now?
KEMPTON: I think I'm sort of a Tory or anarchist, I suppose. My favorite political philosopher is Edmund Burke. But the Burke I like is not Burke the philosopher but Burke with the eye for the specific, the Burke who knew that a government that cut off Marie Antoinette's head was not going to turn out all right. The Burke who, on India, with his understanding of India. He had this extraordinary capacity for being right in the particular. The general, who's ever right in the general? I suppose my politics are -- I don't know what the word means, but I think of myself as a radical. But it's very hard to be a radical because of the down-right nature of it. I cannot imagine sending someone to jail for disagreeing with my opinions. I cannot imagine hating -- the people I can least appreciate are Republicans who hate Democrats because they're Democrats, Democrats who hate Republican because they're Republican. That, I'm just sick and tired of.

So I don't know what my politics are, but I do know that ideology is terrible, that abstract political thinking is fun, but I think it's a very useless activity, and I think it can be terribly dangerous. I think it's our job to try to describe the little piece of the world that we know.
LAMB: In this article about Ronald Reagan -- was it New York Post, November '79?
LAMB: Before he was elected. Did you ever meet him?
KEMPTON: Yes, I met him once or twice. I never knew him very well.
LAMB: You say, "The governor's is a politics of myth which so transcends reality that when quite real persons are suddenly cast into his epics, they are chagrined to discover themselves rendered more mythic than they wish."
KEMPTON: Do I have an example of that? I hope I did have an example of that rather abstract statement.
LAMB: The recurrent example is H. C. McClellan, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers. Why did you use that?
KEMPTON: Because I was sort of fascinated by him. One of the things that interested me about Reagan as a governor -- and it happens in all of American politics; it's not just Reagan -- the solution is announced and it becomes already a given. I think a good example of that is the Clinton health plan, which people who are more enthusiastic about the president than I am discuss as though it actually existed. As I recall McClellan, or Mr. McClellan, as I called him, he'd made an effort to put Watts -- this was after the Watts riot; he was a very conscientious man and he set up a program to rehabilitate the black section of Los Angeles.

Reagan announced that this was a smashing success, and so I called up McClellan, and he said, "Look, I haven't been able to get anything done. I haven't been able to get the governor to do anything; I haven't been able to get business to do anything." He says, "The only people that are doing anything are the people in the community, but I can't get anything." Meanwhile, everybody was trumpeting the success of this particular plan, and there's a great deal of that in America. Dickens talks about that in his book on America in which -- he happened to be wrong in this case -- but they were building some huge orphanage, a boys' home in Philadelphia, and it had been projected 20 years before and still wasn't finished, although it was finished later on. But Dickens said, "America is" -- I forget, it was a wonderful sentence, but it's "full of great projects that all are going to be built that were announced 20 years ago and are going to be built next year."

It was a better sentence than that, but there's a great deal of our bragging about, in us, a bragging about things that have just not been achieved. But I don't think that Governor, and then President, Reagan was unique for this. But there is this world where -- it's particularly good in politics mainly in politics now because President Reagan did awfully well with it, and that is a suspicious anecdote -- "I met a woman who could so and so; I met a woman who was a welfare queen and has three Cadillacs." I don't know who this woman is, where she was or anything, but it becomes part of the lore. The liberal equivalent of this kind of silly story is the idea that Joe McCarthy was a homosexual, which was propagated by many liberals during his period of glory. Political myths run very deep in our country and every other country. It's not like Bosnia is sane and we're crazy, and that's what I think I meant by this.
LAMB: You write about Westbrook Pegler and Alger Hiss and H. L. Mencken and Whittaker Chambers. Who was Westbrook Pegler?
KEMPTON: Westbrook Pegler was a great American sportswriter who then became a very famous American columnist and then allowed his bitterness to carry him away. When I was very young, I read Westbrook Pegler in the newspapers. I used to read Mencken. Mencken was in the Baltimore Sun every Monday, so you grew up reading Mencken and Pegler. So I was luckier than the people who grow up reading me, but in any case -- I was crazy about Pegler in those days; he was a wonderful writer. They were wonderful writers in those days. There are still very good writers now, but the writers of the '20s in newspapers I don't think have ever been equalled as a lot. And Peg was one of them. Then he went crazy. He began hating Mr. Roosevelt, and he got more and more isolated. And we got fairly close in his late years because I had tremendous feeling for him.
LAMB: When were his late years?
KEMPTON: Peg's late years started rather early. It was about 1946 when the bloom got to be sort of off the peach. His great years were, I'd say, '25 to '34 and then up until about '37 or '38. And then he got very angry.
LAMB: What made him angry?
KEMPTON: It's never useful to be angry. What made Peg angry? I don't know. He got angry at Roosevelt, got angry at the unions, got angry at liberals. Maybe he just wanted to get angry. If you allow yourself to think about it, there are a lot of people who make a good living off rage. I think there are a lot of talk show hosts who come up with -- not talk show hosts but talk commentators, mostly, who give you a lot of inauthentic rage. And Peg did that. He was kind of an actor; he could work himself up and write perfectly wonderful pieces. The rage was always a little spurious, but then he kept on doing it. And after a while the rage became everything.

It's hard to explain but what happens is, if you allow yourself -- your posture as a writer is very important, I think, to your peace of mind, not to your career particularly. But if you write at a pitch of emotion and rage all the time -- you should only get angry when you have a reason to get angry about something and let it pass otherwise. There will be times when you'll be angry, and you have to have your anger ready to have it, but if it becomes your technique, in the end you find there's nothing in you but rage. And that's what happened to Pegler, which is why I feel so -- I never had a father, he never had a son and we had kind of that kind of relationship in a way. I exaggerate, but in the last stages we did.
LAMB: How old was he when he died?
KEMPTON: He was in his 70s. I guess he was a year or so younger than I am.
LAMB: Would you go visit him?
KEMPTON: Yes, he used to come to New York in the last years, and then we used to write a lot -- they were marvelous letters; I lost them all. He died in his 70s, but Buckley kept up with him. Buckley was a good friend of his. He was very strange. I don't think Peg realized, I mean he was very much a working man, but I don't think he realized that there are two classes of people in the world: people who own property and people who work for a living. It's as simple as that. All of us will only be, that is all the people in my class, will only be people who work for a living. We will never be people who own property in that sense. And it's very important to keep the distinction in mind.

That is not because you're going to throw a bomb into the building or anything, but you just have to understand, and Peg did not understand that, and at one point we had a very esoteric conversation about the newspaper guild because he had been a member of the newspaper guild and there was going to be a strike and Peg left the newspaper guild. And he said, "I was a private contractor; I was a friend of Roy Howard," who was his publisher, and he said, "I was a private contractor; I wasn't a working man." I said to him after he had finished this statement, I said, "Roy Howard fired you ten years later," and he said "Yes, I never thought of that," but he didn't understand that and it's a very important thing to know.
LAMB: Back in 1978 you have a column called "Alger Hiss Again." You can, today in 1994, find an article on Alger Hiss somewhere. Why do we still read about Alger Hiss 40 years later?
KEMPTON: It is fascinating, but you know one of the things is that it shows a good side to people, in a way. People prefer to believe in innocence rather than guilt; it's one of the really best sides of America. You look at the effort to acquit Lee Harvey Oswald; of course, in order to acquit Lee Harvey Oswald, you have to indict every American institution. But the point is, they want to acquit Lee Harvey Oswald, and I think people have the same generous feeling, in a way, that they would like Alger Hiss to be innocent instead of thinking, Well, after all, he didn't do very much and he's done his time and did it admirably. As far as I know, as far as everybody who was with him -- one or two mob guys I used to know said he was the best prisoner they ever met when he was in jail. So it's a mixed bag like everybody else's life, but people do want to believe in innocence.
LAMB: Of the troika of Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers and Richard Nixon, he's still alive. What's your opinion of Whittaker Chambers and Richard Nixon?
KEMPTON: Oh, I think that Whittaker Chambers is enormously interesting. I think he felt deeply ashamed of himself for his whole life, more ashamed than he should have been, for having testified against Hiss. Actually, his book “Witness”, the guilt of being a witness is made more vivid there than his worst enemy could expect to happen. He was an extremely, extremely interesting man. He exaggerated his place in history, and he exaggerated Hiss's place in history and that's always a mistake, but I think he was a very good man. But I think that both he and Richard Nixon were -- they had feelings of guilt and shame that I've never been able to explain. It was a lot of unnecessary shame in Nixon, and I think most of the heroism of his life was an effort to cover it up. But somewhere they've been wounded.

I don't know where, whether it's because one year he wrote letters to his mother -- he said, "Dear Mother" colon, but there was the feeling that somewhere in his life there had been a fending off. I hate this kind of thing, but I really do feel that it had something to do with it and it had an awful lot to do with his deep sense of shame and being unfit, which he struggled, overcame rather heroically. But he never believed in himself in some strange sort of way. He believed in the struggle, the fight and everything. And I think Whittaker Chambers was quite the opposite problem; he never understood that he wasn't all that important. Do you see what I'm trying to say? I put it very badly. Nixon never thought he was up to the job, and Chambers always thought that he was this great historical personage, which he wasn't.
LAMB: Did you know any of the three?
KEMPTON: I knew Chambers, and I knew Nixon. Listen, if you're in journalism, the thing you have to understand is that there are millions of people you know who don't know you; that is, the people you've met who have forgotten you. I knew Chambers very, very slightly. I met him very early on, before he became a celebrity. And I liked him. Actually, when I worked in the Hopkins Library, he was doing research there, and he was a haunted man even at that time.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. Guest: Murray Kempton. “Rebellions, Perversities and Main Events.” Thank you very much.
KEMPTON: Well, thank you. It was delightful seeing you.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.