Last Friday morning, a time of day when he's rarely at his best, a seething Jimmy Breslin burst out of his office at New York Newsday, and suddenly spouted off sexist and racist invectives against a colleague whose internal memo criticizing Breslin's recent columns drove him into a rage. Among the things he called 25-year-old Ji-Yeon Mary Yuh were "a yellow cur," "slant-eyed," and what one newspaper described as "a lewd anatomical reference."
Breslin's eruption -- overheard by stunned colleagues in the newsroom, and not denied by Breslin -- was ugly, mean, deplorable and inexcusable.
Newsday could easily fire him for his remarks.
Which would be a mistake.
There's no question Breslin hit for the cycle Friday morning; they had to wear a batting helmet in the newsroom. Breslin has long been a loudmouthed boor and abusive to his co-workers. But before anyone starts firing him, they might remember where Jimmy Breslin has stood, and who he's stood for over the years.
The year Ji-Yeon Mary Yuh was born, Breslin was in Selma, Ala., writing eloquently earthy columns about the florid face of bigotry.
A while back, when New York was in a blood lust about the heroism of subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, it was Breslin who asked whether all the back-slappers would feel as full of affection had it been a black man shooting four white youths?
When everyone was running scared from AIDS, preaching that it was a plague and deriding its victims as subhuman, Breslin went to their homes and talked to AIDS patients so that New Yorkers could see these were real people, sons and daughters, to care about and feel compassion for.
Breslin has always used his column voice to speak for the disenfranchised, eagerly taking on demagogues, racists and injustice. There's nobody in this country who ever wrote a keener, grittier, more bloody-knuckled city column than Jimmy Breslin.
The people who want him gone should read the clips.
They're the ones he's fought for.
Some people have lumped Breslin with Al Campanis, Jimmy the Greek and Andy Rooney, all of whom came under fire for stupid remarks. The differences are in where and how Breslin spoke. Rooney's comments were made to an interviewer. Campanis and the Greek spoke on camera. Had Breslin said this on TV, or written it in his column, he would be fired, and justifiably. He launched his tirade in the newsroom; you'll have to trust me on this, the newsroom has always been one of those places where people rant and rave. To folks who work there, the inside of a newspaper, like the inside of a locker room, is not a public place -- it's more like the family den. Rowdy comments are passed there that are never intended to be brought to public light. You fire all the reporters and editors who've shouted repulsive, obnoxious taunts at one another, there won't be anybody left to turn out the lights.
Campanis, the Greek and Rooney spoke temperately, of things they believed. Breslin lashed out in rage, without thinking. It's how he's always been. "I can control the rage in my writing, which is what I get paid for," he said. "I do not control it when I'm shouting off the record." He's a saloon-meister, a rough-hewn street guy who's sat down on curbs in all five boroughs of New York City. Nobody ever confused him with Prince Charles. If that message hadn't been sent by a Korean woman, if it had been sent by the daughter of a Queens cop, a colleen who'd worked with Bernadette Devlin in the IRA, rest assured Breslin would have popped off in the same foul mouth -- and without thinking twice substituted "mick" for "slant-eyed."
He quickly apologized to the entire staff, and sent a private letter to Ms. Yuh. Apologies can be easy to make, and they don't excuse the behavior. What was so terrible and unfair about Breslin's comments was that he attacked her for what she is, not what she did. She attacked him for content, and he railed back with racist and sexist slurs designed to hurt her the most.
But if his comments are inexcusable, are they forever unforgivable? We all have prejudices. Part of the struggle for all of us is to keep them in check. Breslin simply has to try harder.
The theory has been advanced that if Breslin's slurs had been directed at a black person, he'd have been canned. We don't know that. But the point is well taken that there is less sensitivity shown to Asians than to some other ethnic groups. There's increasing Japan-bashing over the economy; Johnny Carson, Mr. Middle America, wouldn't do so many Sony jokes if he didn't feel the climate was hospitable. Don't think for a second that Korean Americans, Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans don't sense these barbs are directed at them too.
There are some who think Newsday's decision to retain Breslin has been made for commercial interests, that there's a newspaper war in New York, and Newsday measured Breslin's worth in circulation. That's too cynical a view for me.
At some point the issue becomes how we judge a person. Which is the real Breslin -- or the real H.L. Mencken -- the one whose public work is tirelessly aimed at raising the conscience and standards of his fellow men, or the one whose miserable temper and deliberate racism cause us to wince? I think on balance the public work is the weightiest. I have my own prejudice here. Jimmy Breslin writes a newspaper column. I know how that works, and I respect it. Most of the people I've talked to on my own newspaper think Breslin should be fired for the savage incivility of his remarks. Maybe I'm cutting him too much of a break taking the long view. But he writes the kind of column we should all want to write and read. And if he's looking for people to stand on the street corner with him, I will.