The usual business of this column -- issuing edicts to a world too naughty to obey -- is today suspended so that I can celebrate the Pulitzer Prize awarded, at long last, to columnist Murray Kempton, the class of our class.
In 1957 Kempton, a craftsman, watched another, Edward Bennett Williams, the lawyer, defend Jimmy Hoffa, and Kempton wrote: "To watch Williams and then to watch a Department of Justice lawyer contending with him is to understand the essential superiority of free enterprise to government ownership." The superiority of Kempton to the rest of us is a pleasure to proclaim. The man who wrote, "It is hard for a man who has enjoyed both the taste of our beer and the flavor of our politics to say which of these national glories has gone flatter in his lifetime," has given contemporary journalism some of its tang.
Thomas Jefferson said all men are created equal, but Jefferson never read Kempton, an unequaled producer of pearls like this (Dec. 4, 1962): "One reason why the garment unions have so sedulously promoted the slogan that man cannot live by bread alone may be that they would prefer not to limit judgment of their worth to their success at providing bread alone."
When in 1958 I came out of the Illinois wilderness to reconnoiter the East, I, wary of exotic metropolitan things, gingerly opened a New York Post and discovered Kempton. In the 1950s he was writing sentences like this one about an Eisenhower campaign trip (Oct. 30, 1956):
"In Miami, he had walked carefully by the harsher realities, speaking some 20 feet from an airport drinking fountain labeled 'Colored' and saying that the condition it represented was more amenable to solution by the hearts of men than by laws, and complimenting Florida as 'typical today of what is best in America,' a verdict which might seem to some contingent on finding out what happened to the Negro snatched from the Wildwood jail Sunday."
A 75-word sentence, sinewy and ironic and demanding, is something newspaper readers rarely see. And they rarely see Kempton. He has been hard to syndicate because he has written so much about New York City affairs, which are an acquired taste. Also, he cannot get the hang of having enthusiasms. After Willie Mays and Adlai Stevenson, the list of persons enjoying Kempton's unalloyed approval ends, and the list of approved causes is even shorter. It has been said that to his dog, every man is Napoleon, hence the popularity of dogs. To Kempton, no cause is as pure as every cause considers itself, hence, perhaps, the difficulty of making Kempton as popular as he deserves to be.
And then there is Kempton's prose style. It is part of the problem, and a national treasure. Many people now flinch from a prose more elaborate than that spoken on television. But the eye is superior to the ear as a recipient of language, in part because a reader can pause, think, reread. Some Kempton sentences, climbing a winding path up a pillar of thought, must be read twice to be properly enjoyed. But why complain about a second sip of vintage claret?
Kempton is a direct descendant of George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, a nicer piece of work than that of Kempton's great-great- grandfather, who wrote the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and later was Confederate ambassador to Britain. Kempton was born in H. L. Mencken's Baltimore in 1917, the year this republic tumbled into modern history, and he has cast a cold eye on the molten history being made around him.
There may be a better book on the 1930s than Kempton's "Part of Our Time," but I doubt it. In it he wrote of ideological writers on the left: "It seems to me to ave been one of the tragedies of the thirties that so many people substituted an exterior for an interior passion, and nowhere is this process more damaging than to literature." One reason Kempton's columns rise to the rank of literature is that although he knows that news is necessarily about the surface of things, he also wants to tell the stories of persons who are not all surface, and wants to save the republic from those who are.
One reason I became a columnist is that, long before I did, I had in my mind's eye a "role model." That is a phrase sometimes used by people too embarrassed to use the word "hero." I am not embarrassed. I know how good a journeyman pitcher in the mid- 1960s must have felt just knowing that Sandy Koufax was a pitcher and a contemporary. It is deeply satisfying to be able to say I am in a craft adorned by Murray Kempton.