Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books

By Mark Carnes | Go to book overview

Murray Kempton
[16 DECEMBER 1918–5 MAY 1997]

During the second half of the twentieth century, Murray Kempton gloriously championed two vital American traditions that were on a sad, seemingly inevitable, arc of decline—liberalism and the art of crafting a newspaper column on searing daily deadlines. The fate of liberalism left Kempton writing elegiacally about the inevitable ordeal of political losers from Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey at the top of the ticket to a rogue's roster of nowforgotten New York politicos at the bottom. But it was the 700-word columns, written for tabloid newspapers that Kempton proudly boasted were not quite “respectable, ” that were his shining epitaph. At a time when other columnists tended toward the ideological and the didactic, Kempton was discursive and slyly amusing as he trudged off to cover the dramatic set-piece of a trial or press conference. Rereading a random selection of Kempton's columns from late 1988 (alas, most of his earlier work is not available on electronic data bases), I was struck by the small epiphanies that filled his quotidian work. A sample from a column about a Mikhail Gorbachev speech to the United Nations: “The residuary legatee of all the Bolsheviks has at last discovered, as Cosimo de Medici did so long ago, that men cannot be governed by rosary beads. ”

Kempton should be remembered as an American Samuel Johnson—and we, his devoted readers, did not need the intermediary of a Boswell to treasure the jewels studded in his deadline-driven prose.

Like many peers in the column-writing game, I owe in large measure my career choice to his shimmering example. Yellowing copies of Kempton columns, lovingly clipped from the 1960 New York Post , were tacked to the bulletin board in my childhood room. As a young reporter covering the initial George Bush presidential campaign in New Hampshire in 1980, I met Kempton for the first

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