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APPRECIATION

Goodbye to a Saint, Charmer, Journalist's Journalist

May 06, 1997|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Murray Kempton--author, journalist and moral compass for his loyal following in the press and politics--lay on his Manhattan hospice bed Saturday afternoon barely confined, it seemed, by gravity.

Like the impeccably honest journalist he always was, he announced his oncoming death as fact. But this undisputed detail did not stop the joyous Kempton from launching into a 1 1/2 hour monologue about his century and a few of its spectacular ironies.

The ragtag American Communist Party he joined as a youth to get a job, New York's less-illustrious mayors who should perhaps go nameless, the beauty of young Bella Abzug for those who remember only the bellicose woman in a hat, the King James Bible, the perils of Episcopalianism ("a religion started by a king who wanted to get rid of his wife"), the immorality of the Clintons and the Kennedys--it was an elegant verbal essay that turned each subject around in the air so that he could examine it, agonize about its weaknesses and finally make it all seem absurdly funny or at least momentarily sensible.

"I don't think there was a politician, an official, a journalist who didn't somehow feel that they were better off by being in the presence of Murray Kempton," said New Yorker writer David Remnick, a friend of Kempton. "He was the best newspaperman alive in the country until this morning. I will miss him and miss reading him enormously."

Kempton, who died Monday at 79, began as a copy boy for H.L. Mencken and went on to a 45-year career as columnist for several of New York's newspapers, including the New York Post, the defunct World-Telegram and Sun, and finally Newsday since 1981. He is survived by a daughter and three sons. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and two George Polk awards. In 1988, the Polk award committee cited him for representing "the highest standards of the profession. Whether covering U.S. presidents, civil rights activists or even gangland figures, he has demonstrated . . . tough-mindedness, courage and sensitivity."

*

Kempton was a journalist's journalist, and he avoided "like pestilence and plague," as he once put it, the telephone and the 24-hour news blurb.

He liked to be in the courtroom, in the press pen, out where he could see firsthand what he called "the surrealism of reality." Journalists at the United Nations, for example, would see the lean, white-haired Kempton loping through their hallways on days when a momentous vote seemed in the offing. Young reporters often circled Kempton as he gave the background on the former Yugoslavia's troubles (going back several centuries) or the latest eruption in the Middle East.

Moreover, until he was hospitalized this past winter with cancer and other medical problems, Kempton toured New York's boroughs on bike, and he could be seen often at press briefings with his trousers still confined by bicycle clips and his hair still flattened in the outline of a helmet.

Even though he could write with the vengeance of a Southern preacher, Kempton's chivalry and charm made even his targets open their doors to him. A devoted Democrat who was a delegate for Eugene McCarthy at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Kempton nonetheless had no trouble befriending Republicans and excoriating his fellow Democrats. He was on "passably amicable" speaking terms with Richard Nixon and Nancy Reagan. He was a close friend of William Buckley.

Kempton was among those who was the toughest on Robert Kennedy when he ran for president in 1968 and thus toppled Kempton's favorite, McCarthy. In a New York Post column that year, he wrote that John Kennedy's brother was "a coward who came down from the hill to shoot the wounded. . . ." After Kennedy was assassinated, Kempton wrote eloquently of his remorse over not telling Kennedy that he liked him. "Now that there is in life no road at whose turning we could meet again, the memory of having forgotten that will always make me sad and indefinitely make me ashamed," Kempton wrote.

Kempton did not admire the Clintons, as he said in numerous columns and in many personal conversations around the city. "Sanctimonious," he would decree, "psychologically, personally and morally flabby," he once said of the president.

*

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who often felt the bite of Kempton's pen, once complained that he found Kempton "very unfair. But how can you have ill will toward a saint? He's St. Murray."

Indeed, this past Saturday afternoon, we came like journalists always seemed to come--to listen to Kempton purr and harrumph and laugh about the world, past and present. He had already read five papers, already devoured all the week's possible magazines and already skimmed a set of galleys for Buckley's latest novel when author Charles Kaiser and I arrived to see him. The windowsill was piled high with books, old and new. "Scoop," Evelyn Waugh's famous book about foreign journalism, was at the top of one stack.

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