Murray Kempton is an unapologetic liberal columnist who for four decades has observed the national and international scenes from his New York base with a skeptical eye. His topics for such newspapers as the New York Post, the New York World-Telegram, and Newsday have ranged from an American Communist war hero denied burial in a national cemetery to a woman in New York who put out three different contracts on her husband’s life, and from Richard Nixon’s losses in 1966 to Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. Longer essays, whether articles for such journals as Harper’s, Esquire, and New York or extended review-essays for The New York Review of Books, cover similarly wide patches of ground.
A polished and distinctive stylist, Kempton has been politically active while avoiding the doctrinaire tunnel vision that afflicts many writers who deal with contemporary politics from the perspective of either the Right or the Left. It is characteristic of Kempton that though he briefly flirted with communism as a youth and has allied himself with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, he should dedicate this book to the architect of neoconservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr., and that his most treasured friend in the newspaper business was Eleanor Roosevelt’s tormentor, the ultraconservative Westbrook Pegler.
Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events is divided into three sections with the labels of the title. There is some logic in the distribution of essays into these sections, since many of the brief articles and long essays gathered in the first grouping deal with old and new rebels against society, and the final section, with its more numerous extended review-essays, deals with more famous people who have attracted Kempton’s attention. The middle section, consisting chiefly of newspaper columns, ranges from a wryly ironic account of the author’s being mugged on a New York street to an amusing and biting assault on Time magazine.
Not all the essays are equally interesting to a contemporary reader. Kempton devotes considerable attention to Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful effort, in 1976, to take the Republican nomination away from the incumbent president, Gerald Ford. The episode is of some historical interest, because the failed attempt probably saved Reagan’s political career by avoiding a loss to Jimmy Carter in the Watergate-colored 1976 election and enabling him to return and defeat Carter in 1980. Kempton deals with the 1976 episode through an ironically admiring account of the machinations of Reagan’s campaign manager, John Sears, who smoothly misled reporters until the final convention vote. The account is, however, only a footnote to history.
Of more permanent significance are extended essays on such figures as Westbrook Pegler, a conservative columnist whose detestation of Eleanor Roosevelt fueled public anger, but whom Kempton sees as using these attacks to mask his real hatred for other enemies; J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, whose security clearance was eventually revoked on dubious grounds; and Whitaker Chambers, whose testimony before a Congressional committee in the late 1940’s labeled State department executive Alger Hiss a Soviet agent and resulted in a perjury conviction for Hiss. All these essays show Kempton’s fascination with persons whose character and motivation are complex and unusual, and his skill in delineating them.
His method shows itself to advantage in the extended review-essay of a biography of Pegler by another newspaperman, Oliver Pilat. Kempton takes note of the fact that liberals always gave a grudging admiration to Pegler (whom they regarded as the archenemy) for his skill as a writer and his ability to harpoon the objects of his distaste. Kempton, who had been friendly with Pegler at one time, points out that Pegler’s real quarrel was always with the powerful and that his venom reflected not so much a political antagonism as a long-standing hatred of what he perceived to be the corrupt uses of power. Pegler’s true resentment was populist in nature and had as its targets the lazy reporters and self-serving editors and publishers in his own profession. Especially, he despised his own publisher, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., who he believed was to blame for the emasculation of the profession.
Oppenheimer, in Kempton’s interpretation, is a more complex case. A brilliant scientist who received his doctorate in Germany and moved in theoretic realms that no other American could even imagine, he became a brilliant administrator whose project at Los Alamos produced the first atomic weapons. Oppenheimer’s pronouncement that “the physicists have known sin,” however, reflected his own doubts about...
(The entire section is 1975 words.)