Transcript and Video of 1997 Interview of Nat Hentoff by Brian Lamb
Nat Hentoff on His Life in Journalism, Social History, Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements (1997)
Mr. NAT HENTOFF (Author, “Speaking Freely: A Memoir”): Well, it happened so frequently. I think what I was most maddest about–and it’s in the book–when the House and the Senate, back in 1984, were debating a bill that would –at least delay and maybe stop some of the ex–summary execution of disabled children–infants. And the Down syndrome kids and other kids had been, in some cases, routinely let die, to use the euphemism. And I saw the debate on the floor of the House. And I considered myself, at the time, a liberal; I don’t know what I consider myself now. And here are the leading liberals at the time Geraldine Ferraro, Don Edwards, who I’m–I admire enormously, Henry Waxman–saying, `You can’t do that. That’s an interference with the doctor-mother’–not the doctor-infant, but doctor-mother–`relationship.’And I figured, `My God, these are –the–this isn’t fetus time. This is–they’re born children.’ And–and as Harry Blackmun said when he wrote Roe v. Wade, `Once a child is born, the child has basic constitutional rights: due process, equal protection of the laws.’ And they were acting as if you could just dispose of these kids. I was angry.
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I grew up in a household in which we had a clock that we won at Revere Beach during the Depression–one of those brass clocks that didn’t work–but it showed Franklin D. Roosevelt standing at the wheel of the New Deal. Even though the clock didn’t work, we kept the clock because of how we felt about FDR. A lot since then I knew about FDR I wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic.But a liberal was somebody who expected and hoped that government would help the poor–you know, that whole routine. I did not know then and I’ve learned since that in an area that means a lot to me, free speech, liberals are as bad as many conservatives in trying to censor speech. The whole politically correct movement, if it–if that’s what it is, was spawned by liberals. So I try to avoid categorizing myself.
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I had written a book called “Boston Boy” some years ago, and that took me from the time I could speak, I guess, in Boston through the time when I finally left to come to New York. And a lot–that book had a number of sort of rites of passage for me. One was understanding and coping with anti-Semitism. Boston, at the time, was the most anti-Semitic city in the country. And I found out when I was an adolescent that you have to be crazy to go out after dark all by yourself; you’d get your head bashed in. More fulfilling, I was introduced to jazz, and that’s become a basic concern and passion of mine ever since.This book, “Speaking Freely,” starts when I came to New York. And the first chapter is about a man who became a friend of mine, much to our mutual surprise, Malcolm X. And it goes through other rites of passage, I guess you’d say, including the–what I just spoke about, the learning that liberalism isn’t quite as liberal as it pretends to be. And it goes through my adventures with the FBI during the anti-war period and the civil rights period. And a particular moment–and I’m not, to this day, quite sure how I feel about it–I had always wanted to be in the law books–you know, Hentoff vs. something or other. And then Congressman Icord headed a House on American activities committee. It was called the House Internal Security Committee. And he put out a report, and he named a number of very destructive people who lectured at colleges and left arson in their wake and did other terrible things. And he mentioned me and he ascribed to me three organizations to which I’d never belonged, and I decided I would do something about this.
When the ACLU took my case and we got a ruling I think, for the first time, they could–the Congress could put out the report internally but they couldn’t put it out at taxpayers’ expense around the country. And I felt odd about that because I, in a way, I was interfering with free speech, but then, you can’t always win.
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, well, the most controversial subject-issue I’ve ever gotten involved in to this day was when I became pro-life. And liberals are very–many liberals are very angry at me because of that. In part, because–they could understand it, they say, if I came to it from a religious kin–a Catholic perspective. But I’m still a Jewish atheist, and that really bothers them. And I come to it entirely from the point of view of biology. And what Roe v. Wade has led to, I–what I did in the 1980s–I tracked all of the state Supreme Court decisions concerning people who wanted to have their relatives–their husband, their wife, their child–taken off of feeding tubes or respirators.Every time the Supreme Court of a state would say, `That’s OK,’ they based it on Roe v. Wade. And it turned out when–the–in terms of the physician-assisted suicide, the first federal district judge in the history of the United States out in Washington–state of Washington–came to the same conclusion, basing it on Roe v. Wade. And around that time, I met the angel of death, Derrick Humphrey, who introduced the whole concept of assisted suicide, and he was exultant. He was talking about things that had happened to him for the good. He said, `When I came to this country, I couldn’t get my ideas across to anybody, practically, but then a wonderful thing happened and the door opened.’ I said, `What was that?’ He said, `Roe v. Wade, because when Roe v. Wade said that you can remove a fetus for privacy, and privacy is the safeguard of that, then it was extended through the courts to, “You can take the respirator off your husband’s–your husband,” or whatever and, finally, physician-assisted suicide.’ So when I say I’m pro-life, I mean pro-life across the legal board.
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, that was–he was really mad with my wife. I had asked by Rolling Stone–the only assignment I ever had for them–to do a story on the Rolling Thunder Review, which was Bob Dylan, Alan Ginsberg, Joan Baez and a host of stars. My wife, some weeks before, had written in The New York Times that The Kid wasn’t The Kid anymore and he wasn’t all that winning anymore.So when I approached one of his secretaries for an interview, I was told that Bob didn’t want to see me anymore because of what my wife Margot had written. So I went ahead and did the piece anyway. A reporter is never put off by somebody not wanting to be interviewed. And I got Joan Baez to talk and Alan Ginsberg and some of the guys in the band. And by the end of the piece, another emissary came and said, `Bob is willing to speak to you now.’ And I said with great pleasure, `No, thanks. The piece is over.’
Mr. HENTOFF: But in our country, it means that if you’ve been sentenced and convicted in a state court, either to death or to some other kind of sentence, you have the right to petition a federal court to review what happened to you. Was it fair? Did you get due process? Was there prosecutorial misconduct? There are any number of things that could happen. And until Clinton, you had three, four, five, even more years I collect records of people who have been on death row for eight, 10, 12, 14 years–this is before Clinton–who finally got a decent lawyer, usually a pro bono lawyer, and an investigator, and were able to find out–they–they’re but approved that they’re–that they were innocent. And now, these days, with DNA, that happens even more often.But under Clinton–under this part of the anti-crime bill that he– had passed with the Republicans–they’re just as bad, but he was the power. Under Clinton, you’re limited to one year. You have one year to petition. If the court doesn’t want to hear it, too bad. And that is outrageous.
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, I think–I don’t think he does anything–I don’t think it’s ill will. I don’t think he’s evil in the sense that he hates the Bill of Rights. He does what he figures will help him politically. It’s like when he was running for president. I’ll never forget this one. He was running in New Hampshire. He was not doing well. And he suddenly, over a weekend, rushed back to Little Rock to execute a guy who had killed a cop, but in the process, the policeman had shot him in the head and he was out of it. He didn’t know today from tomorrow, good, evil, whatever. His lawyer begged–his lawyer was an old friend of Clinton. He begged Clinton not to have this guy executed. It was absurd. But he did it anyway. And that was to show that he wasn’t tough on crime. And the habeas corpus business, that’s to show that he’s not tough on crime. And you have an electorate that wants to see people who are not tough on crime.Oh, and other things he’s done. The immigration bill–the new immigration bill–he has stripped the courts, which Congress can do under the leadership of the president, so that people who had a right to asylum or to petition –for asylum who were legal residents are now unable to go through because that part of the bill has been taken out. I mean, he has called for expanded wiretaps for the FBI. I mean, he goes on and on and on. And he was the man, as a matter of fact, who, in terms of the Communications Decency Act, which would have made the Internet, the whole concept of cyberspace, vulnerable to rampant censorship–he pushed that bill, and I know the man in the Justice Department whom he persuaded — the guy didn’t want to lose his job–to write the bill. And, of course, the Supreme Court, 9-to-nothing, said it was unconstitutional.
I mean, did this happens on a regular basis. And what–the crucial part of it to me is, I–the press is practically uninterested in this. In the last campaign, the ’96 campaign, I can’t remember this coming up in any of the television interviews that were done, the presidential debates that Jim Lehrer held and the like, except for Tony Lewis of The New York Times and maybe one or two other people. Now that is dangerous, when the people don’t know what’s happening to their Constitution.
Mr. HENTOFF: He was from Michigan and he grew up in the Dutch Reform Church there, which is a fairly strict church. He later came to New York. He was the minister of a labor temple in the–on the East Side. Then he founded, to my knowledge, the first, maybe the only, labor school; that is, Cornell has a labor department and other schools. But this was a school for–entirely for labor organizers, and he was the–the chairman.He was–and this was funny in a way. Trotsky found out about him–Leon Trotsky–because A.J. worked. He was an activist. And he organized the first sit-in strike in Toledo in a factory. And Trotsky was very impressed with that. And…
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, yeah, The Voice–to begin with, The Voice has been politically correct in many of its aspects since before that term was ever used. It’s always been–well, I’ll give you an example. I found out–the paper used to go to bed on Tues–on Monday. I found out that on Monday nights, the editors would cut out–literally cut out passages, sometimes whole paragraphs, of some of the writers that might possibly offend blacks, lesbians, gays, radicals. And I wrote a couple of columns about that. And they’re–of course, they were annoyed that I had written about it, but, I mean, it –another example–and she always also conjured that. She was an editor there for a time as well as a writer.But Jules Feiffer once wrote a strip. He was then, as now, a syndicator. Of course, he’s not at The Voice anymore. But his strip would come to The Voice first. And the strip showed an Archie Bunker-type sitting in the kitchen–speaking of stereotypes–with a can of beer, saying, `I can’t say “kike” anymore. I can’t say “fag” anymore. About the only think I can say anymore is “nigger.”‘ There was an uproar at The Voice. Great pressure was put on the editor, David Schneiderman, to not run the strip. It was offensive. It was racist. And nobody apparently read the strip and saw what it was about. And I wrote a column about that.
So the –obviously, the–there have been other very good reporters at The Voice. We’ve done good muckraking stuff, good political stuff. But the–spirit of the paper, until fairly recently, with a new editor who doesn’t go on that route, has been, well, politically correct.
Mr. HENTOFF: William Shawn was the editor of The New Yorker and for whom I worked for, God, 27 years; a man I respected enormously because of what he did, –what the magazine was about. Anyway, I got a letter. He took over The Voice and tried to turn it into New York Magazine–very glitzy covers that promised practically nothing in terms of what was inside, very rushed paper anymore. You–not very contemplative, thoughtful or whatever.So I got a letter one day from somebody saying, `You’re always criticizing the press. Why don’t you talk about what Clay Felker is doing to your own paper?’ And my 10-year-old son Tom, now with Williams & Connelly, put in a legal opinion, not –an opinion from the back of the car saying, `You know why? What are you, afraid?’ So I wrote the column. I–you know, –the column simply said that Felker is destroying this paper. And I heard that he was about ready to fire me, but two other people on The Voice interceded and, fortunately, he had a very short attention span, so I wasn’t fired.
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, I like him a lot. He–I started a–to know him–when I asked William Shawn at The New Yorker, `Sh–can I do a profile of Cardinal O’Connor?’ He said, `All right. Find out what he’s like.’ So I went to his office, and I heard somebody–and it turned out to be O’Connor–yelling outside, and I’ve never heard him since raise his voice.At the time there was a hospital strike in New York and the Catholic hospitals were part of a general consortium, and the head of the consortium had decided that they were finally going to replace some of the striking workers. And I hear O’Connor yelling, `Over my dead body will you replace any of those workers! They have a right to strike.’ So I figured, `This is interesting.’ Here is a guy who’s supposed to be the Genghis Khan of the church, the pro-choice people hate him, and I don’t know about his labor background so I figured there must be more to him, and there is. I wrote a book about him.
My favorite story about O’Connor–one of them–is I was in Toronto at a pro-life conference. And I was –I had a session before he was to come on, and I was explaining–I thought very moderately, calmly–that the best way to not have unwanted abortions was to have much more research on contraception. And two very large, true-faith people came out of the audience, wrested the microphone out of my hand and said, `That is im–inappropriate, improper. Pro-lifers do not believe in contraception.’ And O’Connor’s watching this. I get up again and introduce him, and O’Connor said, `I want to tell you I’m delighted that Nat is not a member of the Catholic Church. We have enough trouble as it is.’
Mr. HENTOFF: I read like everybody–like every other writer. I’ve been reading since I could read, which was about four or five years old. And I’d pick–my father would bring home about six newspapers. We had 10 in Boston at the time. I went to the library as soon as I could walk. So the training came from reading all kinds of people, from fairy tales and later on to–I don’t know why–Schweitz’s “Life of Christ.”And the book that really, really shaped my politics and has forever is Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” which is a novel based on terrible fact about what it was like in Russia during Stalin’s time when people actually believed that to get to the point where the Proletariat would triumph, anything that was necessary to be done should be done; the means didn’t count. And, of course, that’s not–that’s just not Russia.
But I went to school at a place that also shaped my life, Boston Latin School. Sandra Day O’Connor–once she said that there are–there were no public schools in America until the 18th century, and she overlooked my alma mater because we started–I say we–in 1635. And among the people who went there–and they’re on–the walls in the auditorium, the names are: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, except he split when he was 10 years old to go to work. But it–Santiana, all that sort of–but the marvelous part of that school was all kinds of kids went.
It was a competitive examination. Poor kids, Brahmans, middle-class kids. The masters, as the teachers were called, didn’t give a damn about –how we felt, what was– things like at home. I mean, this goes against the current grain. All they thought about was: `You’re here. You made the exam. You can do the work. And if you can’t, we’ll throw you out.’ And it was a great lesson because I found out, and as the other kids did, that I could do the work.
Mr. HENTOFF: The Reporter when Max Askeli was there, but I got fired from The Reporter. Max Askeli was a very courageous, principled man up to a point. He had left Italy before he was thrown in jail by Mussolini. And he started this very good magazine. In fact, Meg Greenfield, who’s now the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, was one of the star reporters there. I was in the back of the book doing music. I once did a–the first piece on Malcolm X that anyone had ever seen in the– white press.But I was very much against the Vietnam War, and Max Askeli was visiting Lyndon Johnson in the White House cheering him on, writing editorials. And in The Voice one day I once referred to him as Commander Askeli. And I called in to The Reporter to go over the galleys of a music piece I had written, and the editor whispered to me, `It’s not gonna run. You’re not gonna run. Max Askeli has fired you because of what you said about him.’ You see, the person who has the strong ownership of free speech is the one who owns the press.
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. I’ve–that I regret. That was stupid and ignorant on my part. I went to a party as a guest of a friend of mine, a lawyer. And he had a client who I didn’t know, except–maybe I’m pretending I didn’t know, but he was a big investor in The New Yorker. And as I found out later in a book about The New Yorker, this guy was very unhappy about Shawn. He thought Shawn was spending out–spending too much money on writers.And then I told him–I was complaining the way writers complain. You know, I said, you know, `He pays very well, but a lot of my pieces don’t get in,’ and that was true of most of the writers there. And then he–but he pays you for them. That’s very–that was very nice of him. This guy didn’t think it was very nice of him. He figured, `Oh, my God, that’s more of my investment gone,’ and paying money to writers for not printing them.
So that became, apparently, one of his weapons against Shawn when he–in the corporate skirmishes that went on. It was a bad mistake on my part.
Mr. HENTOFF: Carl Armstrong was one of those people in the anti-war years who had been so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that he and some friends decided they would blow up a building at the University of Wisconsin, in which they said research was being done to help the war against the Vietnamese. What they blew up at three or four in the morning was a young scientist, who was married and had a couple of kids, who wasn’t working on war stuff at all. And he was killed.And I was less angry at Armstrong, though I was angry at the people who came to his trial: Dan Ellsberg, who ordinarily I respected a lot; Philip Berrigan; the guy who teaches at Princeton still–I can’t remember his name. And they were saying–well, they were saying, really, what Arthur Koestler had people saying on “Darkness at Noon.” The means were unfortunate and, sadly, someone died, but the end is what is important and this was a great symbolic–something or other–sign against the war in Vietnarm–nam. And I thought that was utterly disgusting. Fortunately most of the people who were involved in anti-Vietnam activity did not con themselves into being like the violent people they didn’t want.
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. I was writing–at least beginning to write Boston Boy and there were a lot of holes in my so-called research. I didn’t know the towns my mother and father came from in Russia. I didn’t know the name of the clothing store I went to work for when I was 11 years old. I didn’t know a lot of things. So I called for my FBI files, not expecting to have that stuff there, but I wanted to know what they had on me. And–but they did have the towns my mother and father lived in in Russia. They had the grocery store I worked in when I was 11 years old.Then they had a lot of clippings, a lot of articles I’d written. And to me the–the funniest one was–I had done a piece for Playboy about J. Edgar Hoover. I had not been very kind to J. Edgar Hoover. And the field agent had written on –it was sent directly to Hoover–that–the director should see this–`And, besides, Hentoff is a lousy writer.’ And I thought that went a bit far.
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I never expected to get to know him as well as I did. I called his chambers once. I’d gotten the go-ahead from Shawn to do a profile of him. I didn’t even know if he’d agree because most of the justices do not sit for profiles. And he answered the phone and he said, `Sure, come up.’ Gave -a date. And I saw him quite often from time to time.He–I mean, my two heroes are Brennan and, even more so, a man I didn’t able–wasn’t able to write about, but–at least then was William O. Douglas because they both really–they lived the Bill of Rights. They believed, you know, as if it were religious faith, that everybody had the right to speak, the right to assemble; all those things that Clinton has a very dim view of.
And he was–the thing that impressed me about Brennan, he’d been on the court a long time; he had really shaped the jurisprudence of our times until the last 10 or–years or so, and yet he had, as the British say, no side, no pretentiousness, very easy guy. He laughed a lot. He could take criticism. Very impressive fellow.
The one thing he did that I never–I understood it, but I didn’t like it. There was a case against Ralph Ginsberg. Ralph Ginsberg edited a magazine called Eros. Eros was about –erotic material, both in print and pictures, etc. I wrote a piece for it on Sam Hyakowa and his very useful distinction between the lyrics of the blues–the black blues and popular lyrics. Black…
Mr. HENTOFF: He was a semanticist who later became a rather sleepy United States senator. But he was a good semanticist. And all of a sudden at my door one day, at my office, there appeared a detective from the district attorney’s office carrying a gun. And I was to go forthwith to an interview in the DA’s office about Eros magazine. I was not hip then to the task–I mean, you know, `Where’s your warrant?’ and all that sort of stuff.So there was a real press on to get Eros. And finally, Ginsberg himself was indicted and convicted of pandering. And Brennan, of all people, read the decision from the bench, and Brennan had been the key man on the court to get away from obscenity, let alone pornography, and to say that it also–it’s also subjective it oughtn’t to be justicable. And as he read the decision, his neck grew redder and redder and he was furious. I mean, he could have hit Ginsberg, I guess, except he wasn’t that sort of fellow.
And I asked a clerk, `What is this all about?’ And he said, `Oh, well, Justice Brennan has a daughter, and she’s of the age where he feels she might have been shaped in some way by this magazine.’ So even Brennan at a crucial point–and it didn’t last beyond that decision–succumbed to his visceral feelings rather than his liberal–libertarian feelings.
Mr. HENTOFF: I did, indeed. I had differed with the ACLU in the past, as most of the people in the ACLU do from time to time. But I had a lot of respect for much of what they’re doing, and I still do. I still call the affiliates from time to time to get stories. But they did one thing that was beyond the possibility of my staying.The Centers for Disease Control, since 1988, had been testing infants at birth for various diseases–sickle-cell anemia, syphilis, whatever, and HIV that leads to AIDS. HIV was not allowed to be the results of that test was not told to the parents or the physician–the attending physician because of political reasons. The gay groups and the feminist groups didn’t want that sort of violation of privacy to go on. And the ACLU went along with that.
And, finally, a very brave assemblywoman in New York, who was pro-choice, Nettie Mayersohn, finally got a bill through that made this testing mandatory so that people–for example, if a woman took her child home and the woman was infected and didn’t know it, but the child was not, the child–the woman would breast-feed the child and the child would die. And I kept saying to the people I knew in the ACLU, `How can you allow people to die for the sake of an utterly rigid, wrongheaded principle?’ And they wouldn’t budge, so I left.
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I’m working on one now. It’s called “Living the Bill of Rights,” and it’s about people–well, it starts with Brennan and Douglas as people who not only live the Bill of Rights, but try to shape the reason for that. But then–the–these are people who–there’s a valedictorian in a high school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a born-again Christian, who got into a lot of trouble because she wouldn’t let her principal–this is a public high school–censor or see her valedictorian speech. She said, `No. That’s First Amendment right. I’m gonna do that.’ And the whole school closed against her almost physically.Then there’s a black lawyer in Galveston, Texas, who was the unpaid NAACP general counsel in Texas. He had a great record in housing discrimination, labor discrimination. He decided to take as a client a member of the Ku Klux Klan because the state wanted to get the membership lists of the Klan to find out if they could get something on the Klan. And he said, `I got to take you. I despise you. But we, the NAACP, won that case; NAACP vs. Alabama in the 1950s. Nobody has the right to get your membership lists.’ He was fired from the NAACP. He became a pariah, until he stopped his practice and went around the state talking to black church groups and other black groups explaining why he had done what he had done. To me, he’s a hero.
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