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Genius for Friendship

by John Avlon

Someone should tell the story of this odd couple, because many today would find it hard to believe. Politics often feels like an ideological blood-sport, with pundits mercilessly bludgeoning one another to entertain the agitated masses. But while the godfather of the modern conservative movement, William F. Buckley Jr., was a happy warrior in the world of intellectual combat, he was also blessed with a genius for friendship — and he counted a handful of committed liberals as close friends: John Kenneth Galbraith, Allard Lowenstein, and, perhaps most notably, Murray Kempton.

Kempton was, in Buckley’s words, a “socialist — a sworn enemy of all anti-Communist legislation, sworn friend of militant unionism.” He was also, according to Buckley, “the finest writer in the newspaper profession,” with characteristic “wit and irony and a compassion which is sometimes unruly.” More to the point, he was “a great artist and a great friend.”

In his four-decade, four-day-a-week column in New York tabloids, Murray Kempton established himself as an iconic iconoclast, a Christian gentleman and sometimes lonely devotee of the civil society who bicycled around town in a three-piece suit listening to Bach on a portable CD player. The unassuming Pulitzer Prize winner was, in the words of David Remnick, “a moralist who does not preach: an artist who reports.”

Growing up in Baltimore, Kempton had been a copy boy for the legendary H. L. Mencken and, in his reminiscence of that journalistic giant, Kempton paid Mencken and Buckley the compliment of comparison, writing that Mencken “had the luck of the disability that afflicts William F. Buckley: His nature was not cold enough to make a good Tory, or a good Bolshevik; he was deficient in the high-mindedness, the discipline, the cold-hearted need.”

Kempton was right about them: There was embedded in both men a respect for transcendent values and a skepticism about the wisdom of contemporary crowds. But they were unlikely rebels, blessed with cool minds and warm hearts, entering the arena armed with reason, civility, and wit rather than pitchfork passion. They embodied the aphorism “Take your work seriously, but not yourself.” Perhaps not coincidentally, they were among the greatest newspaper columnists of their time.

The Buckley-Kempton friendship “was amusingly unlikely at the time, but it would be almost impossible to imagine now,” says former New York Newsday publisher Steven Isenberg — unlikely, that is, “unless you knew them personally, and then you saw the points of overlapping interest.”

“Both these guys were funny. They both loved music, the corners of classicism,” says Isenberg. “They both had grace — a style and character with religious undertones. They both had great care and respect for the young in their own crafts. But their strongest bond was language — they lived by it and they died by it.” While Buckley famously trotted out twenty-dollar words that required mere mortals to consult a dictionary, Kempton was often criticized for his baroque style, featuring long sentences and dry wit, neither of which are standard operating procedure in the New York tabloid world.

Another love that Kempton and Buckley shared was a love of New York City, with all its faults and exhilarations. Kempton was a defiantly lifelong local columnist, declining various overtures to join the New York Times and “go national.”

“I walk wide of the cosmic and settle most happily for the local,” Kempton explained, “a precinct less modest than I make it sound, since my local happens to be the only city under the eye of God where the librettist for Don Giovanni could find his closest friend in the author of ’Twas the Night before Christmas.”

A similar if slightly less exalted dichotomy existed in their friendship. When Buckley famously ran for mayor of New York in 1965, Kempton covered the campaign with evident delight for the New York World-Telegram. “Buckley made it plain yesterday that he does not merely disdain the opposition but rather disdains the office itself,” Kempton recounted for his readers, comparing WFB’s grim attempts at glad-handing voters to a “gentleman ranker offered his first introduction to the men’s latrine.”

Acquainted as reporter and subject, they coexisted as colleagues in the world of columnizing for far longer, with Kempton occasionally appearing on Firing Line and even contributing to National Review (always on art, never politics). He became a frequent guest at Buckley’s parties. “I met Murray Kempton because of Bill,” remembers longtime National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser. “He went to NR Christmas parties and the like. Murray was a very sweet guy — which Bill liked. But at his best he was a terrific writer and Bill just worshiped talent.”

The socializing did not obscure their very real differences on politics and policy — instead, it elevated the debate. Kempton’s youthful flirtation with Communism was a frequent target of Buckley’s jabs, with Bill recounting that “Kempton was nearly alone in championing men and women who had fallen under the spell of ideology and the Communist Party and never seemed to cease paying for their folly.”

This was true. There was a congenital compassion to Kempton’s work that led him to empathize even with fallen Mob bosses and disgraced political power brokers (his simultaneously sarcastic and sentimental defense of Tammany Hall’s Carmine DeSapio against Greenwich Village reformers is a classic). When New York governor Mario Cuomo asked Newsday columnist Sydney Schanberg how he could get Kempton on his side, Schanberg famously replied, “try getting indicted.”

Kempton’s eye always sought out the underdog and he studiously avoided bringing his journalistic sledgehammer down on the comparatively small and powerless. Even in a portrait of “The Southern Gentlemen” — “Louisiana’s militant symbol of the counter-attack against racial integration” — published by the New York Post in 1955, Kempton did not lead with judgment. Instead he described the group’s ringleader this way: “J. B. Easterly, Southern Gentleman No. 1, is a spike-haired, square-bifocalled, heavy-necked man of sixty-one, alternating explosions of laughter and indignation. His grandchildren call him ‘Pop-Pop’ and he’s totally impossible to dislike.”

Offered an ogre, Kempton was kind and chose to keep the white supremacist’s humanity intact. He let “Pop-Pop” hang himself with his own words.

But Kempton balanced his jeweler’s eye and essentially modest nature with an allergy to the pretensions and ambitions of elites. He once described himself as having pursued “a life dedicated to no civic activity except striving to protect this country from being managed by persons like William F. Buckley Jr. and myself.”

The unexpected affectionate ribbing only hinted at the reservoirs of mutual respect. Kempton dedicated the last collection of his columns — Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events — to “William F. Buckley, genius at friendships of the kind that passes all understanding.” What went unsaid was that Buckley not only encouraged Kempton to embark on the project, he made its publication financially possible.

In the autumn of their lives, Kempton and Buckley remained close despite punishing schedules stemming from their principled refusal to retire. Buckley could not attend one late-inning birthday party held for Kempton in the Newsday newsroom, but he sent a present. It was a 16th-century copy of The Book of Common Prayer. After unwrapping the volume, Kempton broke down in tears.

Faith was another common bond that transcended their different denominations. Kempton was an unusually observant Episcopalian. “My church was inspired by a languid but dutiful zeal to serve the royal will with a bill of divorce,” Kempton wrote. “The Book of Common Prayer — the envy of even you Romans, who deserve to be envied for everything else — was established as the foundation of this shadowed faith; and every line and comma was passed through the gimlet eye of Elizabeth I. For centuries thereafter congregants ingested mighty cadences, sweet solaces, and the necessary adjurations to pull up their socks.”

That paragraph makes clear their overlapping interest: an appreciation for tradition and the precision of words, chased with puckish irreverence. They were exemplars of civility and defenders of civilization at a time when many contemporaries were preoccupied with the fashionable flash and bang that could come with its collapse. Against this common backdrop, their considered political differences were small indeed.

In Kempton’s final fight with pancreatic cancer, Buckley broke his general preference for avoiding the deathbeds of friends by visiting Murray multiple times. And when Kempton passed in May 1997, at the age of 79, he requested that only The Book of Common Prayer be read at his funeral service, as an alternative to the cavalcade of speakers who assumed they would be given a chance to eulogize the departed. Buckley penned a four-page tribute to his friend in National Review, saying that Kempton “in his career lacerated us all, but scorned only the hypocrites and the arrogant.”

Now, of course, both men have gone on to what they would consider their reward. But their words endure and with them their ability to inspire. I came into contact with their voluminous output while co-editing the Deadline Artists anthologies of America’s greatest newspaper columns, in which both are well represented. I was particularly taken by their unlikely friendship, especially because the history of journalism is littered with outsized personalities who became bitterly preoccupied with their rivalries. Here was a positive object lesson, especially needed in our time. But for all of Buckley’s enduring areas of influence, this gift seems the most lost in translation.

“The failure of Bill’s ‘genius for friendship’ to rub off on the current generation of public figures on the Right had to do at least in part with the changes in the culture,” e-mails WFB’s longtime assistant and keeper of the flame, Linda Bridges. “The increasing propensity towards ‘in your face’ attitudes; the notion that in a world of constant media and Internet bombardment, quiet intelligent conversation can’t grab the attention in the way that shouting and invective can. And I do think there’s something to that. But I’m not sure that Bill’s genius for friendship was ever all that transmissible,” Bridges says. “I think Bill influenced far more people with his conservatism and his Catholicism than with what may, after all, be a very individual and personal gift.”

But you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, as my grandfather often said, and Buckley’s shimmering civility was always a core element of his appeal, helping him win converts. A dour and dogmatic William F. Buckley is hard to imagine, and such a figure would have also been far less persuasive in communicating his conservative message. And while ideology did not drive Murray Kempton’s journalism, civility animated his approach — as it did Buckley’s — to telling the stories of his time. He advanced grace and kindness where they were least expected, finding figures worth redemption among the dispossessed and disgraced. The effect was not moral relativism but moral clarity.

In the end, civility is a value best expressed through actions, and Kempton and Buckley’s relationship reminds us that there is something essentially graceless about imposing political litmus tests on personal friendships. It coarsens civic conversations and dumbs them down, obscuring the view of our common humanity and overlapping interests. Perspective is the thing we have least of in our political debates. And so as we still learn from Buckley and Kempton’s artful arguments, there is much to learn from their friendship as well: a reminder of the (almost) lost art of disagreeing agreeably.

– Mr. Avlon is a columnist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, and a CNN contributor. He is the author or co-editor of several books, including Independent Nation. He is working on a book on George Washington’s farewell address.

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