The mark of a truly interesting journalist, I've always thought, is some kind of internal tension. Polemicists have their place; but tortured polemicists are always better value. If Nat Hentoff is not exactly tortured, then he is, at least, tense. Tension enlivens his prose and his life.
As Sidney Bechet said of jazz (and Hentoff quotes him warmly in "Speaking Freely"): "There's this mood about the music, a kind of need to be moving. You can't just set it down and hold it. . . . You just can't keep the music unless you move with it." So Hentoff fights against the Vietnam War and the PC orthodoxies at the Village Voice: He opposes the death penalty and abortion; he lambastes the pope and resigns from the American Civil Liberties Union. In all of this, he never stops moving and rarely degenerates, heaven knows how, into the settlement of self-righteousness.
Maybe jazz is the central clue to this. That's what Hentoff started writing about in the 1950s, listening and responding to the works of Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Paul Desmond, Rex Stewart, Billie Holiday, Henry "Red" Allen and Ben Webster, for the magazine Down Beat. A young Jew from Boston, Hentoff took obvious joy in consorting with these giants of a completely other culture and finding in music, if not always in politics, a means of unstrained dialogue.
Hentoff went on to become a legendary columnist for the Village Voice and the Washington Post, as well as, in the era of Editor William Shawn, a reporter for the New Yorker. A 1st Amendment obsessive, he is perhaps best known for his untiring defense of free speech, however objectionable.
But from the beginning, Hentoff's interests were eclectic, racial politics being one of the most enduring. He was an early, dogged reporter on the civil rights movement and one of the first white (or black) journalists to take Malcolm X seriously. He met him in a luncheonette on Lenox Avenue, with the jukebox playing a Caribbean singer named Louis Farrakhan. When Hentoff arrived, the entirely black clientele fixed him with a chilly glare.
"After an hour, it began to occur to me that either Malcolm X wasn't going to show up at all or I was being tested in some way," Hentoff recalls. "In any case, I'd had enough. I jammed the newspaper into my cot, and walked toward the door. A tall, lean man with glasses and an amused look, who had been sitting at a corner table reading and making notes, looked up and said to me, 'You looking for somebody?' 'Malcolm X.' He smiled. Not in any friendly way. 'You've found him,' he said."
Hentoff clearly liked Malcolm X, especially his chilly wit and, "quiet as it was kept, his tenderness." At the other end of his career, he fell for another unlikely character, Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, whose blend of theological orthodoxy and social liberalism warmed Hentoff's secular Jewish heart.
In Hentoff's account of O'Connor, you see most clearly, perhaps, the qualities Hentoff especially admires: plucky individualism, occasional anger, bullheaded engagement and an ability to change one's mind. O'Connor had been a doctrinaire supporter of the Vietnam War at the time, even writing a polemical book in its defense, but later had regrets. Hentoff quotes O'Connor's 1986 mea culpa approvingly: "Even if it was justified for the United States to enter the war, as I suggested in a very poor book that I wrote on the subject and would like to rewrite today, or hide, it is quite conceivable--in accordance with Catholic Just War teaching--that our using more and more unjust means in that war resulted in our robbing ourselves of a justification of being in the war at all."
That's the spirit. When Hentoff converts to an anti-abortion rights position, he is imbued with exactly the same candor, if with a slightly more elevated appreciation of the sheer thrill of changing one's mind. Hentoff's move in the early 1980s to oppose abortion began with his appreciation of the growing sophistication of fetal surgery. He saw choices being made in treating fetuses with spina bifida that were not dictated by what medical science could do but by increasingly strained arguments about the future "quality of life" of the child and the alleged privacy rights of the mother.
Faced with empirical evidence, Hentoff became gripped by the immorality of it all: "I spoke to a number of physicians who do research in prenatal development, and they emphasized that human life is a continuum from fertilization to birth to death. Setting up divisions of this process to justify abortion, for example, is artificial. It is the life of a developing being that is being killed. The euphemisms for an aborted fetus--'the product of conception' and 'a clump of cells'--are what George Orwell might have called newspeak."
Hentoff's conversion to an anti-abortion stance is his finest moment. Unlike many allegedly brave stands taken by journalists that are not at all brave and threaten nothing in those journalists' lives, opposing abortion is tantamount to social death and professional ostracism considering the circles in which Hentoff moves. For Hentoff, it was particularly tough, and his memoir unveils the profound intolerance of much of the left, especially in the area of abortion. Hentoff's stand is particularly admirable because, as an atheist, he found little succor on the other side either.
There's a wonderful account in the book of when Hentoff addressed a largely Catholic crowd on the subject. At one point in his speech, he argued that cheap and easy contraception was the best way to avoid abortion: "Before I finished that theme, several large male pro-lifers barreled their way to the microphone, and seized it. They loudly informed their audience that any form of contraception defied the will of God and the Catholic Church. I noted amiably that, as an atheist, I had no ties to either. At this point, Cardinal O'Connor moved toward me from the back of the room. After I had introduced him, he said, smiling, 'I am delighted that Nat is not a member of the Catholic Church. We have enough trouble as it is.' "
The strange thing is, Hentoff is not a great writer. His book is eminently clear and a wonderfully brisk read, but it is oddly devoid of any memorable phrases or moving passages. You trust him: his honesty, judgment, integrity. I was even briefly forced to reconsider my opinion of I.F. Stone. But his prose rarely sings.
Instead, what strikes you are the rarity of a writer who is clearly motivated by a passionate need to get things right and a sometimes reckless insouciance about where that leads him. For this reason, O'Connor was wrong about Hentoff's lack of religion. Hentoff is actually a great model for any believer who wants fully to understand his own faith and continually challenge it. Hentoff's passionate identification with his Jewish background--detailed almost alarmingly in a defense of Menachem Begin in this book--never stops him from criticizing Israel's own security policies.
In "Speaking Freely," what Hentoff shows is not that querulousness or skepticism are always virtues but that true loyalty never suspends its own self-doubt. His work is like the best jazz that he admires: It speaks to the deepest longings of his community and improvises against them.