A Journalist Who Confronts, Surprises

MURRAY KEMPTON is a journalist's journalist. His work is possessed of energy, passion, and a keenly honed moral indignation - journalism so deeply reported and so finely crafted that it commands respect, whether you agree with Kempton's left-of-center take on the world or not.

But Kempton is an anomaly in these days of the runaway TV talk shows and the instant expert, when reporters with half of his talent and presence are so in demand that they quickly gain celebrity matched only by their self-importance. Kempton is virtually unknown on this peculiar national stage.

His column appears in New York Newsday, and he writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and other major publications, but he eschews talk shows and the celebrity whirl. He instead peddles his bicycle through Manhattan pursuing ``Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events,'' the title of his most recent collection of work, which covers the last 30 years of his extraordinary half-century career.

``To distill a complexity into the sparest of direct statements and still preserve intact its paradox was among the subtler of Bessie's arts,'' Kempton writes in an essay saluting the genius of blues mistress Bessie Smith. There is no better assessment of his own talent.

One of the most revealing pieces in this collection - revealing of Kempton's talent, that is - is the essay on his visit to Nicaragua in 1986. He found Nicaragua to be ``The Imaginary Country,'' a country where truth ``is approachable, if at all, not through documents but by reliance on random chance.''

Kempton's random-chance and many-faceted Nicaragua shows a Sandinista regime far more pathetic than evil, contras who are more the weeds of opportunity than the flowers of hope. And caught in this maelstrom of despair were the Nicaraguan people, beset with a world that appears to want to help. ``But,'' as Kempton writes, ``it is not often aid of the sort that is useful.''

``For all the pride and even the vainglory of her comandantes, Nicaragua is a beggar nation and cannot be a chooser. She must take what she can get, whether from charity or from barter. Most of the paltry stock in the supermarket at Esteli is of foreign import and so all else but appropriate that customers from a town that could hardly have many more than 100 flush toilets can find a whole shelf stuffed high with toilet plungers delivered by Bulgaria in exchange possibly for Nicaraguan cigars.''

Kempton's book is a quirky history, filled with people and events that once commanded headlines but have faded from the consciousness - Paul Robeson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the election of a Polish Pope, the return of a group of 1960s radicals as suburban bank-robbers and murderers some 20 sad years later.

The book is also filled with surprises, such as a sympathetic look at the red-baiting Hearst columnist Westbrook Pegler - a man who was Kempton's journalistic opposite; and a hard-edged look at playwright Lillian Hellman - a woman whose politics and writings would seem to make her Kempton's kindred spirit.

Such is the way with Murray Kempton. His writing is constantly surprising and fresh. He has never been a slave to his own prejudices and preconceptions, never a prisoner of Emerson's ``foolish consistency.'' In turn, he demands his readers confront afresh their own prejudices. Thus, his is not comfortable and familiar journalism, but something far more rare. It is journalism that provokes thought.

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