Newfields New Yorkby Theodore Hamm
Jack Newfield, Somebody’s Gotta Tell It! The Upbeat Memoir of a Working-Class Journalist (St. Martin’s Press, April 2002) $30 hardcover.
Toward the end of his excellent new memoir, Jack Newfield serves up a Brooklyn reverie. His 1950s Brooklyn was that of the Dodgers, or “the Brooklyn of hope, inclusion and cohesion.” Though familiar, such nostalgia is hardly cliché. The borough’s idealism, symbolized by Jackie Robinson’s play at Ebbets field, sprang from everyday life on its working class streets. “I have forgotten the values of my old Bed-Stuy neighborhood,” Newfield writes, “the code of honor, unity, loyalty, fair play, and no surrender.”
New York, however, is a city where self-interest, division, betrayal, and unfair advantage usually win out, and giving in is the easiest option. All of which have made figures like Newfield that much more necessary. Political commentator, popular scholar, investigative journalist and sports writer, for over forty years Newfield has never let those in power become complacent. Idiosyncratic as his own politics may be, Newfield, to paraphrase Mencken, has never stopped “afflicting the comfortable.”
As he began his reflections, the question for Newfield lay in which phases of his long and varied career to emphasize: New Left journalist and participant; tireless investigative reporter and inveterate foe of Ed Koch; crusader against Don King and the corrupt boxing world; and, most recently, the last left-wing populist in the tabloid press. Newfield fives us plenty of good stuff about his four main identities, which are all of a piece to him. Yet throughout the work, one repeatedly wonders whether his perspective has changed a bit more than he’d care to admit.
Newfield’s story begins with a series of snapshot recollections of “a state of mind called Brooklyn.” Until he was ten, his Bed-Stuy neighborhood was mostly Jewish and Italian, but by the time he was eighteen (in the mid-1950s). it was largely black. Other white families took advantage of the government housing loans that sanctioned White Flight, or were scared into moving due to real-estate blockbusting. But Newfield stayed behind with his widowed mother, who scraped together a living as a department store saleswoman. Like other postwar Brooklyn teenagers, he found solace, and pleasure, in the interracial worlds of Ebbets field and the Paramount Theater.
Jackie Robinson, Newfield says, personified Brooklyn’s integrationist idealism. For a ten-year-old boy like Newfield, the lesson of Jackie’s first season (1947) was simple: “give everyone a shot, and the whole team—or city, or society—will flourish.” That he considered himself a “child of Jackie Robinson” made it doubly disappointing for Newfield when Robinson endorsed Richard Nixon rather than JFK in 1960. Yet part of growing up, Newfield notes later in the book, is realizing that everybody makes mistakes, including one’s heroes. And, though as flawed as the rest of us, Robinson clearly inspired a generation toward a collective goal.
It wasn’t only Robinson’s seminal struggle and exciting play that inspired Newfield, however. It was also the way that some legendary sportswriters wrote Robinson’s heroic efforts that pushed Newfield to become a reporter. Less bound to journalistic conventions than the rest of the paper, the sports pages of the 1940s and 1950s provided a home for some of the era’s more distinct popular voices. Jimmy Cannon, sentimental but gritty (and later a crank), showed Newfield the way. “Baseball should be grateful to you,” rather than vice versa, Cannon once wrote in a column about Robinson Cannon, who has also grown up poor, instinctively knew “what was real and what was bogus,” and by high school, Newfield was ready to pursue the same journalistic calling.
Newfield’s Brooklyn idealism would stick with him as he ventured across the river and into the fire. As editor of the Hunter College Arrow in the late 1950s, Newfield first became acquainted with the civil rights movement, and soon fell in within the anticommunist left. It was from democratic socialists like Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph that he learned “the evils of Stalinism.” Newfield’s “lifelong vehement antagonism to authoritarians of the left” derived from these three figures’ influence, and later from that of Irving Howe and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Meanwhile, after first hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, Newfield knew that political reporting, not sports writing, was what really “mattered.”
Thus began Newfield’s wholesale immersion into the dynamic-political movements of the early 1960s. He joined the Young People’s Socialist League, and got arrested in sit-ins organized by SNCC. Mentored by Michael Harrington, Newfield merged his activism with politically charged reporting. Newfield soon became an early member of SDS, and, unlike Harrington, fully believed in the group’s—and the New Left’s—innovation of placing students, not workers, at the forefront of radicalism. “The idea that the campuses would be the catalyst of social change,” Newfield says in hindsight, “now seems self-important and elitist.” But he still feels that it was right at the time, and with good reason: the ossified nature of both the era’s union leadership and its political parties, as well as the raw numbers yielded by the baby boom, all made students likely radicals.
It was after he fully joined the Voice in mid-1964 that Newfield began to establish his name as a leading “New Journalist.: His early pieces quickly showed that his brand of left politics could not easily be pegged. As he drives home throughout the memoir, he was anti-communist, pro-integration, and a partisan of the early New Left. However, in stressing such a familiar combination, Newfield ends up making his politics sound far more conventional than they actually were. Just on example from his early Voice pieces tells a different story. In covering a 1964 forum on a race relations held between white liberals and black radical artists (Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Lorraine Hansberry), Newfield first called some of the panelists “Soviet apologists” and “cultural Mau-Maus,” but then finished by approvingly quoting Lenin’s notion of “infantile leftism” – a vanguard intellectual perspective, to be sure.
As the New Left tuened towards violence and began to embrace Black Power, Newfield continued to cast a critical eye, but once again in a far more complex way that he prefers to recall here. The late 60s left was indeed full of “lunacy,” as he repeatedly says now. In a 1970 essay, though, Newfield sought to place violence the left’s embrace of violence in context. Both “morally insupportable and politically counterproductive,” such militance reduced activists to the level of their foe, for whom violence was “dropping napalm on civilians or clubbing an unarmed sixteen-year-old demonstrator into unconsciousness.” Eager to throw his own metaphorical bombs at the late 60s left, specifically by highlighting Tom Hayden’s dubious role as an incendiary, Newfield also completely softens his views of the Chicago ’68 convention. What he now calls his “spare, apolitical, Maileresque narrative of the event, was in face anything but. His memoir excerpts only the descriptive middle section of his original story, but leaves out the piece’s intro”—on the streets of Daleyland, pigs became a precise description”—and its conclusion—“Humphrey’s Nomination should not be accepted as legitimate.” What gives, Jack?
Something is indeed happening here, you might day, but what that is ain’t exactly clear. Throughout the book, Newfield is a revisionist, but he’s far from a David Horowitz-type left apostate. As he’s done throughout his career, he continues to attack orthodoxies held by both the right and the left. What different these days is Newfield’s tendency to look at politics solely through the lives of influential people. His almost obsessively biographical approach leads him to judge entire movements based on his views of the people at the top. This trend stands in sharp contrast to his writings of the 1960s, in which the struggles were always collective, never singular.
The shortcomings of such an approach surface most clearly in Newfield’s discussion of two figures whom, after Jackie Robinson, he most lionizes, namely Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Newfield repeatedly holds King up as a model of “virtue in action” and thus a necessary counterpoint to what he sees as the “gangsterism of Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.” To bolster his case, he credits King with achievements that no on person could single-handedly accomplish: “he transformed the South, ended legal segregation, and empowered millions of blacks through nonviolence.” King, to be sure, was a great leader, but only because he had a powerful movement made up of ordinary men and women that supported him. To say that he alone overturned nearly a century of segregation is as unrealistic as the contemporary idea that one person alone deserves credit for bringing a city of eight million people back from ruins.
Newfield devotes more space to his views of, and experiences with, Robert Kennedy, whom he also wrote a full book about in the 1960s. The integrity of RFK’s conversion from cold warrior to left-wing figure-head has been challenged in some recent accounts, like gore Vidal’s. But Newfield remains a firm believer, and his stirring portrayal makes it difficult to disputer that by 1968 RFK had truly become a man of the people. Still the question remains why, and her Newfield’s answers remain largely personal ones. Bobby, he says, uniquely saw the folly of Vietnam, and was moved to action by the poverty he witnessed firsthand in the black ghettoes and the migrant fields. True, but what of the antiwar movement, the black freedom struggle, or the farmworkers’ campaign? Such group efforts may be less sexy to write about, but good politicians are most definitely made, not born.
Together the portrayal of the greatness of both King and Kennedy leaves us little hope for our political future. “I never got over it,” Max Roach said of Clifford Brown’s death to Pete Hamill; to which Newfield adds, “a lot of us feel that way about RFK.” King’s integrationist, non-violent “space,” meanwhile, “has remained vacant for more than twenty years.” Yet figures such as King and MILK were manifestly products of their times, and what is needed today are more movements for quality that start from the ground up, rather than wait for new messiahs. Surely Al Gore, who Newfield says he voted for, is not the best that any generation has to offer.
Whether Newfield’s shift in focus from collective struggles to individual ones reflects a change in his career identity – from New Journalist to investigative reporter to tabloid columnist—is a key question. Newfield here casts both these directional shifts in a heroic light. He took up investigative reporting in the late 11960s because “localism seemed more manageable than railing against the Vietnam War and Nixon’s election. I wanted to dig into New York City—its neighborhoods, its institutions, its history, and its power elite.” And that he most certainly did, writing hundreds of groundbreaking articles for the Voice and co-authoring two important works on city politics during the Koch years.
Yet after two decades of muckraking for the Voice, Newfield says, he decided that it was time to go back to his roots. When the Daily News, “a tabloid with a working-class base,” offered to pull him away from the “liberal” Voice, he “decided to find out if I could reach this whole, diverse, fantastic city, not just readers who already agreed with me.” Besides, he says, the Voice had become a “dreary” bastion of “political correctness”; in what ways he thinks the Daily News or later the Post contradicted such “propagandistic predictability” is not at all clear. Shamelessly placing himself in the tradition of Steinbeck, Guthrie, and Springsteen, as well as that of other hard-nosed columnists like Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin, Newfield soldiered into the tabloid battle for the hearts and minds of the common man.
In the tabloids, Newfield continued his good fight, positioning himself as an everyman with a ringside seat. Like politics, boxing, “his guilty pleasure,” became a symbolic contest between good and evil. For incarnation of the latter he needed to look no further than Don King. Comparing his own perspective to that of Joe Frazier, the archetypal blue-collar fighter, Newfield takes shots at King, Mike Tyson, and to a lesser extent, Muhammad Ali. An underdog heavyweight fighting for respect in an unjust world is an appealing self-image, yet has boxing ever been anything other than corrupt? Indeed, Newfield’s account would be far more surprising if it found that Don King was a fair-minded businessman or that Mike Tyson was actually a nice guy. His pursuits of workers’ rights and journalistic integrity in the world of tabloids are as noble, but clearly as doomed, as his efforts to promote boxing reform.
Newfield’s travels thus end at an uncertain place. He’s still a crusader, but his ultimate cause—to preserve working class dignity in Wall Street’s town—may be even more quixotic than the goals of the New Left. The book calls itself as an “upbeat memoir of a working class journalist,” but as it closes, Robinson, King and Kennedy are dead, New York is a white-collar town, and Newfield himself is no longer a regular columnist anywhere. Just 65, Newfield is surely good for another career chapter or two, and New York will never run out of dirt in need of digging. These days the city’s future hopes lie in its immigrant communities, in the aspirations of its youth and in a collective re-definition of what it means to be part of the working class – issues outside of the scope of everyday journalism. Still no matter where Newfield goes from here, his spirited reflections remind us that we are all in his debt for his four decades of work trying to keep the city a more honest, and more just, place to live.