- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2002

How we're ever, as a society, to get this free speech/free press business right I've no idea, even after a career of 37 years in the alleged "free" press. This idea I have: We just keep working diligently at it, and part of working diligently is listening to Nat Hentoff exercise artfully, keenly, and often (but not always) persuasively, the very right he sees as central to the American enterprise.
Mr. Hentoff, this country's No. 1 civil liberties journalist, would let a freeborn American say pretty much what he wanted to say, consonant with our common First Amendment right to expression. He would let neo-Nazis march in Skokie, Ill., and he'd let college profs outrage political correctness 'til the cows came home.
Mr. Hentoff, if not in so many words, bids us take risks for liberty. "[T]here is no way to reconcile censorship and a free society," he affirms. Now that's a pretty broad statement. Censorship goes on every minute of every hour in every publication in the land: foreheads knuckled as the rights of ownership are asserted. All journalists are censored, but we contrive anyway to get the truth (the only thing any of us would ever write) to our eager readers. Likewise Hollywood, back in the days of the production code, turned out a far more prepossessing product than we're ever likely to see again.
And yet, when all is said and done, this sacred matter of free speech requires continuous conversation best of all, in the presence of a writer whose respect for differing opinions is more than a pose; rather, a key to his life and thought.
In "The Nat Hentoff Reader," an invigorating collection of clear-thinking essays and columns published over the last quarter of a century, we encounter once again the Hentoff intellect in fourth gear, humming smoothly. We get the First Amendment here; we get the complexities and perplexities of racial relations; we get portraits; we get a feeling for the glory that was Dizzy Gillespie.
One reason readers can swallow apparent unorthodoxies from Mr. Hentoff is the simple humanity of the man. We think of morally convinced types as forever glowering. Mr. Hentoff glows, not glowers. He writes feelingly of his friendship with the "Genghis Khan of the Church," Cardinal John O'Connor. A jazz clarinetist manque, he writes lovingly and discerningly of jazz and swing and the blues. For Mr. Hentoff, music is the deep need. "[I]f I have to go without [music] for a few days, I get to feeling hollow. But I can go for weeks without reading the First Amendment." No small confession, that, from a First Amendment acolyte.
And then there's Merle ("I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee") Haggard, who converses instructively, and at length, with Mr. Hentoff. A line from "Okie from Muskogee" suggests the, shall we say, cultural nexus between the two men: "We like livin' right and being free."
Free, in Hentoffian terms, comes down to free. Free to think; free to act; free to damn or to praise, with the grain or against it. It would hardly be accurate, after all Mr. Hentoff's years as an outspoken practitioner of the writing game (the Village Voice, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, etc.) to say that Mr. Hentoff surprises. This rarely happens anymore, which is fine. The pattern pleases well enough strong libertarianism coupled with warmth and quirky humanity. All pundits should be so "predictable."
Hentoffian ideas and attachments lounge next to each other in seemingly odd, seemingly contradictory ways. "How can a man who believes so-and-so believe thus-and-so?" is the query that sustained attention to Mr. Hentoff can (though need not necessarily) raise. Small wonder, probably, that an independent thinker like Mr. Hentoff was friendly with Cardinal O'Connor the resolute moral conservative who displayed a fierce attachment to the cause of the downtrodden. When Mr. Hentoff showed up for the first interview he ever did with his eminence, he overheard Cardinal "Genghis Khan" exhorting against "union busting" by the archdiocese.
So here, in fetching combination, is Nat Hentoff, the pro-life civil libertarian, the apostle of economic justice, the Clinton critic, the integrationist who wonders aloud in one beautiful slice-of-life essay about his own capacity for racism.
The joy and the beauty of Nat Hentoff is, at the end of the day, personal integrity. You don't read a collection such as this and suppose that its author crafted the contents, nipping here, tucking there, in order to attract attention or, still worse, receive invitations because of the attention. You find here a man speaking the truth as he sees it a man who invites you, his attentive reader, to share that truth with him. Except you don't have to. That's your choice completely, underwritten by the First Amendment to the Constitution, God bless it now and forever.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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