WASHINGTON – When Jimmy Breslin gets to heaven later today, the first thing he does is give God a real good earful about the crummy conditions He’s imposed on all those sentenced to hell.
Bet money on it.
That’s what Breslin did for half a century as a newspaper columnist who changed the game for everyone who followed him. He didn’t sit in an isolated office pretending to understand the world below him. He walked the street corners and the police precincts and the housing projects and paid attention to people in misery ignored by those in power.
Before Breslin, the big-name newspaper columnists were those such as Walter Lippmann and James Reston and Arthur Krock. They spoke to nobody below a secretary of state.
Breslin had a line for that kind of columnist. They “sit in their offices and write term papers,” he said.
Here’s where Breslin went. It’s 1965, in the midst of the Alabama civil rights marches, and Breslin’s there, writing about a racially segregated schoolhouse with no bathrooms and no heat beyond a potbellied stove.
“It has ten frame windows. Nearly all the panes are broken. Beaverboard, put up on the inside, covers the broken windows. The school has a tin roof. Yesterday part of the roof was flapping in the breeze coming through the fields. In the winter the wind comes strong and keeps blowing parts of the roof away and the students sit in class under the cold sky.”
There are some who spend decades at a keyboard and never write a paragraph as important as that one. Don’t listen to the bigots when they talk about a separate-but-equal education, Breslin was saying half a century ago. Here’s what it’s really like for black children in the south trying to create a decent life for themselves.
He understood the guys at the top, too. Breslin figured out Donald Trump long before this con man became president. Here’s Breslin, back in June of 1990:
“The Rules on which (Trump) was raised by his father: Never use your own money. Steal a good idea and say it’s your own. Do anything to get publicity. Remember that everybody can be bought.”
For those who imagined Trump a classy real estate mogul, Breslin noted, “His profits come from crap games and slot machines in Atlantic City, the bulk of that, the slot machines, coming from old people who go down there with their social security checks.”
Big shot, this Trump, taking money from foolish old people.
When Trump took out full page ads in the New York newspapers in 1989, falsely accusing four African-American kids of mugging a young lady jogging in Central Park and calling for the harshest possible punishment, Breslin wrote:
“Beware the loudmouth taking advantage of the situation and appealing to a crowd’s meanest nature…Such violent language sounds as if it were coming from someone who walks around with bodyguards.”
Always, looking out for the underdog, working his street-level sources, sifting through actual facts when others were playing to the easiest emotions of the moment.
I discovered Breslin in February of 1964, one night in my college library, leafing through the pages of the old New York Herald Tribune. I was looking for Red Smith’s account of the first fight between Sonny Liston, the ex-con who had become the heavyweight champion, and a young challenger still going by the name of Cassius Clay.
Instead I stumbled onto Breslin’s column, which opened this way:
“Sonny Liston’s blood-flecked eyes stared out of a vacant, jail-yard expression while he chased Cassius Clay…Liston threw a left hook. It caught Clay on the top of his head. Pretty good punch. Sonny threw another left hook. Pretty good shot again…
“Immediately thereafter, Liston sat down in his corner and it was then revealed to the world that Liston was not going to fight anymore because he had a left arm that was bad for him. This made it unanimous. Liston’s left arm had been bad for Cassius Clay all night, too.”
I still have that column, since it changed my life. I was an 18-year old kid writing for my college newspaper. I wanted to be a newspaper columnist one day, but I didn’t want to interview secretaries of state.
Breslin showed me I didn’t have to. He wrote about street characters who resembled people I knew from my old neighborhood. He wrote about cops and criminals and school kids and ballplayers. For me, finding Breslin was the start of a career writing newspaper columns in Baltimore for more than 30 years.
Now Breslin’s gone, and so is a large portion of the newspaper world he inhabited. First the local TV outlets stole away people who had once relied on newspapers. But TV never paid attention to details the way newspapers did, not when they insisted on delivering 90-second stories with five-second sound bites. Today they’re lost if they don’t have a snowstorm to report, or a triple homicide.
Now there are countless web sites across the map – but how many of them have actual street reporters scrounging around for facts instead of just echoing opinions found on some other web sites?
The effect is one of empty mirrors gaping at each other.
But Breslin was always critical of the newspaper business, too. I had a few drinks with him one night at the tail end of the Watergate era, when Woodward and Bernstein had just helped remove Richard Nixon from office and American newspapers still imagined they had a bright future.
“I never had an easy day in the newspaper business,” Breslin said. We were sitting in a Baltimore hotel bar. Breslin sat there with his tie open, his shirt undone, his hair all over the place.
“It’s murder,” he said. “You get short-sighted editors who want everybody to write the same way, and you wind up having to scream and abuse people and search for someone who can think and read.
“Many years, the Pulitzer should go to readers. And this is the worst year in the history of newspapers. They talk about the Watergate scandal, but hell, it was only two guys, nobody else. All the big shots are strutting around, really proud, pounding their chests over Watergate. But what did they do? Without the Washington Post, it’s nowhere.”
Today we had a different kind of investigation beginning to play out on our TV sets. Trump and Obama, Trump and the Russians and the hacking of Hillary Clinton.
It’s easy for TV – up to a point. They put their cameras in a Capitol Hill hearing room and aim them in the right direction. It’s up to actual reporters to go beyond the hearing room, to work their sources, to get past the public statements.
That’s where Jimmy Breslin was at his best. That, and putting it all into language that made you want to read the next paragraph, and the one after that, all the way to the finish.