America’s conscience – Nat Hentoff’s farewell

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In my youth one of my heroes was Nat Hentoff.

His obsession with the First Amendment became my own.

He was certainly one of my principal inspirations for becoming a journalist.

So perhaps you can imagine what an honor it was since 2008 for WND to publish his weekly column.

It’s with the deepest sense of nostalgia, marking the last of Nat Hentoff’s regular weekly columns, that I write this today reflecting on the profound impact of this 90-year-old giant in our industry. His regular contributions will be missed by me and, I’m sure, all WND readers.

I first got to know Nat Hentoff personally during the 1990s when Bill and Hillary Clinton were running roughshod over the First Amendment, practicing the kind of personal and official corruption that would make them rich while providing independent journalists like Hentoff and me with more rocks to turn over than there were shovels.

But, as a young, flame-throwing progressive in the 1960s and ’70s, I counted Nat Hentoff as something of a role model. I read his material in the Village Voice and all of his many books. It wasn’t just his investigative journalism and his defense of the First Amendment I admired. We also shared a passion for jazz and the music and poetry of Bob Dylan.

Nothing in my career has made me prouder than the kindnesses and encouragement I have received from Nat Hentoff.

About WND’s relentless pursuit of the truth in the death of Miriam Carey at the hands of Secret Service and Capitol Police, Hentoff offered this: “The way you handled that story ought to be taught in journalism schools. There are still a few journalism schools, I suppose, taking their work seriously, but this ought to be part of the curriculum. I mean it. I commend you for staying on this story because if this story is not resolved in favor of the most fundamental constitutional rights, what kind of country are we? All of the evidence I’ve seen, coming from Garth Kant’s report, which seems to me very thorough and can easily be backed up, is this is a classic case of police out of control and, therefore, guilty of plain murder.”

In short, knowing Nat Hentoff has been one of the biggest personal blessings I have experienced through my 40-year journalism career. What an honor it has been to see this lifelong progressive became one of WND’s staunchest defenders and advocates. That’s because Nat truly loves liberty and people who were willing to fight for it. He always championed the underdog, and that showed through his commitment to life as well as liberty. And he always loved investigative reporting that targeted corruption by government and other powerful institutions.

Hentoff has always been eclectic in his interests and tastes and hard to pigeonhole ideologically. Kurt Loder of Reason magazine once wrote of him: “Although he started out on the political left, Hentoff developed points of view over the years – especially during his long tenure at New York’s Village Voice – that alienated many leftists. Usually antiwar, he supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a humanitarian enterprise. And his unflagging opposition to capital punishment ultimately led him to oppose abortion as well.”

Indeed, Hentoff’s pro-life stance got him in trouble with the left on more than one occasion, including with some colleagues at the Village Voice. His conversion to an opponent of abortion occurred in the 1980s when he was reporting on the case of Baby Jane Doe.

Born in 1925 to Jewish parents in Boston, Massachusetts – which he called “the most anti-Semitic city in the country” – Hentoff graduated from the Boston Latin School and earned a B.A. at Northeastern University. He did graduate work at Harvard and was a Fulbright fellow at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Regarding the possibility of retiring, Hentoff told WND last year a story about a conversation he once had with bandleader Duke Ellington:

“I said to him, ‘Duke, you don’t have to keep going through this (touring, etc.). You’ve written a lot of classics. You can retire on your ASCAP income.’

“Duke looked hard at me and responded, ‘Retire? To what?’” – a question Hentoff vigorously reiterated in relation to his own future.

I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more from Nat Hentoff whenever we need him to speak out on the issues that he’s so passionate about – especially truth-seeking. And we’ll always have his incredible body of work to reflect upon – including his columns for WND from 2008 through 2015 and those he more recently cowrote with his son, Nick.

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