Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin died last week. Berry, an icon of rock ‘n roll, was globally known for hits like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven” He was the first true rock ’n’ roll superstar. Breslin was a superstar to New Yorkers, especially to those who looked forward to reading his byline to find out what was behind the news. He was also idolized by fellow writers.
Breslin was not an investigative reporter like Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. He was a simple hard-drinking Irish-American newspaper veteran who wanted to present the news to the average person. He was able to describe what others were not able to communicate.
Breslin’s 1963 interview with the man who dug President John F. Kennedy’s grave remains a classic of connecting ordinary people to the headlines:
“Pollard is forty-two. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grad 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”
No other journalist thought to interview Kennedy’s gravedigger; all other writers were too busy with the headlines about the funeral itself, with what they thought was the big story. Breslin also told the story of Kennedy’s death through the emergency room surgeon who unsuccessfully tried to save the young President’s life.
What drove Breslin? What drove him to connect ordinary people to the headlines? “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers,” he explained. Breslin was a hero to the average New Yorker, but especially to the poor and forgotten. He was credited with inventing “New Journalism,” using techniques from novels to make the story more immediate. But like “Gonzo Journalism” and Hunter Thompson, he was not interested in being classified as a creator of anything. Breslin was interested in the stories of the people behind the headlines. His columns were the opposite of what one sees in screaming headlines or on society pages.
This is what he wrote about one person at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in 1986:
“He had two good weeks in July and then the fever returned and he was back in the hospital for half of last August. He got out again and returned to Eighth Street. The date this time doesn’t count. By now, he measured nothing around him. Week, month, summer heat, fall chill, the color of the sky, the sound of the street, clothes, music, lights, wealth dwindled in meaning.”
An epidemic reduced to one man’s suffering, the suffering of many seen through the lens of what the average reader could understand.
Breslin won numerous awards in the newspaper business. He won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for “columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens.” He wrote several novels as well. In 2002 he wrote of the death of an illegal Mexican worker at a construction site to show how city officials had not properly inspected the site because of political connections. Wherever injustice appeared, he was driven to write, to empathize with those who had not been heard.
Jimmy Breslin had an innate sense of what was right and wrong. I’m sure he never took Michael Sandel’s course on “Justice” at Harvard. I doubt he ever read John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice. But he understood what justice was, what it meant to those who were being treated unfairly.
Breslin’s beat was New York. Before he stopped drinking for health reasons, he often wrote his columns from simple bars around the city. He wanted to know what was going on in the street. Today’s populists are trying to capture the “forgotten vote.” They are trying to appeal to those who have been the losers because of globalization. But they are only trying. Breslin felt the pain; he understood the rage long before the disappearing middle class became the mantra of pollsters and politicians.
There is plenty of unfairness and injustice in the world today. There is even some rage. But no one has been able to put that rage into words like Jimmy Breslin.