PG saw a talk with Nat Hentoff on Booknotes. A series of stories about jazz musicians was expected. That is not what the talk was about. The first topic of the conversation was abortion.
LAMB: (Brian Lamb, host of Booknotes) “When has a liberal been the most upset with you to your face?”
Mr. HENTOFF: “Oh, well, the most controversial subject-issue I’ve ever gotten involved in to this day was when I became pro-life. And liberals are very–many liberals are very angry at me because of that. In part, because–they could understand it, they say, if I came to it from a religious kin–a Catholic perspective. But I’m still a Jewish atheist, and that really bothers them.”
Later in the interview, Mr. Hentoff commented on atheism.
LAMB: “What does it mean to you to be an atheist?”
Mr. HENTOFF: “It means that I was never able–I mean, I really envy, in some respects, some of the people of faith I’ve known–A.J., for example.”
LAMB: “What was his religion?”
Mr. HENTOFF: “He was–he–I don’t know what he finally came out believing in, but it was some kind of higher being. But Kierkegaard said it for me a long time ago. He said, `You can’t really think yourself into a faith, into a religion. It’s something you have to make a leap into faith.’ And I’ve never been able to do that. I wish I could. Then maybe I could believe in an afterlife.”
Being an atheist did not keep Mr. Hentoff from befriending religious bigshots.
“My favorite story about O’Connor (John Cardinal O’Connor) –one of them–is I was in Toronto at a pro-life conference. And I was … explaining … that the best way to not have unwanted abortions was to have much more research on contraception. And two very large, true-faith people came out of the audience, wrested the microphone out of my hand and said, `That is inappropriate, improper. Pro-lifers do not believe in contraception.’ And O’Connor’s watching this. I get up again and introduce him, and O’Connor said, `I want to tell you I’m delighted that Nat is not a member of the Catholic Church. We have enough trouble as it is.'”
Mr. Hentoff may be the one “pro life” advocate who is also opposed to war and capital punishment. The interview was broadcast October 19, 1997, when his political passion was a distaste for Bill Clinton.
Mr. HENTOFF: “Oh, I think–I don’t think he does anything–I don’t think it’s ill will. I don’t think he’s evil in the sense that he hates the Bill of Rights. He does what he figures will help him politically. It’s like when he was running for president. I’ll never forget this one. He was running in New Hampshire. He was not doing well. And he suddenly, over a weekend, rushed back to Little Rock to execute a guy who had killed a cop, but in the process, the policeman had shot him in the head and he was out of it. He didn’t know today from tomorrow, good, evil, whatever. His lawyer begged–his lawyer was an old friend of Clinton. He begged Clinton not to have this guy executed. It was absurd. But he did it anyway.”
When you say anti war to people of a certain age, they mean Vietnam.
Mr. HENTOFF: … “I got fired from The Reporter. Max Askeli was a very courageous, principled man up to a point. He had left Italy before he was thrown in jail by Mussolini. And he started this very good magazine…. I was in the back of the book doing music. I once did a–the first piece on Malcolm X that anyone had ever seen in the– white press.
But I was very much against the Vietnam War, and Max Askeli was visiting Lyndon Johnson in the White House cheering him on, writing editorials. And in The Voice one day I once referred to him as Commander Askeli. And I called in to The Reporter to go over the galleys of a music piece I had written, and the editor whispered to me, `It’s not gonna run. You’re not gonna run. Max Askeli has fired you because of what you said about him.’ You see, the person who has the strong ownership of free speech is the one who owns the press.”
Some of these opinions got the FBI interested in Mr. Hentoff. Years later, Mr. Hentoff filed a FOIA suit, and got to see his FBI files.
LAMB: “You also once decided you wanted to look at your FBI file.”
Mr. HENTOFF: “Yeah. I was writing–at least beginning to write Boston Boy and there were a lot of holes in my so-called research. I didn’t know the towns my mother and father came from in Russia. I didn’t know the name of the clothing store I went to work for when I was 11 years old. I didn’t know a lot of things. So I called for my FBI files, not expecting to have that stuff there, but I wanted to know what they had on me. And–but they did have the towns my mother and father lived in in Russia. They had the grocery store I worked in when I was 11 years old.
Then they had a lot of clippings, a lot of articles I’d written. And to me the–the funniest one was–I had done a piece for Playboy about J. Edgar Hoover. I had not been very kind to J. Edgar Hoover. And the field agent had written on –it was sent directly to Hoover–that–the director should see this–`And, besides, Hentoff is a lousy writer.’ And I thought that went a bit far.”
The Booknotes talk aired October 19, 1997. Mr. Hentoff was promoting a book, Speaking Freely: A Memoir. He is still alive. Pictures today are from “The Special Collections and Archives,Georgia State University Library”. This was written like James Joyce.