JUST MUSING: “Nat Hentoff: Rest in peace my friend…”

Some years ago, I received a call seeking my agreement to represent an anti-abortion group in the State of North Carolina.  The caller was making the call on behalf of the Free Speech Coalition.  I recognized his name, searched in the recesses for his facial features, seeing, not seeing, seeing, remembering, having met him when in Washington, D.C., speaking to the group the year prior.  The call was made because the State of North Carolina was seeking the membership lists of an anti-abortion group.  The caller believed the stance in representing the Klan and the protecting their membership list was the same issue faced by the anti-abortion group.

“Don’t you agree?”

“Yes sir, I agree.”

“Good.  We believe the abortion protesters are within their constitutional rights to protest and thought of you.”

“Am I going to represent their interest in the Free Speech Coalition’s name?”

“Our group is not prepared to put our name on the defense unless we can achieve unanimity of our membership.”

“Unanimity?”

“Yes, unanimity.”

“You will not achieve unanimity, not on abortion.”

“We are going to try.”

“Aren’t there women groups part of your membership?”

“Yes, there are.”

“You’re not going to achieve unanimity.”

*                *          *

 On today’s date (January 8, 2017), the news services announced the death of Nat Hentoff.  The New York Times aptly describes Hentoff, “an author, journalist, jazz critic and civil libertarian who called himself a troublemaker and proved it with a shelf of books and a mountain of essays on free speech, wayward politics, elegant riffs and the sweet harmonies of the Constitution… He was 91.”  Nat never denied being a troublemaker, bragged about his riffs, and reached out to other troublemakers around the country, telling their stories, interviewing, sharing, encouraging.  Prone to tell on himself by admitting to following others’ action; laughing out laugh, as they talked, as he talked.  Wondering why opposites never understood “free speech for me meant free speech for thee”, instead knowing well they believed Free Speech for Me – But Not for Thee.

Writing, poking, sending copy, asking for comments, always listening, seeking better, wanting better, plying his trade until late into life, all Nat’s wont.  Correcting enemies, chastising friends, expressing opinions, taking contrary positions, even if those positions differed from the approaching crowds, yelling for his scalp, while standing his ground, holding the Constitution aloft in one hand, a pen in another, laughing all the while.

“Mr. Griffin.  How are you doing?”

“Mr. Hentoff.  How are you doing?”

Such were his words, the last conversation with him.  A conversation which took place the day after argument at the Supreme Court (Santa Fe v. Doe), made early, taken early, 7:00 a.m. on March 30, 2000, meaning he made his call at 8:00 a.m.  He didn’t introduce himself.  No introduction was needed.  I recognized the voice, the laugh.

“They underestimated you; the other lawyer, the ACLU, the press.”

I didn’t ask him what he heard.  I didn’t ask him what he meant.  I didn’t need to.  I had learned to trust him over the years, the instincts, his commentary, writings, books, having interacted at that point for fifteen years.

“I think so.”

“One day when you are in New York, let’s sit down and talk.”

“I will.  I will.  Thank you for calling.”

Nathan Irving Hentoff was born in Boston on June 10, 1925, the son of Simon and Lena Katzenberg Hentoff.  His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, and he grew up in the tough Roxbury section in a vortex of political debate among socialists, anarchists, Communists, Trotskyites and other revolutionaries.”  Worlds apart from my existence, separated by decades and landscape didn’t mean we didn’t periodically share our views on the world, the Constitution, disregarding distance and time.

Mr. Hentoff wrote for The Village Voice for 50 years, and also contributed to The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Down Beat magazine and dozens of other publications.  He wrote more than 35 books — novels, volumes for young adults and nonfiction works on civil liberties, education and other subjects.”  In 1998, Nat wrote Living the Bill of Rights:  How to be an Authentic American.  The book’s publication was too preceded by another call.

“I have a new book coming out.”

“Wow, wonderful.”

“I’ve dedicated the book to you.”

That’s it; that simple.  Other than telling me he would call me when the book hit the stores; that’s it.  He did both – dedicated the book to me (“To Anthony Griffin, for whom the Constitution is a daily and demanding companion”), and called when the book was published, talking to a staff member, conveying the message.

I picked the book up the same day, standing in the aisles of Barnes and Noble, struggling to contain embarrassment, tears, repressing any attempt to act like a groundhog, burrowing, burrowing, burrowing into the carpet, attempting to disappear.  I called when I returned to the office, thanking him … hearing his voice, knowing the laugh, envisioning him pulling on that distinctive beard, intermingling salt with pepper, pepper with salt, laughing, laughing, laughing-out-loud, at those who would as soon decree his demise.

Absolutely, I traveled to New York over the twenty year period of my repeatedly telling, his telling, and retelling.  We never had that lunch.  I didn’t need to.  Always understanding the representation of the Klan; laughing louder when I retold the call of the Free Speech Coalition and their not being able to obtain unanimity (Free Speech of Me, Not for Thee); supporting my arguing the prayer in school case when others sought to remove me from lead counsel in order to substitute another of a different hue; reading my work, offering constructive criticism, when he was under no obligation to do so.

Always comforted by his writing, periodic calls, verbal support, and the extended hand crossing boundaries, states, jurisdictions and municipalities, affirming worth, holding the Constitution high reminding the rest of us to continue believing.  There was no need to meet.  No need to have lunch.

Rest in peace my distant friend, rest in peace.

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