One day a few months ago, we found ourselves lunching with Jack Newfield. The columnist was in a lather about the majority leader, Thos. DeLay, no doubt for good reason. When our conversation turned to the presidential campaign, he lamented that objective newspaper reporting was going out of fashion. We stopped him on this. His own hero was Jacob Riis, the muckraker who burst onto the New York scene in the pages of the original New York Sun. While objectivity has its uses, we agreed, it was not the defining element of the journalists who tower over the field in historical terms. No, the defining element was an honest commitment to a great cause - or, as Newfield would put it, that they cared.
That is the feature that animated the newspaper life that Newfield himself led right up to the hour of his death yesterday, after a brief but valiant fight against cancer. For four decades, at the Village Voice and later the Daily News and New York Post, Newfield stood against what he called the "permanent government." He would have none of the traditional "Chinese wall" separating reporting from advocacy. Among Newfield's best work were annual lists of corrupt judges and rapacious landlords; a book, documentary, and innumerable columns on Don King and the cesspool of boxing; and his relentless exposes of Mayor Koch's administration, culminating in his book "City for Sale."
When Newfield joined The New York Sun, it seemed an unlikely match, at least in theory, Newfield being a liberal of the old school and the Sun seeking to pick up the tradition of Charles A. Dana's paper, which stood for limited government, low taxation, and economic growth. But Dana and the Sun, and the tradition we seek to revive, also shared much common ground with Newfield, including a commitment to honest government and to New York. Newfield quickly set about seizing the lead on the investigation of the Democratic machine in Brooklyn. He nursed his plan for a statue to be put up in New York of Jackie Robinson.
And yet, often when we were with Jack, we sensed, albeit only slightly, that behind his cheerfulness and warmth lay a certain sadness. One could call it a hint of reverie. The many who knew him better than we did no doubt understood it all along, but we glimpsed it when, a few weeks ago, we sat down at home to watch the new PBS documentary on the life of Robert Kennedy. We were struck not only at its depiction of the future senator's fierce anti-communism, his campaign against Hoffa, then his emergence on the civil rights issue and his turn against the Vietnam war but also at the film's depiction of Newfield, who had known and loved Bobby Kennedy for years and was inside the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was slain by an assassin.
We have remarked on a number of occasions over the years that one of the most important things for a newspaperman is to acknowledge his heroes or heroines. Newfield is one who had the courage to do that, and it is hard to imagine what it must have been like for him to carry on after that night in June 1968. Stuart Marques, Newfield's friend and editor, writes in a column on our page one today that Newfield once said after Los Angeles that he'd never get close to another politician. It was a mark of Newfield's character that in the years since then, he - with the help of his wife, Janey - raised a family, wrote some of the most memorable journalism in the history of this city, and won the respect and affection of thousands, across the political spectrum, including a new generation of newspapermen and women just starting out here at the Sun.