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One On 1: Nat Hentoff Reflects On Career, Personal History

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Nat Hentoff has been a writer and reporter in New York for almost 60 years and has no plans of straying away from a career that's been both rewarding and eye-opening. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following report.

Welcome to the world of Nat Hentoff. At age 83, he's still reading, researching and writing on a typewriter every day.

He writes a syndicated column seen in newspapers across the country, and is the author of more than 30 books. But Nat Hentoff's world changed dramatically late last year when the Village Voice informed him that after 50 years, he was being let go.

What followed was a flood of attention -- in the papers and on television.

"I had no idea that my work was regarded so highly. It was really like reading your own obituary while you're still here. And that gift is hardly given to many people," says Hentoff.

Hentoff is a civil libertarian. He's against laws that restrict free speech, even hate speech.

"If you believe in free expression, then you really have to act that way," says Hentoff.

But beware assuming that his opinions follow some form of liberal orthodoxy. He initially supported the war in Iraq because of the mass graves and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein.

"I talked to some of the people who had fled Iraq because they opposed what that government was doing. I could see no other way because the UN, as it is now, was utterly impotent," says Hentoff.

He says the war soon became a total disaster.

He's anti-death penalty, but he's also antiabortion, an opinion formed after reporting on a Long Island child who improved after an early diagnosis of spina bifida.

Mishkin: Did you lose any friends?

Hentoff: Yes, starting at the Village Voice at that time. It was the 1980s and several of the women editors stopped speaking to me. Well that wasn't, in some cases, that much of a burden.

His subject matter has ranged from classical music to politics, civil rights to education, but jazz owns a special piece of his heart.

In 1957, he brought together Lester Young, Billie Holiday and many other greats for a seminal music program on CBS entitled "The Sound of Jazz."

Hentoff can tell hundreds of stories about musicians who became his friends. But he learned early on that you should review friends' music at your own peril.

"One of my dearest friends who was Paul Desmond, he once did a string album and I reviewed it, and I said, 'Paul should know better. It's more important to play who you are than to be muffled by strings', and I'm afraid that broke the friendship and I was very sad about that," says Hentoff.

Jazz greats, then and now, have given Hentoff unbridled joy and occasionally life lessons, as in the case of drummer Max Roach.

"He said to me, 'You know, what we do in jazz is the [U.S.] Constitution in action. Here are these individual voices. They have to be very attentive to each other if it's going to work, 'cause then we become larger than the whole. Isn't that what the Constitution is?', and that's what journalism ought to be and life ought to be," says Hentoff.

He has been a New Yorker for more than 50 years, but Hentoff grew up in Boston, where he met his first and longest-lasting love.

"I was walking to down the street and I heard this music and I went rushing into the record store and I said, 'What's that, what's that?' and it was Artie Shaw's 'Nightmare'," says Hentoff.

But Hentoff heard some sounds growing up that were not so sweet.

He says at the time, Boston was labeled the most anti-Semitic city in the country. As a high school student, he even reported on one anti-Semitic group, going to its meeting undercover.

"And there I learned something about journalism. You don't take notes if you are doing covert journalism so they can see you doing it. So that didn't last very long... They ushered me out," says Hentoff.

The U.S. Army rejected Hentoff during World War II because of a childhood arm injury, so he went to college.

"At Northeastern [University], there was a kid, last name Green, clarinet player, and I was too, but nothing like him. And he was such a decent guy. He was shipped over to Italy and got killed. And I'll tell you something, I don't watch war movies. I'm guilty about that," says Hentoff.

After attending Harvard and the Sorbonne in Paris, Hentoff came to New York.

Working for Downbeat Magazine, he wrote about and befriended many of his musical heroes.

"They were adults who to me were larger than life, because they knew so much, not only about music, but because they traveled all over the world. I remember Duke Ellington saying to me once, 'I read Walter Lippmann, but I've been there, so I'm not sure he always has the facts,'" says Hentoff.

He eventually went to work for the Village Voice, and his scope broadened. Interview subjects occasionally became friends.

Malcolm X used to call his apartment. Hentoff says he attended one of his last speeches.

"A black kid in the audience got up and went into the usual Nation of Islam rant against Jews. And Malcolm snatched the mic away from the moderator and said, 'that's the kind of hatred we've been subject to all these centuries, you've got to get off that kick', and he was a very complex and a very decent guy," says Hentoff.

Through the years, two facets of his personality have shaped his work. A sense of rage has helped his writing and self-doubt has hindered it.

"Happens to me every time I start writing, I mean that," says Hentoff. "Now this is a tough subject. Have I done enough research? Do I really understand all the consequences of what these people are doing? No. I'm always in a state of surprise that I finish it and it all comes out okay, I mean it."

Hentoff and his wife, Margot, will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. They have two children. He has two older children from a previous marriage.

Since being let go by the Village Voice in December, Hentoff has been named senior fellow of the Cato Institute in Washington.

So much has changed in his 60 years in journalism, but for Hentoff, the song has always remained the same.

"If you like what you're doing, you never go to work. And I, as you can tell, if I couldn't write, I don't know what I'd do," says Hentoff. "I never regretted being a reporter because I got to know people I wouldn't have possibly gotten to talk to. It's like jazz, it's continuing surprises."

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