Jimmy Breslin Showed Us How To Cover A President Who Lies. Talk To The Gravedigger.

The newspaper columnist who died Sunday shined a light on the powerful by talking to the powerless.
President Donald Trump, seen in the gold-curtained East Room of the White House.
President Donald Trump, seen in the gold-curtained East Room of the White House.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The gravedigger doesn’t have any reason to lie to you.

If the grave is deep enough and wide enough, that’s all that matters. The lies can be told by the shiny casket going into the dirt, by the funeral parlor salesman who talked the grieving relatives up to the gold-patina model, and by those mourners who didn’t really want to be there.

But the man who shovels out the deep hole in the ground with a back hoe has no reason to embellish. He’ll just tell you what he thinks, if you ask.

Jimmy Breslin, the columnist who died Sunday, knew that in 1963 when he framed the funeral of John F. Kennedy through the experience of Clifton Pollard.

Pollard, an African-American man who dug graves at Arlington National Cemetery for $3.01 an hour, dug the slain president’s final resting place. He couldn’t watch the burial ceremony because he was digging more graves.

Still, he called it “an honor.”

Breslin’s story about the day is the one that’s remembered most out of the hundreds written, and it offers a lesson both about him, and for the reporters in Washington more than 50 years later covering a White House occupied by man who doesn’t need to be talked up to the gold model, and who has a strained relationship with the truth.

The lesson is, if you want truth, you have to leave your desk, step away from your computer, and must certainly ignore your Twitter feed.

“Breslin hardly ever came to the office. He just sent his stuff in,” said Anthony Mancini, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College who worked at the New York Post in the late 1960s when Breslin wrote for the then-liberal paper.

“Jimmy got up in the morning, and put on his shoes. He never learned to drive, so he walked, took the subway, a cab, whatever,” said Denis Hamill, a former New York Daily News columnist and friend of Breslin’s.

“He wouldn’t sit at a desk and think up what to write. He would form his opinion based on the legwork that he did,” Hamill said. “He went out and really did the work.”

The results were stories that helped expose the corruption immortalized in the book City For Sale, revealed New York City cops had tortured suspects with a stun gun, and infuriated powerful people, including Breslin’s friends like former New York Gov. Hugh Carey. Breslin dubbed him “Society Carey,” and Carey declined to run in the next election.

Breslin ran into some trouble in the era of “new journalism” when some of his regulars in his columns were deemed to be composite characters. “They were playing fast and loose in those days,” said Mancini, noting that in the era of “fake news,” reporters need to avoid some old-school liberties. “That was a little Trumpian.”

Hamill said much of the concern was overblown, though, by people who didn’t like Breslin, and just couldn’t believe that the truth was true.

“Most of the columns that looked fictional were real, and some of the people in them were not happy because they revealed real things about their lives,” Hamill said.

“Shelly the bail bondsman was real. Marvin the Torch was real,” Hamill said, referring to some of Breslin’s recurring characters. “I met them.”

“'Good,' Breslin said. 'The more people we get angry the better.'””

For Hamill, the larger point is that Breslin, better than anyone, used the experiences of regular people to speak truth to power.

In the era of President Donald Trump, it’s a skill the media would do well to rediscover. Reporters certainly do try to humanize the news these days, but often it’s the Trump tweet that dominates the headlines. And all too often, the press is cowed by claims that it is being unfair when reporters ask Trump about falsehoods.

When Trump held his joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, it was not the American journalists who asked Trump the hard question about the White House’s inflammatory and unsubstantiated claim that the British government helped former President Barack Obama tap Trump Tower. It was the Germans.

“Breslin would have been the perfect guy to really go and illustrate the lies and deceit that Donald Trump has launched upon the nation and the world, by going to the little guys, the guys who had contracts with him and got stiffed, the guys at the casino who got laid off, the people who Trump University swindled,” Hamill said.

Even in a laudatory moment in 1963, in a column that extolled Kennedy and the powerful fortitude of his widow, Breslin very intentionally included the fact that Clifton Pollard could not watch the burial.

“He was very interested in what people did, the work they did, and what they meant to the world,” Hamill said, recalling a conversation with Breslin about Pollard. “He said what bothered me about [Pollard] was he was allowed to dig [Kennedy’s] grave but he wasn’t allowed to go over and watch the ceremony because he was a black guy and a working guy, and wearing shabby clothes. He couldn’t go over and mingle with the big shots. It’s what was wrong with this country.”

Breslin probably wouldn’t have wanted to cover Merkel and Trump’s White House events, as staged as such things are. But you can be sure he would have asked the aggravating question.

Mancini recalled watching Breslin on a panel where the columnist mentioned with satisfaction the fact that an interest group was furious about something he wrote.

“Good,” Breslin said. “The more people we get angry the better.”

If the anger is sparked by someone like a gravedigger, there’s a much better chance it will be true than if it’s delivered in 140 characters by a man who used to impersonate his own press agent. And there’s a better chance it will move other regular people.

Breslin called it the “gravedigger theory.” Now it’s a lesson from the grave. Breslin surely hopes it haunts Trump.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Carey lost re-election. He declined to run.

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