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Nat Hentoff Hangs Onto His Skunk Suit

We noted here recently the surprising transition of a civil liberties icon -- the layoff of Nat Hentoff after half a century as a columnist for The Village Voice. One of the best friends the Bill of Rights ever had, Hentoff, 83, was one of three staffers let go in the final days of 2008. Now, Hentoff has written his final column for the Voice. It is anything but a farewell. "I'm not retiring," he declares in the second sentence; remember the time years ago when he suggested retirement to Duke Ellington, only to have the jazz great look at him as if he was crazy and declare, "Retire! Retire to what?"

Instead, Hentoff will continue to write books and columns. He recalls the description of him delivered by the late Meg Greenfield, The Washington Post's editorial page editor, when he won the 1995 National Press Foundation award for lifetime distinguished contributions to journalism. "Nat Hentoff is never chic," she said. "Never has been, as those of us who have known him over the centuries can attest. Never will be. Count on it. He is not tribal in his views and is terribly stubborn. He challenges icons and ideas that are treasured in the community he lives in. He puts on his skunk suit and heads off to the garden party, week after week, again and again."

Explaining why he will continue to don that skunk suit, he recounts how a group of young lawyers helped him realize that his writing was having an impact. It happened by way of his son, Thomas G. Hentoff, a partner at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C.

Tom, a specialist in intellectual property and defamation, among other areas of law, once invited me to a large gathering in New York of lawyers from around the country who are also experts in those fields. Several lawyers in their thirties, it seemed to me, came to our table, and one, speaking for the others, said to me: "We're here because of you. We were in high school when we started reading you in the Voice, and you made the law so exciting. That, as I've said, is why we're here."

To go along with Hentoff's farewell column, the Voice has collected some of his greatest hits from five decades of columns and an aptly titled tribute, "50 Years of Pissing People Off." As for Hentoff, his advice to young journalists, borrowed from former New York Times reporter Tom Wicker, is never to lose their sense of rage. It might also be his advice to young lawyers, at least those who share his passion for the Bill of Rights. 

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on January 8, 2009 at 11:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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