Nat Hentoff's Greatest Hits

Excerpts from his first 50 years at the Voice

Mario Marquez's crime was horrible. As Ted Koppel said, "He raped and strangled a woman who was only 18, and a girl who was only a child of 14." The woman was his former wife, and the child was his niece.

What made this execution worthy of a front-page notice in the Huntsville Item was the debate over whether someone retarded should be executed. And that was one reason Nightline devoted two evenings to the last days of Mario Marquez. . . .

What does George Pataki think?


50 Years of Pissing People Off
Allen Barra celebrates Nat Hentoff

In Huntsville, Texas—which is becoming like the German towns near the gas chambers a half-century ago—another resident says: "Since I've lived here all my life, I never even think about the prison or what's going on there. They—they just—it's all behind closed doors."

And yet another resident says calmly: "I really don't hear a whole lot about it from other people. We really—we really don't talk about it. I think it's just so, you know, normal here."

To whom? Marquez had the mind of a seven-year-old.

Remember the old prison movies? When the electric chair began its work, the lights dimmed all over the prison and sometimes in the surrounding town. No one could escape a few moments' knowledge of the killing being done by the state in his or her name.

In Huntsville—the prison chaplain told Ted Koppel—before the coming of lethal injection, "when the switch was pulled, the lights all over town dimmed, so everybody had a feeling of when it was taking place."

But now, the residents of Texas, of other states with lethal injection, do not have to think about an execution when it takes place. And state killings are never shown on television, including Nightline.

Why is that? Why do officials all over the country absolutely forbid the televising of executions? They are done in our name. Why can't we see the official killings? What is the state afraid of?

Let us begin the televising of executions with a prime-time killing of a retarded man. Or woman. And Charlton Heston could read from the Old Testament.

[ June 11, 1996]

December 1967: Hentoff and his wife Margot (left).
Fred W. McDarrah
I came here a couple of years after [editor] Dan [Wolf] and publisher Ed Fancher started this paper in 1955. The Voice was a life raft for me. Married, with two small children, I was freelancing with only marginal success because I had been typecast by editors around town as solely a writer on jazz. Jerry Tallmer, a vital force at the Voice, invited me to meet Dan Wolf. I was offered a column on anything I chose to write.

No money was involved. The Voice was still struggling to stay alive. But the freedom to be infuriating on a myriad of subjects eventually helped bring lecture dates, book contracts, pieces in other publications, and a syndicated column in the Washington Post.

Dan gave me the space to find my voices—different tunes require different phrasing— but he was also important because of his skeptical presence. In all the years I worked for him—he and Ed Fancher were defenestrated by Clay Felker in 1974—Dan never changed a word or the structure of anything I wrote for the paper.

But, as I wrote, I always had him in mind. I didn't want to be the target of his quizzical look: "Do you really believe that?"

Dan despised cant and anything that had the prim self-righteousness of what later came to be called "political correctness." Many Voice writers in the early years were more radical, to say the least, than he was. But he also encouraged writers who were more conservative than he. . . .

When there was a particularly fierce controversy—like the 1968 strike in which the United Federation of Teachers shut down the schools citywide to protest the new black community-controlled district in Ocean Hill–Brownsville—the Voice ran scores of articles on all sides.

During that time, I was asked to speak to the Nieman Fellows at Harvard, and a professor of government, sitting in, told me how exasperated he was by the Voice.

"I never know," he said, "what the paper itself believes. I never know what it stands for."

Thinking of Dan, I told the professor, "That's the point. You can read all kinds of views in the Voice, and then make up your own mind."

Since Dan was forced out of the paper, there has not been as much true diversity in the Voice. He liked to see the Voice as a tournament of endless controversy. He himself hardly ever raised his voice, but he made his penetrating points sting for a long time.

[ September 25, 2001]

Still a pain in the ass.
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
After the most savage random attack in history on the people of this city, can the guarantees of the Bill of Rights prevail—freedom of speech and press that even includes advocacy of violence; the protection of each of us against government violations of our privacy, including our right of association with those under suspicion by the authorities; and most basic of all, our right to due process? No arrests without probable cause; no indefinite interrogations behind closed doors, without a lawyer, in the name of "national security." . . . Will America never be the same after September 11? I would phrase the question differently. Will America again be so captured by fear as to cast a net of suspicion over growing numbers of its own citizens?
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