Pete Hamill on Bobby Kennedy
BY SETH GITELL
The last place I would have imagined myself having a conversation with New York Daily News columnist Pete Hamill about the newspaper business is Peet’s Coffee in Coolidge Corner. Surely, such a talk would take place on Hamill’s home turf in some Manhattan bar like the Lion’s Head, McSorley’s, or Elaine’s. But it was at the packed Brookline café where Hamill, author of the new novel Forever (Little, Brown), regaled me with stories of his adventures in journalism.
Hamill was at the forefront of a generation of urban-newspaper columnists (many of them, like Hamill, Irish and blue-collar) that included Mike Royko of the Chicago Daily News, Jimmy Breslin of the New York Herald Tribune, and even Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe. For almost four decades, Hamill has moved among the closely related worlds of newspapering, magazine freelancing, and book writing.
Back in the 1960s, when writing his New York Post column, Hamill made what he now describes as a " fatal mistake. " He befriended a politician: former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the slain president, who was running for the US Senate from New York. " I became his friend. You can’t become a friend with a politician, " Hamill told me, ruefully.
During the 1968 presidential campaign, Hamill and a handful of other newspaper reporters traveled with Kennedy. At night, Hamill recalled, the candidate would sometimes smoke a thin cigar, sip whiskey, and tell the columnist things he couldn’t use in his column. If he became president, Kennedy said, he would end the war in Vietnam. He would also change the nature of the Central Intelligence Agency. " He thought the operational arm should be shut down — that what they should be doing is getting intelligence, " said Hamill. " So that we know what we’re doing and not going around trying to bump people off in the alley like it was some bad movie. "
Then, as now, eliminating the operational arm of the CIA would have been controversial. But the journalist couldn’t use the information. " It was told to me in confidence, " he said. " I’m sure it was because it would disrupt the whole campaign. "
Hamill, of course, also spent much time reporting on the war in Vietnam, from Vietnam. It was the kind of reporting that doesn’t take place today and he doubts the Pentagon would ever give reporters the free reign in a battle zone that they had in Vietnam. " They’ll never do that again, " Hamill said, adding that he would have thought Secretary of State Colin Powell would be more supportive of reporting from war zones. " Powell knew [about] showing people what a war is. He’s the only one in this whole group who want this war, who knows what a war is. The other guys don’t know what a war looks like. They don’t know what brains look like on the ground. "
Issue Date: February 6 - 13, 2003
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