He slid my article across his desk right at me. “Not everything’s funny. You want to be a wise guy or a journalist?” he said. “Why can’t I be both?” I snapped.
“You’re too young. A jaundiced eye comes with wisdom. Keep yourself out of the story for now.”
He sat there, a Buddha of smugness. Penn Kimball, my adviser at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was my first Lou Grant. He guided me to be more a reporter and less an observer, at least for the start of my career. He pushed us to think as realistic painters of our environment and not as editorial cartoonists.
Penn Kimball died Nov. 8 at the age of 98. For more than 50 years, he summered in Chilmark. From 1994 to 2009, he lived year-round in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs. He was a bow-tied New Englander, Princeton football player, Rhodes Scholar, Marine Corps captain, New York Times journalist, Ivy League professor, liberal Democrat — the very epitome of a national security risk. In 1977, under the Freedom of Information Act, he filed a request seeking any dossiers the government had on him. The result was a shock, which he turned into a book, The File, and a PBS documentary. Boxes arrived, all filled with anonymous accusations labeling Kimball a dangerous radical.
“I refused to believe that you can’t fight the government and bring them to account,” he said after his lawsuit forced the government to admit it had no evidence that he had ever been disloyal.
In 1988 I followed in his footsteps and filed for my file. The bank manager who notarized my request asked: “You sure you have one?” I replied: “It’s a shot in the dark.” Actually, my hunch was strong. After all, I figured I had committed enough political sins to merit a file.
Fresh out of grad school, I moved to Cambridge and subscribed to the Daily Worker, the U.S. Communist Party newspaper, as a frivolous gesture of impetuous youth. After a year, I cancelled it because I got tired of my postman looking at me as if I were the 1960s version of an enemy combatant. I became an anti-draft counselor during the Vietnam War. Conscription in Cambridge slowed to a trickle. The Army saw my city as another DMZ, writing it off as a hotbed of troublemakers and establishment-shakers. I edited Boston After Dark, a counterculture weekly, where I hired an indicted member of the Weather Underground as my assistant news editor. The indictment was later dropped. Then I wrote the documentary Hollywood On Trial, which attacked the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and excoriated the UnAmerican smear of blacklisting. There! That should add up to an FBI file.
When it finally arrived, my file appeared to be the size of a phone directory. But its heft was an illusion. Turned out I had a file because as Boston After Dark’s editor I had requested in the autumn of 1970 to be placed on the FBI’s mailing list so our paper could receive timely updates on the bureau’s Most Wanted fugitives. The reason for my request? Out of the top 16 on the outlaw list, at least half were political radicals, from Bernardine Dohrn to Kathy Power and Susan Saxe. It was an anti-war game. We were just keeping tabs on the players.
There were several inter-office memos in my file. One stated that should this “publication be determined to be a sensational, underground or hippie type, of an unsavory nature,” then merely inform him “due to budgetary limitations it is not possible to supply wanted notices.”
The final bureau memo sealed the deal: “See page 34 of publication which is indicative of the reader interest.” On page 34 of this issue dated Nov. 3, 1970 were columns of, at least by today’s standards (or lack thereof), tame personal ads, simple searches for coed roommates. They were along the lines of: “If you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain, write to PO Box 555.”
The agent’s page 34 comment was followed by: “This issue has strong appeal to the underground or hippie types.” It was “decided no material should be made available to Mr. Reisman.” I was being rejected for running pioneering personals and stories about voter apathy, racial profiling by police, and behind the scenes with the Boston Celtics and Hare Krishna. The nerve of me!
My file appeared thick because it included a photocopy of the entire 36-page issue in question, plus 35 pages of informational material directly related to those Most Wanted for October, 1970 — the very pages they refused me at that time. The file also included the agent’s receipt for buying and Xeroxing the publication.
My attempts to live my life as a subversive had proved feeble. My FBI file existed for one basic reason: My crime was making an impertinent request, and making it from the wrong side of the Generation Gap. I was investigated for being a wise guy. So, there I was, thinking of Penn. Without a warrant, the feds had caused him grief and given him a black eye. As for me, I observed with a jaundiced eye. Given my file, FBI must stand for Funny Business Incorporated. And I’m old enough now to say that.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.