Not long after Tom Wolfe’s death, I ran across the only thing I ever wrote about him, in a box in the basement labeled “Unpublished.” Written in 1986 for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, it was on the subject of white liberals and race—specifically, why the idealism of so many of my generation had curdled into cynicism and indifference. Its opening scene had a bunch of friends and me griping about what then seemed New York’s inexorable decline—the garbage, the menacing mentally ill, and, above all, the crime. One, having just been mugged at knifepoint—“in front of my girlfriend!”—was particularly vehement.
“Never thought I’d have a kind word for Bernie Goetz,” he started to joke, of the notorious subway vigilante, and then caught himself with sudden, sharp remorse. “My God, what’s happened to us?”
The rest of the piece set out to answer that question, focusing on the ways over the years our utopianism had bumped up against reality. For instance, I looked closely at the crisis that roiled my hometown of New Rochelle in the early sixties, when a group of black inner-city parents sought to register their kids in the white schools of the North End—including mine, Roosevelt. While progressive white parents like mine rallied behind the Lincoln parents, others fiercely opposed them, and, in short order, neighbors were barely speaking.
In the end, the “good guys” won; in a landmark decision, the first of its kind in the North, the Court of Appeals ordered busing to desegregate the city’s schools. Then reality set in. “Probably the most unfortunate aspect of the Lincoln influx at Roosevelt,” noted a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report on the first year of busing, “has been the creation of racial stereotypes in the minds of (white) Roosevelt children. The record for the year shows that in a number of classes, no white child performed as poorly as the best of the Negro children did.”
I’d moved on to junior high school by then, but the reports from younger brothers and sisters were even bleaker. As one of my mother’s progressive friends sadly told me, her daughter was so upset about black kids extorting money in the halls that she’d stopped going to the bathroom, yet “never mentioned it because she knew what our feelings were.”
But the piece’s quasi-villain was . . . Tom Wolfe. For the most crushing blow to the idealism of people like us, I concluded, had been Radical Chic, his 1970 takedown of the white elites’ infatuation with black radicals. More than a decade later, those I spoke with who’d attended the Leonard Bernsteins’ infamous soiree for the Black Panthers were still bitter. “That’s what someone like this does,” as one said acidly of Wolfe. “He offers a rationale to people who want to back away from empathy or involvement.”
I’d read Radical Chic when it first appeared and been properly indignant. Yet rereading Wolfe’s words in 1986, for the piece, I kept cracking up. “The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.” “Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way?” “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big . . . these are real men!”
I’d been around these people my whole life and, God, had Wolfe ever nailed it! The problem now became what to do with this understanding: concede that Wolfe had been right all along, and the liberals not just naive or wrong, but fundamentally unserious? In the Times?
I took the coward’s way out, ending the piece on a hopeful note, quoting a proudly progressive teacher at Roosevelt, to the effect that, though it had taken a while, race was “no longer an issue” in New Rochelle’s schools, and “the dream really came true.”
Was that true? I was highly dubious. Still, I knew it would please Times readers, and I went with it—possibly the most dishonest thing I ever set down on paper.
Fortunately, it never ran. He liked the story, my editor said apologetically, but—he dropped his voice—there was a problem. They hadn’t realized that one of the top guys at the paper was buddies with . . . Tom Wolfe.