Cato Senior Fellow Nat Hentoff passed away on Saturday evening at age 91. He was a leading authority on the Bill of Rights and most especially the First Amendment. He authored 37 books and countless newspaper and magazine articles. He is perhaps most well-known for his opinion articles in the Village Voice, where he wrote for 51 years, from 1957 until 2008. He joined the Cato staff in 2009 and never stopped researching and writing. A few years ago, he told me that he was following Duke Ellington’s guide with respect to his own work in defense of the American Constitution:
Rule 1: Don’t Quit
Rule 2: Reread Rule #1
Nat actually knew Duke and many other luminaries, from Malcolm X to Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. He was a jazz expert, writing on music for the Wall Street Journal. He often said that “jazz and the Constitution were his main reasons for being.” He said his passion for jazz and liberty overlapped because they were both about respecting everyone’s individuality.
Nat was bemused by both his fan mail and hate mail as the years passed. He didn’t play the political game—he would condemn Democrats and Republicans alike if they attacked constitutional principles. And he was always enthusiastic when he found a member of Congress coming to the defense of the Constitution, such as Senator Russ Feingold’s (D-WI) lone vote (in the Senate) against the Patriot Act in 2001, or, more recently, Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) efforts to scale back the surveillance state. Go here to view an interview with his thoughts on other current events.
Nat said one of best things about losing his job at the Village Voice in 2008 was that it afforded him the opportunity to (sort of) read his own obituaries. “Dig this one!,” he would tell me over the phone with a chuckle.
Interestingly, when asked about his proudest achievement, he would say it was not anything he wrote. He got an opportunity to work as a producer for a television special about jazz music in 1957. He jumped at the chance to bring beautiful jazz music into the living rooms of folks who had never really been exposed to it before. Here is Billy Holiday’s Fine and Mellow from that special. According to Nat’s relatives, he passed away while listening to his favorite jazz tunes.
We’re sad you’re gone, but we celebrate your good life. Rest in peace.