Look, It’s a Better World

Joan Walsh

The main thing I remember is how funny Jimmy was, his weakness for dumb puns and wordplay. Right now, only two come to mind: Our all-purpose Chicago winter joke, Many are cold, few are frozen,” and then a darker pun he made often with me: He would insist he wasn’t my mentor,” he was my tormentor.” Which is funny, but brings up one of his many ambivalences – about becoming the older generation, the mentor, the one in charge. He was ambivalent about a lot having to do with his role at In These Times–fundraising, balancing the budget, managing, giving people bad news – but he was in fact my mentor, and I benefited greatly.

Though he famously started the magazine in Chicago, Jimmy indulged me when I wanted to leave, letting me set up ITT’s first California Bureau in Oakland 20 years ago, instead of in Los Angeles, where the hard-nosed, and probably correct, John Judis (another mentor) thought I should have been based. Jimmy argued that the Bay Area was important for cultivating funders and subscribers on the local left. But my first story mainly made us enemies: It was supposed to be about the grand new multiracial coalition coming together behind lefty Oakland City Council member Wilson Riles Jr., which was going to sweep business-oriented Mayor Lionel Wilson out of office. Except, of course, it didn’t – the coalition was run by white lefty sectarians, riven by factionalism, and largely irrelevant to the city’s black majority, which still venerated its first African American mayor. When I turned in a story that said just that, I could hear Jimmy sigh over the phone, imagining the lost subscribers – but he praised my reporting and didn’t change a word. Now, at Salon, I think about Jimmy every time we run a story debunking the myth that Bush stole the 2004 election, and I field the angry cancel-my-subscription letters.

Jimmy felt hurt when I left ITT after three years, and we didn’t see each other for a while. But when we reconnected much had changed. He’d made peace with being an old guy, a dad, a granddad, a husband and a mentor, too. He said he was proud of me, and accepted that with my work at Salon I’d extended his reach, not severed the connection. And even as we headed into the second Bush term, when I interviewed him for Salon about The Long Detour, he was calling himself a pathological optimist,” and reminding me how much things had changed in his lifetime, and how much change was still possible: You hear people in different movements saying how bad things are, We haven’t won anything,’ but that’s crazy. Look at gays – look at television, where you have shows like Will and Grace,’ or the gay guys who make over the straight guys. Come on, look, it’s a different world, it’s a better world.” He helped make it one, and I’m grateful to him.

Joan Walsh, a former staff writer of In These Times, is the editor of Salon.
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