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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