If you read the obituaries of Karl Fleming, who died last weekend (and I hope you do), you will find a story worthy of the man who lived it. Born into dire poverty and raised in an orphanage because his mother, after the death of Karl's father and then of his stepfather, simply could not afford to raise him, he was — and this is the title of his wonderful memoir — a "Son of the Rough South."
After a stint in the Navy, he became a reporter. He watched the bullets whiz by covering James Meredith's first day at the University of Mississippi. He was one of the first reporters at the scene where three civil rights workers disappeared — and later were found murdered — in Philadelphia, Miss. He openly took notes at Klan rallies. He was followed. His phone was tapped. He moved to Los Angeles to be Newsweek's bureau chief and was badly beaten when the crowd at a Black Power rally in Watts (where he was the only white) turned ugly.
I met him after all that. By the time I met him, he was married to Anne, and they were part of the political/media crowd in LA: writers and lawyers, a couple of elected officials, candidates and campaign managers, the West Coast version of the nattering nabobs of negativism, which, if you apply it to Karl, has to make you smile.
The media elite? Media? Yes. Elite? Karl?
Today, when people think of reporters, they think (at best) of the real-life versions of "The Newsroom's" Will McAvoy and, more likely, of all the blow-dried blowhards who think that breaking a story means being the first one to "get" the good guest. They don't think of guys cutting up their notebooks so they could hide them in their pockets — or racing out of town with Klansmen on their tails.
Karl was from the generation of reporters who literally fought for the news, who covered the wars at home with the same kind of courage and compassion for which we've always celebrated foreign correspondents. He didn't just write or speak the news. He found it, told the story, brought it home — even, especially, when it wasn't very far away as measured in miles.
If you look up the obituaries, you'll also see that they are unvarnished. That was Karl, too. His demons were right there in black and white: booze and pot and depression. He made mistakes (he famously got duped by a guy who claimed to be the hijacker D.B. Cooper). In later years, he did things that might have driven him crazy, but he never complained. He taught lawyers how to communicate (he spent years in television after Newsweek). He did media training. He taught me how to shill on my first big book tour. I've seen a lot of people try to teach a lot of people how to be themselves on television. Most of them are terrible at it. Karl happened to be gifted at it. I chalked it up to his unerring sense of what was real.
Karl loved his sons and his grandchildren and his friends. He loved journalism and politics and a good story. But what always struck me about Karl and Anne, more than how beautiful and smart and talented and full of life they both were, was how much they deeply and truly loved each other.
For 40 years, they were married. For 40 years, they were madly in love. I'm not romanticizing. I'm not forgetting the booze and the depression and the rest. I'm not forgetting some of the painful disappointments along the way or the years at the end when he struggled to breathe and she struggled to sleep.
But I'm talking about the kind of love that, even in the last days, had her looking at him in his hospital bed at home and seeing the cowboy on the bike she rode off with 40 years ago and saying to me, "Isn't he gorgeous?" I'm talking about the kind of love for which, struggling to breathe, he pulls himself from bed for half an hour so he can sit with us at the kitchen table, admire his wife, admire the wonderful dinner he won't eat and smile that he has been blessed with so much love. I used to joke that he was just too damned content, too damned happy with her to stop fighting, no matter how hard the fight or how certain its end.
"My beloved is gone," Anne wrote to me this weekend. There is a Hebrew lyric: "Dodi li va'ani lo." "My beloved is mine, and I am his." Karl and Anne.
He was a brave and vulnerable man. He told the stories that needed to be told in the voice of someone who understood the pain at their core. He left a legacy of courage — and also, always as important, of love.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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