I had a chance to meet Dick Gregory once, in college, and I’ve always remembered something he said to me. It was 1968, and I was a sophomore at Brown, serving on the class council that was bringing him to campus to speak. A couple other guys and I drove to the airport to pick him up. His stage persona was that of an irreverent black man making humor out of current events with an underlying theme of racism, so we were prepared for him to be prickly or I don’t know what we expected. I hadn’t met many famous people then. Basically we thought he was great, which is why we had invited him to the campus. But I recall he was not particularly friendly and did not seem at all interested in the admiration of the three earnest white college boys who had come to fetch him in a VW bug. If he smiled, I can’t picture it. He was angry, just like in his act. On the ride back we got to talking about the news, and when I quoted something I had just read in The New York Times, he turned and gave me a withering look. “The New York Times?” he said sourly. “You can’t believe everything you read in The New York Times.” Really? At 19 I thought you could. I had never heard anyone say that before, certainly not an important person. Plus I thought The New York Times was “liberal,” and why would a well-known black entertainer choose to criticize it? I was at a loss to respond, my callowness as plain as my buttoned-down Oxford cloth shirt.
In the years ahead, I would come to see the truth of his remark, which had sounded brash and radical to my ears at the time. Not that he would have remembered me, but I wish I could have run into him on the street in 2003 after the Times published Judith Miller’s war-mongering stories about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. “Hey, Mr. Gregory,” I would have said. “It took me awhile, but I understand now. You were right.”