On November 22nd 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated.
Three days later he was due to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, it would be the biggest gathering of international dignitaries in America’s history.
There were 220 representatives from 92 countries: presidents and prime ministers, princes and princesses, kings and queens and emperors all coming to pay their respects.
Every reporter and journalist would be writing about it, trying to fit all the grandeur in.
But one reporter didn’t do that, in fact he didn’t report on the funeral at all, he decided that wasn’t the story.
He thought “What can I do that’s the opposite of what everyone else is doing?”
Jimmy Breslin went to Arlington Cemetery to look for the man who’d be digging the grave, and he interviewed him.
His column started like this:
“Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by 11 o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
Later in the piece, Breslin continues:
“He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the 35th president of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”
Later still, Breslin finishes like this:
“Clifton Pollard wasn’t at the funeral. He said he tried to go over to see the grave. “But it was so crowded a soldier told me I couldn’t get through. So I just stayed here and worked, sir. But I’ll get over there later a little bit. Just sort of look around and see how it is, you know. Like I told you, it’s an honor.”
Seminal is an overused word, but that piece changed the way writing is taught, it’s now called ‘The Gravedigger Theory’ on journalism courses at university.
It’s a great example of what Bill Bernbach called “Simple, timeless, human truths”.
A huge display of world leaders is something that can only be observed from a distance, but reporting on a single human being is something a reader can identify with.
That’s what made Breslin unique, that’s why he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986.
The award was given: “For columns that consistently champion the ordinary citizen”.
Jimmy Breslin did this by looking where no one else was looking.
That’s what the great people in any field do, they don’t just follow the herd.
Breslin started out as a sport’s writer, that’s where he says he learned to be different.
After a game all the reporters crowd round the winner trying to get a quote, but all they get is the same story as every other reporter.
Breslin says: “You always go to the losers’ dressing room, that’s where the story is.”
That’s what made him unique amongst journalists, determined to be different and being willing to put in the effort.
When the story was in the New York tenements, most of the reporters took the lazy way out and interviewed whoever was closest, but Breslin said:
”You gotta climb the stairs, all the stories are at the top of the stairs.”
When I wrote the Chas & Dave ‘Gercha’ commercial for Courage Best, I asked John Webster how we were going to shoot it, John said in black and white.
I asked him why, what was the reason?
John said, “No one else is doing it.”
We won every award going for that ad, but truly it was John’s vision that made it great.
That’s how the very best people think, they don’t look for security by being part of the herd.