Grossman Column: Only some of them were clowns

This new year marks my 60th in journalism. 

It started with an Antioch College internship at the Cleveland Press, a newspaper known for investigative reporting. Above its entrance was the motto: “Give light and the people will find their own way.” Inspired by what I saw, I returned east aiming to do this kind of work. 

Thinking of these years, what comes readily to mind are the people I’ve been fortunate enough to interview or otherwise get to know. I once considered writing a book with the title: “Front Row at the Circus.” 

When the Cole Bros. Circus came to Long Island, we at the Long Island Press, where I did investigative reporting and in 1969 began writing this column, were sent tickets for front row seats. I considered this a metaphor for being a journalist. However, much of what we see is not like simply watching acrobats and aerialists — although some of those you encounter are clowns — you often connect with great people.

A prime example was baseball legend Jackie Robinson, a stirring historical figure, whom I interviewed when he spoke on Long Island. Or George McGovern, when he ran for president (the interview with this brilliant guy was the front-page lead story of The Press).

There was New York City Mayor Ed Koch, whom I interviewed as anchor at WSNL, the Long Island’s commercial TV station, when he was running for governor. I began by noting “you’re in Republican territory.” He quipped instantly: “I’ve come to save you.” Later I interviewed the eloquent Mario Cuomo, who beat him in a primary and was elected governor. 

As a journalist on Long Island, my first big story was investigating the scheme of Robert Moses to build a four-lane highway the length of Fire Island. My interactions with him were not nice. Yes, some people can be crusty. Congresswoman Bella Abzug was at a gathering at a New York State Democratic Convention I was covering. I walked over to her, pen and pad in hand, and introduced myself as a reporter for the Long Island Press. 

“So what!” she scowled. 

I interviewed former President George H. W. Bush when the Watergate scandal was raging and he was chair of the Republican National Committee. I asked whether it was possible that, because of the scandal, the GOP might end up “extinct.” Daggers flew from his eyes.

I met Hillary Clinton when she was senator from New York and I was deep — and still am —into investigating the use of nuclear power in space. It started when I broke the story in 1986 in The Nation about how the ill-fated Challenger’s next mission was to loft a plutonium-fueled space probe. I wrote a book on the use of nuclear power in space: “The Wrong Stuff.” 

The nukes-in-space issue got me involved with an extraordinary Russian scientist, Dr. Alexey Yablokov, an environmental advisor to Presidents Yeltsin and Gorbachev. He was long concerned about use by the Soviet Union (and then Russia) of nuclear power in space and accidents with radioactive poisons released, as the U.S. has had, too. Dr. Yablokov, a biologist and author of numerous books, knew of my journalism on this and invited me to Russia. I went seven times and spoke, from Moscow to Siberia, at conferences, forums and the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

In pursuing nuclear power in space, I investigated President Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan and how it was based on orbiting battle platforms with on-board nuclear reactors providing power for hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons. This was despite the Outer Space Treaty designating space for peaceful purposes. I authored “Weapons in Space” and wrote and narrated a TV documentary, “Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens.” I gave presentations at the UN and twice before members of the British Parliament. With President Trump’s “Space Force” push, I’m doing much journalism on this issue again. 

There was the interview I did on my U.S. national TV program “Enviro Close-Up” (which I’m in my 29th year hosting) with Dr. Vladimir Chernousenko, the physicist in charge of the clean-up of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. He told of many thousands dying as a result of the disaster. And he was dying himself of cancer from the radioactivity he received working at the Chernobyl site. The camera crews were crying. 

There have been many other significant people. Some: physicist Dr. Michio Kaku; anthropologist Margaret Mead; Dr. Helen Caldicott, a founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility; Russell Means, leader of the American Indian Movement; physicist Vandana Shiva; actor Alec Baldwin; Dr. Victor Sidel, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; environmentalist David Brower; epidemiologist Dr. Alice Stewart; scientist and physician Dr. John Gofman; Noam Chomsky — together we opened and closed a weekend conference on media; Prof. Robert Bullard, leader in battling environmental racism; Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press published my book “Power Crazy” about LILCO’s scheme to build seven to 11 nuclear power plants on Long Island. The list goes on and on.

A Shelter Islander whom I was lucky to know was Evans K. Griffing — so smart and what an original! — former town supervisor and chairman of the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors, and a leader of the drive for East End secession from Suffolk and creation of a Peconic County. 

It’s been a good and interesting 60 years.