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Howard Zinn: People's President & American Patriot

Howard Zinn stood up and spoke out for the ideals and values that have always promised to make this the greatest country on the planet.

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Sometime in the late 1990’s, I approached Howard and asked him to grant me the rights to develop A People’s History as a television project. He promptly agreed. At my insistence, we wrote a contract and set a price — $1.00 for the exclusive rights!

After more than a year of unsuccessful slogging through the vast wasteland and money trench that is American television, our agreement expired. I went to Howard, confessed my inability to place the project, and asked for a six-month extension. He quietly coughed and then murmured, “Well, actually someone else has approached me with the same idea, and maybe I should go ahead with them?”

That someone, of course, was Matt Damon, a young man on his way to becoming a global superstar, who had grown up near Zinn. (Damon had rocketed to fame, along with his friend Ben Affleck, by writing and starring in Good Will Hunting , a popular film that had a scene calling People’s History the “best book ever written.”)

Needless to say, I quickly stepped aside, hoping only that the project would finally come to fruition. Despite Damon’s and Affleck’s involvement, however, it languished for years, first at Fox Television and later at HBO, before amazingly appearing at long last on the History Channel recently – ironically the first network I had approached more than a decade earlier. When I wrote Howard to congratulate him on finally getting to air, his response was typically understated, thanking me for my efforts and slyly noting, “You work in a very strange business!”

Right until the end if his life, Howard Zinn was always there, on the front lines, observing and writing in sharp, concentrated prose that went right to the heart of matters and distilled their essence. (His comments on Barack Obama, and his insistence that social change comes not from messianic individuals but from movements, are but the latest evidence of his continued involvement and genius.) But he still always found time to help and to encourage others. When I wrote a book in 2008 about the surge in hate speech on our nation’s publicly owned airwaves, I asked him for a blurb. He responded almost instantly, and sent back such effusive praise (comparing me favorably to Upton Sinclair and George Seldes!) that it was almost embarrassing – except for the fact that it had come from Howard Zinn.

Now he is gone, rejoining his beloved partner Roz, and we—and our country—are greatly the worse for his passing. For Howard Zinn was above all a true American patriot, one who stood up and spoke out for the ideals and values that have always promised - but too often been honored only in the breach – to make this the greatest country on the planet.

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor is the author of " Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio " (AlterNet Books, 2008). O'Connor also writes the Media Is A Plural blog.

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