In October 1965, I was associate White House press secretary. A few hours after President Johnson announced he would enter the hospital for gallbladder surgery, the New York Herald Tribune correspondent asked if their famous columnist, Jimmy Breslin, could call me for a favor.

Sure, I said. I’d idolized Breslin since 1962, when he wrote perhaps the best – and definitely the funniest – baseball story ever to appear in Sports Illustrated. It was titled “Worst Team Ever,” about the 1962 New York Mets, and it made me (and everyone else) laugh out loud every 30 seconds.

I was hooked. Addicted. He was the best, most original, insightful and funniest columnist I ever read. He wrote about people, important people and others who you wouldn’t think were important, but he did.

He wrote often about his neighbors, most of whom he disliked, and about the guys he hung out with: gamblers, petty thieves, sportswriters, street lawyers and bail bondsmen, whom he liked. One time he put up a sign in his front yard in Queens that said “People I’m Not Talking to This Year” and featured the names of several neighbors, including the milkman and the breadman. He began a column about this in the following fashion:

“The wife of a new neighbor from up on the corner came down and walked up to my wife and started acting nice, which must have exhausted her.”

ONE OF A KIND

So when the Trib called, I was eager to help. Shortly, Breslin was on the phone. I explained that we’d have a press room at the hospital and provide a press briefing twice a day during the president’s hospitalization and he was welcome to join us. “No, I don’t want that,” Breslin said. Instead, he asked me to arrange for him to interview the surgical nurse who stood over the unconscious president and watched the surgeon make the incision.

That call led to a 50-year friendship. Breslin, who died last week, was one of a kind.

While in Washington I would occasionally fly up to New York and meet Jimmy at a bar, initially at a place next to the New York World-Telegram building on the Lower East Side where he used to work, but most often at Gallagher’s Steak House on West 55th Street, which Jimmy graced for decades, and which is still going strong.

The routine was pretty much the same. Jimmy would be accompanied by Fat Thomas, the bookie, and a few other sketchy friends, such as Hymie Limousine, owner of a one-car limousine service (featuring a 15-year-old stretch DeSoto) who chauffeured Jimmy and his friends around Manhattan. Jimmy never learned to drive.

Jimmy wrote about civil rights and walked with Martin Luther King in the Selma-Montgomery march; he wrote about the Vietnam War and went to Vietnam, and he wrote nasty things about New York politicians who became former friends. But mostly he wrote about very interesting human beings and events that most of us pay no attention to, but that serve to give us a peek at what really is happening around us.

Once, and only once, did he cover a typical presidential trip and temporarily assume the role of White House reporter. Three days with LBJ, beginning with a health care speech at a Catskills resort hotel and finishing in Maine, with stops in Brunswick, the Topsham Dairy Queen, Lewiston, Portland and finally Campobello Island near Lubec.

While all the others wrote stories about LBJ’s health care speech, Jimmy wrote about an older hotel guest, standing in the crowd watching the president’s arrival at the resort hotel, who sported a diamond pinky ring and a beautiful young companion. It was dark when the motorcade arrived. The TV lights suddenly came on, illuminating the entire scene, and instantaneously, the older man, accompanied by what some would surmise as his granddaughter, pulled his trench coat over his face. Breslin had his column, and it wasn’t about health care.

When we got to Maine, Jimmy was done. He looked at me and said, “Why did you make me come here?”

UNMATCHED AT READING PEOPLE

Jimmy was able to empathize with ordinary human beings better than any journalist in America. One night during the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I was trying to find a cab outside the Hilton Hotel to take me to the convention hall, and I found myself in the middle of a riot. Hundreds of Chicago police were beating on war protesters, traffic was gridlocked and I was nervous.

Suddenly a car horn was sounding and someone was calling my name. It was Jimmy and his driver. I jumped into the safety of the car, greeted by Jimmy blasting me for stupidity.

Thinking that Jimmy and I viewed the riot police in the same way, I said the Chicago police were out of control and beating on everybody in sight for no reason. Jimmy responded with his special insight.

“Most of those cops,” he said, “are the sons of immigrants. They didn’t get to go to college. But they have a job that people are supposed to respect. They are moving into the middle class, buying a home and planning to send their children to college. And along come these entitled college kids from the Ivy League who are pissing on them. The cops are enraged. What do you expect?”

Jimmy’s columns described what was really going on in his community. He was often angry, and politicians feared him. He was also kind, thoughtful and caring.

He was not only a great writer, he had an unmatched expertise: people. Jimmy was truly one of a kind.