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Star Wars: Adventures In Attempting to Save A Failing Newspaper

ISSUE:  Autumn 1993

My six-year adventure at The Washington Star— the “falling Star,” as wags liked to call it—began with a phone call. One day in March 1975 George Will called. “How would you like to be rich and famous?” he asked.

My response was that if either had been a professional priority, I would not be a newspaper editor in Greensboro, North Carolina. “A fellow named Allbritton has come to Washington,” George explained. “He is buying The Star and looking for an editorial page editor. I’m not leaving my basement. I recommended you. You are opposed to busing little children, aren’t you?”

I had read about Joe Allbritton, a Texas banker and specialist at the rescue of failing enterprises, who proposed to take over the fragile Star, the capital’s oldest surviving newspaper. It had been around since 1852, dominant in the city most of those years; but self-appointed experts on newspaper economics were making book that its days were numbered. Allbritton had certified to the Federal Communications Commission (which had to approve his takeover, since the Star Company owned television licenses as well as a newspaper) that he was worth at least $100 million (which Texans, I am told, refer to as a “unit”). That was all I knew about Joe, but I would soon learn a lot more. If my friend George Will had added—or known—that my duties would include those of priest and counselor, hand-holder and adviser and even amateur confessor, I am not sure I would have responded as I did. But I would have missed a rich experience if I hadn’t.

The Star building was a gloomy place, set improbably in the slums of southeast Washington, south of Capitol Hill: an outsized gray building, covering most of a city block, and reflecting the expansive, not to say megalomanic, ambitions of its establishmentarian owners, the Kaufman, Noyes, and Adams families. They had built this new plant in the 1950’s, before the Star’s financial troubles began. To one side stood a shabby liquor store; to the other, penniless slum kids swarmed, waiting to be hired by the newspaper delivery men. Card and dice games were always in progress between editions, and in this very place, I was told, a black newspaper handler had been shot dead in a gambling quarrel only a few weeks earlier. To the east and south, all the way down to the Washington Navy Yard, spread streets of dispiriting, decaying housing projects: monuments to the unrewarded optimism of “urban renewal.” In some ways, things were as gray inside.

Jim Bellows, the genial and brilliant editor, took me to meet Allbritton for the first time one blustery March day. In the Montpelier room of the Madison Hotel, a pricey watering place for lobbyists and lawyers across from the Washington Post building, waited a short, round-faced man, not much over five feet tall. His full face had a boyish freshness about it. Allbritton extended his hand. “Your name was. . .?” he asked. I wondered if this were a joke. “Yoder,” I announced, “Ed Yoder.”

Allbritton had come to the Star by a set of curious chances. He had been the main money-raiser for Ed Muskie’s presidential campaign in 1972, his first venture into national politics. Three years later, when the owning families of the Star sought new blood, they heard of Joe through their adviser Clifford Folger and James Reston of The New York Times. Allbritton, a son of small-town Mississippi, had made a fortune reversing the fortunes of money-losing corporations. Still at heart a country boy from a tiny Mississippi hamlet, he had felt the allure and romance of Washington. Joe posed as a sort of Daddy Warbucks figure, constantly coming and going in his private jet. One day he would be in London visiting banking friends in the City, the next in Kentucky buying racehorses, the next in La Jolla, California, resting (if he ever rested) for the next project. He ran on nervous energy, and the telephone was almost an extension of his arm.

We liked and understood one another instantly, as Southerners in exile sometimes will. I had just turned 40; the pay was good; and my children were approaching the age of serious educational expenses. It seemed a good time for a mid-life transition. I liked the excitement and sense of adventure Joe radiated, his gambler’s instinct.

From its high-cotton days in the 1950’s, when the proprietors had designed a printing plant—overambitiously—for a circulation of millions, the Star had, in 20 years, sunk into chronic deficit. It was beset by the same marasmus that afflicted afternoon newspapers nearly everywhere, great and small, famous and obscure: television, auto commuting, cocktail parties, the turning of the nation’s work force from industrial to service jobs. The old management had made its mistakes, as well. The top editorial and business-side jobs were monopolized by the owning families. Only one “outsider,” Benjamin McKelway, had become editor of the paper in more than a century. One ancient general manager, a member of the Kaufman family, gained an unfortunate reputation for anti-Semitism, and had alienated major advertisers. The situation was worsened by the fact that he was stone deaf. At board meetings, an aide had to sit beside him writing the proceedings on a slate.

Joe Allbritton had a desperate fight on his hands. His plan was to use proceeds from the television station to see the Star through the advertising dearth while he modernized and rebuilt it with Bellows’ expert help. But that was contingent on the agreement of the FCC, which had just promulgated a decree against so-called “cross-ownership” of major media properties in the same market. Joe sought a waiver of that rule and should have had it. But the FCC preferred to dither in its doctrinaire folly, and its dithering helped to dig the Star’s grave.

As for Bellows, the editor, I was fascinated to discover that unlike most newspapermen I knew he was not a political animal. “If you believed the papers,” he liked to say, “you would think life is politics.” Essentially, Bellows was a man of style and intuition and, like Allbritton, an authentic genius. What he wanted on the editorial page was reflected in Pat Oliphant’s brilliant, iconoclastic, naughty, and sometimes bigoted cartoons. He wanted journalistic handsprings that people would sit up and notice. Their political tendency— except for certain topics like women’s rights—were a matter of relative indifference to him. Sprightliness, he thought, was the only high card the Star could play in trying to overcome the Post’s huge lead in the race for survival. And there was another thing—the Star must shake its unfortunate reputation for being Richard Nixon’s patsy. Jim Bellows’ obsession with that was to be a source of the friction between him and Allbritton. What really delighted Bellows was anything fresh and unorthodox. The editorial he really raved about was one I knocked out for fun in about 10 minutes on Hubert Humphrey’s decision not to run for president in 1976, written in mock-King James Bible English. “Save this one for the Pulitzer file,” he scribbled on it.

Around town, there was immense curiosity about the Allbritton-Bellows plans, and hence about my views. Arthur White, a Time correspondent in Washington, had phoned me in Greensboro to try to get a fix on my politics. He and some bilious ultra-conservatives seemed to believe it was the Star’s natural role to be conventionally reactionary. I had small interest in, and less commitment to any ideology, and neither did Bellows or Allbritton. In their standard forms, then as now, ideologies seemed to me predictable, shallow, jejune, and unhistorical—and irrelevant besides. I told Arthur White that I was an Adlai Stevenson conservative and a Sam Ervin liberal. He probably thought it was a put-on, but it was true. The formula did not satisfy him. He continued to press me in prolonged phone calls. His sources told him that I was actually a—gasp—”Southern liberal”! I pleaded with him for nearly an hour one night not to use that term in the magazine, inasmuch as Joe deserved not to have his new editorial page editor pigeonholed. Our job, I knew, was to create credible contrast between the Star and the Post, but not at the expense of strain or abandonment of principle.

Late on the night of Oct. 1, 1975, a few weeks after my arrival, striking press operators at the Post burned its presses, severely crippling our powerful rival. It limped along, a shadow of itself, printed, I believe, in Winchester, Va., on the presses of Sen. Harry Byrd Jr. Katharine Graham immediately appealed to Joe Allbritton’s sense of chivalry, to the spirit of the unofficial club of beleaguered publishers. She insisted that Joe owed it to American journalism and civilization to print the Post on the Star’s presses. There was, as she knew, plenty of capacity there. Joe balked. And, according to reports that quickly got around Washington, Kay Graham grew very angry. “Standing on this very doorstep,” Joe told me one night soon afterward—the Allbrittons had leased the handsome John Sherman Cooper townhouse in Georgetown—”she told me, ‘Joe, I ran Richard Nixon out of town, and I can do the same to you. “”

Whether she had used those very words I have no idea, but Joe persuaded himself that she had. Joe’s view of the Star’s dilemma was faintly tinged with paranoia, at least as I saw it. He believed the Post was actively working to finish the Star off. I was confident that its better spirits, including Kay Graham, realized that the Post would be hurt if the Star closed. Joe accused me of naivete. “Mr. Yoder,” he would say, “You have led a sheltered life.” That happened to be true enough.

Joe, of course, had practical reasons for refusing to print the Post. There was no agreement, as there had been during the New York newspaper strike, to collaborate in resisting union demands. None had been suggested. Some of the striking pressmen worked at both papers; they might sabotage the Star’s presses also. The Post could survive a shutdown. The Star couldn’t. Yet when word got around that Joe would not help Mrs. Graham, the journalistic establishment rallied to her side. Joe Allbritton, it was said, was a new boy among publishers who didn’t understand the unwritten rules of the club. Joe was stung, but he cloaked his resentment in flippancy. He would “weep about it all the way to the bank,” and there was even some brave talk that this might be the great turning point. As in the mid-1950’s, there would be a reversal of the economic positions of the two papers. For Joe, and for the rest of us, the worst blow was a stinging column in The New York Times by Scotty Reston, perhaps the most prestigious father-figure in American journalism. “Bum, Baby, Burn,” it was called; and Reston came near accusing Joe of treason to the trade. “The Post,” he wrote, in what was clearly an echo of Mrs. Graham’s view, “felt that the Star played the role of the fearful bystander.” Joe’s dilemma, then, was whether to “come out against the sabotage. . .or concentrate on his own immediate interest.” Not a very pleasant choice for a man like Allbritton with a Southerner’s sense of honor.

The Reston column, with its intimation that the Star’s new management condoned sabotage, stirred us all. We had to spike the insulting insinuation that we at the Star found press fires an acceptable weapon of union pressure. I was designated to write an editorial, which we called “Trouble at the Post.” The caption was bland, but it was no doubt examined in every newspaper front office in the land. “The Star,” we said, saying the obvious, “takes no satisfaction in the Post’s difficulties.” (This was true in a way but perhaps only about 80 per cent true.) “The journalistic community of this city is at one on the basic issues—and above all on the quite fundamental issue of violence, vandalism and arson. . . . Violence is not collective bargaining; it is a travesty of it.” High, sanctimonious, sonorous words. I am not sure they were believed, but they had to be said. The Post soon broke the strike, and soon retrieved the lion’s share of the advertising.

Joe had promised that the Star’s editorial policy would be mine to set. He would, though very rarely, suggest a subject for editorializing. But he kept a friendly distance. Still, there was one colossal exception to the hands-off rule; and the story became, for a time, a subject of intense speculation in Washington newspaper circles.

It began on the July 4th bicentennial weekend, in 1976. The Allbrittons gave a hotdog roast in their rear garden on N Street. Their guests milled about, admiring a gigantic tomato plant their son Robert had grown. Joe took Jim Bellows aside. Would he please keep a space open on the front page for Monday week? Bellows asked why. “I’m not going to tell you,” Joe said with a laugh. “You would try to talk me out of it.” Jim reported the exchange to me at the office. I knew nothing of Joe’s plan.

No more was heard of the matter for about a week. Then all hell broke loose. Bellows called me at 7 a. m. on a Monday morning. His voice was agitated. Joe, he said, had sent an “editorial” via his aide Steve Richard, with instructions that it be printed on the front page that day. The editorial called for the renomination of Gerald Ford, who was under heavy challenge from Ronald Reagan. Jim had learned of the piece when the night editor called him at 5 a. m. He had immediately countermanded Joe’s order. Joe had then fired the night editor for insubordination. A nasty confrontation was brewing.

The issue in Jim Bellows’ mind—as in mine—was one of professionalism, not substance. Neither of us had read the editorial. It was, however, most irregular—unheard of, in fact—for a publisher to railroad an editorial onto the front page, of all places, without consulting his editors.

The atmosphere in the halls of the Star building was that of an armed camp. Joe, it appeared, viewed Bellows’ balkiness as insubordinate, an outrageous obstruction of his proprietary right to say whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted to say it, in his own newspaper. Joe, a novice in publishing, was a quick study indeed. But he was better acquainted with the hierarchy one finds in banks and law firms. The story, moreover, hit Bellows at one of his fracture points. He worried that the Star had been over-credulous about Nixon and Watergate; he was eager to distance the paper from its historic flavor of Republicanism. And quite apart from the irregular procedure, this editorial seriously threatened the strategy.

In origins, the project had much to do with Joe’s Houston connections. Jim Baker (later George Bush’s secretary of state, then Gerald Ford’s chief delegate recruiter for Kansas City) was working furiously to stave off the Reagan challenge. Reagan’s unexpected victory in the North Carolina primary had revived a campaign that seemed nearly finished, and now the race had turned tight. Reagan had found a rollicking issue in the Panama Canal treaty negotiations; he had raised the “giveaway” cry to great effect. Meanwhile, Joe had grown to like Ford. He and his wife Barbie, along with the Rockefellers, had been guests of the president to watch the July 4th bicentennial fireworks from the Truman balcony. It was then and there, Joe later said, that he had felt what a tragedy it would be if Ford lost. Now, with the derailment of his editorial, the tension in the Star building thickened.

On Tuesday morning, the day after Bellows had kept the editorial out of the paper, Joe’s faithful dogsbody Steve Richard, an easy-going Louisiana Cajun, sauntered into my office. Joe was absolutely beside himself, he said. “One little thing, just one little thing, and he might just close this newspaper down.” I swallowed hard, hoping he exaggerated. What did he mean, “one little thing,” I asked in what was probably a tight voice. Oh, said Richard, for instance some gaffe in the way the paper covered Queen Elizabeth’s bicentennial visit, then in progress. Joe was on the dinner list at the British embassy. He did not want to be embarrassed.

The editorial that had by now caused such an uproar was lively but amateurish. It was rumored to be a committee product, the result of a collaboration among Joe, Steve, and Harry McPherson, the former LBJ aide and speechwriter, who was Joe’s friend and did the Star’s legal work. Harry McPherson was and is a superb writer, but the piece didn’t seem quite up to his rhetorical standards. It opened with a marvelous J. Frank Dobie story from Texas: “Many years ago . . . a railroad decided to dispose of two antiquated engines by a more dramatic method. . . . It advertised that on a certain summer day, on a plain in Texas, it would start the engines rolling toward one another from a distance of several miles, and let physics take its course. . . . A town sprang up near the track—named, with Western simplicity, Crush, Texas.” Kansas City, the piece continued, could be the site of a similarly ruinous collision between Ford and Reagan, a “colossal crunch,” in which the GOP would be too shattered to make an effective fight in November. It would be Goldwater and 1964 all over again. Ford had earned the nomination; Reagan should yield gracefully.

The irony, of course, was that at the moment two locomotives called Allbritton and Bellows were speeding toward a crushing collision over an editor-publisher misunderstanding. The further irony was that there was nothing in the proposed editorial with which Bellows or I disagreed. The Star had been saying much the same things, and its distaste for Reagan was no secret. The problem was that Joe did not appreciate the procedural punctilio of his balking editors.

By Wednesday, the clouds were even darker and lower. I called Berl Bernhard, Harry McPherson’s law partner and a polished Allbritton handler, and urged him to intervene. It was time for mediation. Berl, I am glad to recall, succeeded. At about eight o’clock that evening Berl called to say that there would be a meeting at Joe’s house. Within minutes, I was rushing to the house on N Street, wondering what came next. As I walked in, it was a relief to find that the mood was friendly and relaxed. We met—Joe, Jim Bellows, Berl, Steve Richard and I—in the library of the Cooper house, a highceilinged room, lined with books, eggshell blue, overlooking the garden where the first chapter of this strange episode had unfolded a week or so earlier.

Joe opened the discussion. “Ed,” he said, “I didn’t want to bother you about this editorial. The editorial page isn’t under my jurisdiction.” Bellows interrupted. “Joe, everything is under your jurisdiction. This isn’t a jurisdictional issue. It’s an issue of procedure.” Joe seemed puzzled. He looked at me. What did I think?

I told him there was no disagreement on the Reagan-Ford nomination issue itself; no one wanted Reagan nominated. It was his prerogative, moreover, to set endorsement policy; everyone agreed that was traditionally the right of a publisher. But editors needed and expected consultation. They were entitled not to be surprised. And a front-page editorial carried heavy connotations. “Joe, it’s the nuclear weapon of editorial journalism,” I said. In addition, a newspaper’s intervention in a heavy party nomination fight was unusual, if not unheard-of. Some would think it implied a commitment to support Ford in the fall. And there was the risk that Ford would blow it. Was it wise for the Star, in its fragile state, to bet all the marbles on Ford? “It would be like lending half the capital of your bank to an unreliable borrower.”

Joe laughed; our hearts rose. “Now you’re talking my language,” he said, and agreed the front page was probably the wrong place for the editorial. That left only the question of whether we should print it at all. Berl was for it, perhaps because he sensed that Joe wanted it printed. Joe spoke with fervor about Ronald Reagan. He had seen an appalling speech by Reagan, he said, and if he were nominated there might be another landslide like the Goldwater debacle 12 years earlier. In the end, we went ahead. I rewrote the editorial, keeping the story of the Crush, Texas, locomotive collision in the lead.

A few days later, Joe summoned me to his office. He showed me a graceful little thank-you note from the president of the United States. When Ford squeaked through at Kansas City, some of his supporters seemed to believe that the Star’s editorial had turned the trick, a myth that in any case did no damage to the Star. Joe was treated with elaborate courtesy, assigned quarters at the Crown Center hotel on the same corridor as the president’s party. Joe hired a fire-engine red stretch Mercedes limousine and threw a big party. Then he flew off to Kentucky to buy race horses, pressing me to keep the red limousine and move from my shabby hotel across town to the vacant quarters at the Crown Center for the remainder of the convention. I told him it would ruin my reputation as a serious journalist, and refused. I wish I hadn’t.


The most harrowing crisis, however, broke with little warning in February 1977. At 5: 30 one Monday morning, Joe called the night desk from Los Angeles. He directed that his name be removed, immediately, from the Star’s masthead. As in all the Star crises, the local Washington television crews soon took up their vigil, like scavenger birds, at the Star building’s front entrance. Soon, the Post, the New York Times, and other papers were humming with speculation, some or it malicious or silly or both. It was the beginning of two weeks of odd and unwelcome publicity.

In a Washington Post story by Steven Klaidman and Douglas Watson February 11, the usual shopworn rumors were rehearsed: Joe was preparing to sell the Star to the right-wing Michigan publisher John McGoff, who had tried to buy it earlier. Or he was trying to “frighten” the labor unions, with whom contracts were now being renegotiated. The McGoff rumor was a perennial horror story. McGoff s primary foreignpolicy enthusiasm was said to be the Afrikaner nationalist regime in South Africa. So far as I know, there was no truth in the rumor. Mary McGrory, who seemed to have inside information, was quoted saying that Joe wanted to make himself chairman of the board, not publisher, because he viewed his role as “financial.”

When Joe returned from the West Coast, I gingerly suggested—with Jim Bellows’ approval—that he finesse the rumors by making a joke of the masthead matter. I even drafted a jocular news release. Joe did not act, but he sent word that if his name went back on the masthead it would be as “CEO,” chief operating officer, a familiar title in banking and business but entirely strange to journalism. I suggested a memorandum. It had to do with the traditional relationships of publishers to their newspapers. I went back to the HearstPulitzer days and ended up recommending a model out of Walter Bagehot’s famous book on the English constitution. A publisher, I suggested, works a bit like a constitutional monarch, with the right to be notified and to warn. It was an elaborate project. I sent it to Joe, but there was no answer, written or otherwise. Months later, I asked him one day whether it had been helpful. “Not very,” he said.

Now, however, Joe was in a worried and stormy mood; and with each of these reversals, as in the Ford-editorial episode, he was, as I think about it now, probably storing up what he saw as well-warranted frustration. He must have viewed himself as a savior balked at every turn by obtuse, ungrateful, nit-picking editors; a prophet without honor at his own newspaper. His mood was further exacerbated by what he thought of as a slight at the annual Gridiron Club dinner. One day during this unsettling period, Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s (briefly) all-powerful director of the Office of Management and Budget, came to lunch. He was talking about some issue that had nothing to do with the Star. “If any subordinates gave me that kind of trouble, I’d fire them.” Joe nodded vigorously at this endorsement of the managerial guillotine. Bellows, Mary McGrory and I exchanged nervous glances.

Mary—who had recently won a Pulitzer Prize and was at the top of her form—was the Star’s premier personality; and everyone deferred to her, including Joe. Her loyalty to the paper and her strong-mindedness were unimpeachable. Not long after arriving, I heard a trademark McGrory anecdote. Richard Nixon had come for lunch and was doing a walkthrough of the newsroom, shaking hands here and there. All work had ceased in deference to the president of the United States. But there was one exception. In the distance, from Mary’s small cubicle in the northeast corner of the newsroom, a typewriter could be heard defiantly clicking away—an audible earnest of her refusal to be drawn into phony cordiality with a president she held in contempt. When in late 1974 rumors spread that Joe’s early talks with the owning families were collapsing, and soon might leave the ailing paper without its Texas rescuer, Mary had written Joe: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” He had responded: “It ain’t so. Joe.” It was a clever exchange between two very verbal people, who liked one another. Brilliant, funny, caustic, Mary divided the world between cops and robbers, morality and immorality. How this schematic view of the world flowed from her subtle mind and wit was not always apparent. Mary was Mary, sui generis. During the February crisis, as often before, we were driven into confederacy, both liking Joe and enjoying his confidence. I liked her taste for good-natured conspiracy. I became, in the code we employed, “Light Horse” (sometimes “Lightfoot”), since she pictured me as a recalcitrant Confederate. She was “Stonewall.” When the crisis finally lifted, at least for a while, it was at a carefully-staged lasagna luncheon at Mary’s, where Joe was drawn into group singing of the familiar Baptist hymns he liked.

For reasons that had perhaps been inevitable all along, Joe and Jim Bellows soon came to a parting of ways. Jim went off to Los Angeles to try his hand with another failing newspaper, the Herald-Examiner, and Joe was now the undisputed driver of the Star’s creaky machine. He clearly relished the sensation; his mood brightened immeasurably. A few days after Jim’s departure, Joe summoned Jim Smith, the business manager, Sid Epstein, managing editor, and me to his office. The three of us sat down in this make-believe English drawing room office. After brief pleasantries, Joe tossed out a bombshell. “Gentlemen,” he announced, “unless you object I propose to name myself editor and publisher—at least for the interim.”

There was an awkward silence. I finally suggested, swallowing hard, that maybe Joe ought to think that one over. I asked if I could send him yet another of my many memoranda. I once again found myself offering advice which probably seemed to Joe impertinent. But he never refused it.

I laid it on the line: “Anyone who advises you that the editor’s title is something to be put on like a hat is giving you unsound advice. . . . In my view you need a professional editor at the Star. . . . Owners of newspapers who assume the editor’s title were and are regarded within the trade as whimsical eccentrics and amateurs. Indeed, their papers were often regarded. . .as the toys of rich men (or women) and their weight and influence discounted accordingly. . . . A second major problem lies in the combination of the two titles. . .[which] may imply an unsavory merger, as well, of business and advertising affairs with news and editorial comment. If you wish to run a serious and reputable newspaper, as I am confident you do, this is a confusion to be avoided absolutely.”

I have no idea how Joe reacted to this blunt advice, but being counseled not to do what one longs to do is never pleasant. Joe’s actions constituted the only I answer I got. He did not go through with the plan, even temporarily. There was no sign of strain, however. As December passed and the new year came, we settled into a working routine that seemed smoother than ever. He delegated control of the editorial pages and policy to me, and most of what I heard from him, when he was in town, was friendly badinage about Thomas Jefferson. I had a print of the “lost” Stuart portrait on my office wall. Joe affected to be anti-Jefferson, a partisan of Hamilton and Burr. He loved to laugh about the pendulum on the clock at Monticello that was too long and had to be recessed into the basement through a hole in the floor. He affected to believe that that summed Jefferson up.

Only once in this period did Joe get really hot about an issue. One day, just back from a New York meeting, Joe sent word that I was to see him immediately in the Star dining room, where Joe and his son Robert were sitting for a formal portrait.

“What are we saying about the B-l bomber?” he asked when I dashed in, looking sidelong at me without turning his head. (Jimmy Carter had just announced that he was cancelling production of the new Air Force plane.) “We have said the President is right,” I responded, wondering if the view would be ridiculed as Jeffersonianism run wild. Instead Joe beamed. “Splendid!” he cried. I later learned the story. At a New York board meeting that morning he alone had defended Carter’s decision. The boardroom fat cats had heaped abuse on Carter, disgusting Joe and rousing him to the president’s defense (though he had no personal use for Carter at all). It was a lucky coincidence that I had not embarrassed him.

Or was it? Beneath the veneer of Texas opulence and English taste (in art and horses and friends) a vestige of Joe’s boyhood Mississippi populism lingered. As a very rich man from Houston he was often relegated to the pigeonholes reserved by media stereotypes for Texas millionaires. Indeed, during the February crisis of a year earlier I had been astonished to read one day in a national newspaper that Joe was upset and acting funny because he was outraged by the Star’s insults to big oil and gas.

The facts, as I well knew, were ludicrously to the contrary. In Texas, Joe had been asked by the state assembly to chair a three-man state commission, whose job it was to break a momentous impasse. The three were to decide whether a new, very expensive offshore oil tanker terminal in the Gulf would be a public facility, financed with bonds, or a private one, financed by a consortium of oil majors. Joe had cast the deciding vote for a public facility. But big oil had had the clout to persuade the legislators to overrule its own commission. That and other Texas power plays by big oil had left Joe with a bad taste for imperial oil. He had no use for oil barons.

In fact, the irony was that his editorial page editor—which is to say I—was distinctly more sympathetic to the oil companies than he was, and that sympathy was occasionally reflected in Star editorials. One day after an editorial had appeared on some then current energy issue, in which the oil majors had been mentioned at least dispassionately, Steve Richard came by my office. “What are we doing in bed with the oil companies?” he asked. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It was then that I learned the story of the off-shore terminal commission.

On Feb. 2, 1978, hinting that big events were afoot, Joe flew off to New York for a meeting. Later that afternoon his secretary, Virginia Church, called. She urged me to stick around the office, because Joe would have important and exciting news. Maybe I should have read the signs, in retrospect so clear, that a sale of the Star was in the wind. But I hadn’t. I was as surprised as everyone else when George Beveridge, the assistant managing editor and Ombudsman, called about 7: 30 to say that Joe had sold the Star to Time, Inc. Time, it turned out, had had an eye on the paper for a long time. The Post Company’s Newsweek was Time magazine’s main competitor. The Post had a highly visible presence in the capital. Time longed to raise its banner there too. Soon, the Star had a new cast of managers, and Joe was gone.

To this day, Joe Allbritton and I remain cordial friends. But Joe spends most of his time in banking. And while he still owns television and newspaper properties I have the impression he stays out of daily management. We meet for lunch or at parties from time to time, but we have never discussed the exciting days at the Star more than a decade ago. I have no idea how the events I have recounted looked from his perspective. I am inclined now to think that he minimized the difficulties and exaggerated the rewards and satisfactions of being a Washington newspaper publisher. Maybe he had in the back of his head a picture a bit too much out of Citizen Kane, though of course without the ruthlessness and irresponsibility. Like many other occupations, newspaper publishing has undergone the managerial revolution.

As for the great Ford editorial flap, which may have been the experience that tipped Joe against newspaper publishing, consider the ironies. Gerald Ford, with whatever nudge of help from our support, won the Republican nomination— narrowly—at Kansas City but lost the election—again, narrowly—to Jimmy Carter. Carter, despite some impressive accomplishments, never learned how to be presidential and in 1980 lost the presidency to Reagan: the bete noire we had so much feared four years earlier. There was no repeat of the Goldwater debacle, no decimation of the Republican Party. It is, looking back, a lesson in modesty for those of us who deal in the writing and merchandising of opinion. When I feel myself tempted by the illusion of infallibility, I think of those far-off exciting days and laugh. Certainly I feel less than infallible.


One day in late April 1978, Sid Epstein, George Hoyt, and I were summoned to New York for a 3 p. m. meeting. The flight, by private jet with private bar and fruit basket, was quick and pleasant. At the Time-Life building, all the brass had assembled—Henry Grunwald, Hedley Donovan, Jim Shepley, and Andrew Heiskell. They had an announcement. Murray Gart, a corporate editor and former chief of correspondents, would be named editor of the Star “ next week.”

Sid Epstein and I burst into disconcerting laughter. Our hosts looked startled. We quickly explained that if the decision had been made it had better be published the next day in the Star— unless they wanted to read the news first in The Washington Post. No secret could be kept for days in Washington. As I walked into the Star building later that evening, I met Barbara Cohen, the national editor. She had seen us scurrying out the doors after lunch. “So what’s the deal?” Barbara asked. “Let me guess. Murray Gait’s going to be editor.” I could only smile awkwardly as the elevator doors closed between us.

Gart, whom I had met briefly, was trim with a hint of portliness, black-haired, and dark-eyed. He wore glasses with heavy black rims and the standard-issue blue Time executive’s suit. As I soon learned, he also had vociferous detractors around Time.

His principal problem, apparently, was a gift for borrowing trouble. It started with a redecoration project. In place of the almost barren look of the Bellows era, workmen were soon laying new carpets in the editor’s office, installing chintzy chairs and sofas, and fixing a colossal world map on the east wall. It seemed a kind of imperial statement. The desk itself was a door-sized marble slab. Gart told me it had belonged to Luce, and that Luce had used it to “carve up editors.” Soon the hall door that Bellows had kept open was always closed, and subeditors needed an appointment. It did not escape notice that Gart also had a chauffeured car.

When regimes change, editorial page editors are in an exposed position. Gart soon signaled that he intended to take a strong hand in the editorial routine. A few days after he settled in, he sent for me to make an editorial suggestion. We should support Andy Young’s view that “disinvestment” was not a wise U. S. policy in South Africa. I agreed, and wrote the piece. But the timing was dubious. Not long before, Steve Biko had been murdered in police custody, and it seemed the Boer government was bent on a blindly suicidal policy. It was a strange time to editorialize against disinvestment. But Murray was given to occasional impulses. He tended to miss the irony of some of his sudden enthusiasms. One day as he and I were being driven back from lunch downtown, Murray volunteered that he had recently asked the mayor of Washington why the city could not be a “model city” for the nation. I thought there was a grim answer to the question in the wasteland that surrounded the Star building. But I said nothing.

Murray was a hard man to top on any subject. One day at the 10 a. m. editorial conference which he had instituted, I made an indiscreet allusion to my friendship with Justice Lewis Powell of the Supreme Court. He immediately said, “I’ll have to check that [we were discussing some judicial point] with my friend Potter Stewart.” Across the table, Jonathan Yardley suppressed a grin.

All this was trivial enough. What soon began to get on everyone’s nerves was Murray’s tinkering with copy. He was a good copy editor, but he tended to get to the editorial page after hours, often necessitating changes in the makeup. It was routine to get an anguished call from Jeffrey Frank, who handled those chores. Murray would have changed something, and asked Jeff to get my approval. It was no doubt the leftover newsmagazine habit. Time was notorious as an editor’s playground and a writer’s nightmare, where reporting from the field tended to be mangled by editorial tinkering and political adjustment on the way into the magazine. Murray seemed to be importing an impulse for boiling the personality and spontaneity out of the copy, when my own idea was to allow small divergences of taste and view for the sake of encouraging the flavor of personality and idiosyncrasy in the copy.

Among Murray’s policy interests, two were especially keen—the Middle East and Jimmy Carter’s performance in the White House. “We ought to toss our hats in the air,” he would occasionally say of some Carter move—at that stage he was enthusiastic about the former governor of Georgia. We clearly differed about the function of editorials. Murray wanted the Star to paint boldly, with a broad brush, in dramatic strokes. I preferred tatting for most purposes. Sweeping declarations are traps, often leading directly to the inconsistencies that make editorial policies look silly and whimsical.

A typical Gart project was to be an editorial campaign for Warren E. Burger’s resignation as chief justice. Burger had now served for a decade, said Murray, and we should tell him he’d had his day. Burger, a hearty, not overqualified jurist, was not among my favorite figures. His long suit was bonhomie, and around the Supreme Court the view was that he was a bit out of his depth. But the arbitrary ten-year milestone was hardly an occasion for a resignation crusade; most Supreme Court justices, if not all, serve as long as their health lasts, and some have served into their dotages. The most likely result of a call for Burger’s resignation would be to delay his departure, if one were intended. Murray persisted. He asked our excellent Supreme Court reporter, Lyle Deniston, to draft a piece. Lyle’s piece turned out to be providential, for in trying to give body to the idea even Lyle came up empty-handed. His attempt really confirmed the whimsicality of the idea. The enthusiasm passed.

Murray’s greatest enthusiasm was the Middle East. He wanted the Star to line up behind an “entity” or “homeland” for the Palestinian Arabs, a project that left me cold. Murray could barely contain his dislike of Menachim Begin, Israel’s prime minister. Begin, to be sure, was an acquired taste; but I had acquired it. At Begin’s accession, a year or so earlier, Time had described his name as “rhyming with “Fagin”” and the pun had caused an uproar. Many readers considered it slyly anti-Semitic, and I was afraid the Time’s anti-Israel tone would rub off, by association, on the Star, which had always been sympathetic to Israel. But Murray pressed. Soon after he arrived he gave me a copy of what he called the “Time Plan” for a Middle East settlement. He had helped to shape it, he said, and he spoke of it as reverently as if it had been a state paper as important as the Balfour Declaration. In the typical mixmaster English of Timese, this “plan” examined the Palestinian dilemma at a low level of subtlety. Among Israel’s friends in Washington, it was regarded as a nonstarter. I feared the issue would bring Gart and me to an early showdown. But we were saved by Anwar Sadat. In Sadat’s bold initiative, and the Camp David meetings, we found common ground. It allowed us to detour the larger questions on which we were sure to differ.

In other areas, however, petty tiffs continued. I thought of myself as an accommodating fellow, but I did not respond well to close supervision. Not since I had worked as a very junior editorialist of 24 under Brodie Griffith at The Charlotte News, and we had wrangled over the significance of the early civil rights sit-ins, had I had to work with a hovering editor. For the first time in more than 20 years, I found myself entangled in corporate journalism, and I hated it.

The most mortifying episode was the China editorial incident. In late 1978, the Carter administration announced that it would soon end U. S. defense ties with Taiwan and establish full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. In view of Time Inc. ‘s long and notorious alliance in the days of Henry Luce with Chiang Kai-shek and the China Lobby, I was surprised to find Murray enthusiastic. “Long overdue,” he said.

I agreed in principle, but with reservations. Once again, the U. S. seemed to be jerking the rug from under a dependent it should never have created in the first place. But if you invested in a client state as heavily as the U. S. had in Taiwan, wisely or not, you incurred certain moral obligations. Moreover, some of the remarks filtering out of the Carter administration hinted that facile notions of realpolitik—the formation of a “triangular” relationship among the U. S., China and the Soviet Union—were involved.

Worse, the story had broken on Friday night. Tuesday would be too late for an editorial reaction, and I hated weekend office hours. But I went down Sunday morning and wrote a Monday editorial. It applauded “normalization,” but dwelt at some length on the collateral risks of this sudden switch. “What conclusions about American friendship and patronage,” it asked, “will be drawn by other Asian nations (and other nations generally) from the denunciation of the. . . defense treaty? It would be surprising if they were favorable. . . .” I left a copy of the editorial with a doorman at Murray’s Connecticut Avenue apartment. The sunny late-autumn afternoon passed, and I assumed he had no comments.

That evening at a dinner party at Joe and Polly Kraft’s, the new China policy was the topic of the occasion. Several other guests asked what the Star would say—I suppose the wellknown Luce connection made the question more interesting than usual. I rashly previewed the editorial I had written earlier. About 10, as everyone was milling about in afterdinner fashion, I was called to the phone. It was Murray, and he sounded tense. Sorry, he said, but he couldn’t go along with the editorial; it was much too negative in tone. He would have called earlier, but he said he had only just seen the editorial an hour before. “We ought to toss our hats in the air,” he said.

I felt my face flush. “Since you don’t like it,” I said, “do you mind calling the night desk and killing it?”

“I think you should do that,” Murray said. After another tense exchange or two, he insisted, and I agreed to call. It was awkward; I rued my indiscretion in having previewed an unpublished editorial. Depend on Murray, I raged to myself, to veto an editorial at the very eleventh hour. At home, I railed with anger and embarrassment. This was intolerable, absolutely the last straw.

By morning, however, I had cooled down and so had Murray. But he still wanted surgery on the editorial and, when I reached the office, had already written out proposed revisions. Where I had asked what other countries might think about the dependability of American friendship, his suggested change read: “. . . It would be surprising if [the reactions] were unfavorable. Only in special circumstances— Israel is an example—are other nations important to U. S. interests likely to allow [the change] to outweigh the obvious benefits of return to a more normal state. . . .” As he often did, Murray had turned a point nearly 180 degrees and had taken a dig at the Israelis besides. I reluctantly folded Murray’s emendations into my text. The editorial finally appeared on Tuesday. To me, it read like a mishmash, braiding together two essentially incompatible attitudes. But maybe I was wrong. We received a number of compliments on the editorial.

Murray continued to be civil, and in the social events after hours he was always cordial and friendly. He also kept raising my salary and putting me in for fringe benefits. But in working hours, sharply-worded memoranda flowed on. The battle extended to our array of op-ed page columnists and even to design. For reasons I couldn’t grasp, Murray insisted that we use all of James Reston’s columns, even though they would usually reach Star readers many hours after they’d been available in The New York Times; and in Washington most key people read the Times. Murray also disliked two columnists I had recruited, Michael Novak and John P. Roche. Novak, a Catholic theologian, had been the Star’s writer in residence, and his popular writing had led to a syndicated column which had a considerable following. Murray wanted to cancel it, though he declined to explain his distaste. It was perhaps the overt religious flavor. Murray would press Bob Berger, our op-ed editor, not to use it; I kept insisting that it be used. There were more tart memos. I had persuaded Roche, a professor of political science and a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, to switch his column from the Post, which never used it, to the Star, He had obliged; it would certainly be embarrassing if he began to get the same treatment at the Star that he had had at the Post. We finally settled on a quota system for the columnists, but Novak and Roche both got slight display. This rankled.

Murray also had hired a shaggy artist from New York, a former department-store ad illustrator, to redesign the paper’s typography. His great West-Side shock of frizzled hair prompted Mary McGrory to call him “the Russian wolfhound.” The wolfhound closed in, with lolling tongue, on the editorial pages with splendid designs entirely defiant of the principles of functionalism, pretty but confusing to readers. Here, too, I managed to stall until Murray finally ordered the change to be executed.

As Jimmy Carter sank from sight and the Reagan years began, Murray became increasingly preoccupied with other matters. But sometimes the overmanagement impulse reemerged; and a trivial incident of editorial meddling almost caused a severance of ties. On the day after John Hinckley Jr. shot Reagan and several others outside the Washington Hilton, Jeff Frank wrote a lead editorial about handguns. It deplored the easy access of criminals and kooks to concealable weapons. It was a more than passable piece of work. I left the office thinking it would be our lead editorial. Murray spiked it, with the odd result that on a day when everyone’s mind was on the shooting of the president the Star’s lead editorial had to do with Conrail! The main excuse for this intervention was that Murray favored mandatory sentences for any crimes committed with handguns. It was a wellknown nostrum for evading sensible gun control, concocted by the handgun lobby. I told Murray so. He did not relent.

I became regrettably rude and reckless in the next memo. “It seems to me,” I wrote, “that you are dealing with our editorial operations much as Carter did when he was trying to handle even the scheduling on the White House tennis court. . . . I cannot function as a cipher and do not wish to do so. It seems to me that the Star can have only one editorial page editor at a time. You must decide who that editor is to be. . . .” The missive was uncivil but honest. Had I known what Murray must have known by now about the thin ice under the whole Star operation, I wouldn’t have bothered him with this surly ultimatum. But this time even his thick armor seemed to be pierced. A few days later we sat across from one another in the late afternoon. He peered gloomily across the marbleslab desk. I had become “personal,” he complained. I denied it; and indeed my feelings were not personal at all. It all had to do with the abrasions of day-to-day office routine. I had, I said, been accustomed to working with and for people who were easier to reach. Harsh language seemed the only way to get his attention.

“Nobody ever accused me of being a charm-school graduate,” Murray said, disarmingly. He couldn’t and he wouldn’t “abdicate” his responsibility to edit the whole paper. It was his job. If his system crowded me, I should propose some way to make it work better. I left for a dinner engagement with the faintly sick feeling that nothing had been resolved. But I needn’t have worried. The impasse was about to be overtaken by a final catastrophe.

Early one bright July morning, the phone rang at 6 a. m. “Can you be at a 7 o’clock meeting in my office?” Murray asked. It was clear that something had gone wrong. An hour or so later I arrived to find all the other editors gathered in Murray’s office. No one spoke. Murray looked stricken, Jim Shepley looked sad and fidgety. The Star, Shepley announced, would close in two weeks unless a buyer could be found. Time Inc. had now invested more than $80 million in the rescue attempt, $30 million more than it had budgeted for the first five years.

Would anyone buy it? someone asked. “I could sell it to an oil company,” Shepley said, “but I’d rather close it.” When the others trudged out of Murray’s office a few minutes later, I lingered. We sat sadly on his office sofa for a moment. Murray held out his hand. “Let’s just forget all the problems, let bygones be bygones,” he said. I readily agreed. All the irritations and sharp memoranda of the past three years now seemed as distant and irrelevant as fights for the sunniest deck chairs on the Titanic. We had become fellow victims of a lost war. We parted friends.

On Friday August 6, I wrote the last of my signed columns, packed a few remaining books and files in the car, and read the last page proof of the last editorial page. I walked down to the newsroom and into Mary McGrory’s little cubicle. It seemed the best place to say goodbye to this institution which had stretched and strained me, of which Mary’s gallantry and faith had been an unfailing beacon. We embraced warmly but wordlessly, but words would have been redundant anyway. Then I walked out into the hot late-summer weather. The next day, after 129 years, the Star published its last edition.


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