Greatest newsman of his generation

By Richard Reeves Published:

By Richard Reeves

PARIS -- What is Abe Rosenthal like? someone at the table asked one night last week during dinner after a program at the American University in Paris. John Morris, the man Rosenthal hired to be the first photo editor of The New York Times in the 1960s, talked about the drive and vision of the man who wanted to change the newspaper that had traditionally used pictures as little more than a device to separate stories.

I threw in something about his 17 years as managing editor and then executive editor saving the best paper in the world by energetically forcing it into the style and interests of the late 20th century. But that was prologue. John and I held the table of a dozen or so for a half-hour by telling old Abe stories. I also had some newer ones because I had just had lunch with Abe and his wife, Shirley, three weeks before, just before he had the stroke that killed him. We hugged and kissed each other that day; he was a sentimental man.

But I also told the old ones, beginning with the way A.M. Rosenthal hired me in 1966, one Ive told enough times that my wife leaves the room when I begin.

I was the youngest reporter, I think, on the New York Herald Tribune when it shut down. And so it looked like it was back to Jersey for me. My phone rang on the last day, April 23. This is Abe Rosenthal, the voice said, are you interested in coming over to The Times? I was sure it was a joke, and I was trying to figure out who it was on the line. But it was the man himself, then the metropolitan editor, the most hated of enemies, the angel from God.

Then there was another call, from Claude Sitton, the national editor. He was looking for a science writer and had heard that I had a degree in mechanical engineering. There was actually a contest for my body, and Sitton was offering more money and probably more prestige. He and I had a long lunch and came back to the city room -- in those days most everyone sat in the same big room, from 43rd to 44th street -- and chatted a bit more. I headed for the door, and as I did, Abe stepped out of an alcove and reached for my lapels. Having fun? he said.

Well, yes ...

Its over, he said. Im going to run this paper one day, and if you dont come with me, youre going to be sorry! Decide! Now!

Im with you, Abe.

By the way, he added. I know you were lying about how much you were making at the Trib.

We had our ups and downs. Temper was a weapon he used to stimulate the troops. He could hold a grudge so long that wed forget what started it. The big one was when I left the Times to rejoin the old Trib crowd, led by Clay Felker, in starting New York Magazine. But mostly we were friends, and I got a lot more out of that than he did. So did everyone else, because his drive in remaking The Times into a livelier, multisectioned, national newspaper served the business and the country well. Also, comparing the task to turning an ocean liner at full speed, he moved the great ship a few degrees starboard. The people running the country these days see The Times as a left-wing newspaper, but that is because they dont have much perspective from their rowboat with all the oars on the same side.

The next day, the day after John Morris and I laughed and almost cried over some good red wine, we learned that Abe had just died. He was 84. He had done everything a smart and very poor little kid born in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, and raised in the Bronx could do.

Stanley Walker, the city editor of the Herald Tribune, wrote this in 1928: What makes a good newspaperman? The answer is easy. He knows everything. He is aware of what goes on in the world today, but his brain is the repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. ... He can go for nights without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. He hates lies and meanness and sham. ... When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some remember him for several days.

I know, and my wife regularly reminds me, that we are too self-indulgent in this business, but we think its important. Abe Rosenthal will be remembered for more than a few days. He was the greatest newspaperman of his generation.

2006 Universal Press Syndicate

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