Archive for Sunday, December 18, 2005

McCarthy interview was learning experience

December 18, 2005


Eugene McCarthy, the gentle rebel and enigmatic anti-politician who helped end Lyndon Johnson's presidency, died the other day, but the arguments he started about American politics still haven't ended. He was both hero and anti-hero - and it is a measure of how complex a force he was that some of his most ardent supporters saw him both ways. For a man who prided himself on the clarity of his vision and views, he left a muddled image and an uncertain legacy.

I say this as a member of the Vietnam-era generation that was touched so deeply by Mr. McCarthy, and that does not mean that all of us saw him as a saint or even as a plausible president. But by challenging Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, McCarthy did something no American politician has done since. He made every voter think hard about complicated questions of war and peace, of engagement and isolation, of patriotism and treason.

But for me, Mr. McCarthy's death triggered complex memories about another important issue altogether. It drew me back to the first difficult question about press bias that I encountered - an episode that marked me as no other ever has. I hope you will permit this digression so that, in relating the story to you, I might sort out my own thoughts about it. (The truth is that the very process of writing is the process of thinking.)

The incident at the heart of this story took place almost a quarter-century ago. I was a 27-year-old reporter with The New York Times, and former Sen. McCarthy was 65, in rusticated semi-retirement in an 18th-century farmhouse at the end of Holim Hollow in Woodville, Va. I drove down there to see the man, who was toiling at an electric typewriter before a great stone fireplace but was thinking about running for the Senate again. I wrote a piece that I thought was pretty innocuous and then I moved on to the next thing.

But one reader of the newspaper did not think the piece was at all innocuous, and that was A.M. Rosenthal, the formidable executive editor. In a few days time I received a remarkable letter from him - both the word "letter" and the earlier phrase "electric typewriter" prove that this happened a very long time ago - and let me summarize by saying that Mr. Rosenthal was not at all happy with me.

He thought the piece "rather starry-eyed and overly enchanted," and in a remarkable way he taught me the most important lesson I have ever learned in journalism. Later I would quarrel with Mr. Rosenthal, and though my career was shaped by that quarrel, in some ways I was affected far more by the lesson he taught me in his critique of my McCarthy piece, in which I wrote that the Minnesota Democrat had a reputation of being "something of a mystic and a maverick."

Mr. Rosenthal's remarks are worth quoting at some length:

"I do not like pieces that are harsh and vindictive. By the very nature of news, we have to cause people pain. I don't think we should cause them pain unnecessarily, simply for the sake of a phrase or because we have the power to do so. ... At the same time, I do not think that we should be unnecessarily admiring or give the impression that we are maudlin or in love with our subjects."

I do not fully agree with Mr. Rosenthal's critique, because I wasn't in love with Mr. McCarthy and in fact had not supported him in 1968. I did not think then, and I do not think now, that McCarthy was a great man, but I did think, and still believe, that he was a man of great importance.

But this column is only partly about what I said about Mr. McCarthy. It's mostly about what Mr. Rosenthal said to me. Here's another excerpt:

"I am not looking for antiseptic reporting or stories that balance every word of praise with a word of criticism - or vice versa. ... What we are trying to achieve is a tone in the paper's entirety, and story by story, that is witty and sophisticated, literate and - above all - fair. There is fairness to the subject, which is paramount, and there is fairness to the reader."

I so ingested his letter that now, as an editor myself, obsessively concerned with bias, I have on probably hundreds of occasions spoken those very words to others. Some of you parents out there may be nodding knowingly, amused at how many times the phrases of your own parents have tumbled effortlessly from your own lips to your children's ears, so convinced are you of their utter truth.

Mr. McCarthy's death made me reflect on a lot of things, like whether some of us were wrong to support the way he attacked his own government, or whether others of us were wrong not to see that in some cases patriotism requires dissent. Those are questions for McCarthy's time as much as they are for President Bush's.

But Mr. McCarthy's death also made me think ever more deeply about the bias questions that were emerging in the 1980s and that have reached full flower today - and to realize how much I learned from a man I disagreed with and whom I didn't like. It's time I thanked him.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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