When Editors Look Back and Wonder What Were We Thinking

By Jack Limpert

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Joe Biden and Deep Throat got pushed off the cover by Elizabeth Arden and good, cheap lunches.

A story from the June 1974 Washingtonian, “Death and the All-American Boy,” got some recent attention when Carolyn Ryan, senior editor for politics at the New York Times, recommended it in the paper’s “What We’re Reading” feature. Ryan described the story, by Kitty Kelley, as “startlingly (and almost too) candid about Mr. Biden’s personal life after losing his wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972.”

The cover story for that issue was “Help! We’re being held captive in our supermarkets!” That cryptic head, along with the equally mysterious “Death and the All-American Boy,” suggests that back then we weren’t making it easy for readers to decipher headlines.

The rest of the cover lines were more direct: A Teenage Survival Guide, Rating Emergency Rooms, The Antique Lover’s Almanac, A Day at Elizabeth Arden’s, The Rumor Capital of the World, Looking for a Good, Cheap Lunch.

In the issue, along with the now unearthed Biden story, was a piece I wrote about Deep Throat, the secret source in Woodward and Bernstein’s book All the President’s Men. That piece, after mentioning Deep Throat candidates such as White House aides Fred Fielding, John Dean, Chuck Colson, and Leonard Garment, asked:

“Who did have motive and opportunity and method? Who hated what Nixon was doing to him? Who had access to all the material? Who had the resources to set up a system to leak it?

“The FBI, that’s who. Not Pat Gray or William Sullivan, but the old-line Hoover people who were being harassed and offended and fired by Nixon and Mitchell and Gray and Sullivan. You want to take on the FBI, Mr. President? You want to shove Pat Gray down our throats? You want to tear down the organization John Edgar Hoover built over four decades? You want to let a lot of smart boys with their shirttails hanging out tell us how to do our job?

“Read the February 28 and March 13 Presidential transcripts and then try someone like Mark Felt on for size. A Hoover loyalist and number-two man to Pat Gray, he had every reason and resource for leaking the Watergate story and destroying Nixon.”

Joe Biden and Deep Throat: That June 1974 Washingtonian had two stories that still get talked about and neither was mentioned on the cover.

In our defense, we were pushing service stories on the cover. In those days the Washington Post published almost no service pieces; Post reporters derided service stories as not real journalism. Still, I’m surprised Kitty Kelley and Joe Biden didn’t make the cover.
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Also in that issue was a Tom Shales piece, “Boobs” “Munchkins!!” “What…Critics!!!” Who wrote those heads?

A graf from Tom’s piece: “So it goes in the wonderful world of criticism. From whatever radio station in wherever Virginia to whatever two-bit monthly in whatchamacallit Maryland they come, gathered together in houses well-papered with other freeloaders for that archaic institution called opening night. You can see them with their pens and pads, furtively scribbling in the dark of the theater. Coe and Richards must dash out after the play to get back to their newspapers and make deadlines, and because the big guys do it, the little guys do it too. That swoosh wooshing past your aisle seat before the curtain call may be smalltime critics whose review won’t appear for two more weeks. But running out is part of the fun. You will find them in the back of the theater being gay and glib when the lights come up.”

Writer of the good, cheap lunch piece was Phyllis Richman, who like Tom, went on to a long and good career at the Washington Post.

The day in the life of Elizabeth Arden’s story, plus a savage review of a book titled How to Pick Up Girls, was written by Julia Cameron, who went on to write lots of terrific Washingtonian pieces. One day she came in, said she was interviewing film director Martin Scorcese in New York and needed money for travel expenses. I gave her $300 of my own money, plus my tape recorder. I never saw her again. She married Scorcese, and several years later his production company sent me a check for $300. No note, no tape recorder.

A politics column, “Nixon’s Last Hurrah,” was written by Lou Cannon. He went on to become senior White House correspondent for the Washington Post and author of four good books about Ronald Reagan.

And a money column was written by Robert Samuelson, still the country’s best journalist writing about economics.

Lots of great names and not one of them on the cover. Maybe we got them too early, maybe we should have been smarter. But journalism back in the pre-digital days sure was fun.

Comments

  1. Old Tom Shales says

    Do writers EVER write the headlines on their own stories? I don’t, but I’m not complaining. Never really wanted to. However i do remember with shameless pride a headline I wrote for a journalism class exercise at dearly beloved AU. The story concerned a fire that claimed not only a house but a bird-house, one which had been located in an adjoining tree; its destruction meant that the occupants had to seek new quarters.. And now, my 4-word, 2-line head: ROBINS ROUTED; ROOST ROASTS. Funny, the things one remembers….

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