Harry Rosenfeld: He Was a Key Figure in The Washington Post’s Watergate Coverage

From a Washington Post obit by Bob Levey headlined “Harry M. Rosenfeld, a key figure in The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage, dies at 91”:

Harry M. Rosenfeld, who barely escaped the Holocaust as a child in Nazi Germany and who became a key Washington Post editor during its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Watergate break-in and resulting scandal, died July 16 at his home in Slingerlands, N.Y.

A burly, brusque and demanding editor, Mr. Rosenfeld became fascinated by world affairs and journalism as a schoolboy in New York. He saw in journalism a way to keep oppressive forces at bay, “holding to account the accountable, the more powerful the better,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, “From Kristallnacht to Watergate.”

Mr. Rosenfeld worked in the newspaper industry for 50 years, beginning at the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune, then at The Post and finally as the top editor of two newspapers in Albany, N.Y.

His most enduring legacy stemmed from his years as The Post’s assistant managing editor for metropolitan news. In that role, he was the direct supervisor of two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as they doggedly reported on the unfolding Watergate saga that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

Mr. Rosenfeld was a colorful and energetic figure at The Post. “He was like a football coach,” Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their 1974 book about Watergate, “All the President’s Men.” “He prods his players, pleading, yelling, cajoling.”

Reflecting on his own demeanor, Mr. Rosenfeld acknowledged that he could be “a pain in the ass” to work with. He clashed with executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee over Bradlee’s “compulsion to see the world in personal terms,” Mr. Rosenfeld wrote, and over what he saw as Bradlee’s privileged upbringing and aura of elitism.

“When he was a young kid, he learned to play” tennis, Mr. Rosenfeld noted. “When I was a young kid, I dodged Nazis.”

Mr. Rosenfeld’s relationship with Post publisher Katharine Graham was far sunnier. In her autobiography, Graham described Mr. Rosenfeld as a “real hero of Watergate for us.” She would routinely sign her memos to him, “Love, Kay.”

In the early days of the scandal, Mr. Rosenfeld passionately defended Woodward and Bernstein when Bradlee wanted to replace them on the Watergate story with more seasoned staff writers.

“They’re hungry,” he is said to have told Bradlee. “You remember when you were hungry?”

The line, snarled by Jack Warden as Mr. Rosenfeld, became one of the most memorable in the acclaimed 1976 film version of “All the President’s Men,” which featured Jason Robards as Bradlee, Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.

In 1973, The Post won a Pulitzer for public service for its Watergate coverage. Mr. Rosenfeld was rewarded with a promotion to assistant managing editor in charge of The Post’s star-studded national staff.

He rubbed many national reporters the wrong way with his abrasive personality. He was soon put in charge of the Outlook section and Book World, which he regarded as a demotion.

Sensing a limited future at The Post, Mr. Rosenfeld decamped in 1978 to become editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union and the afternoon Knickerbocker News, both properties in the Hearst media empire. The Knickerbocker News went out of business in 1988. He retired in 1996 but remained an editor-at-large, contributing regular editorial page columns.

Hirsch Moritz Rosenfeld was born in Berlin in 1929….In 1934, the family filed an application to immigrate to the United States, but the request was delayed by the American immigration quota system then in place.

On Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi storm troopers and their sympathizers smashed the front windows of dozens of Jewish-owned businesses in Berlin. The store that Mr. Rosenfeld’s father owned was somehow spared in the assaults that became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass. A few days later, Harry Rosenfeld watched as his family’s synagogue was burned to the ground.

By sheer luck, the family was approved for immigration in March 1939. They arrived in New York on May 16 aboard the Cunard ocean liner Aquitania. World War II began that September. Mr. Rosenfeld kept his U.S. immigration card — No. 6064 — in a prominent place in his home for the rest of his life.

The family settled in the Bronx. Mr. Rosenfeld graduated from Syracuse University in 1952….He later did graduate work in history at Columbia University and in poetry at New York University. He served in the Army from 1952 to 1954….

Just before entering Syracuse, Mr. Rosenfeld got a summer job with the Herald Tribune’s syndicate, which distributed the newspaper’s articles to client papers, and his reputation for indefatigable work habits helped him advance to the newsroom. He eventually became managing editor for the news service and then foreign editor before the Herald Tribune and its partner newspapers folded in 1966.

Mr. Rosenfeld joined The Post as an editor on the foreign desk and became well known as a very vocal pitchman for certain stories being promoted as front-page candidates. “Doesn’t anyone care about a really good story?” he would rasp at the daily news conferences over which Bradlee presided.

Mr. Rosenfeld had little experience with local news — and none with Washington-area news — when Bradlee promoted him to head the Metro staff, The Post’s largest, in 1970. But characteristically, he plunged in with afterburners firing. He demanded that his local staff produce three front-page stories every day. On many days, they complied….

Mr. Rosenfeld inherited a Metro staff whose reporters openly pined to be promoted to the more prestigious national staff. Yet he brought a New York sensibility to his new job. Any local story that would get tabloid treatment in New York should get similar attention in Washington, he believed….

In the office, Mr. Rosenfeld favored bow ties and thick-framed glasses. He would often eat meals at his desk in less than five minutes so he could make better use of the work day. He made it a habit to roam the aisles where Metro reporters sat, clapping his hands and shouting encouragement.

“Harry was always the great, aggressive, hard-charging editor,” Woodward said. “But his message to his reporters was that we gather hard facts, listen to all and listen some more. Careful, patient listening was the key.”

Mr. Rosenfeld’s collaboration with Woodward and Bernstein very nearly did not happen.

Shortly after Mr. Rosenfeld took over as Metro editor, he gave Woodward, then a thoroughly green wannabe, a tryout. Mr. Rosenfeld didn’t like the results. He advised the aspiring young reporter to get some experience elsewhere and reapply.

Woodward continued to pester Mr. Rosenfeld with phone calls. One day in September 1971, Woodward called Mr. Rosenfeld at his home in Kensington, Md. Mr. Rosenfeld’s wife answered. She agreed to summon her husband to the phone.

“There was a really long wait,” Woodward recalled. “He came to the phone, found out it was only me and yelled at me for getting him down from the roof. He angrily slammed down the phone.”

But according to Woodward, Anne Rosenfeld said to her husband: “You always complain that your reporters are not aggressive enough.”

“Harry listened to her,” Woodward recalled. “Within several days, he hired me.” The Watergate break-in took place less than nine months later.

Bob Levey is a former Washington Post columnist.

Also see the New York Times obit by Sam Roberts headlined “Harry Rosenfeld, Who Saw News in a ‘Third-Rate Burglary,’ Dies at 91”. The story’s opening grafs:

Harry M. Rosenfeld, who injected his brash brand of journalism into The Washington Post, where he oversaw the two reporters who transformed a local crime story into the national Watergate corruption scandal that toppled the Nixon administration, died on July 16 at his home in upstate Slingerlands, N.Y.

As The Post’s assistant managing editor for metropolitan news, Mr. Rosenfeld directly supervised Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they mined secretive sources in their follow-the-money unraveling of the Watergate break-in, which President Richard M. Nixon’s press secretary had described as a “third-rate burglary attempt” and which led to Mr. Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

At one point Mr. Rosenfeld shielded the two reporters from attempts to remove them from the story once its broad implications became apparent. The Post’s editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, had sought to replace “Woodstein,” as the duo were nicknamed, with Post veterans steeped in government and politics.

As quoted in Mr. Woodward’s and Mr. Bernstein’s book “All the President’s Men” — a line delivered by Jack Warden playing Mr. Rosenfeld in the 1976 movie version — Mr. Rosenfeld defended the reporters by asking Mr. Bradlee a rhetorical question.

“They’re hungry,” he said. “You remember when you were hungry?”…

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