YEARS AGO, NEW TO WASHINGTON, D.C., I LISTENED eagerly as two veteran journalists from The New York Times dazzled me with stories about Lyndon Johnson: how he had circled the White House rose garden trailed by a group of reporters, boasting that he held a particular senator's balls in his pocket, just to play with when the occasion warranted. Or how, at a White House dinner party, he had lectured Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham about her paper's lack of support for the war in Vietnam, all the while leading her up to his bedroom. Once there he started to undress, then told her to turn around while he slipped into his nightshirt and climbed into bed. He bade her kiss him goodnight before sending her back downstairs to join the other guests.
Of course, none of it ever filtered into the pages of The New York Times — too much gossip and personality and “not newsworthy” would have been the editorial judgment. Still, I had little doubt that I was hearing the insider's account, the true goods passed along by two players who had the town down cold. Over the years, I shared drinks and stories long into the night with other like-minded reporters. They were the best of companions, the most engaging tellers of tales. One correspondent who was wounded in Vietnam had been hauled up the ladder into a helicopter while the Viet Cong peppered the sky with gunfire; another had nearly lost his life in Central Africa, and had been forced to kiss the feet of the amused head of state; another told how the British prime minister had behaved with sang froid when he walked into his daughter's room and discovered her in bed with a man. (He backed out apologizing, and returned five minutes later with champagne and three glasses.)
I thought of these men and women as I read Max Frankel's memoir, The Times of My Life and My Life With The Times, an unabashed love song to journalism in general and The New York Times in particular. Frankel's stories are those of the knowledgeable observer — though very different from those noted above. His accounts are more connected to the political events and personalities he wrote about as a foreign and diplomatic correspondent, and more tied to the inner workings of The New York Times itself. As a young reporter, he covered the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956; then it was on to the Soviet Union, where he followed Chairman Khrushchev's moves; then a hop to Cuba and the emergence of Fidel. In the book are background reports about the publication of the Pentagon Papers; Nixon's journey to China (where Frankel earned his Pulitzer Prize); and Watergate. There are also portraits — of publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger (whom Frankel admires above all other men) and other editors (who receive less flattering notices) — illuminating what can only be described as Frankel's corporate romance, his affair with The Times itself.
Moving from foreign correspondent to Washington columnist, then to head of the D.C. bureau before journeying up to headquarters in New York, Frankel became editor of The Sunday Times, then, when that position was abolished, editor of the separately run editorial page, and finally, in 1986, executive editor in charge of the most influential and important newspaper in the world. (He stepped down in 1994.) How much more inside can you get? Actually, a great deal. When he was a journalist overseas and in Washington, Frankel would imbue his stories with (at least) a hint of skepticism and more than a fair share of analytic fault-finding. But today — and in his memoir — he tends to identify with the corporate and bureaucratic world of The Times and so his accounts of struggles for influence and power carry the added weight of sounding “politically correct.”
To understand Max Frankel's insider-outsider role at the paper, it is, I believe, necessary to step back and look at his formative years. “I was not yet three years old when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, and I could have become a good little Nazi in his army,” Frankel begins the book. “I loved the parades; I wept when other kids marched beneath our window without me. But I was ineligible . . .” Frankel and his Polish-born parents were, of course, Jews and, by definition, outsiders. The opening section of the memoir is riveting as he describes his family being pushed and pulled from Germany to Poland and back to Germany (it's complicated), and how, after the war had already begun, late in 1939, his mother finally persuaded an S.S. officer to give her exit papers. In America, at 10 years of age, Max quickly learned he was a different kind of outsider, living — alone with his mother (his father didn't arrive until 1946, when Max had almost finished high school) — in a streetwise, multiethnic New York City neighborhood. Frankel yearned to become part of the Other America, to assimilate, to belong. He discovered journalism, and that became his passport, first at Columbia, and then at The Times, his sole employer. In a sense, The Times was his American family, his home, first with James Reston, the Washington bureau chief, and then with publisher Sulzberger assuming the role of surrogate father.
FOR A NEWSPAPER THAT MAKES THE WORLD ITS BEAT and presents itself as the paper of record, The Times emerges looking, to this reader, like a closed, insular company — indifferent to or unaware of alternative newspapers and the “new journalism,” and slow to implement the revolution in our cultural landscape (except as something to be reported). Blacks, gays and women push themselves onto the paper, which takes a liberal view of their presence, but at times (to them) appears patronizing. The newspaper's connection to its Jewish roots does not relax sufficiently to promote Jews to positions of editorial leadership until the early 1960s.
Throughout the memoir, Frankel's measured judgment, his skeptical take on politics and political leaders and, most of all, his decency shine through. (He was and is above all a decent man; I knew him slightly when he was the Sunday editor and I was working for the paper as an editor and writer). That quality, admirable as it is, gets in the way when he recounts personal stories about The Times and some of its top personnel — if it doesn't completely obstruct them. There is no account, for example, of how book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt helped nix Walter Clemons' appointment as his co-reviewer by casually letting executive editor Abe Rosenthal know that Clemons was gay. (Lehmann-Haupt later expressed reservations about Anatole Broyard's shot at the job by telling Rosenthal that Broyard was “the biggest ass man in town.” Rosenthal retorted, “If that were a disqualification for working for the New York Times, this place would be empty!”)
And when Frankel relates the famous story of Rosenthal telling a woman reporter, “I don't care if you fuck elephants as long as you're not covering the circus,” it is only as a means of explaining how The Times strives to be scrupulous about conflicts of interest. But the story was juicier than that, and more ambiguous. (The reporter had lived with a Democratic political leader in Philadelphia while covering City Hall for a local paper there. When the politician was indicted for corrupt practices and the relationship became public, Rosenthal summoned his new political writer from Washington, where she was now working for The Times, delivered his famous line and summarily fired her. Female reporters argued that if it had been a man, he would have got off with a scolding and a locker-room joke.)
Frankel does not convey the sense that he is hiding anything; just that as he ascended the editorial ladder, his perspective changed. He is no longer primarily the journalist, i.e. the skeptical observer. And who can fault him? But that altered vision has also prevented him from telling the tales that might have made a good and interesting book a great one.
Gene Lichtenstein is editor in chief of The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.
THE TIMES OF MY LIFE AND MY LIFE WITH THE TIMES | By MAX FRANKEL Random House 546 pages | $30 hardcover