Friday, March 28, 2008

40 Years Ago

(An occasional reminiscence on the events of 1968)

I didn't know much about the Washington Post, either, despite working in a temporary job in the promotions department there for a few weeks.

I'd been a daily newspaper reader all my life, reading the two Rochester papers and the Sunday New York Times since childhood. At college, it was the Times, where I probably got it daily by subscription. I'd enjoyed reading the British papers during my time in London, too, amazed at the number and variety of them. But I'd only been reading the Post for a couple of months.

I didn't know but would soon learn, for example, that the Meyer/Graham families had owned it for the last 35 years, and that in 1954 they'd bought the premier Washington newspaper, the Times-Herald, and that the masthead still, in 1968, read Washington Post and Times-Herald, and that they'd recently bought a half-interest (with the NY Times) in the International Herald Tribune, and that the company also owned Newsweek. I didn't know that Philip Graham, from a Miami dairy farm family (and brother of future Sen. Bob Graham), who had married Katharine, the daughter of owner Eugene Meyer, and taken over the running of the paper, had shot himself to death in late 1963 after a long battle with bipolar disease. Or that Kay, a so-called 'mousy housewife', had taken control of the newspaper and picked her own editor, Ben Bradlee, to run the Post's newsroom. (Kay was no longer 'mousy' after her triumphant showing as the star of Truman Capote's 'Black and White Ball' in 1966.) Her son Donald had come back from his service in Vietnam and joined the DC police force in January.

Russell Wiggins was still the editor, but he was due to retire at the end of 1968. Alfred Friendly had been the managing editor; but Bradlee's original stint as deputy managing editor lasted only from August to November 1965, when Friendly agreed to go back to writing as an associate editor and vice president, and had become a roving foreign correspondent based in London. (He was about to win a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Six-Day War.) Bradlee was in charge, and bringing in influential writers like Dick Harwood, Haynes Johnson, David Broder, Stanley Karnow, Ward Just, and Nicholas von Hoffman. (von Hoffman had written a wonderful series the previous 'summer of love' on the Haight-Ashbury scene. It was here the phrase 'We are the people our parents warned us against' originated.) Kay Graham had recently picked Philip Geyelin to run the editorial page.

I also didn't know that there was tension in the newsroom between the new management and the old, represented by long time city editor Ben Gilbert, or that the Post had recently had to play catchup when the New York Times came out with the March 10 story about Westmoreland's request for over 200,000 more troops for Vietnam. The Post had only in January increased its Vietnam bureau to two men, Lee Lescaze and Peter Braestrup. After Tet, Herblock drew his first cartoon critical of the war. According to Halberstam, the Post's news meetings were becoming 'shouting matches' over Vietnam coverage and editorial policy.

So, one day in late March, here I was, dressed in my good suit (my mother had cashed in a savings bond to buy it, a plaid wool suit with brass buttons, for going to job interviews), to have an interview at the Post's newsroom library. The woman who ran the promotions department had suggested it would be a good place for me, since my temporary job was ending soon, and sent me to see Mark Hannan.

Mark Hannan, director of research. He ran the Post's library, along with two librarians, Ann and Bill, and a staff of about a dozen or so filers and researchers. Mark had come from the St. Petersburg Times, gotten a degree in library science, and also covered steeplechase racing for the Post. To my amazement, he hired me. I would start a fulltime job in the Post's library, with a 6 month probationary period, probably on Monday, April 1.

I didn't know anything about news libraries, either, never knew they existed. This would be a whole new world for me. Looking back, it seems it would be a perfect fit.

It was getting to be spring in Washington and we were eagerly awaiting the blooming of the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival would be held next week, with the height of the festival on Saturday April 6.

Meanwhile, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was killed in a MIG-15 which crashed on a training flight in Russia on the 27th. That day, students began a boycott of classes at Bowie State College in Maryland. It would end a couple days later when Gov. Spiro Agnew agreed to hear student grievances.

On Sunday, March 31, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at Washington's National Cathedral, in the last Sunday sermon of his life, where he tried to assuage Washingtonians' fears about the upcoming Poor People's Campaign march on Washington, scheduled for later in April.
We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty...We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible...

The New York Times reported that King also said that he might be persuaded to call off the Poor Peoples Campaign he were given "a positive commitment that (Congress and the President) would do something this summer" to aid the nation's slums.

That night, Americans crowded around their TV screens to watch as President Johnson gave a televised speech to the nation. He announced that U.S. bombing of North Vietnam would be reduced, and requested that the Hanoi government resume peace talks; but also, that South Vietnam should increase its military effort against the North. He agreed to send an additional 13,500 U.S. troops to Vietnam. He promised that someday, American troops would be able to leave Vietnam. Then the shocker: these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand...I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year....I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

Johnson had spent much of the last few days debating his decision, and the Vietnam situation, with his advisors, called 'the wise men', including new Defense Secretary Clark Clifford. They had sent word to Gen. Westmoreland that his request for 200,000 more troops was being cut. But this was a huge shock, and changed the political landscape that year.

(Post references: The Washington Post, the first 100 Years, Chalmers M. Roberts, 1977; The Powers that Be, David Halberstam, 1975.)

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  • And I remember coming down to visit you not long after you started at The Post - shortly after they buried Bobby Kennedy in June. You were living on Lamont Street. While I was there you bought the new Cream double album, and I was ejected from Dupont Circle because I was under 18 and there was a curfew....

    By Blogger Alan, at 7:33 PM  

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