If Abe Rosenthal was executive editor of the New York Times today, he probably would not last very long. He was too big, too operatic, too brilliant, too impatient. Abe would loathe too many people: smug young self-entitled reporters, bloggers who hate the New York Times, Times' executive demanding budget restraints. He would lose his temper. He was not a cool man.
I adored Abe Rosenthal. He plucked me out of the last rows of the city room -- in the Times's unsubtle caste system the last rows were reserved for very young reporters and forgotten older reporters -- and gave me choice assigments and set me on my way. I was one of "Abe's boys." And, as boys, we saw him as a father, a scary one. Moody, withholding, generous and, yes, loving. Arthur Gelb, his deputy, was the good cop, Abe was the terrifying one. His dark moods were visible on his face. Editors tried to avoid him. If Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post was the picture of the Waspy, perfectly-dressed and confident editor, Abe stood at the opposite end of the spectrum. He walked around the newsroom with his shirt tails out. Life was turbulent and emotional for him. He once told me that every time he saw the musical Fiddler on the Roof, and he saw it many, many times, he cried throughout the show.
The obituaries spoke of Abe's extroardinary impact on the Times and on journalism: his transformation of the newspaper into a far more lively and readable daily, the start of the lucrative special sections which are now emulated by numerous newspapers around the country, his defiance of the Nixon White House with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, his re-design of the paper, his insistence on good, even daring, writing.
What the obituaries didn't say was how Abe revolutionized the Times from within. There was aqn unpoken (or perhaps even spoken) system based on class and religion. New York was for the Jews, Irish, and Italians. Washington was off-limits to the New York crowd. Abe detested the Washington Bureau. Not simply because it was a separate fiefdom under James Reston that he could not control. It was, for him, the worst of the Times. Smug, Ivy League, self-important with an unspoken contempt for the reporters and editors in New York. I'm overstating it a bit. But not by much. The bureau had few women, few Jews and perhaps a black reporter. It was crammed with Southerners (Tom Wicker, Russell Baker etc), and Ivy Leaguers. I once heard Reston say about a reporter, "Good man, Harvard man." When the Washington Post badly beat the Times in its Watergate coverage, Rosenthal ultimately used the debacle to break up the bureau. Some reporters and editors never forgave him for it
Every executive editor since Abe worked in his shadow. His successor, Max Frankel, the Times Washington Bureau chief during Watergate, wrote a book with snide and nasty comments about Abe. But the comments said more about Frankel than Abe. Abe himself had been working on his own memoir in the last few years. But Abe was not a man who could easily analyze himself. He operated on instinct. On action. Above all, he loved being a reporter.
Once, as executive editor, he visited me in New Delhi, India. Abe had assigned me to cover the region. It was a big deal at the Times then, because Abe's first overseas assignment had been Inidia, and he had fallen in love with the country. Abe's visit was resembled that of a head of state. There dinners and parties and meetings with Indira Gandhi and Ambassador Daniel P. Moynihan and all kinds of important people. Then we went to Pakistan. After two days of lunches and dinners, which were, I confess, very boring, I finally said to him, "Abe, aren't you tired of this?"
Abe said, "I love every minute of this. Every single minute."
That was Abe.