Elfin the Boss
Mel Elfin, the Washington bureau chief from the mid-1960s to mid 1980s, was the most brilliant, witty, talented, enthusiastic, dedicated journalist in the whole bureau. The first cover story he wrote about newly elected President Richard Nixon in 1969 compared Nixon not to a father figure, not to an uncle figure, not to a brother figure, but to the figure of “your brother in law.” Newsweeker’s laughed out loud for the whole week. The White House, Elfin recalled with satisfaction almost half a century later, greeted that cover with blind fury.
Along with his brilliance, Elfin was strung tight as a high wire. He talked in quick bursts of bluntness, sarcasm, slashing insight, sports analogy, incisive wit. He also sometimes snipped at his own dense gray brush cut with kindergarden scissors in pure nervous energy when doing his talking.
Mel’s presence electrified and, at least a little, terrified everyone around him. This included the top editors in New York. Elfin held a giant trump in his hand to play against the New Yorker editors when his brilliance failed. This was his little-known bond with Washington Post and Newsweek president Katherine Graham.
Insider: Elfin privately helped write her speeches and one liners and provided private counsel to Mrs. Graham almost weekly from the time of his arrival at the bureau in 1965. This was no secret to a succession of top Newsweek’s top editors, from Osborne Elliott, then Kermit Lansner, William Broyles, and Edward Kosner. Mel’s views often arrived to them via Mrs. Graham when they did not arrive from Mel directly.
Mel had forged this relationship in a single flash of brilliance in 1964. Graham had taken leadership at the Washington Post and Newsweek a year earlier, after her husband Philip Graham committed suicide. She set to work learning the business and searching for staffers who could fill her professional needs. She hosted a huge goodbye party at the Four Seasons Restaurant in midtown Manhattan the next spring for then-number-two Newsweek editor, Gordon Manning. Manning was leaving to head NBC news. Elfin, then education editor in
“I told you I would never, ever go back to New York,” said Elfin.
“So why didn’t you have to leave?” the staffer asked.
“I went to Mrs. Graham,” said Elfin, “and got myself un-fired.”
This was the obvious explanation. But it was a tremendous surprise, because Elfin had never, ever before flaunted his relationship to Graham with the staffer—or anyone else, as far as the staffer knows.
Plus and Minus: The whole bureau benefited from Elfin’s power. So ultimately did the magazine. Elfin was a fanatic about impartial, factual news gathering. He fought loyally for the accuracy of his staff’s reporting with everyone, whether complaining politicians, complaining subscribers or doubting New York editors.
But his job security made him sometimes abrasive to deal with. His acidity advanced as his stature with Graham rose. More than once one heard him shouting at editors in New York over the phone from his office. Occasional shouting matches also erupted in the bureau. Jane Whitmore had started in Rome as one of the first of just three women reporters or writers prior to the famous Women’s Revolt at Newsweek in 1970. Jane had an office up a long hall that led to the warrens of Elfin and a few staff veterans. One staffer arrived from a late Friday press conference to find Jane out of her office listening to an invisible screaming match down the hall. It was between Elfin and long time congressional correspondent Sam Shaffer. Shaffer had missed a deadline.
Jane turned to the new arrival. Eyebrows arched, smiling slyly, she asked, “What—what will we tell their widows?”
These lines were typed with great admiration for Mel. His intensity, brains, and contributions to Newsweek were huge. But he did have his quirks. We groaned and laughed about them while accepting his guidance and orders.
Anonymous has served in Washington longer than anyone else.
New York, wrangled the honor of doing the roast of Manning.
He delivered one hilarious one liner after another. As the roast lengthened and laughter mounted, the eyes of Graham, in the front rank of the guests circled around Elfin, grew larger and larger. At least one onlooker viewing the scene told himself, “There is a made man.” A year later, Mel was bureau chief in Washington.
My Town: Elfin asked one new Washington bureau staffer, transferred down from New York in the early 1970s, how he liked Washington. Pretty well, the man answered.
“Let me tell you something,” said Elfin, who was born in Brooklyn, “This, this is my town. I love Washington. Love it. I’m never going to leave. I’m never, ever, ever going back to New York.”
“Oh c’mon,” said the staffer. “Not even to become editor?”
“No, especially not that,” Elfin said with customary vehemence. “I’m telling you. I hate New York. Loathe it. And I’ll never, never, ever go back. I love the news. This is my place, right here.”
Acid Test: A few years later, that oath was put to trial. Editor Elliott tried to promote Elfin to be number two in New York to Elliott himself. Elliott wanted to get Elfin out of Washington to sever or weaken Mel’s relationship with Graham. Few if any Newsweekers knew about this “promotion” at the time—or that Elfin had flatly turned it down.
What happened next was public. Elliott named Hal Bruno, then chief of correspondents, as a deputy bureau chief, with announced powers that sounded like those of the bureau chief himself. Elfin took an immediate few months leave while Bruno settled in. Confusion reigned, but it looked to many that Elfin was on the way out.
By the end of that year, Bruno was the one out, relieved as deputy chief and reassigned as a reporter. Bruno handled no assignments, clearly was looking for a new job, and soon landed at ABC news as political director. Elfin was in charge.
Years later, one staffer close to Elfin asked him what the hell happened. Elfin revealed that Elliott had ordered him promoted to New York--and had given him a year to find another job after Elfin had refused.