Two To Remember
By Elaine Shannon and John Walcott
Two of the best and most memorable Newsweek journalists of the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties won't be with us to celebrate the last print edition.
"The Real John Lindsay" and Lars-Erik Nelson both possessed an essential quality of great journalism that is in increasingly short supply these days. Rather than seeking to become insiders and paying the high price of that dubious status, they were professional outsiders, proud members of the Fourth Estate, not aspiring members of the media clergy or the political nobility. Like Mel Elfin and the others whose offices lined the bureau's glass back wall, they were the best teachers a young journalist could hope to find.
John Lindsay, 1921-1988
In the 1970s and the first part of the 1980s, the best conversations in Washington took place between a beat-up steel desk and a ratty couch at the far end of the hall in Suite 1220, 1750 Pennsylvania Avenue, the bureau offices. The sofa may have been green at one time, but by the mid-Seventies it was deeply stained with newsprint, like the man behind the desk. Mention almost any name and John Lindsay would growl, "He" – fill in the blank – "could stand behind a corkscrew." Then he’d pause, running a Nexis search of his brain, and launch into an intricate and unexpectedly funny account of greed, deceit or hubris—or all three.
Insight: John Lindsay, who had covered politics from early in the 1950s, knew the dark side of everyone who had power or aspired to it. He never exaggerated. The truth was sufficiently shocking, and boy, could Lindsay see truth. In an extended pillow fight involving Ted Kennedy on a flight home from Alaska, he saw tragedy coming, which it soon did at Chappaquiddick. Very few reporters are so perceptive. Lindsay’s eyes were like a dog’s nose.
Perhaps it was growing up Irish in South Boston that enabled John to penetrate the shields of fellow outsiders as diverse as Robert S. Byrd, a Senate titan from West Virginia, and Richard Nixon. Lindsay’s family was dirt poor in the Great Depression; during and after high school, he and a brother helped earn family food money by wrestling as Irish and Italian opponents on a beer hall and smoker circuit in Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and Maine.
Historic Call: He rose to journalism’s heights. When John's farewell party was held at Kay Graham's house, even Nixon called from his post-Watergate exile. He announced himself by saying: "They said I'd never go to China . . . but I did. They said I'd never call Kay Graham's house . . . but I did." That may be the highest tribute Nixon ever paid to a reporter.
Lindsay spent hours talking to press-allergic figures such as Byrd, who used obscure parliamentary maneuvers to get his way in the Senate and lard his impoverished state with federal largesse. Lindsay knew what Byrd was up to because Byrd had let him in on the game.
Tell All: Lindsay often used his anecdotes as a weapon. The Washington Post broke the Wayne Hayes/Liz Ray sex scandal in the mid-1970s. Ms. Ray was a secretary to the powerful House Administration Committee chairman, but, literally, she couldn’t type. Ed Kosner, then the ferocious, insatiable editor, was demanding anything – anything – that would up the ante. We had nothing current. So to rescue us from Kosner’s fury, Lindsay sat down at his old Royal or Underwood, it had to be one of the two, and banged out tales of past lust on the Hill, plus a corpse in the basement, as if to say, "Print this!"
He devised his file so that every word was so believable that the reader forgot, for a moment, that it was completely unprintable. Much was
hearsay, undocumented--although almost all of it probably true. The corpse had shown up in the basement of New Jersey Cong. Cornelius Gallagher, who was reportedly mobbed up. We all read this brilliant file in worshipful awe.
Called Up: In another scandal, New York editors demanded details of all the sexual escapades of John Kennedy after it was learned that the Chicago mob had supplied him a call girl in the White House. Lindsay felt such a story needlessly demeaned a president who had been assassinated less than a decade earlier.
So Lindsay filed as his first Kennedy escapade a 1957 or 1958 event in which then-Senator Kennedy cavorted naked with naked women on a drifting motor cruiser in Bahamian waters in the company of an equally naked Philip Graham, then husband of Katharine Graham, owner of The Washington Post and Newsweek. Lindsay had read the details of the episode from a report by a captain of a ship of the British Navy, which then patrolled Bahamian waters. The report had been forwarded by Britain’s foreign ministry to the U.S. State Department, where it was duly filed away under “incidents at sea, Bahamas.” “Let’s see what that does to their lust to degrade Kennedy,” Lindsay remarked to one colleague. New York subsequently published a muted story on the call girl, with little additional lurid detail.
Fading Code: These two sex stories occurred in the early 1970s when a time honored unwritten rule of journalism—that a politician’s private peccadilloes were not the public’s business—was giving way to today’s let-it-all hang out. Lindsay understood the change, but didn’t really like it.
Lindsay worked hard, and viewed the ease with which TV reporters could simply wave microphones around with jaundice. Tim Crouse, in his book on the 1972 campaign, The Boys on the Bus, documented a Lindsay stunt. A gaggle of media were waiting near a police line for the candidate to appear. As Lindsay later told the story, he said to the TV crews, “you idiots can get anybody to say anything with cameras on them and a mike in their face. Anybody can do that. Here, watch!”
Cupped Hand: Lindsay marched up to voters waiting behind the police barrier, brandished a cup cake he had been about to eat, asked a voter whom he favored and why, then said, “Speak right into the cup cake.”
A surprising number answered. A few said, “Hey, that’s a cup cake.” And Lindsay responded, “I know it’s a cup cake. Now, answer the question,” Many did. A photo exists of Lindsay at that police line, cup cake in hand.
Richard Nixon once said, "Watch what we do, not what we say," but not many reporters could manage that, although more could then than can in the Age of Tweets. Lindsay could because he saw coldly and clearly and called bullfeathers when he saw it. Politicians sensed his incorruptibility, respected him and didn’t trifle with him as they did with most of us.
Lars-Erik Nelson, 1941-2000
If John Lindsay was suspicious of authority; Lars Nelson was downright hostile to it, so much so that he didn’t belong at Newsweek. The eldest child of immigrants who grew up in Brooklyn, he was too fresh and original for the sausage factory of a newsmagazine. He despised assumptions, pretension, clichés and conventional wisdom. He hated the formulaic story that was the weekly newsmagazine's foundation. We were lucky to have him for the two years that we did.
Lars used to tell the story about his Cold War stint in Moscow for Reuters. He was sitting on a park bench, enjoying the air, so the story went, when a guy sidled up and offered to change currency at the black market rate. Spotting KGB bait, Lars politely declined. The KGB officer shook his head. Then came another guy who tried to tempt him with
drugs. No, thank you, said Lars. Then a beautiful woman slid alongside him and gave him a come-on. A honey trap. No thanks, again. Then a handsome young man, a honey trap of another kind. Lars shook his head.
Spy Cry: Finally a beefy guy in a cheap trench coat and cardboard shoes stormed up to him in rage and despair. "What DO you want?" he demanded. It almost made you feel sorry for the KGB.
Perhaps nothing, though, captured Lars' mordant sense of humor better than the three editions of "International Bus News" he assembled. Each was a collection of wire service filler stories on assorted bus crashes and other mishaps in what are politely called "developing" countries. The small items were all jammed together on two or three large Xeroxed pages, complete with their tiny headlines.
Many disasters, if not most, involved passengers and/or livestock riding, Romney-style, on the roof. One had as its lead art a photo of the bus driver corps -- all male, of course -- in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. The front page of the third and final edition carried a three-column photo of a Cairo city bus suspended over a gaping hole in the street by its front four feet—its chin--and its rear four feet—it’s tush. The wheels were hanging useless over the hole. These days, IBN would be a blog or a regular feature on the Daily Show or Saturday Night Live.
‘Taint Funny: Sadly, IBN ended one Newsweek reporter’s career as a public television commentator. PBS host Jim Lehrer's father had been an Oklahoma bus driver, and Jim collected bus memorabilia. After commenting on some current issue, the Newsweek reporter gave Jim the Cairo bus copy of IBN at the end of the broadcast, thinking he'd find it hilarious and add it to his collection.
Lehrer looked at it first in puzzlement, and then with a growing scowl. He looked up and asked, "What's this supposed to mean?"
"Jim, it’s a joke, an elaborate gag,” the Newsweek guy replied. “Haven’t you noticed that most column fillers in the newspapers are bus accidents around the globe?"
"What’s funny about this?" Lehrer demanded, shaking the paper.
The reporter never got invited back to PBS.
Bailout: Lars-Erik Nelson was such a gifted, discerning, special man, and yet we all knew that Newsweek didn’t have much to offer him. He needed to stop playing second-string diplomatic correspondent and unauthorized media critic, stop answering queries from New York about backwater countries and become a columnist for a major newspaper, which he did at the New York Daily News, starting in 1979.
It was his reporting that generated one of that tabloid's most memorable covers, a photo of Newt Gingrich plastered with the word "Crybaby." In November 1995, responding to a Lars question at a Godfrey Sperling Christian Science Monitor Breakfast, one of Washington's main intersections of policymakers and reporters, Gingrich confessed that he'd shut down the federal government because then-President Bill Clinton had consigned him to the rear of Air Force One on the flight to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral.
Neither John nor Lars ever aspired or pretended to be participants in the history they covered. Indeed, they reveled in the freedom their observer status gave them and never forgot that they worked for their readers, not their sources. They never let their sources forget that, either.
Elaine Shannon arrived at the Washington bureau in 1976, reported on crime, drugs, terrorism and national security, and left in 1987.
John Walcott joined the Washington bureau in 1977, covered economies and politics, became chief diplomatic correspondent in 1981 and left in 1986.