got angry. “Evan,” I said, “this is great, but you’ve taken out half the facts.”
“Read it again,” Evan said, “and if you can find a single point that I have left out, show me.”
I couldn’t There is alchemy in good writing, for magazines or otherwise, and Evan had it.
Many in the bureau felt that Evan had arrived thinking Maynard Parker was on the skids. Parker, Newsweek’s executive editor and the man in charge of daily edit operations, had crippled his resume with a blunder. He had bulled aside many objections and published the English language translation of the “Hitler Diaries,” purchased from Stern. The German weekly had been conned into believing the German original of the soon-debunked counterfeit too. Parker also ran New York writers and editors unnecessarily ragged, keeping them at work on stories he clearly planned to kill, ripping up the magazine at the last minute and otherwise abusing talent. Virtually all the senior writers in the magazine had earlier penned a letter to Mrs. Graham saying they would quit if she ever promoted him to be Newsweek’s top editor.
Thomas let slip a casual remark to several Washington staffers soon after coming. He said he expected that Steve Smith, recently hired from Time to a top-three job in New York, would soon replace Parker. Thomas himself indicated he’d probably go to New York to help Smith. But Rick Smith (no relation to Steve) had already been promoted editor in chief over Maynard before Thomas arrived. Thomas soon discovered that the shrewd Smith had harnessed Parker’s energies, imagination and quickness for his own purposes.
Smith once told a bureau reporter that “my job is keeping Mrs. Graham informed and happy and sitting on Maynard when he needs it.” Evan soon dubbed the duo “the two great big white guys in New York.” (Maynard and Rick stood 6’4” or more apiece). When Maynard went on a tear, throwing stories out and launching new ones late in the week, Evan would enter a reporter’s office, quietly announcing, “Well, Manny’s flapping his wings again, so we’ve got to. . . .”
Thomas did later agree to go to New York. Then he famously changed his mind after the appointment had been announced. This triggered Evan’s only serious staff meeting in his decade as bureau chief. Everyone deserved an explanation, Thomas said at the start. In further discussions with his wife and daughters after the announcement, Evan said, it became clear that his family’s best interests and his own love of writing, not editing, dictated that he remain in D.C. His wife, Oscie, had a good job in Washington. She wanted fervently to raise their two daughters in their leafy Washington house, rather than Manhattan. “I do probably want to top edit this magazine sometime,” he told the bureau. “I know everybody in New York thinks their dicks are longer up there than here. So turning this down may not be wise. It could hurt my career. But if it does, so be it.”
Evan’s own brief version of his turn at Newsweek is this:
“I came to Newsweek in September 1986. I had heard on the grapevine that the bureau was melting down--I don't recall the details--so I wrote Steve Smith, who had gone over to Newsweek from Time. I think, weirdly, I was the only applicant. They didn't want to go inside [to name a new chief] and they didn't want to search for any outsiders so I was it . . . despite no management experience. “I loved Newsweek. It had its craziness and frustrations but I liked that we were often quicker and smarter than my former employer, and I was always amazed at the quality and devotion of the people (quirks and all).
“I lasted as Bureau Chief for ten years, ‘til 1996, and turned it over to Ann (McDaniel). I think I was better suited to my next role, as re-write man. I really liked that. I was given the title assistant managing editor in 1991, as part of some general grade inflation, then editor at large in 2006 or 2007, again for no clear reason.
“I quit when the Grahams sold in 2010.
“Newsweek had a good ride and I was proud of it.”
Whatever his title, what Evan mainly did for Newsweek through his 24 years was write, write, write. He did so with translucent clarity, in a voice as simple and rhythmic as the spoken word, but with the precision of a scalpel. Evan could say more, and say it more clearly, and often more beautifully, in one deft sentence than most writers, myself included, could say in two. The only writer for Newsweek who ever equaled Thomas was New York’s Peter Goldman. Goldman, the voice of Newsweek’s political coverage in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote in a richer, more complex diction and syntax than Evan. But Evan’s was a leaner style, and he could write faster.
The speed with which Evan operated dazzled even professionals. Several times this writer watched Evan on a Friday afternoon interview three or four reporters to learn their key findings, data and source quotes. The breaking cover story would have been launched only a few hours earlier. Thomas didn’t have time to await their written files. Thomas then organized their information in 20 minutes or less, writing down just a single phrase or word as the point of each planned paragraph. Thomas said he learned this clarity of intellect in law school. Three, four or five hours later Evan sent New York a beautifully composed report of 2,500 to 4,500 words that barely needed editing.
Let me end with one final headsnapper—a favorite Thomas term: Thomas researched and wrote popular histories and biographies on the side while performing full time for Newsweek. He’s still doing this while teaching at Princeton, publishing his 11th volume, “Ike’s Bluff,” in November, 2012.
By Rich Thomas
Evan Thomas, now teaching at Princeton and writing books, was Newsweek’s most famous wordsmith in its last quarter century in print.
Although born and raised in New York, Thomas was and is God’s idea of a perfect New England editor. Brilliant. Deft. Energetic. Reserved. Gracious. Witty. Calm beyond cool. Never breaking a sweat. Utterly superb at his chosen profession.
Evan’s muscle and bone compliment his virtues; he is lean, fair, almost pretty. His face bears a noble nose, with just enough knuckle in the bridge to make it manly, and a smooth lofty forehead. A blond Montgomery Clift minus the melancholy, perhaps? The education of this gifted man, grandson of Norman Thomas, unfolded at Phillips Academy, Harvard and the law school at University of Virginia.
Al Gore preceded Evan at Harvard and Virginia. Thomas of course had his number: “Jesus complex. Always saw himself saving the world from something big,” Thomas observed.
Thomas parachuted into the Washington bureau from an editor’s job at Time in New York in 1986. He may have been losing a head-to-head competition to become the next top editor of Time. His friend Walter Isaacson soon got that job. Or he may have just wanted a change of scene to Washington to have direct contact with politics and its personalities and sources. He certainly reveled in these when he reached D.C.
Thomas’s arrival launched the second golden age of the bureau, following the retirement a few years earlier of Mel Elfin. Where Elfin was noisy, demanding, heavy handed, and prone to meetings, the 20-person bureau seemed on autopilot under Thomas. He discussed assignments in a few words leaning on a reporter’s office door jam, intruding later only if an argument got out of hand with New York. He’d ease into a dispute with a quiet “whoa, whoa, here. Let’s figure this out. . . .” Or “Wait- wait- wait-just a minute. . . .” He never raised his voice. If a reporter got terminally stalled in writing, Evan often took the manuscript into his office and re-wrote it with the speed of someone typing dictation.
This particular reporter had been struggling through a story on one of President Bill Clinton’s more complex proposals. The hours advanced into late Friday night. Evan was hanging around to polish the piece, which he was getting in installments. He finally grew impatient enough to enter my office and urge, “c’mon, this isn’t holy scripture, stop messing around, I want to get home.”
I finished the thing quickly. I’d hammered too much into the story for the space allotted. Thomas took my last take, ducked into his office and emerged in half an hour with a re-write that fit exactly. It was so translucent and simple that I