Imagine that -- somebody with a military background running the Times. Even harder to imagine these days, when the good gray New York Times has become as pretentious as it is ideological, is that it once had a publisher with a sense of humor. Punch Sulzberger used to say his family never worried about him when he was in the service -- "they knew that if I got shot in the head, it wouldn't do any harm." His death the other day at 86 brought back memories of a different time, and of a different Times.
Unassuming but forceful in his Semper Fi way, Punch Sulzberger took the helm at the Times on the sudden death of his brother-in-law in 1963, having spent the previous eight years in its executive suite, where, as he put it, he was "vice president in charge of nothing."
But when the job of publisher was thrust upon him, he had charge of everything. And exercised his authority with a rare combination of sound judgment, self-restraint and good humor.
After he took over, the Times began its transformation from the country's dull-gray paper of record to a compilation of different special sections with something for everybody. Under his guidance, the Times gave American journalism some of its finest moments. As a couple of landmark judicial decisions attest to this day:
-- Times v. Sullivan, handed down in 1964, revolutionized American libel law. It continues to shield this country's newspapers from lawsuits by public officials unless what we say is motivated by actual malice. The Bill of Rights is stronger for it.
-- New York Times v. U.S., better known as the Pentagon Papers case, made the news, and history, when it was decided in 1971. A history of American involvement in Vietnam, that dull chronicle should never have been classified in the first place. Keeping it secret had a lot more to do with political than national security.
The only thing that made the Pentagon Papers a best-seller was the hysteria it set off in the White House. But the Nixon administration, in the spirit of its namesake, had an unfortunate tendency toward paranoia. Which cost it -- and the country -- dearly, culminating in the avalanche of scandals that came to be known as the Watergate affair.
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