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.
Through it all, Punch Sulzberger not only fought for freedom of the press but saved the Times to fight another day by keeping his eye on the bottom line, presiding over one of the most profitable periods of its history. At a time when newspapers are struggling for survival, it's good to remember they can not only survive but thrive. If they do, it will be because of publishers like Punch Sulzberger.
His time in the Marines was the formative, even transformative, experience in his life, which, looking back, he divided into before and after the Corps. He was no writer or editor, and had the surpassing good judgment to know it. Instead he was an executive of rare foresight and even vision.
Under his leadership, the Times went from reliable source to national institution. If only it could have been both. But in journalism, it's win some, lose some. As the Baltimore Orioles' legendary manager, Earl Weaver, said of baseball, "We play this game every day."
The Times' role as the country's trusted paper of record faded long ago. When its in-house critic, Arthur S. Brisbane, stepped down after two years in that job, he left with a parting shot, or rather several, at what the Times has become. Referring to today's Times, he noted in his final column that "the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds -- a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within."
As he put it, "a kind of political and cultural progressivism ... virtually bleeds through the fabric of the Times." Which explains why topics like Occupy Wall Street, homosexual marriage, and whether the Augusta National Golf Club will admit women are treated "more like causes than news subjects" in the Times' pages these days. And why a fighting publisher fittingly named Punch is so missed. In addition to a sense of humor, he had a sense of honor. Now the Times may be best known for its Pulitzer Prize-winning record for compromising national security. And instead of outraging a sitting president, now it flacks for him.
The role of family and of family heritage in the history of great American newspapers tends to be overlooked these days, when the spotlight is on star reporters and gossipy opinionators rather than workaday publishers who choose to continue the family tradition day after laborious day. That sense of duty, of noblesse oblige, used to come with the territory. Now it's thought of as a quaint, even oppressive, holdover from the past.
These days one newspaper empire after another is sold off because the next generation is no longer interested in running it. Which is sad, especially for the next generation of readers. But there are so many easier and more profitable ways to invest a fortune than fighting to keep a newspaper alive.
Punch Sulzberger was a now-rare phenomenon in this country: a publisher who understood the connection between great families and great newspapers. It's as if you can't have one without the other. And he drew the appropriate lesson. "My conclusion is simple," he once said, "Nepotism works." At least it does when a Punch Sulzberger is the heir.
Newspapers are the last, best and maybe only argument for absolute monarchy left in the world -- but only if the line of succession is respected, continued, and its burdens accepted, even embraced.
Punch Sulzberger's was a pre-Jason Blair Times, but it was already slipping into its current sad state, its editorials hopeless, its news coverage NPR in print, the whole package a growing swamp of political and cultural correctness. The deterioration of the good gray lady into some rouged creature wearing outfits much too young for her matched that of the pre-Giuliani city itself. But you could still find an occasional island of sanity in its pages, like Hilton Kramer's arts criticism.
Today its fact-filled, judgment-rich obituaries may be the last vestige of the redoubtable old Times. Its current ideological spirit comes closer to that of Walter Duranty, its infamous Moscow correspondent who covered up Stalin's crimes back in the 1920s and '30s, than to the integrity of its founder, the original Adolph Ochs. It was he who made the Times a respectable alternative to the yellow journalism of the Hearsts and Pulitzers of his 19th century day. Today it just gives such journalism an upper-middle-class gloss.
Punch Sulzberger did his best to hold back the murky tide. At one point he, who never messed with the editorial page, even insisted that the Times endorse Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the U.S. Senate, a judgment now ratified by history's. Pat Moynihan would go on to become the last intellectual in that now undistinguished body. Much like Punch Sulzberger himself, he would fight a losing battle against the rising tide of tarted-up mediocrity in American life.
The list of Pulitzer Prizes every year will never be complete till it includes one for outstanding publishers, for in the end it is the publisher who determines the quality and character of a newspaper. The way Punch Sulzberger did for a glorious time.