A.M. Rosenthal, R.I.P.

Posted: May 12, 2006 8:05 PM
Only one in a thousand Americans brushes up against such foreign bodies as newspaper writers and editors. Some bylines become recognizable, but unless the reporters have a life on television, they are sheer palimpsest, and this is the reason for the surprise, here and there registered, with the huge attention given to A.M. Rosenthal, who died on Wednesday in New York, age 84.

Notwithstanding that his name was not known to the many, what Abe Rosenthal did touched the lives of everyone who reads newspapers. He was the commanding figure in the evolution of serious daily journalism, which he influenced as decisively as William Randolph Hearst influenced the tabloids, and Henry Luce the weekly newsmagazines. He did it through The New York Times, where he worked for 55 years, rising from stringer at his college campus to executive editor.

In 20 years he altered journalism by hugely increasing the range of public notice -- everything interested the Canadian-born journalist whose father, an immigrant from Byelorussia, was an indigent fur trapper and house painter. By the time Abe was named executive editor of the most influential newspaper in the world, he had changed not only the purview of the daily press but also the idiom in which it was written. The Times, by general acknowledgment, had become a model for journalists, and Abe did that.

His obituaries tell that he was often an angry man, that his tempers were violent, his manners often oppressive. We were friends from the time he returned home from Japan, after nine years as a prize-winning foreign correspondent, to begin his administrative career at the Times. He was co-founder of a little club. The reasons for its formation are not chronicled and not known, but the alluvium was a half-dozen New Yorkers, some of them decisive voices in American journalism, meeting for lunch five or six times every year.

Only once, that I remember, did we have the flavor of Rosenthal anger. I myself had it once for a blistering five minutes on the telephone when he accused me of misrepresenting The New York Times in a news story. But that mode of A.M. Rosenthal was all but unknown to most who experienced him as a friend.

He thought of accredited journalists as something of a priestly order, their incorruptibility to be taken for granted. We met often, at his home and mine, and I once posed a hypothetical question. What would be the discipline, at The New York Times back when he was its boss, against a delinquent reporter? He seemed mystified by the question. He thought he was answering it when he said that no reporter at the Times would be guilty of such an offense as I described: "They are all professionals." He spoke in such accents as a cardinal might use in alluding to men of the cloth. His respect for his profession activated the fury with which he dealt with imperfect performances by postulants.

When he wrote, he never displayed his hot flushes, but he could write scathingly on human rights. He was kicked out of Poland by Wladyslaw Gomulka during the Cold War because he filed dispatch after dispatch on Communist-directed censorship and oppression. When he retired as executive editor, he undertook to do a column for the Times twice a week. After some years, this was reduced to just once a week, and this saddened many because of his fidelity to the cause of human freedom.

Cardinal John O'Connor mourned the revised schedule. The Chinese Communists were at that point bearing down on hard on Tibet, bringing on a public reproach by President George H.W. Bush. This the cardinal applauded, adding, "Mr. Rosenthal, however, was writing about the plight of Tibet before many people could even find it on the map. It would not surprise me in the slightest if presidential speechwriters were avid readers of the Rosenthal column."

A very sad day was not long off, and I had the news of it from him on my cell phone. Abe was communicating to a few friends that he had been told his column would be discontinued. He had been summoned, he said, by the new young publisher ("maybe the second or third time I ever laid eyes on him") and told simply, "It's time."

This wasn't arrant cruelty: Publishers make up their own minds, and the decisions they arrive at are sometimes done without due regard for the sensibilities even of great princes, whose time has now gone. Abe Rosenthal went on and wrote elsewhere, but a few years ago he stopped completely, and spent his time reading books and magazines and lightening the days of his friends.

A month ago, at lunch, he chuckled that he had lost track of the conversation in which we were engaged. He smiled with the sweetness that marked his affection for his family and friends. We were to have dined, with our wives, two days before his dialogue with all worldly matters finally ended. We profit, endlessly, from his ingenuity and perspective.