Eyewitness to History: A Newsweek Editor Looks Back [EXCLUSIVE]

| December 27, 2012


When Newsweek’s final printed issue hit the newsstands in December, people who hadn’t even touched the eighty-year-old publication in more than a decade mourned its passing. For forty-five years — more than half of the storied newsmagazine’s existence — Peter Goldman was there as a national-affairs reporter, senior editor, and later contributing editor. When he finally (and fully) retired from Newsweek in 2009, he left behind more than 120 cover stories, which spanned such watershed moments as the Watergate scandal to the civil rights movement to the assassination of JFK.

Glittersnipe recently spoke with the spotlight-averse newsman for an exclusive look back on the glory days of ink-and-paper journalism.


Glittersnipe: When you saw Newsweek’s final issue on the newsstands this week, what were some of the thoughts that went through your mind?

Peter Goldman: I felt sad in a nostalgic kind of way, but not surprised — the magazine had been dying of an industry-wide wasting disease for years before they finally unplugged the life-support gear and said the last rites over its shrunken body. I was blessed to have worked there when it became a magazine that mattered, and there were a lot of fond memories of the good times.

You cut your journalistic teeth chasing President Truman through a train station for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and now your novel is available in virtual ink on a Kindle, so it’s safe to say you’ve seen it all. What do you make of the current state of journalism?

It’s dire for print journalism, and everybody knows why. We’re living in the age of Twitter — if you can get a headline a second all day every day, you’re hip to the happenings, so why bother reading anything more? Hey, that’s homework. Advertisers figured out the new terrain before the Old Media did; they bailed, and print is still groping for ways to make its websites profitable. Too many surviving readers had grown too used to getting the news for free.

Somewhere in their struggle for survival, the print companies decided that old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground reporting was becoming cost-prohibitive. In my generation, it was considered the lifeblood of journalism; at Newsweek, we had a deep, talented network of correspondents all over the U.S. and the world, filing to writers like me at the home office in New York. Practically all of them are now long gone, the victims of what struck me as disastrous survival strategies adopted by the last couple of editors. They substituted pundits for reporters and turned a newsmagazine into a journal of commentary. I guess they figured they had to destroy the village in order to save it.

Following Philip Graham’s suicide in 1963, his wife, Katharine Graham, took over Newsweek’s corporate parent, The Washington Post Company. How did your colleagues receive the news of a woman assuming the helm of a media corporation at a time when female journalists were very much a minority?

When you’re working press at a newspaper or a magazine, you don’t think much about the identity or gender of the Big Dog, beyond the hope that he or she won’t meddle with the editorial product. There came a sustained period, though, when we had to think about Kay; she kept (figuratively) pulling a Derringer out of her handbag and plugging another editor, which meant that we worker bees all too frequently found ourselves auditioning for a new boss.

A succession of editors, understandably, lived in terror of that gat, until she finally put it away for keeps in the ‘80s. She was always kind to me and my work, and I came to like her, but she gave me a case of the williwaws, too. Once, she told an editor, “I revere Peter Goldman.” Scared me to death. I imagined myself in her kitchen, hanging upside down among Revereware pots and pans with my copper bottom exposed.

Her accession to the throne came at a time when practically all the men and a good many of the women needed serious conscious-raising, living as we did in a gender-based caste system. Men edited, wrote and reported; women clipped clips, checked facts and called out for coffee. The guys were blind to all of it, including the irony of having a woman reigning over a blatantly sexist operation. We didn’t wake up till the women woke us up by bringing a discrimination case against the magazine in 1970.

In your forty-five years at Newsweek was there ever a time when you sat at your typewriter and couldn’t believe what you were about to write?

It happened a lot. I wrote the cover stories on the ‘60s assassinations — the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King — and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. In the news business, you develop a pretty reliable on/off toggle switch to shut down your emotions, but you never get used to stories like those.

I remember especially the November Friday in 1963 when a couple of colleagues and I were having a liquid lunch at a bar across Madison Avenue from the old Newsweek building — the one pictured on the cover of the final print issue. We were on our second round when the bartender scuttled over to us and said, “You guys should know, the president has been shot.”

We flung some bills on the bar and speed-walked back to the office, just in time to see Walter Cronkite’s emotional announcement that Kennedy had died. The national-affairs editor gave us our assignments; I’d be doing the “running” — the lead narrative of the events in Dallas. The story would ultimately run to 10,000 words or so, but for that first hour, before our reporters started filing, I sat in my office shaking.

Take me through a typical harried deadline day at Newsweek. Was it really all smoke, Scotch and mini-skirts?

There was indeed a lot of smoke (tobacco, not weed in those days), a lot of strong drink (martinis or bourbon, not Scotch), and loving (some serious affairs, some casual transactions in the infirmary). But it was never all that; closing days were mostly about the hard labor of putting out the magazine.
Friday was the closing day for the hard-news front-of-the-book sections (Nation, Foreign, Business). The usual starting time was 10 a.m., but I’d show up an hour or so earlier if I was writing a cover or a “takeout” — a longish inside piece.

We’d try to get a running start on our stories, then break at 1 o’clock for a liquid lunch at the Weston Hotel bar across Madison Avenue from our building. We’d down a couple of rounds, then head back and order up sandwiches and coffee from a greasy spoon on 49th Street. Thus fueled, we’d hit the typewriters hard for six, seven, or eight labor-intensive hours.

We’d break for dinner at 8, 9 or later, starting, naturally, with a couple of rounds of martinis (or, in my case, Jack on the rocks). In an average week, we’d linger at table for a couple of hours, but when the news was hot and heavy, you’d cut the revels short; during Watergate, I’d down a couple of Jacks and a double shrimp cocktail and be back at my desk in three-quarters of an hour.

Friday nights always bled into the wee hours of Saturday morning, till maybe 1, 2, or 3 a.m. If you lived in town, the company provided livery cars to take you home; if home was in the ‘burbs, they’d put you up at the Waldorf overnight. A night’s sleep was more like a nap — we’d all come back by 10 on Saturday to close the patient.

In-office beverages were not unknown. “The great thing about this job,” a truly gifted colleague told me early in my rookie year, “is that you can do it drunk.” I couldn’t, but some of my fellow writers could — or thought they could. One guy threw a punch at his senior editor, missed by a couple of yards, and passed out cold. Another disappeared on a Friday night without so much as starting his story and headed for his home in the distant exurbs; the Nation editor and the chief of correspondents chased him down at the Port Authority bus terminal

But mostly we waged what, with tongue in cheek, we called “the weekly war against world ignorance.” As is obvious these days, we didn’t win that war, but we fought one hell of a fight.

Reporting from the South in the ‘60s, was there ever a time you feared for your safety?

As a New York-based writer, I was only intermittently in the combat zone — the reporters in our Atlanta bureau caught most of the hell. But I vividly remember my first trip south for Newsweek, the day a black Army veteran named James Meredith, under heavy federal guard, enrolled at the University of Mississippi. I’d hooked up with Newsweek’s Karl Fleming in Memphis, and by the time we reached Ol’ Miss, the bottles, rocks, N-words, and tear-gas canisters were flying.

We edged past the mob to the administration building and stood on either side of a wooden-replica Greek column, furiously scribbling in our notepads. We heard a pop-pop-pop in the middle distance, and suddenly there were four or five bullet holes in a zigzag line down the column between us. The top hole was level with Karl’s head; the next one down was even with mine.

Karl was a big, tough, state-raised guy from North Carolina, with a drawl and a brush cut that helped him fade into the scenery in bad situations. I looked at him. He looked at me. “Y’know,” he said, “if I was Meredith, I wouldn’t go to school with these bastards.”

I stole courage from him; I figured if he wasn’t scared, there’s no reason for me to be. It was only years later that he told me where at least some of his bravery came from: a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and a bottle of Maalox every day.

While leaning against a column at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963, you watched as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. What was that like for you — first as a reporter and second as an American?

It was huge. I’d come to Newsweek with a pre-existing condition — a passion for racial justice dating literally to my grade-school days — and I found myself for the first time in a shop that had embraced the cause because it was right. So the march was an emotional milestone for me, less for Dr. King’s eloquence than for that sea of black faces filling the mall below. I didn’t have to separate my responses as a reporter and as an American. At Newsweek, we wore our sympathies on our sleeves. Was no objectivity about the freedom struggle — we were practicing journalism engagé.

And as long as we’re strolling down memory lane, I was privileged to witness one of the great unrecorded folk jams ever. I was hanging inside the memorial during the break between the morning entertainment and the afternoon oratory. A few feet from me, Joan Baez patted Bob Dylan on the backside and said, “Let’s sing, Bobby.” They started up with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and were shortly joined by Odetta, with her big voice, and then by Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary. They jammed for about an hour, for themselves, running through a repertory of protest and freedom songs. Another wow! moment in a long wow! day.

Of all your interviews, which would you say was the most dificult?

One of  the hardest interview I ever did, from back in my newspaper days in St. Louis in the ’50s and early ’60s. The interviewee was the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, who was in town to conduct the local symphony orchestra playing one of his works. The problem, as I discovered when I got to his hotel room, was that he spoke only Portuguese, his wife spoke Portuguese and imperfect French, and I spoke English and whatever scraps of high-school French I could remember. (“Je m’appele Pierre.”) It didn’t help that I knew nothing whatever about Villa-Lobos’s work, beyond what I’d gleaned from the couple of clips in the Globe-Democrat morgue.

Desperate times require desperate measures. After a few false starts, it hit me that space exploration was a hot subject in those days, so — with his wife as interpreter — I got him to say he’d just absolutely love to conduct one of his symphonies on the moon. I said a silent thank-you prayer, closed my notebook, and wrote a two- or three-paragraph short on his dream of doing the first moon concert. It made page one and got picked up by Associated Press, which circulated it around the world.

You knew Malcolm X and wrote about him in your book The Death and Life of Malcolm X. Did you ever feel, as a white man, the black-nationalist leader treated you with racial malice?

Not once, not ever — he was way too much the gentleman. Malcolm used to announce to white people, “I am the man you think you are.” He meant that if you hit him, he’d hit you back. But as I came to know him, it became plain that if you respected him, he’d respect you back. I wish I could claim his friendship, because I liked him. I do think I won his trust.

You and your wife, Helen Dudar, a staffer at the New York Post, (back when that actually meant something), both covered Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Did you ever share notes?

We didn’t share notes, but we did share perceptions. That campaign bus was The Love Boat on wheels; Bobby had once been caricatured in the press as “ruthless,” but his brother’s death had left him wounded and vulnerable — and for pretty nearly all the boys and girls on the bus, including Helen and me, suddenly lovable. His eyes were pools of pain; you wanted to hug him and say, “Everything will be OK.”

I’ve covered a lot of campaigns at every level of politics, and I’ve never seen one like that. Hard as it may be to believe now, McCain 2000 was the closest, but the seduction there was McCain’s ease with and accessibility to the press. With Bobby, it was the stigmata; I think everyone who covered that campaign knew it was going to end badly.

Is there a film that accurately depicts what the heyday of news reporting was actually like?

My personal favorite is His Girl Friday, the ‘30s Rosalind Russell/Cary Grant send-up of The Front Page. But it’s a cartoon next to All the President’s Men, which comes closer to any movie I’ve seen to the reality of life in a newsroom and of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting. (And as long as we’re on the reality quotient of movies, The Candidate still rules as a take on politics, with The Ides of March a pretty close second.)

What is your single proudest achievement?

That’s like asking a parent to pick his or her favorite child, and beyond that, I don’t think of anything I did as “my” achievement. Journalism at Newsweek, back in the days before reporters started “branding” themselves, was always a team game. I was happiest at the magazine when there were no brands (except Newsweek), no bylines, no superstars. We called it “group journalism,” and for a guy like me who’s always dreaded fame, it was a dream setting.

But if you put a gun to my head, I guess I’d say my proudest moment was my involvement in Newsweek’s coverage of the black struggle in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s rare in my trade that you get the feeling that you’ve helped move the needle even a tiny bit. The only other time I’ve ever experienced that over a sustained period was during Watergate, when, over a period of fourteen months, we overtook everybody–yeah, even Woodward and Bernstein–in advancing the story.

There were other good times; in my last active-duty decade as a Newsweek staffer, I ran a special-projects unit producing works of long-form narrative journalism on pretty much anything we wanted to write about. A lot of proud moments and fond memories there.

That said, the black struggle was and is closest to my heart. If I had to choose among my children, I’d send the others off with handsome severance packages and go with my days as a writer on what used to be called the Race Beat as my favorite.

Your newly released first novel is a detective story featuring the ghost of Albert Camus and is set in modern-day New York City. You recently joked that you were “bucking for an AARP award for the world’s second oldest first novelist.” Who was the first, and what do you have planned next?

About ten years ago or so, a lady of the Southern persuasion published a first novel in her eighties and got a lot of favorable notice for it. Being an old dude myself, a month shy of eighty, I naturally can’t remember her name or anything about her book, but she wins the Aarpie.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a start on the second book in what I hope will be a series starring a burned-out PI named Max Christian and his spectral pal Al Camus. I had to take a protracted break to update my Malcolm X bio, for a third edition due out early in the new year, but fiction is what I do now, and I’m loving it. Turns out you can make this stuff up.


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