Haynes Johnson, Washington Post journalist and author, dies at 81

May 24, 2013

Haynes Johnson, a distinguished Washington Post journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for civil rights coverage in the 1960s and later sought to pierce the mysteries of the politics and gamesmanship of the capital, died May 24 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. He was 81.

He had a heart attack, his wife, Kathryn Oberly, said.

Mr. Johnson was a Washington reporter for more than 50 years, beginning at the old Washington Star, where he won a Pulitzer for national reporting in 1966 for covering the struggles of African Americans in Selma, Ala.

When Mr. Johnson came to The Post in 1969, he already had an impressive journalistic portfolio, having covered military engagements in Vietnam, India and the Dominican Republic. In the early 1960s, he wrote a series about African American life in Washington that became the basis for his first book.

Along with David S. Broder and other reporters, Mr. Johnson brought a fresh depth and sophistication to The Post and to political coverage in particular. He became known for his shoe-leather reporting as he roamed the nation to gauge the thoughts, fears and hopes of the public.


Mr. Johnson was a Washington reporter for more than 50 years, beginning at the old Washington Evening Star. (TWP /TWP )

“Haynes was a pioneer in looking at the mood of the country to understand a political race,” former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie said in an interview. “Haynes was going around the country talking to people, doing portraits and finding out what was on people’s minds. He was a kind of profiler of the country.”

In 1980, when many Washington observers thought the presidential election between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan would be close, Mr. Johnson discerned something else in his travels: a potential landslide for Reagan.

“The most striking aspect of this dreary presidential campaign so far involves people’s attitudes about Jimmy Carter,” he wrote. “After weeks of travel and interviews it’s literally true that I have yet to meet a single person who is happy about voting for him. . . . In one way or another the people I’ve met have all had reservations about another four years of Jimmy Carter in the White House.”

Mr. Johnson was an exceptionally graceful writer who brought a sense of humanity and a dynamic narrative drive to his stories. The voices of the people he interviewed could be heard on the page and gave perspective and personality to his reporting.

“He made his subjects come alive,” Gene Roberts, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a former newspaper editor, said in an interview. “His writing had a flow and a polish.”

Early in his career, Mr. Johnson began supplementing his newspaper reporting by writing books, many of which became bestsellers. He wrote about the Bay of Pigs, the military and the McCarthy era and was even the co-author of a spy thriller. But his primary focus was on how political decisions affected the country.

One of his most celebrated books, “Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years” (1991) analyzed the 1980s with an unsparing eye toward Reagan and Congress. In one passage, Mr. Johnson described how oil producers in Texas greeted Reagan’s election in 1980:

“In Midland, Texas, entrepreneurs in the nation’s oil production capital gathered at the Holiday Inn to celebrate Reagan’s inaugural. On a buffet table, surrounded by nachos and barbecued smoky links, they placed a cutout of the Capitol dome in Washington. On it was one word: ‘Ours.’ ”

Mr. Johnson could be equally disdainful of Democratic leaders. In his 1980 book “In the Absence of Power,” he depicted Carter as ineffectual and politically tone-deaf.

As someone who covered his first presidential campaign in 1956, Mr. Johnson had a knack for predicting political and social trends long before they occurred. His 1994 book “Divided We Fall” warned against an impending social chaos as the nation drifted into feuding camps of political true believers.

In “The System” (1996), Mr. Johnson and Broder wrote about how the Clinton administration’s plan for universal health-care coverage went off the rails and landed in the ditch of political squabbling and overreach.

As the nation rode the high-tech bubble into the 21st century, Mr. Johnson was among the first to analyze the fragile success of the 1990s. In “The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years” (2001), he portrayed a nation enthralled with itself, believing that the stock market would never fall, that housing prices would always rise and that the country was in a period of everlasting post-Cold War peace.

In reviewing the book for the Boston Globe, journalist and longtime Washington observer David Gergen wrote, “Johnson is among the most brilliant chroniclers of our times.”

Haynes Bonner Johnson was born July 9, 1931, in New York City. His father, Malcolm Johnson, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for a series of stories in the New York Sun about organized crime on the docks of New York. His work was the basis for the film “On the Waterfront.”

In 2005, Mr. Johnson collected his father’s articles and published them as a book. The two Johnsons were the first father and son to win the Pulitzer Prize for reporting.

Haynes Johnson graduated from the University of Missouri journalism school in 1952, then served as Army artillery officer in the Korean War. He received a master’s degree in history from the University of Wisconsin in 1956.

He worked for the News-Journal in Wilmington, Del., before joining the Washington Star in 1957. Beginning in the 1970s, he built a second career as a teacher, first at Princeton University and briefly at George Washington University.

After retiring from The Post in 1994, Mr. Johnson had an endowed Knight Foundation chair in journalism at the University of Maryland, where he was a popular professor. He attended Monday’s commencement ceremony in College Park. Next month, he was scheduled to be inducted into the Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists hall of fame.

Mr. Johnson’s first marriage, to the former Julie Erwin, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 10 years, Kathryn A. Oberly, a judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals, of Washington; five children from his first marriage, Katherine Autin of Louisville, David M. Johnson of Altadena, Calif., Stephen H. Johnson of New Orleans, Sarah Johnson of Nyack, N.Y., and Elizabeth Koeller of Dayton, Ohio; a stepson, Michael Goelzer of Santa Clara, Calif.; a sister; two brothers; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Johnson’s final book, “The Battle for America 2008,” written in 2009 with Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, examined President Obama’s victory and the changing face of the nation’s electorate.

“Without being overly dramatic, Haynes had a swashbuckling quality,” Balz said Friday. “Haynes had a capacity to write with great sweep and he was drawn to big events. He was the master at evoking the mood of America in every decade.”

Even as he became well known as a commentator on television panel shows late in his career, Mr. Johnson thought of himself as a reporter first. He was always unflappable, even while covering riots in American cities during the 1960s. As he calmly dictated his stories from a pay telephone, one colleague recalled, gunfire could be heard in the background.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.