James M. Cannon III, former Newsweek editor and Ford adviser, dies at 93

September 17, 2011

James M. Cannon III, 93, a Korean War combat correspondent who held prominent editing positions at Newsweek magazine before serving as a top domestic policy adviser during the Ford administration, died Sept. 15 at the Capital Hospice in Arlington.

He had complications from a stroke, his son James M. Cannon IV said.

In a career that spanned five decades, Mr. Cannon rose from a cub reporter covering city hall to a trusted presidential aide with an office in the West Wing.

Mr. Cannon was covering the 1968 presidential primary in New Hampshire for Newsweek when he realized he wanted to “get out of the grandstand and go down on the playing field.”

He joined the staff of New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who Mr. Cannon covered during the campaign, as a liason to the state government and the Nixon administration.

When President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in after Nixon resigned, he tapped Rockefeller as his vice president. Mr. Cannon came to Washington as a member of the White House staff in 1975.

Ford assigned Mr. Cannon the dual role as his assistant for domestic affairs and the executive director of the Domestic Council, in charge of 40 economic analysts and legal experts.

“The mission of the council is to look at issues through the eyes of the president and give him a range of practical options backed with information for making decisions,” Mr. Cannon told The Post in 1975.

As the council’s leader, Mr. Cannon helped shape Ford’s domestic policy and legislative proposals on topics including Social Security and oil drilling on the continental shelf.

Mr. Cannon worked on Ford’s unsuccessful election campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1976. After Carter took office, Mr. Cannon became chief of staff for Tennessee Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.

As the senator’s top adviser from 1977 to 1985, Mr. Cannon helped craft legislation for the Republican while he served as minority leader and then majority leader.

In retirement, Mr. Cannon worked as a political consultant and returned to his journalism roots, writing a comprehensive biography of Ford.

Born John Myers Cannon on Feb. 26, 1918 in Sylacauga, Ala., he decided as a college student to change his name to his father’s and became James Monroe Cannon III.

A brother, James Monroe Cannon Jr., died in infancy.

Mr. Cannon was a 1939 business administration graduate of the University of Alabama. He served as an Army artillery officer during World War II and saw action with the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA.

He worked as a reporter for newspapers in upstate New York before joining the Baltimore Sun in 1949.

Bored with covering city hall, Mr. Cannon one day marched into the office of Bill Perkinson, who served as an assistant to Sun executive editor Neil Swanson.

Mr. Cannon told the Baltimore Sun in 2010 that the partitions between the two editors’ offices did not meet the ceiling.

“So, gambling that Swanson might be on the other side listening,” Mr. Cannon said last year, “I spoke in a loud voice and told Perkinson I wanted to go to Korea.”

Despite his low rank in the newsroom, Mr. Cannon got the job. On his way to Korea, he learned that two Sun correspondents had been wounded by gunfire.

“For God sakes, don’t get shot,” one recuperating reporter told him from a Tokyo hospital bed.

Mr. Cannon proved adept in the field. He told the Sun that along with his typewriter, he traveled with several bottles of liquor — universal currency.

“Whiskey is always the best medium of exchange, and it was especially so in Korea,” Mr. Cannon said in 2010. “A couple of bottles of whiskey got a jeep for the Sun and one more got it painted.”

He worked as a business reporter at Time magazine before joining Newsweek in 1956 as a national affairs editor and later as a Washington correspondent. He became a vice president in 1962 and a year later became senior editor, directing the magazine’s correspondents posted overseas and across the country. For a time, he served as an assistant to Philip L. Graham, the former Washington Post publisher who bought Newsweek magazine in 1961.

Mr. Cannon’s Ford biography, “Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment with History,” was published in 1994.

Reviewing the book in The Post, historian Douglas Brinkley wrote that Mr. Cannon had provided “a superbly provocative and arresting biography” of his former boss.

Brinkley wrote that because Mr. Cannon had written a “dilligent, objective history,” he was “able in the end to prove convincingly that there was no preresignation pardon deal made between Nixon and Ford.”

Mr. Cannon’s survivors include his wife of 59 years, Cherie Dawson Cannon, of Washington; two sons, James M. Cannon IV of Silver Spring, and Scott D. Cannon of Arlington; and two grandchildren.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.