Joseph E. Mohbat, journalist, DNC spokesman and lawyer, dies at 73

August 20, 2011

Joseph E. Mohbat, a former Associated Press reporter who covered the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy and later served as press secretary of the Democratic National Committee before becoming a lawyer in New York, died Aug. 10 of cancer at a hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was 73.

Mr. Mohbat came to Washington in the early 1960s and for several years was at the center of the country’s political life as a reporter and later as a Democratic Party official.

From 1970 to 1972, Mr. Mohbat was press secretary to the DNC and its chairman, Lawrence F. O’Brien.

Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, Mr. Mohbat was one of the first people to learn of a break-in at DNC headquarters at the Watergate office complex when he was awakened by a call from his secretary. He was interviewed by FBI agents, who also inspected his telephone for potential wiretaps.

He participated in the 1972 presidential campaign from the inside, serving as a spokesman for Democratic candidate George S. McGovern. Mr. Mohbat later filed a claim against the campaign when it was slow to pay his salary.


Joseph E. Mohbat was a journalist, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee and later a lawyer in New York City. (Family Photo )

Four years earlier, when he was with the AP, Mr. Mohbat covered Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination and, according to Thurston Clarke’s 2008 book, “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and the 82 Days That Inspired America,” “spent more time in closer physical proximity to Kennedy than anyone else in his press corps.”

Mr. Mohbat tried to preserve a measure of journalistic detachment, but he admitted that he couldn’t help being moved by Kennedy’s message and presence.

“Joe Mohbat sometimes found himself gripping Kennedy around the waist to prevent him from being yanked from the convertible,” Clarke wrote. “Mohbat knew he was crossing a line, but could not bear the thought of Kennedy being hurt.”

Before Kennedy was shot to death in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, Mr. Mohbat asked him if he thought about the possibility of assassination.

“We can’t have that kind of country, where the President is afraid to go among the people,” Kennedy told him, according to “The Last Campaign.”

“Of course, I worry what would happen to my family, to the children. But they’re well taken care of, and there’s nothing else I can do, is there? So I don’t really care about anything happening to me.”

Then he added, “This really isn’t such a happy existence, is it?”

Reflecting on Kennedy’s legacy 40 years later, and the promise of what might have been, Mr. Mohbat told Clarke, “There will neverbe anyone like him. History won’t allow it, the media won’t allow it, the blogs won’t allow it.”

Joseph Emile Mohbat was born Dec. 18, 1937, in New York City and grew up in Rhode Island. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, he became a newspaper reporter in Galesburg, Ill. He joined the AP in Chicago in 1960 before coming to Washington about two years later. He received the Worth Bingham Prize for investigative reporting in 1968.

He was known for being a stickler for proper English usage, and he sometimes brightened the ordinarily drab prose of wire service stories with touches of poetic whimsy. When Richard M. Nixon was inaugurated as president in 1969, Mr. Mohbat wrote: “Richard M. Nixon assumed the splendid misery of the Presidency of the United States and with it the awesome burden of leading a divided nation in a strife-torn world.”

When former President Dwight D. Eisenhower died on March 28, 1969, Mr. Mohbat wrote what he believed to be the shortest lead sentence in AP history: “Ike is dead.”

In 1966, Mr. Mohbat received a year-long Nieman fellowship to Harvard University, where he became interested in studying law.

After his stint at the DNC, he worked in public relations and edited newsletters about energy while attending Georgetown University law school at night. He graduated in 1978, then moved to New York a year later.

He had a private law practice for a few years before joining the New York City Law Department in the 1990s. He was a trial lawyer in the Bronx tort unit until two months before his death.

His first marriage, to the former Sandra McVicker, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 37 years, Nancy E. Schuh of Brooklyn; and a son from his first marriage, Thomas Joseph Mohbat of Hilo, Hawaii.

Mr. Mohbat had been an actor in college and was a lifelong devotee of the theater.

He had the lead role in a Brooklyn community theater production of “Da” by Irish playwright Hugh Leonard in 2006.

In Clarke’s book, “The Last Campaign,” Mr. Mohbat recalled flying into New York’s old Idlewild airport, which had been renamed after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

“It must be quite something to land at an airport named for your brother,” Mr. Mohbat said to Robert Kennedy.

“I wish it was still called Idlewild,” Kennedy replied.

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