December 16, 2012

I was cited, though not by name, in The Post’s Dec. 13 front-page obituary on Joe L. Allbritton [“Media magnate cultivated influential connections”]. As editorial editor of the Washington Star, it was my stimulating fortune to be a principal in the unforgotten episode that we knew then as the “Ford editorial flap.” To this day, apocryphal accounts of that internal and dangerous crisis continue to circulate, many of them misleading.

Joe’s purpose in attempting to place a front-page “endorsement” of President Gerald R. Ford’s 1976 presidential nomination remains, to this day, a matter of conjecture. I suppose his motives were mixed, as human motives tend to be. The Post’s obituary cited editor Jim Bellows’s vexation. He thought that Joe knew too little about newspaper custom and jumped naively at a chance to ingratiate himself at the White House. Jim worried unendingly that the Star had slipped during Watergate and needed to rebuild its authority as well as its finances. Joe undoubtedly needed tutelage in journalistic custom, but he was no naif.

It was probably Jim Baker, then Ford’s delegate counter and an old Houston friend of Joe’s, who initiated the contact. Whatever the motives, I know that Joe was alarmed by the prospect of a Ronald Reagan presidency — as the editorial made clear. As he told me later, he harbored no personal animus against the future president but feared that, like Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, Reagan’s nomination would result in a lopsided election outcome that would be terrible in its effects. After several days of high tension (for Joe was both puzzled and infuriated by his editors’ veto) the four of us smoked a very welcome peace pipe. I rewrote the editorial (with which neither Jim nor I disagreed) and used it inside the paper.

It was I who advised Joe that a front-page editorial is the nuclear weapon in a newspaper’s arsenal and that wagering the Star’s prestige in a nomination battle was like lending half the capital of his Houston bank to a shaky borrower on little collateral. “Now you’re talking my language,” Mr. Allbritton said; and we had a deal.

Incidentally, I happen to know that it is absolutely untrue — despite what some may say — that Joe bought the Star to get his hands on the associated TV station. He had much to learn about newspapers, and he sometimes behaved like the authentic genius he was; but his motives, in my observation, were invariably patriotic. Joe Albritton did not welcome failure, and he passionately wanted to save the capital’s distinguished and venerable evening paper. But for the idiocy of the Federal Communications Commission, which thwarted him at every turn, who knows, even now, that he would not have succeeded?

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., Alexandria

The writer was associate editor and editorial editor of the Star from 1975 to 1981.

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