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Post Reporter Chalmers Roberts Dies; Integral to Printing Pentagon Papers

By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page B06

Chalmers M. Roberts, 94, a retired chief diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post and the author of books on such topics as nuclear arms control and the joys of being a grandfather, died April 8 of congestive heart failure at his home in Bethesda.

In a business that has been marked increasingly in recent years by specialization, Mr. Roberts was an old-fashioned generalist. Apart from diplomacy, he wrote about the Supreme Court, Congress, several occupants of the White House, political campaigns, the redevelopment of Southwest Washington in the early 1950s and the riots that struck the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965.


Chalmers M. Roberts, right, chief diplomatic correspondent, with former managing editor Alfred Friendly in The Post's newsroom in 1973. (The Washington Post)

_____In Today's Post_____
A Man of His Words (The Washington Post, Apr 9, 2005)
_____Essay_____
The Decision of a Lifetime: In His Twilight, Facing the End on His Terms (By Chalmers M. Roberts, August 28, 2004)
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He was described by Benjamin C. Bradlee, a former executive editor of The Post, as a "one-man band who could and did cover any story in the paper."

Donald E. Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co., praised Mr. Roberts's fairness, even-handedness and calm toughness as a reporter. "It was a rare day in the '50s and '60s that Chal didn't have a story on the front page of the paper," Graham said.

Mr. Roberts's final article for The Post, on Aug. 28, 2004, was a remarkable first-person, front-page account of his decision to forgo heart valve replacement surgery, even though his doctors had told him that the likely alternative was death.

"I could be dead when you read this," was his opening sentence in an article that was as thoughtful and admirably unsentimental as the man himself.

The most important factor, he wrote, was that, assuming the operation was successful, he would be going home to live alone. His wife, Lois Hall Roberts -- Lopie, everyone called her -- died in 2001. Their marriage had lasted 60 years.

Without a spouse, it was "not so bad a choice," he concluded.

In his 1973 autobiography, Mr. Roberts said he always "preferred to 'stay on the street' rather than to edit the news or write the editorial opinions." The lifeblood of his long and varied career was daily journalism. He loved the action and the competition, the rush of deadlines, the sense of seeing history as it was being made. Most of all, he loved to write about people and events and to get his stories on the front page.

Just before his retirement in 1971, he played an important role in The Post's printing of the Pentagon Papers, a secret official history of the war in Vietnam. When the government tried to halt publication of the material, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of The Post, the New York Times and other papers that were carrying the story. The case was a virtually unprecedented affirmation of the press's right to publish under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Mr. Roberts began covering the Cold War as The Post's chief diplomatic correspondent in 1953. The conflict demanded the most serious kind of journalism, but there were some light moments, and these provided Mr. Roberts with his all-time favorite story: Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev's tour of the United States in 1959. There was high diplomacy, of course, but also a memorable occasion when the Kremlin chief stood in an Iowa farmyard and threw corncobs at the press corps.

During World War II, while working for the Office of War Information, he was one of two government officials assigned to escort Eleanor Roosevelt during her tour of the United Kingdom. Later in the war, he was an Army Air Forces intelligence officer and visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki to inspect the devastation caused by the atomic bombs.

The greatest historical personage he had interviewed, he said, was Orville Wright, the first man to fly. He also saw a 40-year-old Babe Ruth hit the last three home runs of his career.

As a newspaperman, Mr. Roberts was guided by two principles. The first was that the business of government is the business of the people, with the media acting as the eyes and ears of the public: Ordinary citizens can't question presidents, so reporters do it for them.


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