A Man of His Words
Saturday, April 9, 2005
Chalmers Roberts typed faster than any reporter at The Washington Post. It was an apt skill for the man who was the best-known and most important writer on The Post in the 16 years before Ben Bradlee became its editor in 1965. Roberts rarely produced a story that took more than one day to report and write. And he wrote thousands of them -- once. He never revised. Polishing his prose was left to editors.
Roberts, who died yesterday at age 94, was a unique figure on this paper. His persona and career reflected a bygone era, when power, social class, journalism and journalists' relationship with government all looked different than they do now. In Roberts's day, reporters schmoozed with the powerful, ate dinner in their homes, learned to drop their names and cultivate friendships with their personal secretaries. It was a cozy relationship that did not survive Vietnam and Watergate.
Yet at the very end of his career, on the eve of his retirement in 1971, Roberts pushed his beloved Post to defy the Nixon administration and publish stories about the Pentagon Papers, a decision later seen as a turning point for the newspaper. He threatened to quit the paper two weeks before his scheduled retirement and issue a public protest if Katharine Graham, the proprietor, refused to publish the government's secret history of the Vietnam War. So if Roberts could be cozy with the powers that were, he also knew where a free and independent newspaper belonged.
In the '50s and '60s Roberts was the Post's super-reporter, who could and did cover any story from Nikita Khrushchev's tour of America to the Watts riots to the riotous Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. Before we even knew the phrase, Roberts was The Post's go-to guy. "There was nothing he couldn't do," Bradlee recalled yesterday.
And there was almost nothing he did not do. The Post's managing editor in those years, Alfred Friendly, was also Roberts's best friend. They graduated from Amherst College together in 1933, and took a 25,000-mile trip around America in 1935 in a Chrysler. Friendly made Roberts the paper's No. 1 reporter, and let him decide, every day, which story was important enough for him to cover. The Post then had a small staff, and it included very few people who had the combination of education and self-confidence that Roberts could exploit. He dominated the paper.
Roberts maintained personal ties to scores, perhaps hundreds, of Washington figures, including John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger. His annual spring garden party, held at the house above MacArthur Boulevard in Bethesda where he died, attracted a remarkable crowd of the powerful and the famous.
Roberts himself was never awed by a big name, or a big ego. Partly this was because he was entirely comfortable in so many settings. He was a WASP from Pittsburgh, from a respectable though not aristocratic professional family. He had good connections. A typical passage from his memoir, "First Rough Draft," published in 1973, captures Roberts and his circumstances. He was writing about his relationship with Dulles, Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state:
"I had an 'in' of sorts with the new secretary of state. An uncle of mine . . . had sat for years with Dulles on the board of directors of the International Nickel Company. Early on Dulles came to our house for dinner . . . . "
But he was also kind to the young, and encouraging. When I first met him in the summer of 1963, as a wide-eyed summer intern, he was happy to talk shop, and to respond to questions. A quick survey of old-timers yesterday suggests that we all had similar impressions of Roberts: a gigantic figure in the old newsroom, but approachable. "Call me Chal," he said to those who found it easier to say "Mr. Roberts."
When the Watts riots erupted in Los Angeles in August 1965, William Raspberry was a cub reporter doing "county checks" -- calling Maryland and Virginia police departments every night to check for mayhem and murder. The Post was slow off the mark that August; it didn't get a reporter to Watts until the third day of rioting. The reporter, of course, was Roberts.
He quickly realized that a middle-aged white man was not ideally suited for this assignment. So did the editors in Washington. They decided to send Raspberry, one of a handful of black reporters on the staff, to help out. When he got to Los Angeles he realized that he could go places and see things that were inaccessible to Roberts.
This was a turning point for the paper, and for the country, though it wasn't obvious then. Sending the unseasoned Raspberry on such a major assignment was an unusually bold step; admitting there was a story Roberts couldn't adequately cover was perhaps even more significant.
Working together in Los Angeles, Raspberry recalled yesterday, the young African American in his twenties and the old WASP in his fifties quickly divided the story in two: "I remember how good it felt that this senior guy whom we all admired was willing to give me my head. . . . It did a helluva lot for my self-respect." Within a year, Raspberry was launched as a columnist. And America was on a new trajectory.
By today's standards Roberts retired early, at age 60. For 34 more years he read The Post with care every day. Editors whom he had known as wet-eared lads received notes and phone calls prodding us to do one thing or another -- usually very good ideas. The paper became vastly better than the one he worked on; its staff more than doubled. Yet he remained one of the toughest, smartest readers we had.
And at 93, he could still produce a remarkable story. His final appearance on the front page, last August, was one of his very best. I was his editor for that effort, and was bowled over by his lead sentence:
"I could be dead when you read this," he wrote, introducing a story about his decision not to undergo open-heart surgery. The phrasing was perfect; accurate, but flexible enough to leave room for the fact that he lived another eight months. Chal got hundreds of letters and phone calls about that piece, many from people he had never met. Like all of us, he loved the attention. He also loved the notion that more than 60 years after his first work appeared in the Post, he could still produce the best story on Page One.
Researcher Bob Lyford contributed to this story.
Chalmers Roberts, left, with Secretary of State William P. Rogers, cultivated personal ties with scores of Washington's most prominent figures.
Managing Editor Alfred Friendly, left, made Chalmers Roberts The Post's lead reporter and let him choose which stories to cover.