R.W. Apple; N.Y. Times Writer Covered War, Politics and Food

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006

R.W. Apple Jr., 71, a New York Times war correspondent who distinguished himself in Vietnam and became an influential political writer and roving epicure, died Oct. 4 at his apartment in Washington. He had thoracic cancer.

Over his 43-year career at the newspaper, Mr. Apple made prolific, aggressive and erudite coverage his signature. His rare twin journalistic talents were covering politics and food. He charted the fall of President Richard M. Nixon and reported on the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, the Iranian revolution and the collapse of Eastern Bloc governments. He also illuminated the differences between regional hot dog specialties and the worth of Vidalia onions for the expense-account set.

"From his sickbed he hammered out his last words to readers . . . negotiated details of the menu and music for his memorial service, followed the baseball playoffs and the latest congressional scandal with relish," New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote in a memo to his staff. "He was himself to the last."

Mr. Apple set a spectacular pace for himself that endeared him to many of his paper's executives and editors but made him much envied and, at times, resented by peers. His brusque personality did not smooth matters.

Well-rounded in more ways than one, "Johnny" Apple was instantly recognizable for his girth as well as his knowledge of politics, sports, grand opera, fine wine and rich food. While traveling on assignment, where experience might tell some reporters to pack water or extra batteries, Mr. Apple never neglected to bring along a pepper mill.

A colleague once said Mr. Apple had "the best mind and the worst body in American journalism." Joining the Times in 1963, he became bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He filed articles that challenged the military brass's sunny assessment of the war's evolution. He said his favorite was an account in 1967 that reported a "stalemate" between American and Communist forces, writing "it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening."

Mr. Apple once said President Lyndon B. Johnson "went bananas" when the article "put the word 'stalemate' into the debate in this country." The commander of U.S. military forces in Vietnam, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, dismissed Mr. Apple, saying he "is probably bucking for a Pulitzer Prize."

Although that award eluded him, Mr. Apple received other prestigious honors for his Vietnam reportage, including the George Polk and the Overseas Press Club awards.

He went on to write about conflicts in Biafra and the Falkland Islands and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also was a veteran of U.S. presidential campaigns and one of the first to recognize that the Iowa presidential caucus was a solid gauge of presidential potential. This caucus gave him early insight that Jimmy Carter, a little-known peanut farmer and Georgia governor, had a realistic chance to win the White House.

Within the Times, Mr. Apple was revered for his mastery of the "Q-head," the paper's name for the analytical sidebar to a major news event that adds historical context.

At 6 one night, he received an order from the foreign desk for a Q-head and was strongly urged to incorporate the phrase "Not since Versailles . . ." about the U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Mr. Apple protested, saying his stepdaughter's wedding rehearsal dinner was to start in 90 minutes. He then filed his article in an hour.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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