Apple Of the Times

By Richard Holbrooke
Friday, October 6, 2006

R.W. "Johnny" Apple, who died Wednesday at age 71, was the best political reporter of his era. He was also the best food writer, the best wine writer, the best travel writer and the best architecture critic, and he could have been the best garden and sports writer if he had wanted to be. I know all this because he told me so. He was probably right.

Wherever journalists congregate this week, they are surely telling Apple stories. Anyone who ever encountered him will have a few. This is a personal tribute to Johnny, not from a fellow journalist but from a sometime government official -- a view, if you will, from the other side.

We met in Vietnam in 1965, when I was working in the Mekong Delta and he was the New York Times bureau chief, following in the sizable footsteps of one of his predecessors, David Halberstam, who had set the standard for a generation of Vietnam-era journalists. Johnny was up to the challenge.

Although Apple seemed rebellious, even a little wild, when we met, by the end of his 43-year career he was a throwback to an earlier era, one in which print journalists were all that mattered and their coverage could change events. When he wrote a devastating front-page article in 1967 that called the Vietnam War a stalemate, President Lyndon B. Johnson hit the roof, blamed his own team in Vietnam for leaking the story, and tried to counter it with a now-familiar blend of counterattack and discrediting. But the article hurt, because it was accurate. When Apple realized in 1975 that a one-term Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter had the potential to go all the way, it had a huge effect and helped launch Carter. It is highly unlikely that a single reporter could make such a difference today.

What made Johnny unforgettable, of course, was not simply his reportorial skill; it was his outsized appetite for life. His legendary zest for food, wine, flowers, great houses, hotels, art and politics -- and much more -- was overwhelming. He didn't just know which hotel to stay in, he knew which room to ask for. He told you what to order in restaurants. Once, in 1972, he asked me to meet him at precisely 1 p.m. on a certain day at a certain restaurant in Libourne -- a small town in the Bordeaux wine country -- "and I will teach you about wines." I flew in from Saigon, and for a week he and I, accompanied by his then-wife, Edie, drove through vineyards that all looked the same to me. "What's the vineyard on our left, Holbrooke?" he would demand. "Er . . . Haut-Brion?" My answer would elicit a snort of contempt. "No, dammit, that's on your right. The left side is Pomerol. You have to get this right or you are wasting my time."

He later found the perfect life companion for such intensity in "my wife, Betsey," and included that three-word reference to his beloved second wife in every one of his travel and food articles.

Each election campaign was going to be his last. "I'm too old for this," he would growl, and then he'd show up once more. During the 2004 Democratic convention, I addressed the Ohio delegation one morning at 7:30. The only reporter present was Apple, whom I found, quite by chance, eating a huge breakfast in the middle of the room, surrounded by Ohio delegates who wanted to talk restaurants, not politics, with their fellow Ohioan. Johnny loved it. No matter which restaurant was mentioned, Johnny could remember exactly what the house specialty was and when he first had it. Soon everyone was fast friends -- but at a certain point, having figured out who the most astute pols in the group were, Johnny turned to politics. Then, having found his story, he turned to me and said, "Okay, kiddo, let's go get some decent food." By which he meant, as it turned out, an "extra-large, full-fat latte" from Starbucks.

The assignment he liked least in his career was covering the White House, which he called "the world's largest police beat." He hated the idea of listening to spin all day long. But it was his skillful interrogation of President Richard Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, that elicited Ziegler's memorable use of the word "inoperative" to describe previous White House statements.

Apple on deadline was something to behold. He thrived under pressure, which he made all the more acute by writing as close to deadline as possible, frightening his editors, including, on one occasion, me, when I was editing the then-quarterly magazine Foreign Policy in the '70s. I had asked Johnny to write about the role of foreign policy in the 1976 presidential election and gave him three months' lead time, expecting that he would come up with the kind of profound insights not easily produced under the pressures of daily reporting. But he delivered his draft late on the afternoon of the very last day before we went to press. No second draft was necessary.

It is impossible to call Johnny Apple's death the end of an era, because he belonged to no specific era, only to himself. But the journalistic standards he stood for are eroding under the assault of the 24-hour news cycle and the endless stream of mostly unprocessed data and rumor and commentary, all mixed into one messy stew (Johnny would say "cassoulet").

By the end of his career he was no longer the high-expense-account enfant terrible everyone remembers. He had become one of the last defenders of standards whose loss will be very costly to all of us.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes a monthly column for The Post.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company