Post Editor J. Russell Wiggins Dies at 96; Longtime Journalist Headed News, Editorial Departments, Was U.N. Ambassador By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 20, 2000; Page B07
J. Russell Wiggins, 96, a former chief editor of The Washington Post who served as ambassador to the United Nations under President Lyndon B. Johnson, died Nov. 19 at his home in Brooklin, Maine. He had congestive heart failure.
Mr. Wiggins joined The Post in 1947 as managing editor. In 1955, he was named executive editor. From 1960 to 1968, he was editor and executive vice president of The Washington Post Co. In those positions, he was responsible for the news and editorial departments. He was the last person to hold those joint responsibilities at the paper.
When he joined The Post, the paper had a respected editorial page but a small reporting staff, and it relied largely on news services to fill its columns. In the two decades of his stewardship, Mr. Wiggins played a significant role in positioning the paper to become a major independent news-gathering organization. Throughout his career, he was guided by the principle that "the reader is entitled to one clean shot at the facts."
"He cared about quality, and he had righteous indignation," said Katharine Graham, a former publisher of the newspaper who is now chairman of the executive committee of the company. "He edited the paper when it didn't have the resources it later did. He made it matter. He put it on the map," she said.
In September 1968, shortly before Mr. Wiggins planned to retire from The Post, Johnson named him ambassador to the United Nations. The president and the editor were friends, and Mr. Wiggins was chosen because of his support of the president's policies in Vietnam. He remained there until after the administration ended Jan. 20, 1969, with the inauguration of Richard M. Nixon.
Mr. Wiggins moved to Maine, where he published the Ellsworth American, a weekly newspaper. He also contributed occasional articles to The Post. He sold the American in 1989 but remained editor until his death.
Mr. Wiggins was a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Gridiron Club, the exclusive Washington journalists organization best known for its annual dinner, at which the president and other leading officials are roasted.
His views on the Southeast Asian conflict grew from his conviction that World War II was a result of the democracies' policy of appeasing Hitler in the 1930s. A man for whom liberty always was balanced by duty, he believed the United States was bound to support its small ally.
He was fond of quoting an aphorism of the British historian Lord Acton to the effect that "history does not disclose its alternatives." The alternative to supporting Saigon, Mr. Wiggins argued, would be communist domination of all Southeast Asia and a loss of U.S. credibility throughout the world. He was deaf to arguments that Vietnam was different from Europe.
Thus when the communists attacked a base at Pleiku in February 1965, killing eight Americans, wounding more than 100 and destroying 10 U.S. planes, he published an editorial saying that the incident disclosed "with dreadful clarity that South Vietnam is not an isolated battlefield but part of a long war which the communist world seems determined to continue until every vestige of Western power and influence has been driven from Asia. . . . It is now clear that withdrawal from South Vietnam would not gain peace, but only another war."
This viewpoint set the editorial course of The Post until Mr. Wiggins went to the United Nations. The paper later became a sharp critic of American conduct of the war.
Although he never went to college, Mr. Wiggins was a man of wide erudition. He held 10 honorary degrees and many other academic and professional honors. He was a reader of history and the law, a Jefferson scholar and a defender of freedom of the press.
But for all his scholarly sophistication, he remained an American primitive. For him, life was divided between right and wrong, and he championed what he thought was right with vigor and consistency.
It was said that he read a book a day, and he had a habit of recommending books to colleagues. Benjamin C. Bradlee, who revered him as a mentor and succeeded him in the top news editor's job, described in his memoirs, "A Good Life," how he would get nightly reading assignments:
"Had I read this book or that book? Well, I better read them, and let's talk about them tomorrow, he would say. I often ended up with three books to read, and it took me months before I dared remind him about all those children and their homework, and what used to be a private life."
Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, a former Republican congressman and senator from Maine, issued a statement after Mr. Wiggins's death that echoed Bradlee's thoughts.
"Of all the people I've known in more than 30 years of public service," Cohen said, "Russ Wiggins had the greatest amount of intellectual curiosity and the most energetic interest in finding new ways to think about public issues.
"I greatly enjoyed our regular meetings and conversations over the years," he added, "though they invariably ended with Russ recommending three or four very thick books for me to read that he had thoroughly devoured and analyzed."
With his silver hair, spectacles and calm demeanor, Mr. Wiggins radiated a sense of goodwill and serious purpose. He valued civility and fairness--the ability to engage in public discourse without, in Lord Acton's words, treating "men as saints or as rogues for the side they take." As a writer and speaker, he displayed a gift for classical rhetoric. A Post editorial when he went to the United Nations noted that to "debate with him is, shall we say, an experience."
Although he was a highly competitive newspaperman, he regretted what he viewed as a decline of collegiality among journalists. In a talk to Post retirees in 1998, he said that when he joined the newspaper, the editors of the other three papers in the city called on him in his office to welcome him, "an act which I cannot imagine happening today."
His friends were legion. When a New York Times editorial questioned his experience for the United Nations ambassadorship, E.B. White, the author and essayist, mounted a ringing defense, which also was printed in the Times.
The objection was that "Wiggins has had no training in diplomacy," White wrote from his farm in Maine. "This isn't true. Wiggins takes my hay (he is a neighbor), and there is nothing that beats haying for schooling a man in diplomacy. Haying, in a small town, is touchy business; it is a delicate conundrum that makes the problems of Eastern Europe look like peanuts. . . .
"I looked up 'diplomacy' in Webster's and it says: 'Artful management in securing advantages without arousing hostility.' Wiggins has secured a fine advantage for himself in my hayfield and without arousing hostility."
Mr. Wiggins sometimes resorted to satirical verse to make his points. In April 1969, when press reports referred to antiwar protesters as "youths," even though some were in their thirties and forties and one had actually reached age 53, he wrote:
What joy to know that youth may last
At least 'til middle age is past!
How comforting it is to be
A tender youth of 53.
How much it adds to man and lover!
How many crimes our 'youth' will cover.
Why, with a little more agility
We'll stretch youth to senility.
In 1953, Mr. Wiggins was attacked by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.), who unleashed a witch hunt for communists in the early 1950s and eventually was censured by the Senate.
The incident arose when McCarthy suggested that James A. Wechsler, a columnist for the New York Post, had communist sympathies. The American Society of Newspaper Editors set up an 11-member committee to investigate, with Mr. Wiggins as chairman. He led a four-man minority in issuing a report that said, "A press that is under the necessity of accounting to government for its opinions is not a free press."
McCarthy charged that Mr. Wiggins had "prostituted and endangered freedom of the press by false, vicious, intemperate attacks upon anyone who dares to expose any of the undercover communists" and called for an inquiry.
The editor replied that he would welcome an examination of The Post's "full, accurate and fair news coverage and editorial comment on the public career of Senator McCarthy."
In 1956, Mr. Wiggins published "Freedom or Secrecy," a book in which he argued that the news media have a right to access to the news as well as a right to publish it.
"The political acts and judgments of citizens who are fully informed are their own political acts and judgments," he said. "The political acts and judgments of citizens who are only partly informed are the political acts and judgments of those who partly inform them."
James Russell Wiggins was born in Luverne, Minn. His parents, James and Edith Binford Wiggins, were farmers. Growing up, he spent as much time as possible in the local public library. Years later, he wrote that "it was possible for me to devote almost my whole attention, outside of school hours, to this one means of acquiring knowledge. . . . I was guided by a not very scientific impulse to read everything I could get my hands on."
While editing his high school paper, he went to work part time on the Rock County Star, a weekly. He became a full-time reporter when he graduated. In 1925, he borrowed $10,000 and bought the newspaper. For the next five years, he published it as the Luverne Star.
He then became an editorial writer for the Dispatch-Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn. In 1933, he was appointed its Washington correspondent, and in 1938, he returned to St. Paul as managing editor.
During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces as an intelligence officer in Washington, North Africa and Italy. In 1945, he returned to St. Paul as editor of the Dispatch-Pioneer Press. In 1946, he went to the New York Times as assistant to the publisher. He held that job until he began his career at The Post.
The paper he joined in 1947 was one of four dailies published in Washington at that time. It had been purchased at a bankruptcy sale in 1933 by Eugene Meyer, and except for a brief period during World War II, it had lost money every year. Among the four, it stood third in circulation and carried about one-quarter of the advertising linage in the city.
Under Meyer, it established a credible editorial voice. But its news staff, in the words of Chalmers M. Roberts, a former Post reporter and the author of a history of the newspaper, was "too small, underpaid and overworked."
In 1946, Meyer appointed Philip L. Graham, his son-in-law, as assistant publisher. Six months later, when Meyer became the first president of the World Bank, Graham took over as publisher. To strengthen his management team, he tried to hire Mr. Wiggins as managing editor. It was almost a year before he agreed to take the job.
In his book, Roberts attributes Mr. Wiggins's "enormous strength" as an editor to his "highly accentuated moral principles, his ethical standards, and his rigid integrity." He prohibited reporters from taking favors, thereby removing what had been a cherished prerogative of the news business. For example, baseball teams used to pay the expenses of the reporters who covered them. Theater tickets, movie tickets, circus tickets, tickets to sporting events--all of these generally were free for newsmen. It even was possible to get parking tickets fixed.
Mr. Wiggins put an end to that. He would not have his staff beholden to anyone. He also warned against "the Jehovah complex," which he defined as an "assumption of omnipotence." The business of the newspaper, he said, was to "report what happens and what people do, say, think and feel about it."
One of his first acts at the paper was ending the practice of identifying African Americans by race unless the fact was necessary to understand the story in which the person played a part.
Much as he cared about freedom of the press, Mr. Wiggins disdained any activity that smacked of stealing secrets from the government. Moreover, he would not publish information he felt was contrary to "the national interest." When he learned in the late 1950s that U-2 spy planes were flying missions over the Soviet Union, he kept this fact out of the paper.
But when Walter Jenkins, President Johnson's chief aide, was caught in a homosexual act, Mr. Wiggins published the story even though he was asked to withhold it by Abe Fortas and Clark Clifford, two prominent lawyers who were acting on Johnson's behalf.
On another occasion, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) complained to him about an editorial in which the nomination of one Francis X. Morrissey to be a federal judge had been attacked on the grounds of Morrissey's purported incompetence.
"My brother [the late president] promised my father he would make Morrissey a judge," Kennedy said.
"I didn't promise your father anything," Mr. Wiggins replied.
When Philip Graham died in 1963, Mr. Wiggins urged Katharine Graham, his widow, to take over the newspaper, even though she had virtually no experience in journalism or business.
In a special edition of the Ellsworth American on Mr. Wiggins's 90th birthday, Mrs. Graham described him as her "editorial mentor." She said that he had taught her "how to withstand calls from presidents" and that he "made journalism enjoyable as well as intellectually satisfying."
Mr. Wiggins purchased the American in 1966. He took active control of it in 1969, when he moved permanently to what had been his summer residence in Brooklin, Maine, about 24 miles from Ellsworth. He was a former resident of Washington.
In 1976, he made news when the American was sued by the Teamsters union, which claimed that the newspaper had acted as an agent of the town of Ellsworth in opposing Teamster efforts to unionize the police and fire departments. The suit eventually was dropped.
A regular feature of the paper's editorial page was a photograph of a scene in the surrounding countryside or the nearby coastline. The caption took the form of a poem by Mr. Wiggins. Over the years, four collections of these poems were published under the title "Down East Poems and Pictures."
Mr. Wiggins's wife, the former Mabel E. Preston, whom he married in 1923, died in 1990. Three children, William James Wiggins, Geraldine Wiggins Thomssen and John Russell Wiggins, also predeceased him.
Survivors include a daughter, Patricia Wiggins Schroth of Sedgwick, Maine; 10 grandchildren; 15 great-grandchildren; and three great-great-grandchildren.
In 1984, Mr. Wiggins addressed a meeting of Maine state officials on questions facing the nation. His conclusion summarized the focus of his life:
"Americans will be tempted, in the years ahead, to sacrifice the principles that have made their country what it is. It will seem appropriate and convenient to meet the demands of crisis by bending a little here and giving a little there. It is an inclination that will have to be resisted at the first trespass upon our freedoms, or other invasions of individual rights will come swiftly upon us."