Once upon a time journalism was not the hot new career choice, the word "media" was a medical term, and Robert J. Donovan wanted to be a doctor.
Then the Depression struck. Out the window went all thoughts of college and medical school. What was needed was a job and Donovan soon found himself at the Buffalo Courier Express earning $6 a week on the night copy desk.
Less than inspired by the salary, Donovan took off for Manhattan with dreams of working for the old Herald Tribune. There was just one small problem.
"The Herald Tribune was absolutely Yale." he chuckled recently, leaning back in his chair at the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau."All the Reeds (the family that owned the paper) had gone to Yale and they liked to have Yale graduates hired.
"The editor was a grisly old Texan who couldn't stand that policy.There he was stuck with all these Yailess. When I told him I hadn't been to college, a light came into his eyes. He hired me."
Almost a half century later,Donovan, still sans college is a journalistic institution-in-residence in Washington.
"If Donovan whistles, I'd be there," says critic Judith Crist, who worked for the Herald Tribune when Donovan was both a reporter and the Washington bureau chief of the paper. "He always had time for helping along a young reporter and that is rare with Washington reporters.
The Washington bureau chief of Cox publications. Andrew J. Glass, has a similar fondness. 'If he told me to jump out the window. I'd consider it a reasonable proposition and do it without hesitation. He was my idol. A first-rate professional."
And David Kraslow, publisher of the Miami News, maintains that "Donovan was someone a young reporter could look up to. He provided the leavening that made a day bearable.
"When he was bureau chief, he led by example, never threatening or bull-dozing reporters."
After stints on the Tribs's city staff and as one of its United Nations reporters, Donovan came to the paper's Washington bureau in 1947. He was the Trib's White House correspondent and bureau chief before the paper's demise. He became bureau chief and established the Los Angeles Times Washington office, and now, with the title associate editor, is a national columnist for the paper.
But that career is coming to an end soon when he turns 65. Donovan has covered presidents from Truman to Kennedy and long before it became fashionable for reporters to write books, Donovan was doing so. "Basically it was an income supplement," says Donovan. "I just found the time to do it. And, of course, between 1930 and 1950, there were a lot of magazine around to write for."
Donovan wrote for Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post. For the New Yorker he wrote a series of articles on the assisnation of presidents.
"Reporters never wrote books then, but while I was covering Truman, some Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate him. As time went by I became very interested in why someone would want to assissinate a president."
The interest led to his first book, "The Assassins."
His mid-1950s book, "Eisenhower: The Inside Story" almost set off two congressional investigations.
It was during the McCarthy era that Donovan was asked by the Eisenhower White House to do a book on the president. Initially opposed to the suggestion, he decided to do it because "I thought it might be a very good syndication for the Herald-Tribune." The Researching involved seeing top-secret documents, so he had to be cleared by the FBI.
Donovan recalls getting a call from the White House about his clearance. In investigation him, the FBI had discovered that in 1941 he had registered at an Atlanta hotel where a number of alleged left-wing groups were also registered.
To complicate matters, he had registered with a woman, one Martha Fisher, who, unknown to the FBI, was his financee.
"We'd planned a big weekend, but then the transit workers decided to go on strike. They were having a meeting in Atlanta, so rather than completely have our weekend spoiled. I told Martha to come with me.I don't think our rooms were within seven floors of one another. But that was the kind of thing the FBI had discovered. It was a crazy, poisonous era."
Donovan's most famous book "PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II," took him to the Solomon Islands and Japan for information on the subject."Kennedy tried to persuade me not to write the book," recalls Donovan. "He said everything had already been said on the subject, but I went ahead anyway."
The book surprised Kennedy, who would acknowledge in its preface that Donovan now knew more than he did about the incident.
Not only has Donovan spent many years watching presidents and politicians come and go, he has seen tremendous changes in journalism itself.
"In one word the biggest change has been "television,'" says Donovan. "It has made journalism into an agony because we have to perform a different function. Reporters used to be the purveyors of yesterday's news. Now TV is the purveyor of today's news. Newspaper have had to go to a whole new dimension. This used to be a rather mild business but no longer. And there are a lot of broken bodies along the way in the transformation."
Donovan himself experienced some of the vageries of the craft. But he remains an enthusiast, arguing that the best way to tell a story is "One upon a time . . ."