Talking to John Osborne, perhaps the most respected political reporter in town and the author of six volumes of columns for the New Republic, is a little like interviewing a brilliant auto mechanic.
He's so deep in the areana of his work that when you ask him how he does it, he can't begin to tell you about the nuances of squeak and mutter and thump, of parts hot to the touch that shouldn't be, of the inner meaning of a worn clutch pedal; just so, John Osbrone's art is cozily labyrinthine, a feat of memory, deduction and retained possibilities - was X at that White House meeting where I was reproved for countermanding Z? Because if so, then he had lied, and why did he do that Tiresome details, you might think, until you realize that X. Y and Z are running the country. Then they become fascinating details and, in Osborne's hand, valuable insights into the state of the nation.
Osborne's office, the size of two piano crates, is a nest. Every horizontal surface is piled a foot high with papers, some rubberbanded and titled: "Nixon Tapes," "Bakke Clips" and so on, others attacked in an order known only to him. Visitors sit in a leather chair that could have belonged to Walter Lippmann before World War I. On the floor two boxes big enough to hold the Eneyclopedia Britannica are full of papers. A smaller box contains the narros brown notebooks he uses ("I've filled 38 already on the Carter administration"). The bookshelves are jammed. On the walls over his desk are taped rosters, phone numbers, memos, scrawled-upon letters and a testimonial or two.
A working office.
A working reporter.
At home he reads more politics ("I don't remember when I've read a book for pleasure.") He used to play golf but doesn't find the time any more.
With a Wednesday night deadline, he may start picking up bits and pieces of an article 10 days earlier, concentrating fully on it the last two days as his concept matures. Some times he spends two weeks on a major effort; three or four times a year he comes in to editor Martin Peretz and confesses he hasn't got a handle on the thing yet and can be skip that week.
Osborne's courtly austerity bends just a little when he talks about "thumbsucking," the reporter's vice of pontificating grandly off the top of the head.
"My stuff is based on legwork. I get to know and see as many people as possible. I read transcripts of White House business. I get on the telephone. Sometimes I go to lunch with them, but that's mainly to cultivate acquaintances."
He has little use for press conferences, really asks a question in his Mississippi drawl and when he does, it is nearly always mild and courteous. He is known, however, to be quick-tempered. Preferring the face-to-face interview, he is having some problems with the Carter Administration.
"The peculiarity of this administration," he observed in the casual but brisk tone of a master mechanic describing a split distributor cap, "is I have to rely more on the top senior people than the Indians. In the Nixon administration especially, there were more people at the Indian level worth cultivating, knowledgeable and believable. Ford inherited a lot of them: a wide range of midlevel assistants who could be dependable sources, the Safires and Buchanans. This administration doesn't have sources of that caliber, or the number and variety of staff people."
Characteristically, he asked, "Of course, it may be partly my fault for not finding them."
In his latest book, "White House Watch, the Ford Years" (New Republic Books, $11.95), Osborne demonstrates this same inner security time and again with postscripts admitting error or new perspectives he has gained since writing the original magazine pieces.
"Psalm-singing sermonlzer' was unjust to Carter and, I hope, unworthly of me," he comments at one point. And: "The last two sentences of the above report made no sense when they were written and make no sense now. Rockfeller associates accounts of his frustrations and bitterness were more accurate than he led me to believe at that time."
He also discusses his attack on Woodward and Bernstein's "The Final Days," which he called "on the whole the worst job of nationally noted reporting that I've observed during 49 years in the business." He got a lot of mail on that one, he admits. And an entire article is devoted to "afterthoughts" on his, to some, startling conclusions about the Mayaguez affair. He had written that President Ford "acted properly, legally, courageously and as necessily required." He now adds. "I'd omit 'courageously' if I were writing the piece now. Questions that should have been raised were not."
What it adds up to - the crustly independent opinions and the resiliency to publicy change them - is the impression of a man struggling to understand the past: without posturing, without personal interest.
What he finds, he reports. Facts lead him to conclude that Ford was right to pardon Nixon Very well, that's what he reports - in the teeth of national uproar and on the pages of a liberal magazine.
It's why people read him.
"John is our most closely read columnist." Peretz said, "in Washington at least. He knows what's happening in the inner circles, but he's never a confidante."
Mostly, Osborne fellows his own drummer at the New Republic. "He tell us every so often what he's doing, and sometimes he fits a piece into context, as he did for our special issue on the Bakke case, here's some fine tuning, but for the most part he sets his own agenda."
This is by no means unusual for the magazine, which is not put together, as Peretz expressed it, "on some architectonic scheme." Yet he is not simply an outside contributor either.
"He tells us what he disapproves of. He lets us know. He has strong feelings about the magazine (for which he has been writing since 1968). Sometimes he sounds a harsh note. And now and then we get a compliment. Which is . ."
Peretz beetled his brows, pursed his lips: "Hmmmm."
"Like that," he said. "It sets me up for days."
Osborne once growled that he "used to be regarded as the house conservative at the New Republic but now may be the house liberal," which raised a hackle or two in the office. Actually, a readership survey shoows a different change: the average ready age has dropped by four years since Peretz bought the magazine in 1974. Since circulation is up, this could mean that new younger readers are coming in while the older ones quit.
"I don't get so many of those letters written in a crabbed hand any more," said the editor, who still lectures at Harvard and lives in Cambridge, commuting here weekly. "Our readers average $34,000 income, adn 71 per cent of them have advanced degrees, and they're very political. We also found out their favorite car is the VW - We're second only to Scientifie American in this - which places them in a definite cultural subgroup. I think."
Managing editor Michael Kinsley, who handles much of Osborne's copy, and who has far fewer years than Osborne's 70, is a bit nonplussed when he comes shuffling in and very reluctantly asks if we'd mind if he missed a week because he hadn't quite got it pinned down yet. Now I'm not about to argue with John Osborne, but I think be kind of wants to be told we need the story on deadline. I suspect that comes from the years with Time.?"
Those years would be 1938-61. Before that were the newspaper years in Memphis following graduation from the University of Colorado in 1927, and a public relations stint with TVA and NRA in the first Roosevelt administration, and a stretch with Newsweek. He is married and has a son.
"Sometimes he thinks we're foolish, but he defends us outside." Kinslev added. "One he was upset with some hard words I used in a piece and wrote about it."
Osborne doesn't seem comfortable talking about abstractions such as: Is Liberalixm Obsolete or Is the Medium Getting in the Way of the Message He brings them down to specities, rather dour specifies. Public apathy may or may not be wrote than before, he said, but it certainly seems the public distrusts both press and politicans. And the quality of TV communication is poor, "but I don't know if I could improve on it."
As for the relations between press and politicians, he feels that may have been permanently poisoned. President Carter he has found somewhat defensive, especially as a condidate, Jody Powell he calls "unorganized but a good secreatary. Defensive sometimes but quite effective. The planted story about Senator Perey did him no good."
John Osborne's political experience and acuity are such that people often forget he has been covering the White House only since the first Nixon term. Never identified with any particular administration, party or faction, he seems to bob along from one regime to the next, both at the White House and at the New Republic, taking each as it comes, calmly plying his trade.
"We were talking about investigative reporters once." Peretz said, "and how they have become celebrities. And John jumped in. 'What is this about investigative reporters' he asked. 'What other kind of reporter is there."