Nineteen years have passed since Osborn Elliott took editorial command of Newsweek, and five have passed since he was suddenly relieved of that job.
In the ensuing years he served as New York Mayor Abe Beame's deputy mayor for economic development and more recently has become dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, the superpower of such institutions.
Now he has written his book, "The World of Oz," which is subtitled on the dust jacket (but not on the title page) "an inside report on big-time journalism." Elliott himself calls it a "notebook," because of its somewhat casual style. And he seems unruffled when an interviewer challenges his account on a particular event ("Those of us in New York were not too close to what was going on in Washington in those days," he says.)
While the book is an autobiography, the inevitable focus is on the considerable accomplishments and considerable backstage intrigues of Newsweek in the Elliott years -- during which the magazine's reputation soared and its domestic circulation doubled.
Elliott took on the editorship of Newsweek after playing a principal role in its purchase in March 1961 by The Washington Post Company, engineered by publisher Philip L. Graham. Elliott is a former writer at Time and descrives the Newsweek of that day as "the poor-second Johnny-come-lately of the newsmagazines."
Elliott and a group of youthful journalists grabbed the opportunity. They had talent, energy and "fire in their bellies," says Elliott.
'it came at just the right time for us. All of us came out of World War II, and for the first time a new generation of Americans had a person of their own generation in the White House. There was an electricity in the air. In the book I call it 'a new synergy.'
"I hate to disappoint the MBA's however, because we did it from week to week with a sort of a seat-of-the-pants way of editing. If anybody had asked me in 1961 what Newsweek would be like in 1976 all I could have said was 'better and more exciting.'
"As we got wound up in it, I guess that we subconsciously took the leap that newsmagazines ought to be more intellectual and have greater depth. All of which might have been a disastrous move if we had been wrong.
"It might have been that all the subscribers would jump ship. We might choose to go one way and they might choose to go another.
"But we realized that Time was very frozen in its ways and was a sitting duck. Time didn't have our access and empathy with the Kennedy administration. We didn't use that to get scooperitis, but to give more depth to our regular reports. And of course, tips would show up in the occassional Periscope items."
As Elliott recalls it, "Three events were crucial for the creation of a new identity for Newsweek. And that's how we got to be known on Madison Avenue as a 'hot book.' Isn't that ridiculous to call a magazine a book? But that's the phrase."
The first was a report in November 1961 called "Thunder on the Right," which examined in detail the John Birch Society, Gen. Edwin A. Walker and other rightists of the period, whose influence was very much on the upswing."Lots of Midwestern advertisers who had just been looking for an excuse to drop their ads from this new acquisition of the so-called pinko Washington Post got exactly what they wanted with that one," he recalls.
Next there was a "landmark" issue devoted to problems of blacks in America.
But clearly the issue of which Elliott seems most proud came in late 1963.
On November 22, he writes, "a few of us editors were scheduled to lunch in the editorial dining room with (the new publisher) Katharine Graham, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith. Kay had invited the New Frontiersmen in to talk about Newsweek, particularly about how its 'back of the book' section might be improved. I wasn'it looking forward to the session; after all, who were these people to tell us how to run a magazine? Galbraith arrived late from Cambridge and Schlesinger from Washington, and so we were all having drinks in Kay's office, after 1:30, when the door suddenly opened. Al McCollough of the copy desk poked his head in . . . He had some AP copy in his hand. I'm sorry to interrupt,' McCollough said calmly, almost in a whisper, "but the president has been shot."
"We dashed down the hall to my office, where there was a television set, and flicked on Cbs. (Washington bureau chief) Ben Bradlee was on the phone . . . Additional bits and pieces by telephone from Charles Roberts, our White House correspondent, in Dallas. Galbraith and Schlesinger sat there crushed, unbelieving. And finally, the muffled-drum voice of Walter Cronkite: 'The president is dead.'"
The "assassination package" that began falling in place was the biggest and most ambitious single deadline operation ever undertaken by Newsweek -- whose normal deadline to the printing plant in Dayton, Ohio, was 8 p.m. the next day. The correspondents filed more than 70,000 words; 25 pages were cleared, including the elimination of the magazine's two most popular features. Newsmakers and Periscope. And on Sunday they managed to remake 80 percent of the issues with an account, and picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.
The result was, in Elliott's opinion, the kind of face-to-face triumph over Time that Newsweek had been thirsting for. Time gave the story "a mere 13 pages," and "in unfeeling deference to an old tradition of never putting a dead man on its cover" featured a picture of Lyndon Johnson.
Elliott greatly savored a message later from Richard Clurman, Time's chief of correspondents: "You did it right, we did it wrong."
For all the magazine's success, Elliott does not seem one to thrive on the notion that none of it could have happened without him. Not many journalists, he grants, come upon such a grand opportunity.
Asked if luck -- in addition to talent -- was not a necessary ingredient in Newsweek's rise, Elliott blurts, "we were lucky as hell -- AND HOW!"
Elliott's luck held for a long time. His own firing from the leadership of Newsweek came years later, because he says, Katharine Graham came to believe that he was "bored with the job."
In his next job, Elliott was widely regarded in the Beame regime for his work inducing business not to desert a financially bankrupt city. And he expected reappointment by the present maory, Edward Koch.
"But to my great surprise Koch missed the opportunity to employ the best and only deputy mayor for development we ever had," says Elliott somewhat wistfully.
That Elliott should now be the dean of Columbia's journalism school is itself something of an anomaly. Like a substantial number of his generation of major journalists, he had never taken a journalism course in his life. And he confesses that for much of his life he has been biased (he calls it a 'loathing') against journalism by course.
Further, he is also troubled by the overall state of journalism today. The nightly news, he maintains, is a "22-minute headline service" and the paucity of documentaries in primetime is "inexcusable." He hastens to add that the Cronkites and Chancellors of the world agree. He gives "the good papers" credit for "responding to television's inadequacies."
His year at Columbia has reinforced these ideas. He is trying to breathe more life into the school's air of stodginess ("We tried for Geraldo Rivera or Roseanne Roseannadanna as commencement speaker, but failed"). a substantial number of the students, he maintains, "simply should not be there." They are motivated, he says, "by a perception of glamor and money, particularly in broadcast journalism. We have got to seek out the people with the fire in the belly who can write declarative sentences and organized ideas and who believe in journalism -- most important of all -- not as a job but as a calling."
Elliott is asked if he sees anything in his future comparable to the Newsweek editorship, (what the book's subtitle calls "big-time journalism") and he says no. "I guess that's a young man's job," he observes, "and it was very unusual to be 36 and be the editor of an international magazine with that kind of responsibility and infouence. You just don't go out and find something like that again at 52 or 53."