Genteel and soft-spoken, with a fondness for fedoras and seersucker suits, Mr. Pruden played an “outsize part” in “defining what the Times should be and remains,” Christopher Dolan, the paper’s president and executive editor, wrote in a staff memo.
Mr. Pruden joined the Times four months after its founding, in 1982, by Sun Myung Moon, a Korean-born, self-proclaimed messiah whose Unification Church drew millions of followers. Created to counter what Moon viewed as The Washington Post’s liberal bias, the newspaper’s devoted readers were said to include President Ronald Reagan, and its circulation peaked around 100,000.
Top editors, including Mr. Pruden, insisted that the paper’s ideological tilt was limited to the editorial and opinion pages. But the Times was widely viewed as a conservative newspaper, with the Columbia Journalism Review once writing that the publication was “like no major city daily in America in the way that it wears its political heart on its sleeve.”
Mr. Pruden joined the Times as chief political correspondent, soon became a columnist, and in 1992 was promoted from managing editor to editor in chief. He steered the publication for 16 years and took on an emeritus role in retirement, contributing to editorials, editing opinion pieces and continuing his twice-weekly column, “Pruden on Politics.”
A punchy, defiantly abrasive columnist, Mr. Pruden described Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2008 as “everybody’s candidate for b---h-in-chief.”
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The next year, he wrote a column scorning President Barack Obama’s bow to Emperor Akihito during a state visit to Japan. In his column, condemned by liberal commentators, Mr. Pruden wrote that Obama “likely knows no better,” adding: “He was sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.”
During his years leading the newsroom, Mr. Pruden espoused an editorial policy of “puncturing politically correct pomposity” and avoiding what he described as “victim stories” about “people who were mistreated or think they were mistreated.” (“Get a life,” he advised them.) He also experimented with a new weekend edition and national weekly, in an effort to build a wider audience.
In interviews, he was a fierce opponent of those who said his newspaper was a mouthpiece for the Unification Church, which provided about $1.7 billion in subsidies during the paper’s first two decades, according to a Post report.
After Moon delivered a sermon in 2002 declaring that “the Washington Times will become the instrument in spreading the truth about God to the world,” Mr. Pruden issued a statement to The Post, saying that not a “single line” of the paper’s 7,305 previous editions contained “promotion or propaganda for Rev. Moon and his church. If the proof is in the pudding, how much pudding do you need?”
Some former Times journalists told a different story. Senior editors announced they were resigning because of church interference in editorial decisions, and reporters such as Dawn Weyrich and Don Kowet said they quit after stories were unfairly rewritten.
“There were endless controversies and resignations over what became known as ‘Prudenizing’ news copy — slanting it in a conservative direction,” wrote David Brock, a former Times reporter, in his book “Blinded by the Right.”
In 2003, the Intelligence Report, a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center, accused the Times of “helping to popularize extremist ideas and neo-Confederate sympathy,” in part through a weekly Civil War page and reliance on sources who are members of organizations classified by the SPLC as hate groups.
Three years later, the Nation published a report cataloguing similar claims, and reported that Mr. Pruden and managing editor Francis B. Coombs Jr. had fostered an atmosphere that was “profoundly demeaning and abusive to women and minorities,” citing more than a dozen “well-placed sources.” (Mr. Pruden was not quoted in the Nation article.)
Mr. Pruden stepped down from the Times in 2008 and continued writing his column until his death. His most recent piece, published Monday, urged President Trump to “stand aside and watch” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sparred with a group of first-term liberal Democrats whom Mr. Pruden dubbed the “four horseladies of the Apocalypse.”
“The speaker had let some of her freshmen have their head,” he wrote, “and now they’re getting too big to spank.”
The oldest of three children, James Wesley Pruden Jr. was born in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 18, 1935. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was an itinerant preacher who settled the family in Little Rock, ministered at a Southern Baptist church and became president of the Capital Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist group that tried to block the desegregation of Central High School.
The younger Mr. Pruden started a newspaper at his middle school and joined the Arkansas Gazette as a high school junior, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He studied at Little Rock Junior College — now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock — before turning fully to journalism, working at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis and then the weekly, now-defunct National Observer in Washington.
Mr. Pruden covered national politics and the Vietnam War before serving as a foreign correspondent at the Observer. He departed around 1976 — by some accounts, he was forced out amid allegations that he manufactured quotes for his stories — and spent the next several years trying to write and publish a long satirical novel about Vietnam.
He reportedly joined the Times after exhausting his savings and in 1991 received the H.L. Mencken writing award from the Baltimore Sun for his columns. That year, he became the paper’s de facto top editor upon the resignation of Arnaud de Borchgrave.
Mr. Pruden’s marriage to Ann Rice Pulliam ended in divorce. In addition to his companion, a Times contributor who writes under the name Corinna Lothar and lives in Washington, survivors include her son Alex Metcalf of Los Angeles; a sister; and two grandchildren.
In an obituary for the Times, Mr. Pruden was recalled as a hands-on editor who banned overused words like “controversy” and “quip ” and challenged his writers to always keep readers engaged. He once critiqued a long story, former Times reporter Audrey Hudson recalled, by saying: “Sominex is not in the business of publishing newspapers, and we should not be in the business of putting people to sleep.”
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