John Newhouse, a widely admired journalist and author who turned often-impenetrable technical subjects such as nuclear arms negotiations and Cold War politics into dramatic and absorbing narratives, died Dec. 10 at his home in Washington. He was 87.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Elizabeth “Symmie” Newhouse.
Mr. Newhouse wrote nine books, plus 55 major articles for the New Yorker magazine. He had a second, if intermittent, career as a government official with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the State Department.
His eclectic career took him around the world but always brought him back to his adopted home town of Washington, where he witnessed and wrote about 11 presidencies from the 1950s onward and many of the defining events of his time.
He developed a specialty in the politics and strategies behind nuclear weapons, a topic to which he brought an uncommon elegance in books such as “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age” (1989), a masterful companion volume to a 13-part PBS series.
In addition, Mr. Newhouse had a knack for friendship that brought him into contact with some of the most intriguing stories and individuals of his time. An early friend in Washington was Ted Sorensen, who would achieve fame as a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, as a senator and later president, and as an author of many of Kennedy’s most memorable lines.
A recurring topic of conversation at their many lunches was a book that Sorensen said that he was helping Kennedy write that became “Profiles in Courage,” a compilation of portraits of American senators who had displayed particular bravery. It won a 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography and bolstered Kennedy’s reputation as an intellectual.
Before the book was published, Sorensen had given Mr. Newhouse a copy of the manuscript in hopes that his employer at the time, Collier’s magazine, a popular weekly that competed with Life and Look, might publish an excerpt from it.
Mr. Newhouse understood that Sorensen, not Kennedy, wrote the book, a fact he confided to an ABC News executive. “This was a mistake I later regretted,” Mr. Newhouse said.
When the story leaked and caused a stir, Sorensen protested to Mr. Newhouse and asked him to take a call on the matter from then-Sen. Kennedy (D-Mass.). When Kennedy called, he told Mr. Newhouse “that the most painful aspect of the imbroglio for him was my apparent belief that someone else had written his book,” Newhouse recalled years later. “I replied a bit evasively by saying I would do all that I could to assist him if it could be shown that he himself had written the book.”
Kennedy said that he would soon return to Washington from a family estate in Florida and would bring “the original handwritten manuscript” for Mr. Newhouse to read. “He said that he would call me as soon as he got to town. But he didn’t call, and I never again heard from Jack Kennedy or even spoke with him.”
In a 2008 memoir, Sorensen, who died in 2010, finally admitted that he helped write the book and said Kennedy had given him most of the royalties that it earned. That original, handwritten manuscript never materialized.
Wilfred John Newhouse was born in East Orange, N.J., on Feb. 6, 1929. After graduating from Duke University in 1950 and serving two years in the Air Force, he became a copy boy for the United Press wire service in New York.
From there he moved to Collier’s, where he soon was offered the No. 2 job in the two-man Washington bureau. Mr. Newhouse jumped at the chance.
The salary was small, but the adventures were numerous and exciting. He covered the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings that sullied the reputation of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R), the zealot from Wisconsin who made a name for himself by pursuing alleged communists in the government and was eventually censured by his colleagues.
Collier’s was given a place in the press corps for the king of Belgium’s 1955 trip to the Congo, then a Belgian colony, and the magazine sent Mr. Newhouse on the trip. He spent six weeks in a place rarely visited by an American reporter, and filed a report on the uranium mines of the Congo that produced the raw material for America’s nuclear weapons. The article upset both Belgian and U.S. officials, and it raised Mr. Newhouse’s profile in Washington.
Collier’s ceased publication in 1957, and Mr. Newhouse tried his hand at broadcast journalism. ABC News sent him to Beirut to cover the military operation launched there by U.S. Marines in 1958.
When the crisis settled down, ABC brought Mr. Newhouse back to Washington. He found himself underused and bored, so he jumped at the chance to join the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He became one of four nonpartisan professional staff members soon after Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) became the committee chairman.
Mr. Newhouse became one of the committee’s staff experts on the Middle East, Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, foreign aid and an issue just becoming important, the Vietnam War.
After five years on the committee, Mr. Newhouse was offered a grant from the Ford Foundation to live in Paris to study and write about European issues. He ended up living in Paris for the next seven years and wrote “De Gaulle and the Anglo-Saxons” (1970).
It was a timely study of the French leader Charles de Gaulle, who had died that year, and focused on his ambition for himself and his country during the nuclear age, and de Gaulle’s often-tense relations with the British and Americans over nuclear policy and NATO.
James Chace, the eminent historian of American diplomacy, wrote in a New York Times review that Mr. Newhouse told with “elegance and authority” the drama of “crisis diplomacy at its worst.”
One of the book’s fans was New Yorker editor William Shawn, who commissioned from Mr. Newhouse a five-article series on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks then going on between the Soviet Union and United States. Mr. Newhouse drew these pieces together into the book “Cold Dawn” (1973), an account of the military and political strategies behind the negotiation of the 1972 SALT treaty.
“Cold Dawn,” which was well-received, led to a job offer from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, where he worked from 1974 to 1979, first as counselor and then as deputy director. The next year, at Shawn’s invitation, Mr. Newhouse joined the staff of the New Yorker.
Many of the articles he wrote over the next 13 years appeared under the rubric “The Diplomatic Round,” which Shawn invented for Mr. Newhouse. Many others were profiles of prominent figures, from King Hussein of Jordan to Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).
In Mr. Newhouse’s “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age,” the author made the case that the destructive power of nuclear warheads made them self-deterrents. The weapons were used as political instruments more than anything else during the Cold War, and thus the struggle over strategic advantage, Mr. Newhouse wrote, was “the chimera of the nuclear age.”
When former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown became editor of the New Yorker in 1992, Mr. Newhouse found that his work was no longer in demand. He reentered government service in 1998, serving three years as a senior policy adviser to Strobe Talbott, who was then deputy secretary of state.
In the new century, Mr. Newhouse went back to writing, publishing one book sharply critical of the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policies (“Imperial America”), and another on the fierce business rivalry in the “high-risk, high-cost” aviation industry (“Boeing Versus Airbus”).
His first marriage, to Nancy Riley, ended in divorce. In 1978 he married Elizabeth Landreth Wagley, who is director of the Cuba project for The Center for International Policy.
Besides his wife, known as Symmie, of Washington, survivors include two stepchildren, Elizabeth Wagley of New York City and John Wagley Jr. of Washington; a brother; and two grandchildren.
Read more Washington Post obituaries