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Grasping For the Keys To the Kingdom Last of three parts, By: Eleanor Randolph Washington Post Staff Writer

With the impending retirement of Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, The New York Times moves into a period of waiting, a pretransitional limbo when the newspaper focuses much of its formidable talent and energy on its own internal upheaval.

Rosenthal, who has increasingly dominated The Times over the past two decades, is excepted to give up his post next year when he is 65, obeying a corporate rule for Times executives. But as the deadline approaches, the transfer of power at the top of The Times seems a troubled one, creating concern and anguish for those involved at almost every level.

For the claimants to the throne, it is a period when the natural instinct is to divide their energies between worrying over tomorrow’s paper and fretting about the future of The Times. Or as one former editor who is close to many of the heirs put it: “All these high-priced talents are sort of circling now, like airplanes over a landing field.”

For the staff, it is a time to discern deep meaning in what may be innocent events and to track career hopes not only by substantive changes but also by the latest gossip.

“This place is a huge rumor mill, especially in this period,” says The Times ‘Washington editor Bill Kovach, one of those often named as a contender to replace Rosenthal. “All I have to do is go to New York for the day and I get calls from people who say, ‘Jeez, I heard you already bought an apartment.’”

For Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger, the fourth member of the family of Adolph S. Ochs to run The New York Times, the choice of a new executive editor may be one of the toughest decisions in his 22 years as publisher. Sulzberger’s choice is the ultimate exercise of his authority over the editorial contents of the paper his family controls.

And for those outside the paper, the process of change sheds some light on the inner workings of a major journalistic power in this country. Though outsiders often find it difficult to believe, publishers of great papers find they cannot meddle capriciously in the daily decision making of good editors, who traditionally resent the corporate intrusion. Thus, the rare opportunity to name a new editor is a moment of great significance for the publisher.

“I’m positive the talent’s around,” said Sulzberger in an interview recently in his corporate office. “But who’s ever been ready, really? I was never ready to take this job, and yet you do it.”

And finally, for Rosenthal, who says, “I’m not going to pick the next editor, but I will have something to do with it,” the process is a crucial part of his or any editor’s job a task that associates say Rosenthal sees as the emotional and editorial equivalent of making a last will and testament, then committing vocational suicide.

In recent years The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe have been turned over to new, younger editors, and before the end of this decade, changes are likely at The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. A new generation is taking over America’s most important newspapers, where an editor within one of the huge corporate communications empires is no longer a man with rumpled clothes, a dead cigar, and decent instincts. He or she must be a corporate manager as well as a newsman, an executive who must move easily from the newsroom to board room.

This portrait of a new corporate editor is one that troubles some veterans, among them Harrison Salisbury, former associate editor of The Times, who has written one of the most detailed analyses of Rosenthal in his book on the paper, “Without Fear or Favor.”

“What bothers me in journalism in general, is that as the great newspaper chains come in, the idiosyncratic editor goes out, “he said. “They are more and more corporate people who speak through the corporate spokesman and the editor’s voice is gone.

The generation after the Abe Rosenthal, the Ben Bradlees (executive editor of The Washington Post) and the Tom Winship (former editor of the Boston Globe), I hope to Christ they have as much crust as these other guys have,” Salisbury said. “Don’t make it out that I agree with them necessarily but, in some ways, I will certainly miss them.”

“The Transition as those at The Boston Globe, where the change was made a year ago, can attest can bring with it a period of almost volcanic turmoil in the newsroom. As loyalists to the previous editor vie with supporters of the new man, the paper moves into a shakedown period, which one former editor said can take several years.

The Times, Sulzberger said, has tried to shift younger editors into training positions for the top job. “You have to bubble the pot, stand back and see what floats to the top,” Sulzberger observed. “It’s tough. It rouses all the talk, and some of it makes Abe very unhappy.” At the same time, Sulzberger said, “Abe has gone along with it wonderfully well.”

Indeed, the pot has been bubbling in The Times newsroom for quite some time. This week, Rosenthal announced three newsroom changes which he called promotions that appeared to be part of this process. Peter Millones, a metropolitan editor, became an assistant managing editor, a move that made room for John Vinocur, a former Times Paris bureau chief. Vinocur, who had been deputy metropolitan editor, became the metropolitan editor. And John M. Lee, who was moved last year from his position as editor of a financial and business section to be assistant to Rosenthal, has now been made an assistant managing editor.

Explained Rosenthal: “What you do is you go through the process of giving a lot of people a chance to see what they can do. There are a dozen people around here at least who now have an opportunity to show their colleagues, the publisher, me, others, how good they are.

“It’s not a test, really, but this has been going on for years. I started it, and a lot of people I appointed didn’t make it, okay, or realized they wouldn’t become good editors, so we go through The Times process of moving (Them). Nobody’s been fired; it takes a lot longer that way.”

Among present and former members of the staff, there is a strong disagreement about whether Rosenthal has indeed assembled a team of people who can replace him and his loyalists who hold the other key jobs in the newsroom, all of whom are nearly his age.

Rosenthal’s friend, Gay Talese, a former Times reporter and author of “The Kingdom and the Power,” a 1969 bestseller about The Times, said in a recent interview: “I don’t see anybody of the next generation of editors that are going to be strong enough to deal with the vast, corporate New York Times the way it is set up new. If Rosenthal does not like anything that comes from the business department or even from the Sulzberger family, he is tough and strong and volatile enough to do something about it.”

Richard Eder, removed by Rosenthal as Time theater critic and now a writer for the Los Angeles Times, said that Rosenthal’s power makes it difficult to find a strong man to replace him.

“The problem for the publisher is that the editing types have not been able to show their stuff to the degree they might under a less dominating rule,” he said. “Under the big tree, as they say, the little shoots grow badly.”

Scoffed Rosenthal: “Oh they said that about Nehru, The banyan tree. They say that about everybody who is really strong. The tree is so big that under the tree nothing grows. It’s not true.

“I tell you that whenever I leave, I will leave behind the strongest group of editors this paper has ever had, which is my ambition. How it will sort itself out is another story.” He added later, “There are plenty of flowers there.”

Still, the theory that Rosenthal is too dominant an editor to be easily replaced supports one prediction, now believed by many Times insiders, that Sulzberger will bring in a “transition team,” as one Times official called it, or “a regent,” in the words of another, to run the paper for an interregnum.

The obvious candidate for the role of the regent is Max Frankel, 55, now editor of The Times’ editorial page. Frankel, former foreign correspondent, and Washington bureau chief are widely respected in the journalistic community, and the spokesman for The Times on its editorial page has maintained a close working relationship with the publisher.

As one Times editor put it, “If I were Punch (Sulzberger), I don’t think I would want to give it to somebody I hadn’t been through the battles with. Who is there that fits the role, whose judgment have I seen in extremis? I don’t see a whole lot of people around here who fit that except Max.”

When Sulzberger was asked recently what kind of person he would pick, he seemed to outline Frankel’s qualification: “I don’t think you can look for a Rosenthal duplicate,” he said after saying Rosenthal’s term has been “a tremendous success.”

“And there are a number of qualifications the most obvious being that the person is a qualified journalist. He must be compatible with me, someone I like and get along with (and,) of course, someone who displays leadership,” Sulzberger added.

Another qualification, one that Sulzberger has told friends privately, is that the next editor will also have to boost morale that has been sagging in the last years of the Rosenthal era. Said on editor: “He (Sulzberger) has said now that The Times is a great paper and a successful paper, he wants to make it fun to work her again.”

Sydney Gruson, Sulzberger’s vice chairman, after praising Rosenthal for carrying The Times into a more complicated era, said that “for all his greatness, he is a highly emotional man who stirs echoes of those emotions in all the people he deals with. In the future, I think you will not have such visceral relations between such editors and their staffs, and I think maybe on the whole that is to the good.”

Rosenthal himself asked to outline the traits necessary for his successor, whom he has referred to upon occasion as “the Prince of Whales,” replied:

“He has to be obsessive, a maniac, not just about the newspaper straight, but would fight like a goddam tiger to keep it that way, to keep the character straight,” he began.

Nothing that his replacement would necessarily have to be a good editor, Rosenthal continued: “He would have to be pretty strong, which is what a lot of talented people are not, to take the abuse without cracking and to take the praise, too.”

Rosenthal seems to be talking about someone other than the mild-mannered Frankel, and there are insiders at The Times and some who know Sulzberger who say it is possible that the publisher may yet decide to take the leap into the next layer of editors.

One potentially important factor involves the Sulzberger family. The publisher (who is also chairman of the Times Co.) will be 65 on Feb. 5, 1991. According to colleagues, Sulzberger has spoken of one day giving up the title of publisher, presumably to bestow it on his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., 34.

That leaves open the question of whether young Sulzberger, who declined to give about interview for this series, will take part in the decision. Friends of the younger Sulzberger believe that he might push for one of those in the next stratum. On that level are Craig R. Whitney, 42, now an assistant managing editor; Lee, 55, newly named assistant managing editor; and Kovach, 53.

Of these, Kovach seems to have the most support from the news staff. One former Times reporter, watching the struggle less emotionally and from a distance, says: “If they allowed the reporters to vote, it would look like a communist election almost 100 percent for Kovach.”

But some Times officials said that Kovach, who can b prickly when he fights for a story, is not always beloved by his fellow editors, including Rosenthal. And some New Yorkers who know the Sulzberger’s and some Times editors said recently that they doubted Kovach, a Tennessean with no foreign news experience and little Eastern Establishment polish, would suit the business and social requirements of the job.

However, Turner Catledge, who was a widely respected executive editor of the paper from 1964 to 1968 graduated from Mississippi State College and never took a foreign post. And one Times editor in a position to know said that Rosenthal, a graduate of City College in New York, may have paved the way for a future editor who did not go to Harvard or Yale, who does not dress like a British peer and whose language does not sail easily among the yachting set.

Whitney, also a man of humble origins, but one, who has a magna cum laude degree from Harvard, is known among staff members as a nice, competent, low-key personality who knows well the ways and eccentricities of The Times as a company. Lee, who was business financial editor until July, when he became assistant to Rosenthal, is widely regarded among the business managers of The Times Co. as a smart, level headed and competent man.

The Friction among those vying for Rosenthal’s job is often kept in check. But in recent months some Times employees have sensed a heightening of anxieties over the possibility that one of the contenders would move into the job of managing editor as a launching position for the Rosenthal post. During a recent morning conference call, for example, Whitney heatedly blasted Kovach for the Washington bureau’s coverage of a defense story, sources at The Times said.

Kovach shot back a strongly worded memo saying that Whitney did not know what he was talking about and that if he thought he could run the Washington bureau better, he should try it. Kovach sent the Times computer system and Whitney responded in a conciliatory fashion in the same mode, suggesting that since both messages were widely read in the newsroom by electronic eavesdroppers, there were probably better, less public ways of setting their differences.

Joseph Lelyveld, London bureau chief, is widely considered to be a candidate for a top job at the paper. A sterling writer with a reputation as a very “straight” Journalist, Lelyveld has won kind words from many, including Rosenthal: “There’s no question in my mind that Joe Lelyveld he may not be my successor but he’s going to come back and help run this newspaper.”

Vinocur, a skilled wordsmith who has a number of strong fans among reporters on the staff, is considered by many to be the one whose personality and politics are the most like Rosenthal’s. However, some Times staff members believe Vino cur’s striking, sometimes explosive personality may not satisfy the corporate urge for a new generation of quieter, more businesslike editors.

Another candidate is Warren M. Hoge, the foreign editor since 1983, an elegant man who sang in the Whiffenpoofs at Yale and spent four years as The Times Rio de Janeiro correspondent in New York gossip columns as a contender, a fact that his friends think has not boosted his chances. Sulzberger is mum on his choice, but Rosenthal firmly denies that anyone has been chosen or even that the list has been narrowed to these widely circulated names.

“There is nobody selected to succeed me. You’ll have to take my word for it,” Rosenthal said recently.

On the question of whether Rosenthal really will leave in ’87, some at The Times who have watched Rosenthal win other corporate wars believe he will find some way anyway to stay on at the top job. But the signals from Sulzberger have suggested otherwise.

“Nobody is obligated to do anything absolutely,” the publisher said in an interview. Apparently taking some small pleasure in the ambiguities he was presenting, he added: “We do have a rule for officers and their equivalent, and Abe would be the equivalent, that the retirement age is 65, but if for some reason that person stays on, he has to be approved by the board of directors.”

Sulzberger then named people who had stayed on at the paper past 65, including Gruson. Asked whether Rosenthal would continue at The Times, perhaps writing a column, Sulzberger declined to talk about what he called “private conversations” with his executive editor.

Times officials have said that the offering of a column. Rosenthal’s fondest ambition when he was a foreign correspondent is a strong possibility. Two Times sources indicated that Washington columnist James Reston, 76, has said he might retire his column to make way for a new one by Rosenthal, once a new editor is selected.

“I would hope and expect that Abe would stay on at the paper,” the publisher said. And then he smiled and said no more.

Originally published: Friday, September 15, 2017; most-recently modified: Tuesday, May 21, 2019