BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Max Frankel, in your autobiography, I've got to tell you, the biggest surprise to me was the following sentence: `But the attraction to her was overwhelming, so we embarked on a secret affair that was really an unspoken engagement, an act of uncharacteristic daring for the bost--both of us.' What is that about?
Mr. MAX FRANKEL (Author, "The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times"): That is about my dear Joyce, Joyce Purnick, who was the City Hall bureau chief when I fell in love with her, and I was her boss. And that was a daring thing for both of us to undertake. We would never have done it if we'd thought clearly about it, but it just happened. We were both ripe and it--just overwhelming. We had to go on and carry on in secret, because--to make sure that it was really right for a while. And finally, I leaked it to Liz Smith to get it in the gossip column, and that was the way we announced our affair and our engagement, and I told my boss, and he soon enough got her out of my jurisdiction so that it wouldn't be a case of her working directly for me.
LAMB: What year did it happen?
Mr. FRANKEL: It happened in 1987, shortly after my first wife died.
LAMB: What were the circumstances?
Mr. FRANKEL: How did we meet? Joyce was doing--she was covering the--the dismissal of Bess Myerson, former Miss America, from the Koch administration in New York City, and she was writing a news story and she was also writing a--a news analysis, and I said in my way--because I was trying to make all stories analytical, I said, `Merge the two,' and she got very annoyed in the city room and said, `I wish these editors would make up their minds and not on deadline.' And I apologized to her. I said, `I'm sorry if I'm messing up your evening plans, but this is the way I want it done.' Next morning, I congratulated her. I thought she'd done it quickly and beautifully and, again, apologized for messing up her evening plans. And she thought she was hearing something strange in that locution and so she said, `Max Frankel, you owe me a dinner,' and I said, `OK, I accept.' And she said, `When?' I said, `How about tonight?' And for a minute, I still thought of it as a professional engagement with my City Hall bureau chief, but when I got there, I announced to her that this was not going on the expense account. And that was it.
LAMB: Was there a rule at The Times that you couldn't do that?
Mr. FRANKEL: Not a rule, but a clear custom. I mean, it was--it's clearly bizarre. We had gotten--we had matured and we had finally gotten some man-and-wife teams onto the staff, which wasn't true when I first came to The Times, but clearly, it was an awkward situation. In fact, when we went public, it was--it was doubly awkward because people would shut up in her presence. Either--either they would fall silent if they were gossiping in a naughty way or they would deliberately talk to her in order to get me certain messages, and it was--it was untenable.
LAMB: What's this picture?
Mr. FRANKEL: The one on the left is my retirement, my embracing Joe Lelyveld, the--my successor as executive editor of The Times. And right over my right shoulder is the--is Joyce Purnick, my wife, applauding the occasion. She went back to the newsroom after that. She was liberated from her exile on the editorial board and she's now the metropolitan editor. She's the first woman metropolitan editor of The New York Times.
LAMB: In what year did the retirement happen?
Mr. FRANKEL: 1994.
LAMB: What was it like being the top editor at The New York Times for how many years?
Mr. FRANKEL: Eight and a half years. Great thr...
LAMB: What was it like?
Mr. FRANKEL: Great thrill. My favorite metaphor for--for--for the job was orchestra conductor, wave a baton over this incredibly talented staff and marvelous music comes out. It was a great thrill every day, no matter--even if the boss was calling. Along about 3:30, 4:00, I would suspend everything, I would sit down and read summaries of the major stories, go into a meeting with my department heads, make up the front page of The Times and reassess the world, worry about why we were doing, what we were doing and how well we were doing it, design the front page, worry about pictures, worry--the full gamut of our trade. That was the fun part. The--the difficult part was managing so many people. We have a news department of more than 1,000, several hundred of whom wanted to relate directly to the executive editor. And managing people in this day and age is a--when--when you can't just shout orders at them is a--is a tough ordeal and it wears you down.
LAMB: Who owns The New York Times?
Mr. FRANKEL: Sulzberger family, a fantastic family, descended from Adolph Ochs, who came up from Chattanooga, bought The New York Times in 1896 and established the values by which it operates. That is his grandson, Punch Sulzberger, and the picture below has Adolph Ochs in a painting, Punch Sulzberger, his grandson in front of him, and Punch's son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who has just recently taken over as chairman of the company.
Very important to have a family ultimately in charge. We have stockholders, we have a board of directors, we have to worry about profit. But in the end, when the pressure's on or a recession hits and you don't want to dilute the soup, you run to the family and you say, `You can't do this. You've gotta hold the line. You've gotta help invest, gotta hire more people no matter how painful,' and they do it.
LAMB: Whe--when you--and you obviously assessed your own life in your book here, Max Frankel, "The Times of My Life and the--My Life with The Times"--audience can see the--what the cover looks like--what d--what do you think you had or have that got you to the top? What did th--what did they like in what they saw in Max Frankel over the years?
Mr. FRANKEL: Wow. I was the right age in the succession of things. I had incredible ra--run of experience at The Times. I joined it as a sophomore in college. I was a stringer for The Times and got hired after that and, while I threatened to quit and actually quit once and threatened to quit many times, never left. Forty-five years full-time employee. I had been a local reporter right from the police shacks in New York. I'd been a foreign correspondent in Moscow, Cuba. I'd been a diplomatic correspondent, White House correspondent, bureau chief here in Washington. I'd been Sunday editor in charge of the magazine, the book review and the other supplements. I'd been editorial page editor in charge of the Op-Ed page and the--fashioning the opinions.
Ultimately, of course, that job is--is--is chosen directly by the owner of the paper, Punch Sulzberger, and we were kindred spirits. We weren't actually even that close in a--in--in a friendship sense, but I think we both admired each other, respected each other's values and I'd been exposed to him for probably, directly in his orbit, for 12 years when it came time to choose another executive editor and I was the right age, and so there I am.
LAMB: There's a story you tell in the book about--and correct me if I'm wrong--his wife Carol's dead?
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes.
LAMB: But there's a story about his wife Carol and you and Punch Sulzberger one night when, I guess, you were ready to quit and...
Mr. FRANKEL: I was threatening to quit, yes. There w--there was a big dust-up here in Washington. It was time to change bureau chiefs, or so they thought in New York, and there was always a tussle as to whether the Washington bureau was gonna be virtually independent. And they chose a fellow--actually, a very good man, Jim Greenfield, but he was relatively new to the paper and they--was gonna be imposed from New York, and those of us who had similar ambitions to--to that job in Washington got very upset, Reston got very upset. And...
LAMB: Who is--who's Reston?
Mr. FRANKEL: That was--Scotty Reston was my mentor and the--one of the great journalists of his day, and he was the Washington bureau chief and, later, columnist of The New York Times and a very close friend of the Sulzbergers. And we felt that if--if those of us who were being passed over, if there was no--not gonna be any future, and if even Reston and his wishes could be thwarted in the way that they were, that maybe we needed to look elsewhere to pursue our careers. And Reston said, `Well, I've struck out. I can't help you. You just better go up to New York and make sure they really know how you feel,' and I did for a day, and he said, `And don't leave town without telling Punch Sulzberger how you feel, because he should know.' Called him up and he was heading home for a birthday party. His wife Carol picked up the phone, and she said, `Well, he's on his way home. He's gonna have this birthday party and his mother's coming. And so why don't you drop in for dessert and I'll make sure that you get a half-hour.' I think she was directly intervening in the situation, that she had views, and this was her way of getting him to open his mind to the situation.
We talked. He said nothing, but the next day, the whole thing was reversed, and a whole chain of events evolved. Reston became executive editor briefly to restore peace to the whole bureaucracy, and in due course, he made me Washington bureau chief. And that was the beginning of my edit--my editing career.
LAMB: One of the things that comes through in your book is the influence of women on your life and on others' lives, like Carol on her husband.
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes. That is right.
LAMB: But also, your first wife here.
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes.
LAMB: Toby had an impact on the way you thought about the Vietnam War.
Mr. FRANKEL: She had a tremendous impact. She couldn't understand why I would come home every night and talk about all these strange places and the--the--the strategic importance of what I thought the United States was doing when we first started getting involved in there. She said, `All you people are in--off on a macho adventure in a strange country that nobody understands, and you're all crazy.' And I listened, even though I didn't often acknowledge that I was listening, and she'd been my eyes and ears also, very valuable, in--when we were in Russia. She was the only one--I couldn't make friends because the Russians tr--in those days treated us all as spies and CIA agents, but a few Russians made friends with Toby, and that way, we got a terrific insight into some private lives, which was very important to my work, and she learned Russian much faster and better than I did. So she played an important role.
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
Mr. FRANKEL: At The New York Times. She was--the day I came back from the Army, she was the Barnard College stringer and she was saying--making her goodbyes before going to graduate school to become a teacher. And I--first day back from the Army and we met there. I courted her for about a year.
LAMB: It sounds like, though, you had--she had a lot of trouble, a lot of...
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes. She was...
LAMB: And what was it?
Mr. FRANKEL: She was caught in the middle of the--of that feminist syndrome, first of all. She had three children, she was very ambitious. She said, `I wasn't raised'--she taught me about feminism. She said, `I wasn't raised just to be the companion of two-year-olds. It's not what I went to college for and developed my mind.' Out of that syndrome came, I think, what was also a clinical situation. She was--she suffered from depressions, and in a day and age when it was still hard to recognize and when we didn't know what we were doing and when we did recognize it, at least when I did, she was hard to persuade to go get help. And it was only, unfortunately, very late in life that she acceded to some drugs and her personality changed remarkably overnight, so that what had been an increasingly unhappy, intense marriage suddenly blossomed, and within a year, she got brain cancer and that was that.
LAMB: When she was depressed, what was the impact on you?
Mr. FRANKEL: I retreated into silence, plunged into my work, tried to buoy the--the kids, who suffered from her manic episodes, and tried to make sure that they understood that their mother, nonetheless, loved her, that this was not a denial of love.
LAMB: What's this picture right here?
Mr. FRANKEL: That's Toby and I leaving Vienna, where I had been to help cover the Hungarian revolution on our way, first time, to Moscow, what, in those days, seemed like the far side of the moon.
LAMB: And she died in what year?
Mr. FRANKEL: 1987.
LAMB: Where are your kids today?
Mr. FRANKEL: The oldest is David. He lives in Miami, but he almost commutes half the time to Los Angeles. He writes and directs movies and television shows, making one now. Margot, the middle one, was the art director of Town & Country magazine, she's a designer, until just very recently. She moved to Los Angeles with her new husband and had my first grandchild. And the youngest, Jon, is an on-air reporter at the moment for ABC Television. They're all media brats, none in straight journalism.
LAMB: What did you really want to say in this book, more than anything else?
Mr. FRANKEL: It's a triple love story, first for an incredible mother who had a--this--this indomitable capacity to rise to the threat of Hitler Germany and to--a shy and very retiring woman all her life, except for that brief period of about a year and a half, when she had to confront the Nazis in wartime, in 1939 and 1940, to talk our way out of Berlin with a wicked wit, and also then to raise me, 'cause my father was trapped in Stalin's Russia, and that was me. And so it's a love story for her and all that she taught me and all the examples that she set.
The second is a love story for this country. I mean, this is where I was saved and this is the place that I plunged into headlong as an--as an adolescent, whose ideas and ideals I just soaked up, became a Democrat with a vengeance after all my exposure to totalitarians, and then professionally, when I traveled abroad, made me even more of a patriot. And then it also--the skeptical part of me, it's a love story for journalism, which allowed me, for all my love of this country or of humanity, to step back and take a good skeptical look at what goes on in the world and try to make it a little better, and love especially for this incredible newspaper that perpetuates high standards and allowed me to sleep well at night.
LAMB: What makes The Times special?
Mr. FRANKEL: The quality of the people, the nature of the family that owns it and the inherited and continuingly nourished value system by which we operate. We--we--we really sit around--we don't always do right, but we always sit around wondering: What is the right thing to do?
LAMB: How many people write for a living for The New York Times on a full-time basis?
Mr. FRANKEL: About 350 write full time and about another thr--400 edit full time and vast numbers are hired to write on a contractual or part-time basis.
LAMB: How many words in a daily New York Times newspaper?
Mr. FRANKEL: More than 100,000 on daily and about 500,000 on Sunday.
LAMB: Somewhere in your book, I remember you saying that it really isn't the first draft of history.
Mr. FRANKEL: Oh, no.
LAMB: Maybe there--there's a competing newspaper, executive editor, who once said that.
Mr. FRANKEL: That is right. But, no, I think, in fact, we're very bad historians. Whenever the suggestion was made that we either ought to write this for the sake of history or, more important, we ought to invoke history on this event, I always got my dukes up and worried, because I think journalists are chronically poor scholars. They don't--they--they work on a short-range basis looking both back and forward in a very narrow frame, and they're not good historians and that's not our function. And we don't know which of the events that we--that we're managing to understand and to comprehend and to describe--which of them are really significant for the long term and which of them is just chaff that's passing by on the scene. And we shouldn't pretend. Our job is to--is to do the best we can to understand our immediate environment and then let the historians comb through it.
LAMB: If there's one name I've seen over the last 10 years of BOOKNOTES more often than not, it's Walter Lippmann.
Mr. FRANKEL: Right.
LAMB: You write about Walter Lippmann i--in your book. Who was he? But what would one be if one was a Walter Lippmann? And did you ever as--aspire to be one?
Mr. FRANKEL: Walter Lippmann was a--I guess the right word is public philosopher. He was a very profound man who--extremely learned in the affairs of the world and he had a fixed view of the world, which he came to practice as a wonderful columnist. He had a style of writing that it--almost no flair. It looked artless. And he cut through to the essential core and in--in a mere 650, 700 words, two thr--two or three times a week, whatever his schedule happened to be--he worked for the Herald Tribune and The Washington Post ran him in Washington--he was syndicated--he could make the--make everything clear. He came to some catastrophic judgments, he was a little too soft on Mr. Hitler at the beginning, he was a little too hard on Roosevelt. But especially during the Vietnam her--era, he became a hero of a lot of the anti-war movement.
Yes, I aspired to be Walter Lippmann at one point. I thought I had the same range of intellectual interests. And, of course, the life of a columnist is--is very seductive. I've changed my mind about that, but at the time, I thought columnizing would be a wonderful way of life. And when I had an offer to do so--to do that, Scotty Reston said, `Well, if you really want to be a columnist, go see Lippmann and ask him what it's like.' Had lunch with Lippmann and he said, `Well, there's only two kinds of columnists.' He says, `One of them is like Joe Alsop down the street,' another columnist of the day. `He lunges after every crumb of news at the dinner table and he's a reporter, he's a one-man news operation, competing with all of you guys at The New York Times. And then there's me. I sit back and think through events and I have a fixed philosophy of life, and I run events through that.' I--and one of which, for instance, was he believed in a balance of power in the world, balance of great powers. He didn't te--he didn't worry much about communism. He thought the Soviet Union and the United States ought to negotiate a compact in--very much in the 19th century style.
And I came back from that, and I said, `Well, I certainly don't want to lunge for news at the dinner table and compete with 100 other guys.' And do I have a fixed philosophy of life? Quite the contrary. I found myself so pragmatic every day about what was happening in--in front of me, wanting to understand each event, but no discrete philosophy into which I could fit them. So I didn't become a columnist, and I'm very glad.
LAMB: But you are now.
Mr. FRANKEL: I'm very glad. I am now, in the one subject I f--the reason I didn't ultimately favor a columnist career is because the staffs of our newspapers now are more learned in every subject than all our columnists. And to be a--a know-it-all th--two or three times a week about every subject on Earth, competing against the more analytical style of newspaper writing now, is useless. You find--you look at our columnists now and you find more and more of them holding to one or two or three subjects and no more because they feel insecure in other areas. I'm willing to be a columnist on--on an essay style in our magazine now every other week on the one subject I understand, which is communication, which is our business, and that's--I feel I know something about it, I've lived through it and have things to say about the directions in which we're going.
LAMB: And that's every Sunday in The New York Times Magazine.
Mr. FRANKEL: Every other Sunday.
LAMB: Every other Sunday.
Mr. FRANKEL: I have to write--I ha--needed the other week to do the book.
LAMB: I was gonna ask you that. Where did you write your book?
Mr. FRANKEL: Mostly at home. I had a lot of files at The Times and my clippings, so I did a l--I have an office there and I did a lot of the work there, but the writing came best at home, tumbling out of bed in the morning, not have to get dressed, work on my computer. And I did it one week and then I would stop and turn to my column the next--in alternate weeks. And then I took some time off from the column every summer, sat out at our beach house in Fire Island, tiny, little portable computer, and kept going.
LAMB: How long did it take you to do this?
Mr. FRANKEL: Cumulatively, probably it was about two years over a three-, three-and-a-half-year period.
LAMB: Had you written books before?
Mr. FRANKEL: No. Once when I was in Russia, I had a very tempting offer from Viking publishers to do a quick book about life in Russia. I took their advance, I tried to do it. It was inconsistent wih daily journalism. I sent them back their money. And then 25 years ago, went to the McDowell Colony one summer with notes of interviews with my parents of the--what is the first third of this book, their stories about Germany and--and Russia. I wrote it in about 100 pages. I came back and it was awful. It was not worthy of their great experience and I said, `I won't--I won't go back to this until I've retired.'
LAMB: When did you start interviewing your parents?
Mr. FRANKEL: About 25 years ago.
LAMB: Are they alive?
Mr. FRANKEL: No, they just--both died in this decade, my father in 1990 and my mother two years ago.
LAMB: How did you interview them?
Mr. FRANKEL: Sat them down for long discussions, detected conflicts over time as I re-interviewed them on various points, found them contradicting one another. Sometimes when they were together, they would interrupt one another, and stumble all over the material. And I was as rigorous with them as I am with most of the people I interview.
LAMB: Who is this man?
Mr. FRANKEL: That's my father on the left as he came out of Russia finally in 1946 to rejoin us in this country.
LAMB: What was he like?
Mr. FRANKEL: Incredibly courageous and rugged as--as--as all can be. He survived near death several times in Stalin's Russia. He came back here, immediately insisted on taking command of the family. My mother, who had worked all through the war to support me, she was ordered to stop working, and he began very much as he began in Germany, as a peddler. He packed--he bought a little business, packed his suitcases and ran around Harlem to working people and selling them on the installment plan, you know, `With $1 down and take the dress now and pay me $1 a week as well as you can afford it.' That ultimately led to a little store in West Harlem in New York, which he ran very successfully until the strife in the neighborhood got too rough and he got beat up a couple times and had to finally close his store. But it was a very proud thing for him to do. I mean, he was color-blind when he came here. He had no problem dealing with black people. I was afraid to go around and collect the money in Harlem when--when he had to send me out--he was ill or something. But he was color-blind and he treated those people the way he treated working people in Germany. He saw no difference. They were terribly loyal to him. And i--the business flourished on a small-time basis.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken?
Mr. FRANKEL: That's my mother and I in Berlin, the last picture we took in Germany before we left. I was almost 10 then.
LAMB: What was she like?
Mr. FRANKEL: She was a shy, plump, pretty woman who never intended to either have a career or rise to any other occasion. She wanted to raise a family. Suddenly, she was plunged into the tensions of life under Hitler and a family that was s--s--separated, shunted around from Germany to Poland, back to Germany. She took charge of all our
affairs, she took charge of talking her way past the Nazis to get permission to finally leave. She set up a household here and s--took in borders in--in New York, taught herself a trade, finishing fur coats, putting the linings in and pockets and buttons--a woman of extraordinary common sense, uttering, you know, almost proverbial epigrams about the nature of--of--of human existence, keeping me so bathed in love that, after all our traumas, I came out with unaltered optimism and good sense and hope. She was an incredible woman, and yet, retreated in the end--when my father came, retreated right back into an--an unnoticeable kind of daily life.
LAMB: What year did you leave Europe?
Mr. FRANKEL: 1940.
LAMB: You left from what country?
Mr. FRANKEL: We left from Berlin and spent three days in Holland getting on a Dutch ship to come to New York.
LAMB: When did your dad come here?
Mr. FRANKEL: 1946.
LAMB: Why the difference?
Mr. FRANKEL: He was trapped in Stalin's Russia. We had--at the beginning of the war in 1939, the war found Mother and me in Germany waiting for an American visa. We had to pick them up in Berlin. They had finally been granted, but we were supposed to get them on September 12th, and on September 1st, the war broke out. My father, by that time, did not want to spend a few weeks even in Germany. Jewish men were being arrested and--and--and abused in a way that he didn't trust them. He was gonna come at the last minute, just spend 48 hours in Germany and pick up the visa, get on the boat and get out. The war broke out. The Nazis invaded Poland. He ran East. The Russians invaded Poland, took the other half. They needed labor a--in Siberia, so they trumped up some charges. He was--his passport--his documents said that he was a merchant. Well, that's the capitalist class, so he was convicted of being capitalist. He was offered Soviet citizenship, which would have meant you never get out. So by refusing it, he com--he was a suspect in their eyes. He was literally sentenced in a court to a labor camp, almost died marching out. Not that they--they didn't abuse them the way Nazis did, but just marching out in the cold every day and chopping trees.
He finally just collapsed, he had lost so much weight. He--he feigned a worse illness than he had, would up in the--in the h--in the prison hospital, where another prisoner, a doctor, also a Jew, recognized a kindred spirit and sort of nursed him back to health and, instead of sending him back out to work, gave him a kind of a job that he survived. Well, when--make a long story short, when Hitler invaded Russia, suddenly Poland became an ally of the Soviet Union rather than an enemy, and the Polish government in exile lobbied for the release of all these P--quote, "Poles" who had been arrested and sent to Siberia.
So he was finally released in 1941 from the labor camp routine, but he couldn't leave Russia. So he found his way around Russia doing crazy odd jobs, really getting to know the Russian people in a way that I never did when I went as a correspondent. And not until 1946 was he, quote, "repatriated" to Poland. He was never a Pole. He'd left Po--what was Poland--what was actually Austria-Hungary when he was a kid, but everybody, the Nazis and the Russians, treated him as a Pole. So he was sent back to Poland and from there he--of course, we had his papers waiting there for him and--at the American Embassy. This was just before the Communists took control of Poland, and then he made his way to Sweden and came to New York, where he joined us.
LAMB: You mention--mentioned being Jewish. And at one point in your book, you also say at one time a Jew could not be editor of The New York Times?
Mr. FRANKEL: That's right.
LAMB: Up until what year?
Mr. FRANKEL: Well, the first Jew who actually was the top editor was Abe Rosenthal, who was my predecessor, and he became editor in 1967, I believe it was. A.M. Rosenthal was the byline. There were lots of--several Abrahams who were working for The New York Times who were Jewish, all of whom somehow were persuaded to use the initial, and he wrote as A.M. Rosenthal. Abe Raskin wrote as A.H. Raskin.
LAMB: Why the sensitivity?
Mr. FRANKEL: Because the family was Jewish and--and of a Jewish history and conditioning that they felt they did not want to be known in the 1930s and 1940s as a Jewish newspaper. This country was not entirely purged of its own anti-Semitism, particularly in--in elite circles. And they--they felt not only was it bad for business, it was bad for the influence of the--if--of this great newspaper to be known as Jewish, and they didn't want to be conspicuous about it. And so there was an unwritten rule what--but rigidly observed, that the top person was not gonna be Jewish in that era. And it was not until Punch Sulzberger came along after World War II that that rule was relaxed. There were lots of Jews on the staff. Most of them, though, were kept around New York. It was relatively harder for--even Abe Rosenthal, when he went abroad, he was a brilliant correspondent, but it was very difficult for him to get--be sent abroad.
LAMB: Abe Rosenthal, Max Frankel, Joe Lelyveld, all Jews?
Mr. FRANKEL: All Jews.
LAMB: Does it--has it made any difference?
Mr. FRANKEL: Absolutely none in the--in the way we run the paper.
LAMB: No, but, I mean, has it made any difference to the concern in the old days that a Jew running as an editor would be a bad thing? Have there been any negative...
Mr. FRANKEL: Oh, no, I m--I mean, every once in a while, you hear an epithet that we're a Jewish newspaper. I think in the Arab world in particular, we're probably still somewhat suspect for that reason. But the--the new Sulzberger who's running the paper was raised as an Episcopalian, he was raised by his mother and he's not Jewish and--and he doesn't feel Jewish. And when I look over the field of likely candidates for the next editor after Joe Lelyveld, I don't think it's gonna be a Jew, so it's--without affirmative action, it's--it's--it's balancing itself.
LAMB: Now the other connection back with your father is this picture right here--there are more than one--that go back to the days when you went back to Russia.
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes.
LAMB: And you mention in your book that you really knew this man pretty well, but you didn't know just the average Russian...
Mr. FRANKEL: Exactly right.
LAMB: ...at all. Why?
Mr. FRANKEL: That's Nikita Khrushchev, who came along and gained full power three years after Stalin died and very heroically undertook to change the nature of that society from--from the top down.
LAMB: Is that you in the corner?
Mr. FRANKEL: That's me in the bottom right-hand corner. That's actually on Park Avenue outside the then Russian Mission on 68th Street and Park Avenue when Khrushchev, on one of his trips to New York, was holding forth on the sidewalk, after first carrying on on the balcony about--I had gotten to know him in Russia because in order to show that it was a new society coming along, Khrushchev--and he dragged his entire politburo to the foreign embassies around town for--to celebrate practically every national day--in other words, of all the countries that had embassies there, maybe 100 of them. So every second or third night we'd go to an embassy party, and sooner or later Khrushchev would waltz in with all his top leaders and hold forth both with the diplomats and with the press, and we could ask him questions. We had press conferences. We had total access of a kind that we haven't had in this country since Truman took his famous walks on the sidewalk with the press trailing him. And you could really take the man's measure, and I developed some very grudging respect for him despite all his bluster and despite the ideology, obviously, which I didn't share.
And my sense of ordinary Russia really had to come from my father's experiences, and it colored my view because I was really desperately trying to understand what daily Russian life was, 'cause my father had given me pictures of the--the warmth and the decency and the humanity of--of so many of the Russian--ordinary Russian people, and they were suffering under this ghastly system. But Khrushchev tried to lift that--that heavy tyranny off the backs of his society and to get to the country moving again in a way that had to--had to require a--a--a release of consumer goods and a--and a new freedom to let people work. He was really the precursor of Gorbachev. But there was a long, dead Brezhnev period in between.
LAMB: There are a lot of things I wrote down as I read the book that I wanted to ask you about. Some of them are just quick things. At one point in your life, you were surrounded by Lawrence Grossman, Richard Wald, David Weiss and Roone Arledge.
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes.
LAMB: Those men all were or--have been or are in journalism. Where...
Mr. FRANKEL: Great media figures.
LAMB: Where--where was that?
Mr. FRANKEL: That was the class of 1952 at Columbia College and it was the Columbia Daily Spectator, of which I was the editor, Larry Grossman was the managing editor. He went on to become the president of P--PBS and later the president of NBC News. Richard Wald, who was the m--last managing editor of the New York Herald-Tribune, became president of NBC News and then executive vice president of ABC Television News. Roone Arledge was down the hall. He was editing the yearbook. He wasn't working on the newspaper. So we always looked askance at him, and if anything, he became the wealthiest and most famous of us all because he started out broadcasting football games for ABC and became the brilliant, innovative producer of--of television sports at ABC and then eventually, when that news organization had to be rebuilt, took over the news as well, and put together what, in its time, was a first-rate news organization at ABC-TV.
LAMB: Did you all know...
Mr. FRANKEL: I also left out Bob Gotlieb, who was also down the hall somewhere, and he became, of course, the editor of--of The New Yorker magazine and editor of Random House at one point.
LAMB: Now did you all know at that time that you were gonna go on to do these kind of things?
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes. We were all media brats and we were all--I mean, we--we didn't have a clue that we would all really stick with it. Larry, I think--Larry Grossman went to law school for one year and quit, and--but in one way or another, yes, we were all drawn to the media.
LAMB: Most people think of Dwight Eisenhower as either a great general or a president of the United States.
Mr. FRANKEL: Right.
LAMB: You saw him in a different light.
Mr. FRANKEL: I saw him as president of the university, although he was more absent than not. He--NATO was formed at the very same time. He and I were at Columbia exactly the same four years, '48 to '52. And I think he always regard--Stephen Ambrose, his biographer, concedes that I came to think that it was a mistake going to Columbia. He was not interested in either scholarship or fund raising or administering a vast place like that. I always thought that he had been lured there by--both by my publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was a member of the board of Columbia, and other leading trustees. I think they wanted to demilitarize, civilianize, if you will, Eisenhower in order to get him to run for president. They were struggling against Robert Taft and the Midwest isolationists at the time, and they wanted an internationalist Republican and they were looking for candidates. Eisenhower was such a neuter that he could've run for either Democratic or Republican Party at the time. They brought him to Columbia, I think, to--to allow that to happen so he wouldn't be seen as just a military figure.
LAMB: You--this is a quote from you: "JFK--John F. Kennedy's words were often devious."
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes. I don't re--exactly remember which words inspired that comment, but he had many policy purposes that were not sincere. He...
LAMB: Let me read you a sentence...
Mr. FRANKEL: All right.
LAMB: ...so I'll put in context. This is the Deception With Honor chapter, back in October of 1962, `Though his words were often devious, the president's word of honor struck us as a genuine and generous gesture. We were impressed not just by the fervency of his response, but his willingness to submit to our presumptuous cross-examination.'
Mr. FRANKEL: Kennedy was devious in the sense that he was much more committed orally, say, to civil rights, especially for black people, than he was willing to--to--to take risks for. He--he was much more--he talked about opening diplomatic relations with China and other Communist countries, but when it came to recognizing even Mongolia, he retreated from it. He was scared politically and--of the backlash, he had won election by such a narrow margin.
But that occasion, that word of honor arose when we finally found out during a tense week of crisis here in Washington that there were offensive nuclear missiles going into Cuba from Russia, and Kennedy had made us promise that we would call him when we found out what this crisis was about. They had tried to mislead us into thinking it was Berlin or whatnot. Th--they were buying time to decide what to do. We called Kennedy. On the phone I was on one extension; Reston spoke to him. And Kennedy said, `Well, do you know what I'm gonna do about it?' And we said, `No, but we know that you've vowed to take forceful action to get the missiles out.' He said, `Well, I'm gonna put in a blockade, and you can't print that and you can't print that I've discovered the missiles for 24 hours till I get on television, because if Khrushchev finds out that we now have found out that he was deceiving us, he's gonna make a threat or take a pre-emptive move that's gonna force me to take violent action, and I'm gonna try to settle this without violence. I want to put the ships in place. So please, hold up this story for 24 hours.'
Reston says, `Well, we--I don't decide these things. I will recommend to my publisher.' And when he hung up the phone--and our first instinct was to say, `Well, that's a reasonable argument from the president,' and Reston was about to cub--call the publisher when I said, `But, you know, we had downplayed the Bay of Pig--what we knew about the Bay of Pigs invasion also and we came to regret it. And the blockade's an act or war and he's gonna go to war against the Soviet Union and we're not gonna tell the people and the Congress what's happening here? For all we know, there will be bloodshed and we will have conspired in allowing it to happen.' Reston picked up the phone again and said, `I've gotta talk to the president again.' Pierre Salinger put him through, and this time he said, `Mr. President, awkward as it sounds, we've gotta cross-examine you here. We don't want this blood on our hands. We don't want to participate in a deception.' And he said, `You have my word of honor, there will be no bloodshed until I go public with this. Now please, I've asked you to withhold this story.' So on that basis we did, 24 hours. We wrote a story saying, `There's an air of crisis in Washington,' but we didn't say why. And I said, `Take my name off that story because I don't--I don't want to sign something that I know is--is not everything we know.'
LAMB: Knowing what you know, would that same thing happen today with this president, that there'd be times we would withhold something like this?
Mr. FRANKEL: It would be tough, but if we were in an atmosphere of Cold War--I mean, his word is even harder to take than Kennedy's was. But I think if we were in a Cold War and if we were playing with real nuclear weapons and a president put his word on the line and had a good reason, as--as Kennedy did--Mac Bundy, much later, writing about that episode, said, you know, `Talking to the press in the middle of such a crisis in these direct ways, that's part of the presidential duty and...'
LAMB: Does this president have a relationship with any reporter like JFK did, say, with Scotty Reston?
Mr. FRANKEL: Not at all. Not at all. And I don't think they would've even had the wit in the Clinton White House, from what I've seen, to s--to call us up in advance and say, `Look, sooner or later we know, we have enough respect for your guys, you're gonna figure out what's going on here and please, when you do, don't print it until you call me.' That in itself was a pre-emptive move that Clinton probably would never take.
LAMB: Completely different subject, page 488, `The slightest disturbance of his ego always inspired New York's Governor Cuomo to spray the newsroom with his angry phone calls and leading up to an assault on me if I failed to take evasive action. Senator D'Amato fired way over our heads, straight at Punch Sulzberger with reminders of the favors done for the publisher's business and charity interests, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art.' What is that?
Mr. FRANKEL: I was discoursing on the kind of trouble you get from politicians when you're in the hot seat. When you're executive editor, you have to put up with their complaints, and they think they're privileged characters and they want direct access to the top. Cuomo wasn't content to fence with our correspondent in Albany who was covering him. Whenever he had a complaint, he started calling everybody from the city editor and--to the assistant managing editor, and I had to take evasive action and duck.
D'Amato didn't bother with such subtleties. He really was Senator Pothole, and I'm sure he had done a lot of favors for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other civic interests that he knew our publisher took to heart. And so when he had a complaint, he would go right to the Punch Sulzberger, who would appease him, but would always come to us and say, `Look, what's going on here? Can you prepare a reply for me?' or, `Can you satisfy him.' But he'd never order us to make a politician happy.
LAMB: I know you'll remember this. I'm trying to find--yeah, here it is. `He gave the heads of the Metropolitan, Columbia and Mt. Sinai special access to his editors, but never ordered any stories about them into or out of the paper.'
Mr. FRANKEL: Right.
LAMB: Who is `he,' and what's the special access?
Mr. FRANKEL: The he is Punch Sulzberger, our publisher. He was a member of the board of those institutions.
LAMB: Metropolitan Museum of...
Mr. FRANKEL: Art.
Mr. FRANKEL: He was the chairman and--and--eventually, and he was a member of of the board of Columbia University and a member of the board of Mt. Sinai Hospital. And the heads of those institutions, along with many others--along with many businessmen, leading advertisers, would come to lunch at The Times, off-the-record lunches, usually, because he said, `Come and talk to our top editors, and tell them what your institutions are doing and what it's all about.' Some of these people came, very eager to get certain kinds of publicity or special favors in print, but we knew we were under no obligation to give them that. Punch never insisted that we do anything, even for the institutions with which he was intimately involved.
LAMB: What does The New York Times do that no other newspaper does?
Mr. FRANKEL: It fields a staff that is far deeper both in number--in quantity and in quality. We insist that the entire world is our oyster and that includes outer space. We want expertise in everything from outer space to foreign affairs to national and local coverage to cultural coverage, sports, business. We insist on producing our own news almost exclusively in all those fields, and in all those areas we really trust it only when our own correspondents and editors have worked up the material. We run a--a superb set of Sunday supplements that--that are unique, I think, in American journalism. Our magazine is of extraordinary equality and expense. Our book review is a constant drain on our budget, but it unites the world of--of literate Americans in a way that no other book page anywhere does. It--the publishers are forced to pay attention not only to our best-seller list, but they are forced to put the--their ads in there even if they don't think they sell that many books.
In every field, we are--we are incredibly greedy of wanting to master every subject that journalism can cons--in--in good conscious, touch. That's the main function. Of course, we also print more news. We think we finally learned to organize it in a useful fashion. And we print--we field--we--we allow the news department, ultimately, to spend what it takes to do the job. We work on--with a budget, but when the chips are down and a war breaks out in--in Iraq or--or a great crisis occurs in--in--in--in the United States, no editor at The Times needs to worry about how much money he's spending to get it right.
LAMB: How do you personally read it every day?
Mr. FRANKEL: I've learned to skim it because I had to unlearn a lot of habits. When I was editor, I not only had to read almost all of it, but I had to reread a lot of it. Who was doing it--things right? Who was doing things wrong? I studied headlines, bylines, pictures, captions. I learned then to segment my attention so that, say, every--every six weeks I'd pick up the society page and see whether they were doing things the way I thought could be improved, or I'd shift my attention to the sports pages or the business pages.
LAMB: But right now, when just...
Mr. FRANKEL: Right now, I try to get through it as fast as I can.
LAMB: What do you read first?
Mr. FRANKEL: I look at--I look up and down the front page and resentfully follow many of the stories to the inside. I say `resentfully' because I think we ought to outgrow this habit of jumping stories from page one to the inside and even to other sections. But I turn to the inside on at least two or three of them. I sometimes look at the page two index, then I usually turn to the Op-Ed page and the editorial page to see which articles there are on subjects that interest me, or columns. I may read them right away, but at least I want to make a mental note to come back to them.
LAMB: What percentage of people that buy The New York Times every day read the Op-Ed page?
Mr. FRANKEL: I don't know the figure today. I think in my day it was somewhere on the order of 12 percent to 15 percent.
LAMB: How about read the editorials every day?
Mr. FRANKEL: About the same.
LAMB: Because you've got a--on page 436 here, you talk about a reader survey, and you all found out some things you didn't expect to find out...
Mr. FRANKEL: That's right.
LAMB: ...about readers. What did you--what did you learn?
Mr. FRANKEL: I never trusted the readers surveys that came back with--with these percentages that I'm just throwing at you--8 percent read a movie review, 86 percent look at the front page. I don't know what that meant, but one time, because of my complaints, the people who were doing these surveys did a very clever thing. They took about a couple of hundred people and said, `Did you read the paper yesterday?' And if the answer was yes, they handed them a red crayon and they said, `Show us how. Put a 1 on each section at whatever you looked at first, even if it wasn't a story, even if it was a picture. Forget the ads, but show us where you started and then circle how much of that you consumed.' And boy, did we learn things. We learned, first of all, that even in a sophisticated audience like The Times and a relatively gray paper, as we were then called, `The--The Good Gray Times'--people responded to the pictures and they responded emotionally to emotional pictures. Even if the subject was rather remote and arcane, like on this particular day that we're doing the survey, it was a story about Cambodian refugees in Thailand and what the kids were suffering, written in a relatively dry way, but the picture was most moving of two little kids, and practically half the readers in that survey not only started on that picture, but followed that story to the inside.
Now none of us would have dreamed that was--we put that on page one as a--out of a sense of duty and humanity. We wouldn't dream that half our readers would--would--would actually consume that story. We learned that. We learned a lot about the traffic. My final conclusion of it all was that we were really like a supermarket. Every reader came in and followed a different path through the paper, left with a basket loaded in very different ways and patterns, and that we had to be very careful about making sure that every reader--steady reader knew where everything was. You know, you don't dare move the meat counter to a new place without annoying the customers, on the one hand, and on the other hand, that they trip in the aisles over things that we wanted them to take notice of. And putting together the paper and redesigning it became a very special interest of mine as a result.
LAMB: What's the number-one read thing in The New York Times?
Mr. FRANKEL: Oh, the front page.
LAMB: How about es....
Mr. FRANKEL: But not necessarily the--the lead story as we decide it. Something on the front page that grabs the readers, and often as not it--it may be a picture, which also taught us to write captions in a different way. You can't just say, `Mrs. Smith doing her shopping in the picture,' you have to explain to the reader who starts with the picture why they're reading that caption, why that picture is there.
LAMB: Something called the Reporter's Notebook was brought into the paper by what editor?
Mr. FRANKEL: By Abe Rosenthal and Max Frankel in--in--in a strange collusion. It happened when I was covering Nixon in China and it was a very special occasion. He--he--he was so angry with us because we published the Pentagon Papers that he didn't want to take The Times to China at all. He was finally persuaded by some of his aides to give us one seat--I was so angry about that because we really needed two or three people to--to cover that trip properly--that I was determined to outdo all--not only all my print competitors, but to do better than all the television people who occupied all of the seats on the plane, 'cause Nixon wanted to be on television.
So aside from writing a daily news story, plus an analysis of the diplomacy that was going on, I decided to--to try to outdo the cameras in giving a picture of what was going on during that remarkable visit. And so I wrote these little feature stories descriptively, and weaving in even a little bit of opinion, and so we called them Reporter's Notebooks, and Abe responded to them so well that--he liked them so much that he put them on the front page. And so a--a new art form, if you will, was born. It wasn't altogether new. This was the kind of stuff we used to write for our house organ, for the amusement of our colleagues. You'd come back from a presidential trip or a political campaign and the really naughty but insightful stuff you'd save for the house organ--it was called Times Talk--and they were such clever and witty articles that a whole bunch of us felt that, `Why should we reserve this for our own staff and not share it with the readers?'
LAMB: The reason I mention it is 'cause you have--on page ….you say, `These Notebooks led--let me twit both the president and the massed legions of television.'
Mr. FRANKEL: Right.
LAMB: So when people read those Reporter's Notebooks they ought to factor in that you--that a re--you might be twitting someone.
Mr. FRANKEL: Oh, it was clear. It was very clear. It wasn't a secret to say that here was the master Red-baiter of all--of all American politics going to the Peking Opera to watch a ballet, an opera that was depicting the capitalist people being murdered and butchered by glorious Communists. To say that Mrs. Nixon and--and--and--and the president were sitting through this stuff and pollitely--politely applauding and bowing to their hosts, that kind of twitting is--is no secret from the reader.
LAMB: You--you refer to Mr. Nixon as a `Queeg in the Oval Office.'
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes.
LAMB: What'd you mean?
Mr. FRANKEL: I meant that he had such a degree of self-hatred that he really was a--something of a wicked man who tortured all about him, who barked orders that others had to deliberately disobey, who planned devious stratagems because he was so suspect of all other human nature. I think it came out of a deep self-hatred, if I could play psychoanalyst a bit. He was a tortured soul who--who dogged my ears in--in--in--in journalism practically from the beginning. I first met him in 1956 when he was vice president, and he was with us throughout our lifetimes.
The examples I give in the book of why I think these--these bad things of him is, you know, when--when--when George Wallace was shot, his first instinct was to paper the--the assassin's apartment with McGovern literature because--so as to blame the liberal Democrats, to affiliate them with the assassination. He--he--he tricked his own wife--now that's no longer such a crime either, apparently, but when Pat Nixon was revealed to have wanted a woman on the Supreme Court and she was angry with him for not even considering one, he ordered his staff to find a woman that the--that the Bar Association would find unqualified so that he could trick his wife into thinking he was serious about it.
LAMB: The year you graduated from Columbia was?
Mr. FRANKEL: 1952.
LAMB: And the year you were Washington editor--Washington bureau chief?
Mr. FRANKEL: 1968 to '72.
LAMB: The years you were the editorial page editor?
Mr. FRANKEL: 1976 to 1986.
LAMB: And the years you were executive editor?
Mr. FRANKEL: 1986 to 1994.
LAMB: You--you write this at--at one point, you were talking about the Vietnam War. You said, "The diplomatic correspondent"--in quotes--"of The Times should have visited Vietnam"--that's you...
Mr. FRANKEL: That's me.
LAMB: "...all the more since he lacked understanding of its history and people. Like Kennedy and his equally ignorant counselors, I had come to think of Cold War battles as symb--sym--symbolic games fought with proxies and with diplomatic feints and parries inspired by Harvard's game theorists."
Mr. FRANKEL: Yes. There...
LAMB: How many people are you stepping on there?
Mr. FRANKEL: Let it fall where they may. I was as guilty as the rest of them. We had, you know, theories of escalation in warfare developed by game theorists in--in academe, and particularly at Harvard, which infected our policymakers, that if we raised the stakes in a situation, the other fellow would either have to think hard about matching him or he'd come to the table and negotiate, and then with the treat of more escalation he would succumb and this game theory--it was the way we conducted much of our diplomacy. And Vietnam was a--was a prime example of it.
LAMB: The cover of this book has a picture of you. How old are you in this picture?
Mr. FRANKEL: I'm in college there. I think I was either in my junior or senior year. No more cigarettes. That--that's the tell-tale sign. And no more typewriters.
LAMB: Our guest has been Max Frankel. This is the book. It's called "The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times." Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. FRANKEL: Great pleasure, Brian.
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