You might think that a journalist who had spent 55 years with The New York Times , working his way up from copy boy to Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent to top editor, a position held with enormous distinction for 17 years, would not deserve to be shabbily dismissed at age 77 by the family that owns The Times . But early this month, under the orders of The Times ‘ 48-year-old chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal, who spent the last 13 years as one of the paper’s Op-Ed columnists, was fired. Why would The Times in its own coverage of his departure call him “one of the most influential figures in American journalism in the last half of this century,” and then toss him out on the street?
To the Sulzbergers, Mr. Rosenthal was never much more than a chachem from the Bronx who ran the newspaper day to day. He, on the other hand, a devout Zionist and The Times ‘ first Jewish editor, resented the Sulzbergers’ closet Jewishness and WASPy pretensions and had always been dismissive of publisher and chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr. When the junior Mr. Sulzberger arrived at the paper in 1978, Mr. Rosenthal, who was at the peak of his power then, considered Junior’s arrival nothing more than a job for the boss’ son, who appeared to have even less ability than the father. After all, Junior had little or no experience, had received mediocre grades from a second-rate college and wasn’t very likable. And could there be anything more detestable to this very Jewish man than the scion of one of the most powerful Jewish families in the world being brought up in the Episcopal Church?
The gulf between the family and Mr. Rosenthal was further aggravated by the fact that he was never part of the Sulzbergers’ social galaxy, unlike his WASPy and urbane counterpart, the pipe-smoking James (Scotty) Reston, who was constantly in the company of the Sulzbergers and was clearly the favorite of Iphigene Sulzberger, wife of “the old man,” publisher emeritus Arthur Hays Sulzberger. So much so that in 1963, when publisher Orvil Dryfoos died, Mr. Reston almost succeeded him, but the job was kept within the family.
In any case, the combative Abe Rosenthal was never quiet about the fact that he considered the Sulzberger father and son moral and intellectual lightweights. And so by 1997, when young Mr. Sulzberger, by then publisher, added the final feather in his cap-the chairman title-it was only a matter of time.
Mr. Sulzberger’s decision is a clear statement that he puts his own small-minded vindictiveness ahead of The Times ‘ luminous history, a history that was forged in no small part by Mr. Rosenthal. He ran the paper from 1969 to 1986, a convulsive time during which he oversaw publication of the Pentagon Papers, recruited extraordinary talent like David Halberstam and Gay Talese, and expanded the paper’s coverage with sections such as “Science Times” and “Home.” As Times veteran R.W. Apple Jr. tells Vanity Fair , Abe “may have saved The Times .”
But now, in a mean-spirited and petty act of retribution, A.M. Rosenthal has been dismissed, even though he has given his life to The Times , served the institution with passionate intensity and, perhaps more than anyone else, defined the role of the newspaper in 20th-century America.
Cool It, Mr. Mayor!
Will next year’s much-hyped Senate race in New York end up as a contest between a corrupt interloper and a thin-skinned, angry mayor?
Of the interloper, suffice it to say that this page is not advocating her candidacy. As for the Mayor, well, consider how much time Rudolph Giuliani has been devoting to meaningless, personal feuds with people who dare to disagree with him. Having been one of the most successful occupants of Gracie Mansion in New York City history, he has of late been shooting himself in the foot, coming across as a cranky know-it-all who thinks he is governing a city of fools.
It is a puzzle why the Mayor would want to squander the public mandate given him in 1997, when he won a huge re-election victory. New York’s voters told him to go forth and re-create the city in accordance with his vision-not a bad vote of confidence. And what has he done? He has spent too much time fighting with New Yorkers rather than fighting for New Yorkers. Sometimes he sounds like an upstate mayor from a minor-league city, as he carries on about New York’s “elites.”
Take just two recent examples of his bizarre penchant for political fisticuffs: his war against the Brooklyn Museum of Art and his attempt to revise the City Charter. The Brooklyn art controversy became a weeks-long story of political grandstanding that may have won the Mayor publicity but did nothing to address the problems that New Yorkers really care about. Such as: public schools (poorly performing eighth graders; the presence of rats in school cafeterias); a troubling increase in homicides; the economy’s increased reliance on financial services, and so on. Instead, he spent his energy attacking the judge who ruled against him, his own cultural commissioner and anybody else who happened to disagree with him. Meanwhile, the City Charter debacle was a clumsy attempt to block Public Advocate Mark Green from inheriting City Hall. The voters saw right through it.
Those absurd quarrels over nothing call Mr. Giuliani’s temperament into question. The Senate is a consensus-driven institution. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan understood the importance of collegiality. Even former Senator Alfonse D’Amato, despite his ethical problems and odd mannerisms, knew how to wheel and deal. Neither man went out of his way to make enemies. One senses New Yorkers would not be surprised to see Mr. Giuliani alienate the entire Senate on his first day and end up persona non grata, which would be a disaster for the state and the city.
Voters in next year’s race may be confronted with an awful dilemma: They’ll have to choose the candidate they dislike the least. Not a pleasant prospect.