R.W. Apple Keeps a Safe Distance From His Old Buddy, John McCain

Veteran New York Times political writer R.W. (Johnny) Apple Jr. has a problem this Presidential election season. He has decided to keep his distance from one of the key candidates in the race, John McCain, because of their friendship, which dates back to 1967.

“I have not covered John McCain since the campaign begun,” Mr. Apple said. “I have not talked to him on the telephone nor have I ridden on the bus since the campaign–by design.”

Asked if he had ever talked to Times editors about the possible conflict of interest his friendship with the candidate may pose, Mr. Apple said, “No. It came up as an issue in my own mind.”

Carl Lavin, the news editor at the Times Washington bureau, said of Mr. Apple’s relationship with Mr. McCain: “I don’t think that’s specifically a huge issue. It’s something the reporters and all the editors are aware of.” Mr. Lavin added, “Johnny pretty carefully selects what he writes about, and he does it with that in mind, and all of the editors support him.”

This time around, Mr. Apple is by no means the mainstay of The Times ‘ political coverage. He has written 12 stories on the Presidential campaign so far this year. But what he does choose to write tends to get good play–five of those stories have made the front page. So far, Mr. Apple has been making the campaign stops (Manchester, N.H., Charleston, S.C., Detroit) and filing news analyses.

When it comes to conflicts of interest, Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld said, “I judge these things on the basis of copy and what appears in the paper.” He added, “I just don’t see anything fuzzy or soft in the way he’s been treating McCain.”

But here was Mr. Apple in the Feb. 22 edition of The Times on the McCain victory in Michigan: “Mr. McCain’s electrifying and oh-so-vital victory here was reinforced by an overwhelming victory in his home state of Arizona, where Mr. Bush had once hoped to make inroads.”

In a front-page analysis of how the delegate count will go on Feb. 26, Mr. Apple made Mr. McCain the lead: “Eventually, the quest for Presidential nominations comes down to delegates. Numbers start counting for more than buzz, bump and momentum.

“For Senator John McCain, eventually is just around the corner.”

The friendship between Mr. McCain and Mr. Apple goes back to the Vietnam War. The two met in late summer of 1967 when Mr. Apple, then a young star in editor Abe Rosenthal’s newsroom, was a covering a fire on the U.S.S. Forrestal that killed 134 sailors. One of the young Navy pilots aboard the aircraft carrier was Mr. McCain.

Mr. McCain writes of their meeting in his biography Faith of My Fathers : “A distraction from my despondency appeared on the way to Subic in the person of R.W. (Johnny) Apple, the Times correspondent in Saigon. Serving as a pool reporter, he arrived by helicopter with a camera crew to examine the damaged ship and interview the survivors. When he finished collecting material for his report, he offered to take me back to Saigon with him for the daily press briefing irreverently referred to as the `Five O’Clock Follies.’ Seeing it as an opportunity for some welcome R&R, I jumped at the invitation. I passed a few days there pleasantly, wondering about my future and beginning a lifelong friendship with Johnny.”

In the fall of that same year, when Mr. McCain was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese, it was Mr. Apple, too, who wrote the Times story that made the front page with the headline, “Adm. McCain’s Son, Forrestal Survivor, Is Missing in Raid.” (This, too, is noted in Mr. McCain’s memoir.)

Even prior to the 2000 political season, Mr. Apple has found reason to write about Mr. McCain. In November 1986, when Mr. McCain was just a two-term Congressman from Arizona two days away from being elected Senator for the first time, Mr. Apple wrote a glowing profile for The Times . Headlined, “National Role Is Seen for Arizona Nominee,” the story led: “After a run of horrendously bad luck, Representative John McCain has been blessed with good fortune of an extraordinary kind, and he now seems poised to emerge as a significant figure in national politics, as a member of the United States Senate.”

Mr. Apple gave Mr. McCain some exposure in The Times again in 1988, allowing the Senator to air his view on then-candidate for Vice President Dan Quayle’s service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. Ever the gourmand, Mr. Apple noted that the interview with Mr. McCain took place “over a Southwestern breakfast of eggs, tortillas, refried beans and desert-grown watermelon.”

In 1996, too, following the G.O.P. convention, Mr. Apple identified Mr. McCain (along with George W. Bush and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman) as “prime pieces of political talent, already well known to the Washington cognoscenti, with the potential to contend for the Presidency or Vice Presidency in 2000 or 2004.”

At the cozy intersection of Washington power and Washington journalism, Mr. Apple said he gets to know a lot of politicians. “Three of the four candidates [this year] I have known reasonably well, which is common for a senior correspondent in Washington,” he said. The lone exception is Bill Bradley, but Mr. Apple said, “I have certainly had dinner with him and gone to dinners where we were both present.”

Still, even Mr. Apple said that Mr. McCain stands out. “McCain and I are closer friends than I am with any of the others of them, because I knew him before he was shot down in Vietnam,” Mr. Apple said. “He used to spend some of his leaves at my house in Saigon, and we have known each other ever since–that’s quite a long time.”

Mr. Apple pointed out that he is confident he can keep his own personal biases out of his work.

“I’ve been writing about campaigns since 1960, and I think I have a well-established record for objectivity,” he said. “I’m not going to take myself out of the business because I am a friend of John McCain’s.”

Undertaking a redesign of The New Yorker is not an easy task, but all of the magazine’s editors after William Shawn have always seen fit to try. In 1989, two years after he took over, Robert Gottlieb added more illustrations throughout the magazine, especially in the front Goings on About Town section. As soon as Tina Brown arrived in 1992, she added photos, decks on the table of contents and bylines on the tops of stories.

Now it’s David Remnick’s turn. Those changes made for The New Yorker ‘s 75th anniversary issue–the red type in the magazine, the larger illustrations in the Talk of the Town section, the removal of the little headlines at the top of pages, the longer wiggly black lines separating articles–are mostly going to stay. Mr. Remnick said the redesign was a product of many months of labor by himself, the magazine’s art director Caroline Mailhot and design consultant Massimo Vignelli. The aim, Mr. Remnick said, was largely to adapt the design to some of the changes Ms. Brown wrought.

“I thought that in the early and mid 90′s, Tina Brown, to her great credit, added a number of elements to the magazine that had not been there–not only photographs but also color illustrations and other elements,” Mr. Remnick said. “I think she did a remarkable thing, but it takes time to accommodate all these new elements.”

Still, Mr. Remnick said he tried to be reverent to The New Yorker ‘s traditions.

“Doing the design and layout of The New Yorker is not the same as doing the design and layout of a relatively new magazine like ESPN or Wired . This is a magazine with a long history. Only a fool would get rid of all the signature elements of The New Yorker –again, the typeface, the Irvin [typeface] for headlines, the logo, the covers, including the detail of the strap on the side. It’s very important.”

Mr. Remnick said he wants to keep the pictures big, like the four-column Edward Sorel drawing of Kurt Weill and Richard Avedon photo of Susan Sontag in the March 7 issue. Another aim was to increase white space on pages by moving the date and page number to the bottom of the page and getting rid of the “running head” (those titles like “Annals of Espionage” or “Letter From Paris” that would run on every page of a feature).

One thing that won’t stay (for long at least) from the special anniversary issue are those short “Takes” from classic New Yorker writers. They’ll disappear by the time the magazine turns 76. That’s probably for the best, since a couple hundred words of A.J. Liebling or E.B. White has about as much impact as those stanzas of poetry in the subway.

As for furious readers, Mr. Remnick claims things are calm. “I’ve not gotten angry letters or all of the usual things that tend to attend redesigns,” he said.

Joining the legions of print-journalists jumping to Internet startups on Feb. 25 was Fortune writer Jodi Mardesich, who will become editorial vice president for Drspock.com, a Web startup that will offer parenting information based on Dr. Benjamin Spock’s books.

How Ms. Mardesich got this job comes with its own little ethical issue. She actually sought out Drspock.com on Jan. 19, the very same day her story on the nascent company was posted to Fortune.com. Yes, it was a positive story.

As Ms. Mardesich, a 13-year veteran on the technology beat, wrote in her Feb. 23 farewell column on Fortune.com, she had received dot-com job offers in the past but turned them down. “Nothing really resonated until last month when I met with Ted Shelton, C.E.O. of Drspock.com.… It got me thinking,” she wrote. “After the piece went up, I didn’t wait for the phone to ring. I called Shelton and asked him if he needed a writer.”

Reached by Off the Record, Ms. Mardesich said that she didn’t write the story knowing that she was going to ask for a job from them.

“If I had known I had wanted to work for the company, I wouldn’t have written the piece,” she said. Meeting with Mr. Shelton and other Drspock.com executives, she said, “was the first moment that I said I could work for this company.”

John Huey, managing editor at Fortune , did not return a call asking whether he was happy about a member of his staff going to work for a company she had covered; neither did the magazine’s spokesman.