Toasting Craig Whitney of The New York Times

On September 30, Craig R. Whitney retires from The New York Times after 44 years, during which he was a correspondent or bureau chief in Saigon, Bonn, Moscow, London, Paris, and Washington. He was foreign editor and twice an assistant managing editor. Whitney is leaving because the paper requires editors listed on the masthead to do so at age 65. He will not be staying on with any residual arrangement. He is planning to write a book, which would be his third. Let me acknowledge (confess) that Whitney and I have been close friends since 1970, when we arrived in Vietnam as correspondents for the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively.

But this is not merely an ode to old fellowship. It is a toast to what it means to be a journalist--mainly a foreign correspondent--a category of reporting that is under particular pressure in these hard times for the news business. In every way definable, Whitney upheld the standards and ethics of his trade. That is appropriate as an accolade because his last job at the Times has been as editor responsible for both standards and ethics, a position created after the Jayson Blair debacle, now securely in the hindsight of history, but still a symbol of what a rogue can do to trust in the gathering of news.

In all those decades at the paper, Whitney has been an outstanding reporter and editor--not the flashiest guy in the field, but a model of integrity, judgment, and, over time, the benefits of knowing enough to place events in context. Whitney graduated from Harvard in 1965. He attended on scholarship (he is not a trust fund Whitney) and went to work as a clerk to columnist James Reston, then at the pinnacle of his influence in Washington. Whitney did a two-year stint in the Navy, including time with the 7th Fleet based in Vietnam, and then returned to the paper. Whitney spoke fluent French and acquired German and Russian along the way. In every assignment, he made a mark with prodigious reporting, fine writing, and stories about pipe organs (his hobby). He is a very skilled musician and wrote a book about pipe organs called All the Stops.

The only uncomfortable fit was Whitney's period as head of the Washington bureau in the late 1980s, where he seemed to have insufficient self-promotional swagger for the job as then defined. That quality came more naturally to the deputy bureau chiefs: Judith Miller, who won fame and a jail term for refusing to give up the name of a White House source and notoriety for what turned out to be exaggerated reports about WMD in Saddam Hussein's Iraq; and R. W. Apple, a reporter revered for his energy, range, and appetites, but not his steady management style. Whitney went to London, a gilded exile, and quickly resumed the arc of his distinguished career: shaping world events into comprehensible form without presumption or cliché.

In one of his last weeks at the Times, Whitney answered queries from readers on nytimes.com. The final question and answer were especially revealing about the kind of journalism Whitney practiced:

Q. You've been a foreign correspondent in more postings than just about anyone at The New York Times. Every reporter has one or two stories that stand out as their favorite or most unforgettable, sometimes for peculiar reasons. What is a story or moment like that in your career?

A. Everything that comes to mind seems to be about the end of things.
The high point of my newspaper career was certainly the privilege of helping to cover the unraveling of communism in East Germany and the Soviet Union, starting in the fall of 1989. I had never thought I would live to see Germany reunified.
One of the greatest characters I ever covered was Margaret Thatcher--Baroness Thatcher now, but Prime Minister of Great Britain when I was stationed in London. Her sudden resignation came on Thanksgiving Day.
In office, she was an indefatigable critic of European bureaucracy; of "socialism" in all its forms (and she saw it even where it was not, sometimes); and of her own cabinet ministers. The probably apocryphal story is told of her mounting fury as she listened to Geoffrey Howe, her foreign minister, and Douglas Hurd, her home secretary, trying ineffectually at a meeting in Brussels to get the "Eurocrats" she detested to give Britain a rebate on its European Community dues (it's now the European Union). Breaking for lunch, she got her delegation into a private room upstairs in a restaurant, and began berating them as the waiter came in to take their orders--"Geoffrey, you were disgraceful! Douglas, you were pitiful," etc.--until the waiter interrupted, "Madame Prime Minister, what would you like to order?"
"Roast beef!" she thundered.
"And what about the vegetables?"
"They'll have it, too!"
I had always thought the end of communism would allow the market-friendly Caucasian republics of Armenia and Georgia to flourish, but instead they fell into civil war. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the Georgian nationalist who led his country to independence, also led it into civil war and saw enemies everywhere, especially in Moscow; sometimes it seems that not much has changed, or that many lessons have been learned, in Georgia since 1991.
Nor will I ever forget the American adviser in Binh Dinh province in South Vietnam, who could not get over the shock of seeing South Vietnamese Army troops he had thought were well-trained and tough just fall apart when Communist troops attacked in 1972, a sort of dress rehearsal for the North Vietnamese offensive that brought down the Saigon regime in 1975. In 1972, unlike 1975, the South Vietnamese had American air support, but it didn't matter in Binh Dinh after the commander of the South Vietnamese Army's 40th Regiment and the government's highest official in the area loaded their refrigerators and other comforts into a jeep and fled, leaving their troops to fend for themselves. Many of them just dropped their rifles and took to the hills, leaving the population behind to the mercies of the communists. "These people will never feel safe with the Government again," the American advisor said.
There's another story that I can't forget, but not because it's memorable. Before I went to Vietnam, I covered Federal Court in New York City at the time when the longtime United States Attorney, Robert Morgenthau, a Democrat, was replaced by Whitney North Seymour Jr., a Republican, during the Nixon administration. Among the articles I wrote was a short one saying that some of the holdovers thought that a couple of Mr. Seymour's appointments showed he was replacing Democrats with Republicans. He was pained and protested that it was unfair. I think that I was rash, and that he was right. He never forgave me for it. It was a lesson I learned at the beginning of my career and have taken with me right to the end.

Here's to you, Whitney. Journalism will miss you.

Presented by

Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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