You have to understand about my family and The New York Times. My father told only one World War II story about his service as a personnel specialist at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. It was about the time he was so absorbed in reading a copy of the Times that he didn’t hear an officer tell him to place his hat on his head. He didn’t hear it the second time, either. And so he ended up in the brig.
My mother was equally enthusiastic about the paper—at least all its writers other than William Safire. (Fortunately, she passed away before the advent of David Brooks). Not surprisingly, at a young age, I myself started avidly following such bylines as Russell Baker, Red Smith, Robert Lipsyte, John Leonard, Craig Claiborne, Mimi Sheraton, Vincent Canby, Janet Maslin, Andrew H. Malcolm, Ira Berkow, R.W. Apple, Richard F. Shepherd, N.R. Kleinfield, George Vecsey, Jon Pareles, Michael Winerip, Virginia Heffernan. And so on.
In his recent New Yorker profile of the new editor of the Times, Jill Abramson, Ken Auletta notes that while she was growing up, Abramson’s “family so revered the Times that at one point they had two copies delivered to their home. ‘The New York Times was our religion,’ Abramson has said more than once.”
Sounds just like my family, except for the two copies bit. Just a little showy, don’t you think?
My father followed his naval career with a longer and much more distinguished one as a labor mediator and then arbitrator in the New York area. His involvement in numerous labor disputes periodically landed him in the Times’ pages. You could look it up. This was gratifying to him, I know, but it was nothing compared to what happened in 1975, when he was recruited to help resolve a New York teachers’ strike. It was touch and go for a couple of days, and eventually the paper’s editors decided to make my old man, Louis Yagoda, the Man in the News.
This was a rubric—used frequently in earlier decades, not so much nowadays—to designate a profile of a noteworthy newsmaker. The paper delegated a reporter named Robert D. McFadden to do the telephone interview, and my father compared the experience to being in the chair of a master barber. He was especially struck by the clackety-clacking sound of McFadden taking down quotes on his typewriter as they talked. The result was a measured, amply reported and well-written piece, published September 5, 1975, in which the subject was described as “an articulate, 65-year-old state-appointed mediator who thrives on crises, is a master of nuance and has been fashioning Solomonic compromises for nearly 35 years.”
Wise-guy college kid that I was, I immediately went out and ordered my father a sweatshirt with the words “Master of Nuance” on the front.
I also added Robert D. McFadden to the byline-monitor list. Over the years, I observed his penchant for metaphor, figurative language and long, sometimes Johnsonian sentences—already noticeable in the passage above—becoming more pronounced. McFadden, I would learn, was the Times’ ace rewrite man. When a big story broke, he would sit at his desk and take calls from one or several reporters in the field, do his own phone interviews, and weave all the data together into a masterful whole. His skill at this distinctive craft was recognized when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting in 1996.
The longtime convention at the Times and elsewhere was that the rewrite person would get a single byline in such a story, while the field reporters’ efforts would not be mentioned. That lent each McFadden special an air of almost Godlike omniscience, giving the impression that he had traveled all over the city, the country, and sometimes the world, gathering quotes, facts and on-the-ground sense impressions.
I’m not sure why, but McFadden doesn’t seem to have had a story in the paper on September 12, 2001. Perhaps he was on vacation. He wrote the lead article the next day, however, with this characteristically authoritative and wide-ranging opening paragraph:
Rescuers combed mountains of rubble at what had been the World Trade Center yesterday in a grim search for survivors among the thousands presumed dead in its collapse. Investigators meantime cast a worldwide net for those behind the hijackers who slammed jetliners into the twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia in the worst terrorist attack in American history.
The article when on to present quotes and information from, among others, Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki, Attorney General Ashcroft, and a ground crew member at La Guardia Airport.
A string of journalistic scandals resulted in new transparency requirements, and starting in the early 2000s, a box was appended to McFadden’s and other roundup stories, listing, in italics, everyone who contributed to the article. But in other respects, he continued his omniscient ways, with ever-longer and definitive sentences and ever more lush language. He was surely past retirement age—my father was MITN more than 36 years ago, after all, and McFadden had the air of a veteran even then—but he kept on keeping on, and I kept on relishing his articles.
I was pleased therefore, to pick up the Times this past December 26 and find McFadden had the lead piece in the Metro section, a roundup of what was going on in the city on Christmas Day. The answer (spoiler alert!) was not much. But that didn’t defer McFadden. His piece began:
At 8 in the morning, a scrap of paper blew across an apocalyptic Times Square, and Costantino Gava, a tourist from Italy, stood amid an archipelago of abandoned red cafe tables. He looked about at the vast circus of neon lights winking allure at no one, and snapped another picture of the desolation.
“Buon Natale,” he said with a shrug.
He went on to present a poetic sketch on the theme of serenity, filled with characters, extravagant similes, arcane diction, personification, literary allusions and who knows what all. The article concluded, as it started, with a captured moment. (The “it” in the first sentence refers to serenity.)
And in the late morning, as sunlight finally broke through the bruised overcast, it came to rest on the steps of a closed-for-the-holiday Metropolitan Museum of Art with a 74-year-old man from Wisconsin. He lingered a while to contemplate not the marvels within, but treasures of memory that could never be locked away: van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Lamb,” Michelangelo’s “David” and Shakespeare’s rhapsody of words.
McFadden went on to reproduce six (!) lines from As You Like It, the “Sweet are the uses of adversity” speech, in italics.
Something about the paragraph gave me a funny hunch, maybe the way it violated one of the most sacred journalistic rules—not to go inside the heads of people one is writing about. The hunch sent me to Wikipedia, and this is what I read:
Robert Dennis McFadden (born 1937) is an American journalist who has worked for The New York Times since 1961. McFadden attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and graduated from the journalism school of the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1960.
I subtracted 1937 from 2011 and got 74. And there you have it, a Hitchcockian cameo for Christmas. Thanks, Mr. McFadden, and Happy New Year.