Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Best Journalist You Probably Never Heard Of

236 The Best Journalist You Probably Never Heard Of

This could never happen today. Not with a bunch of instant news networks and the internet. But in 1963 things went slower. And often more thoughtfully.

The Saturday Evening Post, already ancient and tattered and beset by a deadly combination of dullness and constant search for an identity had one glorious moment. The editor was a guy named Clay Blair, Jr. He had been a reporter and would write a novel about his 15 minutes of fame at the Post and some interesting stuff about submarine warfare in World War II.

But Blair put together what probably is the best on-the-spot overview of the assassination of President Kennedy of its time. It was all wrong and it was all right.

All wrong? Sure. A black cover. Unheard of. The 1960s equivalent of focus groups proved it. Norman Rockwell portrait of JFK on the cover. Put a dead guy on the cover? Never. Bad policy.

Assembled on the fly, there were articles by former President Eisenhower about succession. Biographies of the President, his family, about President Johnson (including a Stewart Alsop interview.) There were large photo spreads about Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. A mountain of material, impossible to compile today using writers and editors who spoke with measured and dignified yet colorful and forceful tone.

This issue, cover date December 14, 1963 was Blair’s and the Post’s one shot at greatness. It hit the bull’s eye then, and it still does.

Strolling through an antique store in a small town months ago, there was the issue. Cover price 20 cents. Sticker price ten bucks. It stayed there when the visitor left. But several visits later, it remained and so got bought. And read. And read again. 1963 isn’t exactly antique. But like most concepts today, this one has been diluted.

You find all kinds of junk in antique stores, things you threw out that you now realize you could have sold and least for small money. Tinker toys and Barbie dolls, Erector sets and Formica-topped kitchen tables, autoharps and trombones, sewing machines and signs advertising Ipana Toothpaste or LaSalle autos.

To a guy who was a young reporter in the early 1960s, when this issue came out, a young reporter who marginally covered the story in a very indirect and small-scale way, this issue of this magazine still resonates.

It was the Post’s first hurrah. And it was the Post’s last hurrah. After that one, it went bi-weekly and became purely a nostalgia book for people who wanted the America of their childhood dreams – an America that never really existed.

Curtis Publishing started the Post, claiming it descended from Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, though its first issue didn’t appear until well after Franklin’s death. And today it exists in name only as a medical magazine that almost no one reads and even fewer buy.

But for one glorious issue, Clay Blair made us think and feel and reason. And things like that don’t happen today.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

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