Appreciating Richard Harwood

March 26, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - American political journalism lost one of its giants the other day with the death at 75 of Dick Harwood, former reporter, editor and taskmaster of reporters and politicians alike for more than 30 years at the Washington Post.

Mr. Harwood, a Marine veteran of Iwo Jima who often seemed still to be at war in the newsroom and on the campaign trail, was a certifiable tough guy who didn't suffer fools gladly, whether they were journalism colleagues or the pols he reported on.

I first encountered him on the presidential campaign of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, as a competitor. In a press corps that had more than its share of Kennedy idolaters, Mr. Harwood was a skeptic. He was determined not to be taken in by the young Camelot hero in a serious but nonetheless romantic bid to recapture the White House that had been tragically seized from the American royal family.

Kennedy, after first declining to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination, had jumped into the race when Sen. Eugene McCarthy surprisingly demonstrated LBJ's vulnerability by nearly beating him in the New Hampshire primary. Kennedy's hostility toward Johnson had been pent up for months, and he came out swinging, painting his target as the devil incarnate.

Mr. Harwood described it this way one day in the Post: "Sen. Robert F. Kennedy invaded the South today and accused President Johnson of creating the worst divisions in America since the Civil War. Going further, he implied that the president is to blame for the alienation and drug addiction among American youth, for rebelliousness and draft resistance on American campuses, and for the `anarchists' and rioters in American cities."

In Los Angeles, when Kennedy charged that "the national leadership (clearly meaning LBJ) is calling upon the darker impulses of the American spirit," Mr. Harwood was moved to write that RFK had resorted to "rhetorical devices" that even among his own aides "have been regarded as bordering on the demagogic."

Such observations were taken to heart by Kennedy and his staff and the rhetoric was notably cooled thereafter. Mr. Harwood doubtless would have denied he was trying to send Kennedy a message. He was merely reporting what the man was saying and what impact it was having on the perception of his candidacy.

Later in the campaign, in comfortable Oregon where Kennedy lost a primary election for the first time, Mr. Harwood spotted the problem well before the voting took place. In Kennedy's litany of the plight of the poor, he wrote, "the difficulty is that more often than not he is talking to affluent people who have never seen a ghetto, an Indian reservation or a coal camp in eastern Kentucky." In a Portland suburb, as Kennedy spoke of dire conditions elsewhere, Mr. Harwood noted, "Everybody seemed to be smiling."

As the RFK campaign moved into California for its tragic conclusion, Mr. Harwood confided to me on the press bus one day that he was going to ask his editors to take him off the assignment because, he confessed, he was getting to like the candidate too much. From this classic tough guy and skeptic, it was quite an admission. But before he could be reassigned, Kennedy was dead.

A few years later I worked for Mr. Harwood, by that time the national editor of the Post, and found him to be just as tough toward me and my colleagues as he had been toward Kennedy in that ill-fated campaign. But with that toughness came a commitment to excellence and, in time, even a warmth and friendship that developed out of our shared experiences on the job, and in a late-night saloon or two.

We worked together on a committee of Kennedy campaign reporters who established the RFK Journalism Awards, and each year at the time of their presentation there was a reunion of sorts of all of us who had covered that most memorable campaign.

Later, as the Post's ombudsman, Mr. Harwood turned his laser-beam of integrity and insight onto the foibles of his own newspaper, making it a better instrument of public service, just as he had by example instructed his buddies on the campaign trail to practice skepticism, but not cynicism, toward the politicians we covered - and not get to like them too much.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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