A newsman's life

August 18, 2002

GERALD E. GRIFFIN was witness -- an articulate, astute witness -- to 40 years of history as a reporter, Washington bureau chief, London correspondent and editorial page editor of this newspaper.

He saw the great men in action (plus the not-so-great) and chronicled their deeds with a calm, searching appraisal that was in keeping with his personality. Integrity was a word that came instantly to mind among his colleagues. You could rely on what he wrote, not so much because he strove for objectivity, an impossible goal if taken literally, but because he sought always to be fair and was constantly so.

Jerry Griffin joined The Sun in the early 1930s, the heyday of such celebrity staffers as the iconoclastic Henry Mencken, liberal Gerald Johnson, conservative Frank Kent and Edmund Duffy, whose slashing cartoons were to win three Pulitzer Prizes.

As a young reporter in the Washington bureau, he covered New Deal agencies grappling with the Great Depression, watched the war clouds gather across two oceans and saw Washington transformed into a superpower capital during World War II and the Cold War that came after.

During the 1950s, there was no more interesting legislator than Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, who in the next decade was to become president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

On that fateful day, Nov. 22, 1963, Gerald Griffin was at his desk in the National Press Building. One of his staffers burst into his office, exclaiming, "It's hard to believe." Always unflappable, Mr. Griffin said, "I know something else that's hard to believe. We don't have a staff-written obituary of Jack Kennedy."

The reporter knew an order when he heard one, and settled down to write nine columns by midnight.

When Jerry finally left Washington after a 30-year stint to become editor of this page, the president of the United States showed up for the party.

It was a well-deserved tribute to a newsman who had long kept learned watch on the presidency, the Congress and the politics of the ever-changing Washington scene.

As editorial page editor, Gerald Griffin was liberal on civil rights, moderately conservative on economics, internationalist on foreign affairs and a fanatic on honesty in government.

His was a course very much in keeping with modern Sun traditions. He died at age 94 last Wednesday after 30 years of a retirement in which he wrote little about current events -- out of respect for the craft of on-the-scene reporting.

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