Apple's robust life, career left indelible mark

October 05, 2006|By Jack W. Germond

Among his fellow political reporters, R.W. "Johnny" Apple was - to use a phrase he sometimes applied to subtle dishes - "an acquired taste." But there was nothing remotely subtle about his appeal. He was always on stage, whether covering a presidential campaign or reviewing a small restaurant in Provence, always speaking louder or writing more colorful prose than everyone else, usually unabashed in claiming credit, deserved or not.

I knew him for more than 40 years as he dipped in and out of the political beat, covering a presidential campaign, then dashing off to spend two years as the New York Times' London bureau chief or a year in Africa. I sometimes envied the freedom to change from one good assignment to another at such a dizzying pace.

And, like others, I appreciated the huge presence in American journalism that Johnny became over the years before his death yesterday at 71. More to the point, I had come to like him personally and to admire his remarkable energy and professional competence.

It was not easy to reach that stage. When Apple showed up in Albany as the new man in the New York Times bureau covering state politics, he defined the word "bumptious." He put down his betters by using the prestige of the Times and ignored the correspondents from lesser newspapers.

At one point, those of us who ate dinner night after night at Yezzi's restaurant next to the Capitol became tired of tales of Apple at large - lecturing fellow reporters about the "real story" in the legislature, for example, or reciting his lead on a piece being sent to New York for Page One. So we instituted a rule that anyone who told an "Apple story" would have to throw 50 cents on the table.

But it didn't work. The very next night, Douglas Dales, a kind and thoughtful Times reporter, threw a dollar on the table, and told us: "Let me tell you what that damned Apple did today."

Over the years, however, most of us softened in our feelings about Johnny. How could we not admire someone who could write with such brio one day about methods of making bread or flavoring soups, the next about the Republican plan for carrying Ohio?

And Apple seemed to mellow as he aged. He was always the butt of jokes about his credentials as a gourmet. One night in Puerto Rico, Johnny was among five of us who sat down at a pretentious restaurant with a menu entirely in French. A Statehouse reporter from New Jersey confessed he didn't speak French, so Apple took it upon himself to go through the entire menu - appetizers, soups, salads, entrees and desserts - pronouncing the name of each dish and describing the ingredients and how they would be prepared.

It was a tour de force, if a bit showy, and the New Jersey reporter was mildly offended at being put down. So when Johnny finished, he announced, "I'll have what Jack's having."

On another occasion, four of us arrived at the Savoy steakhouse in Kansas City without a reservation. But we spotted Apple's name on the list and claimed the table for four. When Apple arrived a half-hour later and spotted us, snickering behind our martinis, he was clearly miffed, even though there were now many tables available.

So we decided to make amends and ordered a bottle of wine - actually a Lancers Rose that was carbonated and came in a pseudo-earthen jug for perhaps $2. When it was delivered, Apple, by now red-faced, ordered it taken away. Nobody was going to see Johnny Apple drinking jug wine. (His dinner companion, another Times reporter, insisted he would drink the wine, so the compromise was that the bottle was kept on the floor.)

As Johnny began to devote more reporting to food and wine than to politics or foreign policy, he became even more determined to adopt the manner of the professional gourmet to his Falstaffian girth and appetite. When I teased him once about traveling with his own personal pepper mill, he replied, "You can't be too careful, Jack." But he rolled his eyes at his own folly.

In the end, it was Johnny's saving grace that he recognized he was sometimes becoming a caricature. And it was his redeeming quality that he was still reporting the story - whether on a different sauce found in Tuscany or a rising political figure in the Midwest - with gusto and style. He has accomplished a rare thing by leaving a hole in American journalism that no one is likely to fill.

Jack W. Germond is a former Sun political columnist.

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