Remembering Haynes Johnson

by Phillip Witteveen on May 29, 2013

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This tribute to Haynes Johnson was written by Sara Fitzgerald, the author of Elly Peterson: “Mother of the Moderates” and a former editor and new media developer for the Washington Post. 

Like so many other journalists, former journalists and Washington policy wonks, I was shocked and saddened by the sudden death on May 24 of my friend and former Washington Post colleague Haynes Johnson.

Haynes had played a special role in my life because he had generously agreed to write the forward to my 2011 biography Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates. I was thrilled that he was willing to do this because I knew he would bring his skills as a best-selling nonfiction author and longtime political reporter to the task. I knew he would be able to frame my book in the context of contemporary American politics, a time when, as he put it, “the nation struggles to find needed consensus on critical issues amid poisonous partisanship that has made it increasingly difficult for public officials to bridge their differences.”

I first met Haynes around 1979, the year I joined the Post staff, about a decade after he had moved from The Washington Star, where he had won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the civil rights movement. From those early days, we shared a fond memory of Howard Simons, the late managing editor of The Post, rounding the two of us up on the spur of the moment to walk over to Lafayette Square to join the crowd greeting the Iranian hostages as they traveled through Washington in buses after they returned from their ordeal overseas.   Later, after I moved to The Post’s national desk, I had the privilege of interacting with him as an editor. Despite his journalistic stature, and by then, a certain amount of celebrity, he was always gracious in his dealings with editors, responsive to their questions and appreciative of ideas and suggestions.

After both of us moved on, we’d meet occasionally for lunch, to catch up on our lives and the doings of mutual friends. Even as he grew older, he never lost his passion for journalism, his curiosity about the world, his sense of outrage over social injustices, and his sense of humor. Like his good friend and colleague, the late David Broder, he served as a mentor and friend to many younger journalists, and, in the last years of his life, to the journalism students at the University of Maryland, where he had held an endowed position.

Haynes and David were among the last of a generation of well-known political reporters, the likes of which we will probably not see again for some time. While they became celebrities on television talk shows, and undoubtedly enjoyed the perks that came with that celebrity, it was not the thing that drove their work. Both strongly believed in getting out of the office and talking to ordinary people, believing that they could provide the kind of insights about the state of our politics that inside-the-Beltway politicians could not.

Haynes was an extraordinarily graceful writer. While I knew that it might seem odd to quote the person who wrote the introduction to one’s book within the book book itself, I could not resist quoting from Haynes’ 1991 book, Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years. I felt that he succinctly captured the basis of the antagonism that Elly Peterson had felt toward Stuart Spencer when they both served as leaders in Gerald R. Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign. Spencer’s political consulting firm, Haynes wrote, had been a pioneer in transforming campaigns “from an amateur back room business, managed for the most part by familiar ‘old pol’ types” into “a slick, high-powered profession that merchandised candidates as effectively as advertising agencies sold brands of soap, toothpaste, tobacco and deodorant.” They were, he added, “political entrepreneurs; the product they sold were candidates. . . .”

Despite the vast amount of time he spent around journalists and politicians (possibly two of the most cynical of professions), Haynes was a very sentimental man. To this day, he and his father, Malcolm Johnson, remain the only father and son to win Pulitzer Prizes, a connection that remained very meaningful to him. He sometimes recaledl the emotional letters that his war correspondent father had sent home to his family, and was proud that his father’s later investigative work not only was recognized with a Pulitzer but also provided the basis of the Oscar-winning On the Waterfront.

Knowing the kind of man Haynes was, I was not surprised to learn that a few days before he died, he had donned his academic gown and mortarboard to participate in the graduation ceremonies at the University of Maryland. His colleagues there recalled that he did this every year and that it was important to him to do so. Haynes recognized the importance of traditions, of honoring them and continuing to “show up.”   Whether it was a university commencement, an impromptu parade for the returning U.S. hostages, or an author’s night at the National Press Club where a younger friend was signing her book, he wanted to be there, to provide encouragement and lend his support in a tangible way.

He will be missed by his friends and colleagues.











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