In 1973, Hugh Sidey, Time magazine’s presidential columnist, wrote an article about me as I left the White House. It was titled, “So long to old Herb Klein.” He noted, however, I would remain active in the public eye.
Now it is time to say, “So long to old Hugh Sidey,” and that is a sad note. Sidey died unexpectedly of a sudden heart attack as he and his wife and daughter awaited dinner service in a restaurant in Paris.
Sidey had qualities unequalled by many, if any, Washington reporters. With his death, the nation loses a great store of knowledge about all modern presidents since Dwight Eisenhower, and it loses a historian of the White House itself.
Sidey’s interview style differed sharply from that of younger reporters one sees on television today. Sidey asked penetrating, tough questions but did so in a respectful manner that usually brought out in-depth answers missed by those who shout and seek to create a sensation.
In my long career in government and journalism, the two reporters who had the best ability to gain meaningful interviews were Barbara Walters and Hugh Sidey. Whether it was the American president or another major public figure, they got through the bureaucracy and got their interviews if the subject was important. Of the two, Sidey asked the better questions.
In the 45 years I knew Sidey, I never knew where he stood personally on politics, but I knew he was fair. During the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960, I thought he was a young reporter who had been caught up in the Kennedy glamour scene, as were countless other news persons. But once John Kennedy took office, Sidey’s attitude changed. As a columnist, he both criticized and praised Kennedy and his successors.
Time’s Washington bureau chief, James Carney, summed Sidey up well when he said: He proved you can write about people in power and still be a gentleman journalist. He’s in some ways the model we all aspire to.
Sidey, like all reporters, had his ups and downs with presidents. President Nixon generally liked Sidey. But in 1972 he wrote a memorandum accusing him and John Osborne of the New Republic magazine of “being totally against us,” and said he had heard a Georgetown rumor Sidey used vicious derogatory terms about him. He was wrong. That was not Sidey’s language.
In an interview with Washington Magazine, Sidey once recalled: “Carter was bitter toward me after I wrote that he was diminishing the presidency too much. One time I was flippant about Carter banning booze in the White House. I wrote that trying a martini sometime might mellow him.”
Sidey considered Lyndon Johnson the most fascinating president he had known. In a book he wrote about Johnson, he called him the most powerful leader of Congress he had known.
Sidey thought Johnson on becoming president showed a lack of world knowledge but became fascinating because of his unpredictability. “He never lost the inner feeling that he still was a country boy from Johnson City who loved to show off his ranch,” he once told me.
Sidey became a personal friend of both Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush after they left office. He was an “old hand” reporter with whom they could speak without risk of a leak.
Sidey retired from full-time duty with Time in 1996, and in more recent years was the volunteer chairman of the White House Historical Society. He and Reagan exchanged phone calls and he was invited on the plane that brought the late president’s body from Washington to his library for burial. He was a “pen pal” with the senior President Bush, and he and his wife were named by George W. Bush as members of the U.S. official delegation to the recent Olympic Games in Athens.
The senior Mr. Bush and Reagan found they could trust Sidey. I learned that early in our relationship, and I selected him to be my guest when, during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in 1970, the Soviets in a rare goodwill gesture allowed me to wander secretly in the nonpublic parts of the Kremlin and visit small chapels where deceased czars were buried. Each chapel was devoted to an individual czar, and each included much ancient art and gold. It was quite a contrast from the more barren communist buildings within the Kremlin walls.
Sidey’s great sense of humor was sometimes apparent in his writing and always so in his personal dealings.
In 1958, he accompanied Vice President Nixon to Alaska to cover the new state’s first federal election. I took the vice president and the press to Fairbanks to get pictures of Nixon riding with the Republican candidates in a dog sled.
Sidey decided to organize his own dog sled race and found two reporters to ride with him against a dog sled including Pat Nixon, Rose Mary Woods and this writer. The press won when Pat Nixons’ sled hit a stump and overturned. Sidey said his part in history was spilling the vice president’s wife in the snow.
In his book, “Portraits of the Presidents,” Sidey summarized his view of the presidency in three paragraphs:
“The presidency remains the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized political office man has devised. We have poked and peered at each succeeding president with increased ferocity. I well recall my first briefing around the desk of Jim Hagerty, Ike’s press secretary. There were no more than 12 White House correspondents, and when told there would be no news that day, we all drifted off to lunch and other pursuits.
“Now there can be as many as a hundred correspondents on routine news days, each looking for some fragment that can be built into a story for the evening broadcasts, the morning newspapers or the instant Internet. With the advent of television, the president has become the central player in a world spectacle, not only the wielder of the terrible swift sword, guardian of the purse, arbiter of good and evil, but also the star of a giant soap opera, complete with wife, kids, dogs and a big house full of guests. President-watching remains an intriguing, often surprising and dramatic business.
“With each new president, we probe deeper and we learn more. And yet the final analysis of the human soul still eludes us, thank goodness. As for myself, give me a man or woman with common sense, a passion for fair play, a knowledge of his or her nation and the world, an itch for adventure, a touch of romance about his or her role and a good dash of boldness, and I think we will fare quite well. When a president with some of those qualities understands his own special strengths and can admit his weaknesses, burnishing the former and avoiding the latter, we can expect greatness in the Oval Office.”
It is my view no one ever has reported on the presidency more interestingly or more accurately.
The “gentleman reporter” will be missed by his peers and by the nation.
Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, retired editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers and former Nixon White House director of communications.