- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009



Frank A. Aukofer

Marquette University Press, $37, 392 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

Once upon a time, there was considerable honor in being the Washington correspondent for a major U.S. regional newspaper. For most of the past century, nearly all of the good daily papers of our main cities sent one, sometimes more, of their best reporters to the nation’s capital to provide coverage of national events through the prism of that community’s interests.

These men and women were generalists, but with focus. Their responsibilities took them to the White House, to be sure, but they also covered the State Department, the Pentagon, the Supreme Court and, of course, both houses of Congress, with a special eye on their state’s House and Senate delegations.

U.S. Department of Agriculture crop reports were scanned for home-state trends, tariff hearings were parsed for the impact on the state’s main industries, union disputes were scrutinized for what it meant to the locals back home. These reporters built meticulous and closely guarded card index files of contacts deep within the bureaucracy so that when some “source close to the White House” made an official pronouncement, they could quickly verify whether that was, in fact, what was going on.

Frank Aukofer is one of the better respected practitioners of that vanished craft. Starting in 1970, and for the next 30 years, he covered Washington from Capitol Hill to Foggy Bottom for the Milwaukee Journal (later the Journal Sentinel) in the days when it routinely ranked among the top five American daily newspapers.

Like many contemporaries of that day, Mr. Aukofer learned his trade on the job. He started out in a newspaper’s composing room and still can explain the mysteries of the Linotype machine. Police beats, county commissions and state politics — not journalism seminars — honed his skills back home until he was ready for the craft’s Big Show.

Therefore, this cheerfully written, anecdotally entertaining memoir can be read on two different levels. The Washington journalism junkie (and I count myself one) can revisit a happier time when to be a reporter in this town counted for something and had not yet been debased into a petulant, impotent stenographic service for a cacophony of special interests. But the average news consumer will also find it an instructional tale of how so many of our newspapers seem to have stumbled into irrelevancy. Washington bureaus were the first victims as budget cuts reduced most dailies to serving up sex scandals and celebrity-driven drool because they jettisoned the resources to inform us about what is actually going on inside our government’s workings.

The central theme of the author’s story is how he remained essentially a hometown Milwaukeean (if that is the correct term). Today’s blogger is not grounded from any such responsibility or community loyalty. Mr. Aukofer makes clear, however, that identifying with the audience he served actually freed him to range across the horizon of public events looking for stories he knew would interest them. He never had to wait until other media validated which stories were important and which were not.

So while Mr. Aukofer’s career saw him cover two presidential impeachments, the Persian Gulf war, turmoil in Latin America and more congressional hearings than most mortals could endure, it is safe to say his real career began in 1965 when the Journal sent him to South Carolina for the first of his reporting on the civil rights movement. To understand that, one must understand Milwaukee and why people in that whitest of white far Northern cities would be an eager audience for that bitter struggle in such a faraway place.

The simplest explanation is that the conscience of that largely Catholic community was stirred by two of their own — the Rev. James Groppi and the Rev. Matthew Gottschalk — who themselves became active witnesses for racial justice in the march on Selma, Ala., and the rest of the crusade. Mr. Aukofer was there to chronicle that and other critical events in the Deep South and later, inevitably, when the demands for racial equality returned to Milwaukee itself and the riots that broke out there (and in so many other U.S. cities) in the “long, hot summer” of 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Along the way, Mr. Aukofer covered most of the major news events of the next three decades. He did the glitzy interviews with a succession of presidents, visiting prime ministers and show-business tourists. He covered circus parades, interviewed Ku Klux Klan grand dragons and kept up a lifetime love affair and regular column on the American automobile. He sweated through political conventions, trips to war zones and shrinking news department budgets. He took the Journal’s readers along with him.

The lesson then is that all stories lead to home. Some of Mr. Aukofer’s stories are not as uplifting as his civil rights era reporting. A feckless management team at the Journal relied on inane marketing strategies that drained off the valuable service newspapers are uniquely in a position to provide. Then they marveled as readers deserted them in droves. By then, however, Mr. Aukofer could retire on his laurels and a shelf of professional recognitions — president of the National Press Club, member of the Gridiron Club, and a celebration in his honor at the Freedom Forum.

You don’t have to be an ex-Linotype operator to enjoy this story.

James Srodes is a veteran Washington journalist and author (and former Linotype operator).

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide