Max Frankel’s Life and Times
From his refugee roots, Frankel rises to the top and now reports on his journey.
For more than three decades, ever since serving as The Times’s campus stringer at Columbia University and then landing a job as a Times reporter in 1952, Frankel had marched methodically toward the top editorial post. The road to the top was rocky. In his memoir he describes in riveting detail how he and his mother escaped the Nazi horrors by fleeing to America. And in fascinating—though less gripping—detail, he tells of winning and losing battles in The Times’s legendary bureaucratic wars.
An only child, Frankel and his parents were members of a tiny Jewish minority in Weissenfels, a manufacturing town and minor railroad hub for central Germany. He wrote that he was not yet three years old when Adolph Hitler rose to power in 1933 and he “could have become a good little Nazi in his army. I loved the parades; I wept when other kids marched beneath our window without me. But I was ineligible for the Aryan race, the Master Race that Hitler wanted to purify of Jewish blood….”
With the Nazis terrorizing and imprisoning Jews, his mother endured a series of harrowing encounters with bureaucrats before finagling safe passage for herself and nine-year-old Max to the States where there were cousins living in New York. Max’s father, a dry goods store owner, had been forcibly separated from them and spent time in a Soviet gulag before joining the family in Brooklyn when Max was 16.
Frankel, exceptionally candid even when his views are sure to rankle others, pointedly refuses to condemn all Germans for the Nazi horrors. He paints a poignant picture of Weissenfels as “a victim of the war where the young men and then their fathers were drafted, most never to return. And then it was the young women’s turn to defend the weary town; American troops commandeered the best homes and apartments and saved the people from starvation by paying with cigarettes and chocolate bars and cans of beef for the girls’ favors.”
For having openly expressed such views, many Jews—even his own grandparents—accused him of dishonoring the dead. But he writes that he “cannot believe that evil resides in the genes or culture of any one people.”
Such candor and the warts-and-all portraits that he draws of some of his colleagues, his newspaper and even himself, make Frankel’s memoir a journalism classic and a compelling read not just for media junkies, but for a general audience. Along the way, he gives a vivid first-person account of how he and The New York Times covered some of the major events of the past five decades.
Always, he was a relentless and resourceful worker. Facing the draft as a cub reporter during the Korean conflict, he needed to keep his Times job for at least a year to legally obligate the paper to take him back. His solution: petition the draft board for a delay so he could cram a two-year master’s program at Columbia University into a single year while working full-time as a reporter.
The scheme involved all work and no play. But it paid off.
Not long after his return to The Times from Army service—with a Pentagon communications unit—he was assigned to Moscow in 1957 where, despite his acknowledged ignorance of Soviet history, he proved to be an astute student of Kremlin politics.
He clearly was impressed more than most by Nikita Khrushchev, who had denounced the Soviet system under Josef Stalin and freed millions of Soviet citizens from concentration camps after Stalin’s death in 1953. Frankel thought Khrushchev ruled with a peasant’s wit and cunning and that the Soviet leader believed he could reform and rescue the Communist system “by exorcising the ghosts of Stalin.” And behind Khrushchev’s bluster Frankel thought he saw a “face of decency.”
His opinions about some of the American political leaders whom he encountered are less charitable. He found Robert Kennedy an opportunist, Eugene McCarthy unfit to be president, Hubert Humphrey ill-disciplined and politically inept, Lyndon Johnson dishonest, Jimmy Carter ineffective, Ronald Reagan insensitive, and Richard Nixon clumsy, graceless, despicable, cunning, etc.
After Moscow, Frankel served briefly in Cuba, another assignment he felt unprepared for. Then, as now, he observed, “there was pitifully little career planning at The Times.”
From Cuba he went to the United Nations where he was overjoyed when Scotty Reston, The Times’s legendary Washington Bureau Chief, called him to cover the State Department. Frankel idolized Reston and freely admits he imitated Reston’s prose and mannerisms, even learning to “amble through the halls of government with his nonchalant gait….”
The internal politics at The Times has long been a source of fascination to outsiders. Gay Talese’s 1969 classic tale of intrigue and infighting at The Times, “The Kingdom and the Power,” was a bestseller. And Frankel has much to add to the genre. In particular he discloses a lot about the roles he and his archrival, Abe Rosenthal, played.
A bitter turf war broke out when New York editors led by Rosenthal tried to rein in the Washington Bureau in 1968. Four years earlier Reston had stepped aside as bureau chief, but under his hand-picked successor, Tom Wicker, the bureau had continued to operate with great independence. As Frankel describes it, Wicker and the bureau “exploded” when editors announced that James Greenfield, a Rosenthal crony and recent hire, would replace Wicker as bureau chief.
Frankel, who felt he should be bureau chief if Wicker was going to be replaced, appealed directly to Sulzberger, who some time before had taken a shine to Frankel. Although the publisher had signed off on Greenfield’s appointment, he reversed the decision. Subsequently Frankel succeeded Wicker and Reston moved to New York where he succeeded Turner Catledge as executive editor. Frankel won the battle, but it set the stage for a continuing war with the take-no-prisoners Rosenthal.
As bureau chief, Frankel won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his superb reporting of Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. But under his direction the bureau was not known for aggressive investigative reporting. Slow to take Watergate seriously, he concedes The Washington Post scooped The Times on Watergate by a ratio of least five to one. He also concedes he was “embarrassingly generous, if not naive,” in his initial assessment of Nixon as a temperate President who was trying to get out of Vietnam quickly and who solved problems compassionately.
In Washington Frankel felt he was leading “the most talented newspaper team in America” and was less than thrilled in 1973 when Sulzberger summoned him to New York to be Sunday editor. Among other things, it meant losing his 200-mile buffer from Rosenthal, who was running the daily news department. Three years later he was consumed with envy when Sulzburger merged the Daily and Sunday departments and named Rosenthal to head the merged operation.
Although Sulzburger promoted Frankel to editor of the editorial pages and assured him he would one day have a role in shaping the newspaper, Frankel was not mollified and railed about the way Rosenthal had run the news department. He argued that the department lacked vision and planning, failed to appeal to suburban readers, lagged in covering business news, and was unimaginative in sports coverage. Sulzberger was unmoved.
As a reporter and editor, Frankel was a stickler for high standards of accuracy and fairness. When he brought those standards to the editorial page he was stung when critics thought he was merely perpetuating “a myth that The Times considered all issues ‘on the one hand, and on the other.’”
Defensive about his own direction of the editorial pages, he makes it clear he disapproves of the livelier, but sharp-edged and highly opinionated direction the pages have taken under Howell Raines, the current editorial page editor. “The myth took root even inside the Times and led Howell Raines…to promise rashly that his page would print only ‘one-handed’ opinions,” Frankel wrote. “His fist did rattle the china for a while, but if he had read more of yesteryear’s papers, he’d have recognized that mere invective is no substitute for vigor and verve. We had plenty of both.”
When Sulzberger did get around to naming Frankel to replace Rosenthal, he asked the publisher what his mandate would be. “Three things,” Sulzberger replied. “Make a great paper even greater. Help to break in my son Arthur as the next publisher. Make the newsroom a happy place again.”
Frankel was an interim executive editor, serving only eight years until his 64th birthday. The narrative slows somewhat as he describes how he fulfilled Sulzberger’s mandate, turned The Times’s coverage in new directions, and brought more diversity to the newsroom. He considered the expansion of local news coverage, notably including sports, as one of his main achievements as editor. For such a fascinating memoir, Frankel’s account of his tenure as editor seems anticlimactic. Nonetheless, it is a rewarding book from start to finish.
Jack Nelson, a 1962 Nieman Fellow, is former Washington Bureau Chief for The Los Angeles Times.
Max Frankel’s first thought when he was named to succeed Abe Rosenthal as Executive Editor of The New York Times in 1986 was how much it meant for a refugee who fled from the terrors of Nazi Germany to rise to the top of the world’s greatest newspaper.