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Friday, March 19, 2010


For as long as anyone my age can remember, the International Herald Tribune, published in Paris, has been the home away from home for expatriate American newspaper readers. Those of us who are linguistically challenged would snatch it up at the kiosks, extracting it from displays of Le Monde, Liberation, Humanite, and Le Canard Enchaine, and eagerly read sports news we never read at home, or bits and snatches of American political news. Now, alas, The Paris Trib is owned by the NY TIMES, which is of course on line anyway. I would not dream of buying it.

But all of this set me thinking of the one and only time in my entire life when I had a job that required me to punch in at a time clock -- the summer of 1952, which I spent as a copy boy in New York on the old Herald Tribune. [Some of you may actually be unaware of the fact that for nine years, Karl Marx wrote foreign reports for the NY Tribune, before it merged with the Herald to form the Herald Tribune. Actually, if the truth be told, Engels wrote many of the pieces that appeared under Marx's byline, since Marx was hopelessly dilatory in getting them done.] My mother got the job for me. It was the summer after my second year at Harvard [which was my last summer as an undergraduate, since I finished up the degree in three years], and I was all of eighteen.. I needed a job, and since my mother, much earlier, had worked for ten years as the secretary to the City Editor of the Trib, she still had connections. So I got the job, not then realizing that seasoned reporters on provincial papers would have sold their souls for a chance to start at the bottom of a NY newspaper, in hopes of working their way up.

I was on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, and I was, like all copy boys, essentially a gofer. My main job was to run things from one desk to another in the large City Room, or to go down to the press room and bring up what was called "overrun" -- thin columns of newsprint that did not make it into the paper. The summer of 1952 was an exciting time. Sugar Ray Robinson fought for the title at Yankee Stadium when it was 110 degrees under the lights. King Farouk of Egypt was ousted. And Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft were duking it out for the Republican presidential nomination. The Trib was an Eastern internationalist liberal Republican newspaper [yes, Virginia, there really were liberal Republicans in those days], and they were of course backing Eisenhower. The heart and soul of the party belonged to the midWestern small town isolationist Republicans whose leader and favorite son was Robert Taft of Ohio.

The first and most critical test of the strength of the two wings of the party came over the question which delegation from Texas to seat -- the pro-Eisenhower delegation or the pro-Taft delegation. The outcome of that vote would reveal for the first time the exact strengths of the two sides, and would presage the outcome of the nomination battle. The Republicans were coming off twenty straight years of presidential losses -- four to Roosevelt and one to Truman. Thomas E. Dewey of New York had lost twice as Republican standard bearer, first to Roosevelt in '44 and then to Truman in '48, and the midWestern forces were desperate for a win. Dewey was the floor manager for Eisenhower, provoking the oleaginous Everett Dirksen of Illinois, The Wizard of Ooze, as he was called, to heap imprecations on him from the podium. "You led us down the road to defeat in 1944," he thundered, "and you led us down the road to defeat in 1948, but you shall not lead us down the road to defeat in 1952."

The Trib in those days published an Early Bird edition, that came out at 8 p.m. the evening before, and featured two front page columns of sports news. This was the Trib's [mostly unsuccessful] effort to steal a march on its arch rival, the bigger, richer, and more widely read NY TIMES. The vote on the seating of the Texas delegation began, and as was the custom in those days, things dragged. The Republicans, to reward the faithful, had adopted the practice of splitting votes in a delegation, so that two or three party regulars might go the convention as the bearers of s single vote. If there was a challenge by a delegate to the delegation leader's report of its vote, the entire delegation had to be polled, which meant that each delegate, or partial delegate, had to come to the single microphone allocated to a state and announce his or her vote when called to do so by the secretary of the convention.

The city editor of the Trib [a formidable personage named Kalgren, known in the City Room as The Count] fumed and fussed as the vote dragged on, while he postponed putting the Early Bird edition to bed longer and longer. He and his assistants were clustered around the radio waiting for the conclusion of the vote. They already had two sets of headlines and lead stories waiting to go, depending on which way the vote fell. The last straw was a request for a polling of the New York delegation, which, what with partial delegates, had more than one hundred members. Kalgren threw up his hands and ordered the paper put to bed. The report of the outcome of the crucial vote would have to wait until the regular edition hit the streets at 11:30 p.m.

My most notable achievement as a copy boy came one evening when one of the men on the horseshoe shaped rewrite desk offered me the chance to write the headline on a tiny report of a big storm in the Mid West. [The rewrite desk, for those too young to remember, was a desk at which sat men wearing headphones. Reporters in the field would phone in their details, and the rewrite men would turn them into well written stories, suitable for printing in the newspaper.] I was enormously excited by this opportunity, and wrote a headline almost as long as the story itself. With a smile, the rewrite man edited it down to "Storm hits Mid West." I had tasted my fifteen minutes of fame.

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