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THE TIMES OF MY LIFE by Max Frankel Random House, $2995

Max Frankel's autobiography is a combination of virtues.

One is the story of a refugee from Nazi Germany, saved by his mother's guile and tenacity in finding cracks in the wall of totalitarian anti-Semitism. One is the tale of an ambitious reporter's rise from re-write man to foreign correspondent, to Washington bureau chief, and ultimately to the top editorial job of The New York Times. Another is the astute recollection of many critical events and personalities in the last half-century. Finally, The Times of My Life is a mature analysis of the standards, methods, and purposes of modern journalism.

It can and will be enjoyed on each of these levels. One example of his ability to limn a major figure, in this case one he knew from close range:

"I considered Khrushchev the most robust politician of my time. He was the first Soviet ruler with the wit and courage to expose himself to his own people and to the world; the first to rule using his own name instead of a pretentious nom de guerre, like Lenin and Stalin; the first to call off class warfare; the first to leave his domestic enemies alive; and the first to deny that war with the capitalist West was inevitable. Even Khrushchev's demagoguery betrayed a peculiar honesty. When angered, he could bang his shoe at the United Nations and threaten to push Russia's abstract artists bare-assed into clumps of nettles. But he also told off the Chinese, warning a bellicose Mao Zedong that to hurry into the next world is not recommended, since no one has ever come back to tell us that life is better there."

For journalists and consumer-savants of the press, his account of the evolution of standards in news-gathering and writing is especially valuable. "The Times was slow to shake the old habits of `responsible reporting,'" he writes, "which often meant little more than deferring to officials in positions of responsibility." When Frankel and his mentor in Washington, Scotty Reston, drew conclusions from a variety of unrevealed sources, weighing these on a scale of probability fashioned by their experience, New York wanted to attach some legitimating phrase to them, such as "officials (or at least, `observers') said." It took persistence to break the habit. In time, "even our misnamed `paper of record' was reporting events from an independent vantage."

Independent, but not infallible. "Newspapers flatter themselves by pretending that they produce the first drafts of history when history is their weakest suit.... Journalism is shaped and defined by the virtues and vices of youth." By which I think he means, in both cases, a fixation on the immediate.

But Max Frankel is proud, almost at the risk of parody, of the Times itself: "It is the `house organ' of the smartest, most talented, and most influential Americans at the height of American power." There is a revealing ambiguity in that sentence: For just as many such Americans read the Times and find their opinions shaped by its reporting, they also influence what it prints, through what they tell its reporters.

And this can have serious consequences. I close with one example. On Sunday, November 3, 1963, the Times' News of the Week section was given over to an extended analysis of the coup that had removed, and killed off, the Diem regime in South Vietnam. The message was that the Kennedy administration had concluded that something drastic needed to be done to strengthen South Vietnam's resistance to a Communist takeover; so an environment was created that led to the coup. The Times had no quarrel with that conclusion. As the paper put it: "Loss of South Vietnam to the Communists would raise doubts around the globe about the value of US. commitments to defend nations against Communist pressure." On the following page, a reporter, Max Frankel, laid out the case for concern in greater detail. The source of this Communist pressure, he wrote, was China. If it succeeded in driving South Vietnam to the wall, its brand of peasant-revolution would gain frightening momentum around the globe.

Thus in early November, 1963, editors of the Times and their star reporter in Washington saw the Vietnam War as a struggle of monumental significance for the larger contest between Communist China and the West. One supposes they were encouraged to think it so by articulate strategists within the US. government, who also believed it. That it turned out not to be the case was only an error on the part of the journalists. It was more dreadfully consequential to the country, and to Lyndon Johnson, who inherited the task of deciding what to do about it three weeks later: deciding in a climate of opinion formed in part by The New York Times reporting the thoughts of the "most talented, and most influential Americans at the height of American power."

Harry C. McPherson, Jr. was special counsel to President Johnson, 1965-1969, and is the author of A Political Education (Atlantic, 1972).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:McPherson, Harry C. Jr.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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