Given the prevalence of what Spy once called “the venerable Times practice of using the paper’s influence to curry favor for self,” it may be impossible for a humble man to survive at The New York Times. Case in point: former editorial page editor John Oakes, a man of great integrity and liberal views who died earlier this month at the age of 87. Oakes became a sacrificial lamb in 1976, when a battle of raging egos broke out between Max Frankel and Abe Rosenthal (known in the industry as Max and Abe). That year, Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger (universally known as Punch) finessed the situation by promoting Abe to executive editor and then replacing Oakes with young Max.
Abe and Max would each have his place in the sun: Abe reigned for 10 years and Max snagged the executive editor job in 1986. Both are now retired from the Times and in their seventies. But while the spurned liberal went quietly, the roaring self-promotion of his peers can still be heard 25 years later, between the lines of the Times’ Oakes obituary published on April 6. According to an insider, the Oakes obit was “handled at the highest levels” of the Times, and is now the subject of hoarse whispers among the old-timers whose memories are still intact.
A bit of history will lend context to the palace intrigue. Oakes was the nephew of Adolph S. Ochs, the Times publisher from 1896 to 1935. But this scion did not join the dynasty of publishers who launched their careers on 43rd Street. A Princeton grad and Rhodes scholar, he cut his teeth as a reporter for The Washington Post and rose to become editor of the Times‘ editorial page in 1961, under Punch.
The idea for an op-ed page had been kicking around the Times for a while, but it was Oakes who lobbied his cousin Punch throughout the ’60s, arguing that the paper needed a high-profile venue for its columnists and outside opinion writers. When Punch finally approved the page in 1970, Oakes and then managing editor Abe Rosenthal competed to attach their names to that fertile ground. Punch gave Oakes overall control, but awarded day-to-day responsibility to an editor from Abe’s staff.
Abe struck back three years later, when Oakes asked architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable to join his editorial board. Huxtable reported to Abe at the time, and according to an insider, the big man threw a fit when she told him she wanted to work for Oakes, threatening that if she did so, her name would never appear in the Times again. (The Times tried to enforce this threat in 1990, when it was announced that Huxtable and C. Vann Woodward had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At first, the Times reported only Woodward’s accomplishment, then slyly corrected itself by reporting Huxtable’s election as a separate story, a week later.)
The Fates cut Oakes’s career short in 1976, when he lost his job in a coup that came to be known as Punch’s Putsch. That year, the paper was suffering financially, and Abe and Max butted heads for the job of executive editor. After giving Abe the top job, Punch replaced Oakes with Max. According to The Trust, a 1999 history of the Times by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, Punch explained that he had to give Max a prize job, to keep him from leaving the paper. But Punch also disagreed with Oakes’s politics, and a Business Week story published that year floated the apocryphal theory that Oakes’s “antibusiness” tone might be adding to the newspaper’s financial woes.
Punch publicly embarrassed Oakes while the editor was vacationing in 1976, first vetoing Oakes’s senatorial endorsement of Bella Abzug in favor of the more business-friendly Daniel Moynihan, and then reducing Oakes’s stinging dissent to a one-sentence letter to the editor. (The Times was credited with giving Moynihan his one percent margin of victory.) Oakes was further humiliated when he found out that Max didn’t even want the job of editorial page editor, and only took it on the condition that he could get rid of most of the writers on Oakes’s staff.
The Times hammered the last nail in Oakes’s coffin when it published his obituary on April 6. Though filled with praise, the obit repeated the “antibusiness” canard without skepticism and included a conspicuous plug for Frankel’s accomplishments as editorial page editor, asserting that he had hired “the first woman to write editorials full time.” (Coincidentally, this bit of spin had been advanced by Frankel in his 1999 autobiography, The Times of My Life.) The obit omitted the significant fact that under Oakes, the Times‘ editorial board had employed its first African American, Roger Wilkins, and its second woman, Ada Louise Huxtable.
In response to complaints, the Times published a mealymouthed Editors’ Note on April 17, which gave a grudging nod to Huxtable and to the first woman appointed to the editorial board, Anne O’Hare McCormick. But it never quite admitted that Frankel’s hire, Soma Golden Behr, was not “the first woman to write editorials full time.”
The repetition of the antibusiness smear disturbed Oakes’s son, Four Walls Eight Windows publisher John Oakes, who told me that his father “did not think of himself as antibusiness. He thought business should operate in a moral and social context.” The Times received a similar objection from Mark Silk, whose father, Leonard Silk, wrote Times editorials on business and economics from 1970 to 1976. Silk’s letter to the editor, published in the Times on April 7, pointed out that while Oakes’s editorial page didn’t agree that “whatever is good for the bottom line is good for the country,” the page certainly “maintained a strong belief in the social utility of the profit motive.”
Whether or not Max and Abe had a hand in Oakes’s obituary, the two have become gladiators at preserving their own legacy. With the publication of Max’s autobiography in 1999, they feuded publicly, a practice heretofore frowned upon at the Times. In a 1999 Vanity Fair article, Abe called Max “contemptible” for using the status he derived from the Times to spout disrespect for Timesmen and sell books. Abe may have suffered the most, but according to the Vanity Fair piece by David Margolick, many insiders reading the book discovered Max to be angry, ruthless, and willing to target people who were “too old, too ill, too forgotten, or too dead to defend themselves.”
In the book, Max took several cheap shots at John Oakes, calling him and his board “righteous and predictable liberals” while hyping his own brand of liberalism as “less predictable and more fun.” If Oakes had “appeared comfortable” belonging to an all-male Century Club, the enlightened Max had quit to stand up for women. Max even faulted Oakes for not resigning after the Moynihan endorsement—conveniently omitting the fact that Punch had already forced Oakes into early retirement.
Interviewed before his death, Oakes told Vanity Fair that Frankel’s version of events was “shabby” and “distorted.” It would have been interesting to hear what he had to say about his own obituary.
Rosenthal did not respond to a request for comment. A Times spokeswoman
said via e-mail, “The writer and editors of the John Oakes obit tried
to be scrupulously impartial in view of the known differences that
existed between esteemed and accomplished colleagues. The fact of our
Editors’ Note, we believe, underlined our determination to be totally
fair and to complete the record.”