Clyde Haberman on his Sulzberger obit: ‘It is never simple to write about the boss’

As publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger had a privilege afforded rarely even to those who share his gilded background: He was interviewed repeatedly by his obituarist.

Clyde Haberman began working on his 7,741-word obituary for his former boss in 1998 and interviewed Sulzberger several times for it, the New York Times reporter told Poynter in an email. Sulzberger died Saturday. He was 86 and had Parkinson’s disease.

The piece, Haberman said, “was occasionally revised, though not significantly, as his health declined in recent years and a greater sense of urgency developed.”

On Saturday morning, he said, “there were some minor tweaks that needed to be made – again, nothing major.”

Haberman’s reporting leads readers to a remarkable view of the former publisher and New York Times Company chairman, whose professional life, Haberman writes in the piece, lasted from “the era of hot lead and Linotype machines to the birth of the digital world.”

The piece plumbs those years, which began in the aftermath of a grueling printer strike, when “the paper….was also a struggling operation with an uncertain future. It was reeling from low revenues and high labor costs,” as Haberman writes in the piece.

Sulzberger, the piece says, stayed mostly out of his editors’ collective hair, with some notable exceptions. Including this one, which opens a window on Sulzberger’s life outside the C-suite.

Once in a while he wrote brief letters to the editor using the name A. Sock, a wordplay on [his nickname] Punch. Mr. Sock was always as pleased as punch with puns. “The nationalist Chinese seem extremely apprehensive when Mr. Nixon drinks with Premier Chou,” he wrote in 1972. “Are they scared he’ll Taiwan on?”

One A. Sock letter, an unflattering take in 1979 on the National Organization for Women, brought a sharp rebuttal letter. “Mr. Sock deserves a punch,” it concluded. It was signed Gail Gregg, the publisher’s daughter-in-law at the time. Convinced his cover was blown, Mr. Sulzberger wrote almost no A. Sock letters again.

“I cannot pretend to have known him well,” Haberman wrote to Poynter about Sulzberger. Inasmuch as he got to know Sulzberger, Haberman said, it was when he worked as a foreign correspondent from 1983 to 1991. “Meeting with the publisher was part of the routine when correspondents returned to New York on home leave,” he said. He began interviewing Sulzberger for the obituary after he stepped down as the Times Company’s chairman in 1997.

Joseph Lelyveld gave Haberman the assignment. “I can’t be sure as to why he chose me, but I suspect it’s because I have been with The Times for a good long while, going on 36 years, and because he felt that I had a pretty good feel for the paper and what made it tick,” Haberman told Poynter.

“There were two main themes about his years as publisher that I thought should be the focus” of the obituary, Haberman said. “His stewardship of the newspaper through another period of difficult finances and his decision in 1971 to publish the government history of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers. This was a courageous decision, and his finest moment.”

“It is never simple to write about the boss,” Haberman said, “but Mr. Sulzberger made the assignment as easy as could be.”

Times people remember Sulzberger: Sulzberger “insisted on an “Op-Ed” page (opposite the editorial page) that would offer a wide range of views, an innovation that was widely copied” (Max Frankel) | ” ‘Without fear or favor’ became Punch’s own credo” (Arthur Gelb) | “My father was not prone to worship, but he worshiped Arthur Sulzberger” (Andrew Rosenthal) | “It also became increasingly clear that the system of monarchy helped save the New York Times as a great newspaper” (Nicholas Kristof) | “The Pentagon Papers case is the best known among the many tests of those freedoms during his stewardship as The Times’s publisher. But one cannot talk about the First Amendment without also talking about The New York Times v. Sullivan” (Times editorial page)

Related: Obituaries from Bloomberg and The Washington Post; an appreciation by Howard Kurtz. The New Yorker collected some of its stories involving Sulzberger. The Associated Press collected tributes from Ed Koch, Gay Talese and others.

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