Life, death, and love — it’s all here. But there’s something much more compelling inside. Like a Trojan horse, this memoir delivers more than one might expect.
I picked up Robert H. Phelp’s God and the Editor: My Search for Meaning at the New York Times because, judging by its covers, I thought it might make a pleasant evening’s diversion, a story about the journalistic profession by a consummate journalist — news about news, as it were. I assumed it would turn out to be a firsthand chronicle of one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country and its throng of pen-wielding (and later laptop-brandishing) journalists preparing “clean copy” for deadline.
It was that. But it was so much more.
Robert H. Phelps may not fit the stereotypical Greek bearing gifts of which one should be wary, but his book packs a wallop. If it doesn’t conquer a fortified city, it does much to break down the hardness of one’s heart, penetrating to the core of what is essential in life.
Phelps, a veteran newsprint journalist, was the Washington, D.C. bureau editor for the New York Times from about the middle 1960s up through just after the Watergate story broke. From the Times he joined the Boston Globe, where he reported on racial segregation in public schools.
His is a story of a small town boy who grew into a big city newsman with a Pulitzer Prize. With his parents he attended a Unitarian Church, but mostly because he fell in love with a childhood friend and because the Unitarians claimed President Jefferson, his favorite president, as one of their own.
From the start journalism was his religion — giving life meaning. There were commandments for its devotees, entailing rewards for good behavior. But even after having seized the Holy Grail of Journalism, his Pulitzer Prize could not quench his thirst. There had to be more.
Phelps owns up to an affair of the heart: first, his love for his chosen profession, journalism; second, and perhaps unfortunately in that order, his love for his wife, Betty. He pleads guilty to spending too many hours at the office and too few at home.
Journalistic integrity meant everything to him. With a contrite candor reminiscent of St. Augustine’s confession of stealing pears, Phelps recounts failing to confirm information from sources and mistakenly reporting the sighting of woodpeckers. The false report had real consequences. One would hope that today’s neophyte journalists might learn a lesson from Phelps. Because there is so little time for verification of sources and even less time for thinking before going on air or filing a report, news reporters need to be conscientious in their work.
Frankness and magnanimity characterize his reference to why his Times followed rather than led the Washington Post on the Watergate story. “With more sustained and passionate leadership from me, a little luck, and tougher reporting, we might have broken through in the fall of 1972 and Woodward and Bernstein would have been following the Times, instead of vice versa.”
His failure to trade in an antiquated gentlemanly demeanor for the cut-throat manner de rigueur in the harried modern newsroom later contributed to his worse professional disappointment. Because he was seen as too old-fashioned for the emergent news marketplace of the future, he was passed up for an important promotion.
His wife Betty, a Christian with an appreciation for Divine Providence, sought to comfort him. It was a blessing to be spared the added stress and the inevitable psychiatrist visits entailed thereby.
When his wife took ill, questions of ultimate meaning took on urgency akin to a news deadline. In the “End of Journalism,” Phelps’s closing chapter, he crafts a poignant dénouement. Here, the news cycle meets the life cycle, love of profession finally defers to his profession of his love for his wife Betty. As she lay dying, and he struggles with bidding farewell, she puts up a valiant fight only to go the way of all mortals. Her peaceful departure is little consolation.
Thereafter, late one evening, he witnesses an apparition — “Jesus outside my bedroom window.” With his own eyes, he saw Jesus “on the lawn in the classic long white robe …. I could not believe what I was seeing.”
While less than a Pauline “Road to Damascus” conversion experience, his brush with the inexplicable spurred on his search for meaning in part through recollection of his wife. “I remembered our good times together,” he fondly reminisces, of getting tipsy on Irish whiskey with relatives in Limerick and of skinny dipping in an exotic locale with Betty on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. “These and other memories kept coming. And they will continue to come and enrich my life ….”
Phelps artfully entwines his erstwhile demarcated personal and professional lives; Betty’s passing brings into focus a life which was as much a love story as a morality tale. Hope suffuses his conclusion. “Because of Betty’s illness and her Christian giving,” he shares, “I have finally learned how to love someone more than myself.”
God and the Editor reminds us that the most important truths in life are not learned from newspapers. In sharing some of his most private and profound personal experiences, Robert Phelps has written more than “good copy”; it’s a stirring memoir of life, love, death, and hope.
David A. Pendleton writes from Honolulu, Hawaii, where he adjudicates workers’ compensation appeals.
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