By all accounts Edwin Guthman was a great journalist. He won a Pulitzer Prize with the Seattle Times in 1950, he was national editor of the Los Angeles Times as it rose to glory in the late 60s and 70s, he ran the editorial page of the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1980s, and in semiretirement he taught journalism at the University of Southern California for 20 years. For a time he was president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
Guthman died Sunday at the age of 89. Knowing about him only what the obituaries tell me, I envy him his career. But there is one period of it — or should I say one breach of it? — that deserves a teaching moment. In 1956, the LA Times obit tells us, Guthman was investigating the Teamsters union and he was introduced to Robert Kennedy, the staff attorney to a Senate subcommittee about to launch an inquiry into labor corruption. Guthman and Kennedy got on, “and they began to share information.” When Kennedy became attorney general in 1961 he hired Guthman as his press secretary, and Guthman worked for him for the next four years. In 1971 he published an affectionate memoir of those years, We Band of Brothers. The AP obit tells us that throughout his life he wore a tie clip President John Kennedy had given him.
There’s a rule of thumb in journalism — situationally applied, often disregarded — that holds that journalists should draw a line between themselves and the governments they cover, and once they cross that line they should stay on the other side. There’s a reason for this rule, and Guthman’s obituaries inadvertently demonstrate it. With Guthman as national editor, the Times aggressively covered Watergate and in late 1972 broke a major story. The next year Guthman discovered that he ranked third on President Nixon’s enemies list. A former Times colleague told the Times that Guthman “was very proud” of that. But, the obit went on, “Guthman was also outraged. . . . He said any law-abiding American citizen would resent being targeted for retribution from his government.”
That list existed because the Nixon White House was paranoid. But even paranoiacs have their reasons. Nixon hated and feared the Kennedys, and the hard-charging Times editor making his life miserable was a Kennedy man. That wasn’t just Nixon’s paranoia talking — it was also Guthman’s years on the Kennedy payroll.