Union Tribune

February 26, 2003

Copley editor in chief announces retirement

By George E. Condon Jr.

Herbert G. Klein, a newsman who always returned to newspapers despite the allure of politics, government and sports, announced yesterday that he is retiring as editor in chief of Copley Newspapers, the job he said gave him the most satisfaction in a six-decade career.

Klein, one month shy of his 85th birthday, said he will continue as a consultant to David C. Copley, publisher of The San Diego Union-Tribune and president and chief executive officer of Copley Newspapers.

Klein also pledged to remain active in San Diego business and sports activities, stating, "I'm doing this while I'm in good health. There's a lot that I want to still do."

It was Copley who disclosed Klein's surprise decision at the opening of the annual meeting of the news organization's publishers from California, Illinois and Ohio in Borrego Springs.

"Herb Klein has asked me to bring you the news of a great change in his long and spectacular career," Copley said. "Come June of this year, Herb will retire from the company he has served so ably since 1940."

Yesterday, Klein was lauded from San Diego to Washington and by high-ranking news executives to young reporters he had befriended.

Copley made no mention of a replacement, and company officials said no decision has been made.

Both Charles F. Patrick, the company's chief operating officer, and Karin Winner, editor of the group's flagship paper in San Diego, stressed that the departure of Klein does not augur any changes in what Patrick called "the traditions of the organization and its commitment to excellence."

As editor in chief, Klein coordinated a unified voice within Copley Newspapers and advised on editorial matters.

Thanking Klein for his long service, Copley called the announcement "truly bittersweet."

"I'm not sure there has ever been a career quite like yours in the newspaper business. I'm sure there will never be another," Copley told Klein in an address to the publishers, praising his leadership, hard work and friendship.

That career began in the San Gabriel Valley in 1940 when Klein, fresh from the University of Southern California, began work as a copy boy at the Alhambra Post-Advocate, then owned by Copley Newspapers.

After service in the Navy during World War II, Klein wove together a career in journalism and politics.

Fascinated by a young congressional candidate he covered in 1946, Klein found himself switching from a political independent who voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt to a Republican insider who rode Richard Nixon's rise to the presidency.

Klein was the first-ever White House communications director and has advised those who have held that title regardless of party affiliation.

"He's taken an institutional perspective of this," said Dan Bartlett, the current White House communications director. "His respect for the presidency is enormous and goes beyond partisan lines."

Bartlett said the advice he has gotten from Klein "has helped me do my job in a more effective way."

Klein left the White House in 1973, more than a year before the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign. Klein's exit was hastened because Nixon's inner circle considered him too open with reporters. Presidential scholar Steven Hess said that "by their standards, he was a loose cannon which meant he talked to reporters."

The Nixon tapes caught the president reflecting this view, asking, "He's just not our guy at all is he?"

But, Hess recalled, "Nixon never truly understood what a true asset a guy like Herb Klein was. ... He was so damn likeable. He had wide connections and great friendships throughout Washington, which for Nixon could have been a huge asset."

Despite his long ties to the president, Klein saw himself, even in the White House, as a newsman.

"Journalism has been my profession and politics have been an avocation," he said yesterday. "I'm grateful that my good friend (former Publisher) Helen Copley asked me to come back as editor in chief in 1980."

He came to San Diego in 1950 as a feature and editorial writer for the Evening Tribune. He moved to The Union where he served as editorial page editor, associate editor and executive editor before becoming editor from 1959 to 1968.

So even on a day when praise was heard from senators, governors, mayors and cabinet officers, the comments that most pleased Klein came from his fellow editors and those who joined him in the less-publicized battles for freedom of information and against government efforts to withhold facts from the press.

"He has taught us all about commitment and loyalty and much more," said the Union-Tribune's Winner. "I know he believes that great newspapers come from reporting the truth with fairness and balance and that is going to continue to be our mission."

Burl Osborne, publisher emeritus of The Dallas Morning News and chairman of The Associated Press, spoke for many of his colleagues when he said, "I didn't think he would ever retire."

He playfully said, "I'm surprised that he has chosen to retire at such an early age," then added seriously, "Herb is really an icon in this business. He is a man of extremely good judgment, very wide-ranging interests and great talent. I consider him a friend and a colleague and I think the business will miss his wisdom."

Jack Brimeyer, managing editor of Copley's Peoria Journal-Star, recalled Klein's willingness to broker disputes, once going to the Illinois city to make sure that in the bitter aftermath of a strike against Caterpillar the hard feelings did not impede the paper's ability to cover such a large local employer.

"That willingness to jump into a fray and try to find common ground is one of Herb's fortes," Brimeyer said.

With his retirement not effective until June, several of his colleagues privately joked that those three months may not be enough time for Klein to clean out his cluttered fifth-floor office in the Union-Tribune building, nor even, said one, to find the top of his desk below a mountain of old memos and pending files.

Since moving into the office in 1980, Klein has covered the walls with historic pictures such as the one of him in the background as then-Vice President Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev held their famous "kitchen debate" in 1959 and cartoons depicting the often-daunting task of trying to sell Nixon to a skeptical press corps.

"He's a renaissance man," said Jack Kemp, the former pro quarterback, congressman, vice presidential candidate and Cabinet officer who is one of Klein's closest friends. "He and (former sports editor) Jack Murphy brought the Chargers to San Diego ... The stadium. The Chargers. Baseball. Sports. There will not be another Herb Klein in our lifetime. I can't say enough about him."

Pete Wilson, the former mayor, senator and governor, also called attention to the wide swath Klein has cut in shaping the modern San Diego.

"I honestly can't think of anyone who has exerted a more positive influence for a longer period of time consistently than Herb," said Wilson, calling Klein "an extraordinary force for good."

Those who know Klein only from his Nixon connection are frequently surprised to learn that politics takes a back seat to his passions for the University of Southern California on whose board he sits and sports in general.

His close friendship with longtime NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle is often credited with helping to bring the Super Bowl to San Diego for the first time in 1988. Current Commissioner Paul Tagliabue praised Klein's contribution to the second and third Super Bowls hosted by San Diego.

"We are fortunate that his amazing career has touched the NFL in so many ways, including Herb's vision for San Diego as a Super Bowl city," Tagliabue said yesterday. "Herb Klein may be retiring, but we look forward to continuing to benefit from his counsel and friendship."

A partner in those campaigns for the Super Bowl was Leon Parma, a close friend and chairman of the task force that secured the first game. "There are very few people in San Diego who have the broad acquaintance that Herb Klein has across this nation, from the White House on down to the mayors of many cities," Parma said.

Klein emphasized yesterday he doesn't plan to end his civic involvement.

"I intend to be very visible and active but more on my own time," he said. "I'm never going to be one found sitting in a rocking chair."

But he said he does look forward to spending more time with his wife, Marjorie, two daughters, as well as his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He said he leaves his job as editor in chief with pride over the improvements enacted on his watch and with no regrets. But he voiced great concern over what he called "the challenge of reaching 18-to 34-year-olds and making them newspaper readers.

"The task before us is to retain our older readers while we make changes to attract younger ones," he said. "Unlike some broadcasters, we cannot zero in on only one age group."

But he said he hopes his own career serves as an example to younger reporters. "I hope I've provided young people who've worked for Copley Newspapers a role model of climbing from copy boy to editor in chief," he said.

Staff writers John Marelius, Nick Canepa and Phil LaVelle and Union-Tribune researcher Erin Hobbs contributed to this report.