Sunday, December 21, 2008

Farewell, Sweet Prince

We don’t get many mentors. There are parents, sure, and for some the parents we wish we had. A fortunate few get a great teacher who just keeps on teaching long after you have parted company. In our professional life, it is even less likely that someone will have the generosity and temperament to take in interest in a pup without any house training in whom they somehow see some promise.

I am among the luckiest. My mentor was a man named Arthur Spiegelman. Art’s importance to journalism, and to the world he made a better place with his fearless, righteous and unfailingly accurate reporting, is legendary to those of us who worked with him and not nearly well known enough to everyone else.

Arthur died on Saturday after a long bout with lung cancer. Illness made it impossible for him to speak, depriving those around him of his incredible conversation and infectious laugh. But Arthur was receiving calls, made to a cell phone of a close friend at his bedside, who would hold it up to his ear. To his last breath, Arthur was doing what made him a journalist’s journalist. He was listening.

Unspeakable talent surrounded me during my years at Reuters, by reporters who calmly reported from battlefields, jungles and board rooms. Nobody had anything on Arthur, and everybody knew it. Nobody did it better. Arthur was known as “Dr. Lede” – if you were stuck, one call to the doctor would yield a passage of the exact story in 50 words or less, and the doctor was always in. Arthur’s leads would prompt professionals who saw his stories first to just stop reading, to go over those first few perfect words again and again.

Still, great instincts and abilities (and his renowned inability to spell or touch type) are not what set Arthur apart. He had a childlike quality that freed an apprentice of self-consciousness along with a visceral intolerance for bad writing and insufficient reporting.

Arthur took an interest in a certain young aspiring reporter and it is fair to say whatever I do manage to bring to the game is because of him. He allowed me to write for the wire when I had no right to, pushed me into greater challenges than I cared to face, gave me assignments he knew, in the right hands, would be plums.

Arthur gave me a high-profile assignment during the contentious 1992 New Hampshire primary: the improbable and nearly king-toppling candidacy of Pat Buchanan. Irwin Arieff covered Clinton. Both candidates came in second, declared victory of a sort and set the tone for the rest of the campaign of Clinton as the “Comeback Kid” and Bush as a tragically weak incumbent, waiting to be blown over. Our coverage won considerable kudos. Arthur, the chief political correspondent, took the wholly unglamorous assignment of desking our copy from a small hotel room.

A few years earlier, I pitched an idea about Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” the novel that earned the author a cleric’s death sentence. How was it selling, I wondered? Among other things Arthur, who ran the New York City bureau at the time, was Reuters’ unofficial book critic and literary maven, so he freed me from boring desk duties to wander the city’s book haunts, big and small. I discovered that the best-selling book “was nowhere to be seen in this book-buying Mecca.” I was very proud of the story -- and lede I hoped would make Dr. Lede proud. The look Arthur gave me from across the room, leaning back in his chair with wide eyes, head tilted and a small, hopeful grin told me I had nailed it. No feedback from anyone, before or since, has meant more to me.

I saw Arthur for the last time about a year ago, during an visit he made to New York from Los Angeles, his base for many years, that served as an impromptu farewell to a man who was not at all dead and not even retiring. I traveled from DC but others came from the UK and even Australia. The private room we hired at a mid-town bar was packed, and a cadre of Reuters’ luminaries paid him tribute.

As I got ready to leave Arthur and I did our personal schtick one last time. “Boss! Chief!” I would always greet him in the worst Boris and Natasha accent imaginable. “Youth!” he would reply, this time no longer appropriate for me at 50.

As we embraced I told him that the tributes were all very nice but that all those people had no idea how important he was, how important he was to me.

"Somebody did it for me,” he said. “Now you do it for somebody else."

That won’t be possible. There will only ever be one Spiegs.


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6 comments:

Samer said...

This brought a tear to my eye, John. Art's impact on you and your writing, and his exacting standards, have been passed on, I think, whether you believe it or not.

Irwin Arieff said...

very nice, john. when we think back on arthur, we will always have new hampshire.

lewisshepherd said...

What a nice tribute. Love the Mecca story & can just imagine your feeling at his satisfaction & approval. Sounds like a hell of a guy, you were fortunate to work with him.

Anonymous said...

Godspeed

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