Harry Rosenfeld: Editor who played a key role in exposing the Watergate scandal

Harry Rosenfeld: Editor who played a key role in exposing the Watergate scandal
His decision to take a chance on young journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein while at The Washington Post led to one of the biggest exposés in history

Harry Rosenfeld, who barely escaped the Holocaust as a child in Nazi Germany and who became a key Washington Post editor during its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Watergate break-in and resulting scandal, has died aged 91.

A burly, brusque and demanding editor, Rosenfeld became fascinated by world affairs and journalism as a schoolboy in New York. He saw in journalism a way to keep oppressive forces at bay, “holding to account the accountable, the more powerful the better,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, From Kristallnacht to Watergate.

Rosenfeld worked in the newspaper industry for 50 years, beginning at the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune, then at The Post and finally as the top editor of two newspapers in Albany, New York.

His most enduring legacy stemmed from his years as The Post’s assistant managing editor for metropolitan news. In that role, he was the direct supervisor of two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as they doggedly reported on the unfolding Watergate saga that led to president Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

Rosenfeld was a colourful and energetic figure at The Post. “He was like a football coach,” Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their 1974 book about Watergate, All the President’s Men. “He prods his players, pleading, yelling, cajoling.”

Reflecting on his own demeanour, Rosenfeld acknowledged in his memoir that he could be “a pain in the ass” to work with. He clashed with executive editor Ben Bradlee over Bradlee’s “compulsion to see the world in personal terms,” Rosenfeld wrote, and over what he saw as Bradlee’s privileged upbringing and aura of elitism.

“When he was a young kid, he learned to play” tennis, Rosenfeld noted in his book. “When I was a young kid, I dodged Nazis.”

In the early days of the scandal, Rosenfeld passionately defended Woodward and Bernstein when Bradlee wanted to replace them on the Watergate story with more seasoned staff writers.

“They’re hungry,” he is said to have told Bradlee. “You remember when you were hungry?”

The line, snarled by Jack Warden as Rosenfeld, became one of the most memorable in the acclaimed 1976 film version of All the President’s Men, which featured Jason Robards as Bradlee, Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.

In 1973, The Post won a Pulitzer for public service for its Watergate coverage. Rosenfeld was rewarded with a promotion to assistant managing editor in charge of The Post’s star-studded national staff. He lasted only a few months in that job.

He rubbed many national reporters the wrong way with his abrasive personality. He was soon put in charge of the Outlook section and Book World, which he regarded as a clear demotion.

Sensing a limited future at The Post, Rosenfeld decamped in 1978 to Albany, New York to become editor of theTimes Union and the afternoon Knickerbocker News, both properties in the Hearst media empire. The Knickerbocker News went out of business in 1988. He retired in 1996, but remained editor-at-large for the Times Union, contributing regular editorial page columns, until his death.

Hirsch Moritz Rosenfeld was born in Berlin on 12 August 1929. His father was a furrier. In 1934, the family filed an application to immigrate to the United States, but the request was delayed by the American immigration quota system then in place.

On 9 November 1938, Nazi storm troopers and their sympathisers smashed the front windows of dozens of Jewish-owned businesses in Berlin. The shop that Rosenfeld’s father owned was somehow spared in the assaults that became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass. A few days later, Harry Rosenfeld watched as his family’s synagogue was burned to the ground.

By sheer luck, the family was approved for immigration in March 1939. They arrived in New York on 16 May aboard the Cunard ocean liner Aquitania. The Second World War began that September. Rosenfeld kept his US immigration card – No 6064 – in a prominent place in his home for the rest of his life.

The family settled in the Bronx. Rosenfeld graduated from Syracuse University in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in American literature. He later did graduate work in history at Columbia University and in poetry at New York University. He served in the army from 1952 to 1954.

In 1953, he married Anne Hahn. Besides his wife, he is survived by three daughters and seven grandchildren.

Rosenfeld with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in 1978

Just before entering Syracuse, Rosenfeld got a summer job with the Herald Tribune’s syndicate, which distributed the newspaper’s articles to client papers, and his reputation for indefatigable work habits helped him advance to the newsroom. He eventually became managing editor for the news service and then foreign editor before the Herald Tribune and its partner newspapers folded in 1966.

Rosenfeld joined The Post as an editor on the foreign desk and became well known as a very vocal pitchman for certain stories being promoted as front-page candidates. “Doesn’t anyone care about a really good story?” he would rasp, at the daily news conferences over which Bradlee presided.

Rosenfeld had little experience with local news – and none with Washington-area news – when Bradlee promoted him to head the Metro staff, The Post‘s largest, in 1970. But characteristically, he plunged in with afterburners firing.

He demanded that his local staff produce three front-page stories every day. On many days, they complied.

Rosenfeld inherited a Metro staff whose reporters openly pined to be promoted to the more prestigious national staff. Yet he brought a New York sensibility to his new job. Any local story that would get tabloid treatment in New York should get similar attention in Washington, he believed.

Very soon, he proved his point via a 14-year-old runaway from Arlington, Virginia, named Debra “Muffin” Mattingly.

Mattingly’s boyfriend was later convicted of bashing her father to death with a crowbar, while his daughter watched.

Rosenfeld assigned six reporters to the story – five more than his predecessors almost assuredly would have. The Muffin melodrama was mined for every angle and every nuance. Rosenfeld insisted that it receive prominent display for more than 18 months.

He was often mocked for the extent of the Muffin coverage, both inside and outside The Post. But Rosenfeld stoutly maintained that the story was, in his words, “a grabber”.

In the office, Rosenfeld favoured bow ties and thick-framed glasses. He would often eat meals at his desk in less than five minutes so he could make better use of the work day. He made it a habit to roam the aisles where Metro reporters sat, clapping his hands and shouting encouragement.

“Harry was always the great, aggressive, hard-charging editor,” Woodward said. “But his message to his reporters was that we gather hard facts, listen to all and listen some more. Careful, patient listening was the key.”

Rosenfeld’s collaboration with Woodward and Bernstein very nearly did not happen.

Shortly after Rosenfeld took over as Metro editor, he gave Woodward, then a thoroughly green wannabe, a tryout. Rosenfeld didn’t like the results. He advised the aspiring young reporter to get some experience elsewhere and reapply.

Woodward continued to pester Rosenfeld with phone calls. One day in September 1971, Woodward called Rosenfeld at his home in Kensington, Maryland. Rosenfeld’s wife answered. She agreed to summon her husband to the phone.

“There was a really long wait,” Woodward recalled. “He came to the phone, found out it was only me and yelled at me for getting him down from the roof. He angrily slammed down the phone.”

But according to Woodward, Anne Rosenfeld said to her husband: “You always complain that your reporters are not aggressive enough.”

“Harry listened to her,” Woodward recalled. “Within several days, he hired me.” The Watergate break-in took place less than nine months later.

Harry Rosenfeld, editor, born 12 August 1929, died 16 July 2021

© The Washington Post

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