Herb Klein, one of RN’s oldest friends, supporters, and colleagues, died at home in La Jolla on 2 July. He was 91. He will be remembered this morning at a memorial service on the flight deck of the USS Midway in San Diego Harbor.
Herb’s last years were marked by the frustration of a body that couldn’t keep up with his sharp and active mind, and by the great sadness of losing his spouse of sixty-seven years, the wonderful Marge, who died last year. But, typically, he was engaged and active to the very end as a warm friend and wise counselor. He played a very special part in the development of San Diego and he held a very special place in the hearts of San Diegans.
Herb was born in East Los Angeles in 1918. When he enrolled at USC as a journalism major, his ambition was to be a sports writer (an early aspiration he shared with RN). “I finally figured out I could be a better writer than a football player,” he remembered. He was the Daily Trojan’s sports editor, and wrote a column called “Sports Scribbles.”
In an international relations class at USC that he met Marjorie Galbraith, and they were married at the end of 1941 shortly before he volunteered for the Navy, serving from 1942-46.
Herb with RN in the Oval Office at the beginning of the first term in 1969.
After the war he got a job as a reporter for the Alhambra Post-Advocate. One of his assignments was to cover the 12th District debut congressional campaign of a local boy made good — Richard Nixon. They hit it off at their first meeting, and Herb would be part of the extended Nixon family —either on staff or as a friend— from then until RN died.
He was the Press Secretary for the 1960 presidential campaign; and it was Herb who was at the microphone when RN arrived to conduct his “last press conference” in 1962. Herb left his position as Editor of the San Diego Union to serve as the National Communications Manager for the 1968 presidential campaign, and he joined the new administration as Director of Communications — a position he designed for himself at RN’s invitation.
He left the White House in 1973 to join Metromedia. In 1980 he returned to his Copley roots as Editor-in-Chief of chain’s nine daily and twenty weekly papers — a postion he held until he retired in 2003 — although retirement was a relative concept where Herb was concerned.
Herb’s mild manner and soft voice belied his challenging and questioning mind; and his calm demeanor masked a sharp and witty sense of humor. You don’t edit a major paper in a major city by being indecisive or undecided. But Herb managed to keep everything —including himself— in a humane perspective. He respected the other fellow’s point of view when it was different from his own, but he understood the necessity of principle and the importance of loyalty.
Herb and RN played golf in San Clemente in 1975.
Many of Herb’s many obituaries were straightforward records of his long and eventful life, and of the universal esteem in which he was held. It may be said of Herb that he embodied the famous difference between being liked and being well-liked.
But a few of the obituaries were tendentious and churlish, rehearsing the notion that, for people like Herb, who are otherwise liked and respected, working for Nixon was a blot on their resume, an aberration that needs to be explained and excused.
Both Adam Clymer in The New York Times and Patricia Sullivan in the Washington Post couldn’t resist trotting out the single tape quote that represented —as Herb knew and understood— a private letting-off of steam that had nothing to do with RN’s real feelings. One would have thought that Mr. Clymer, a long-time Washington hand and admiring biographer of Edward Kennedy, might have summoned a more sophisticated understanding of the way politics works and the way politicians unwind. Ms. Sullivan, an editor and obituarist, is ludicrously Post-centric (the headline was “White House Director of Communications During Watergate”).
Working for RN, as an elected official and in his political campaigns, was —as Herb felt and wrote— far from being a dirty little secret or a guilty pleasure. It was a higher calling. It was a badge of honor.
One of RN’s characteristics was to identify, encourage, and employ brilliant and outstanding young people. This was true —as it was in Herb’s case— even when RN himself was young. A hallmark of Nixon campaigns and offices —congressional, senatorial, vice-presidential, and presidential— was the number of smart, motivated, and principled young men and women who were involved.
The Nixon White House, while admittedly less Ivy-pedigreed, was every bit as young and bright and, in many ways, far more innovative and successful than any before — including the over-romanticized but under-producing Kennedy White House.
The Nixon first term in particular —1969-1972— was one of the most impressive and successful in presidential history. What RN and his staff were able to accomplish in those years —not only in absolute terms, but relative to the country they inherited that was reeling from violence and tottering on the brink of a revolution—was truly remarkable.
The media’s reaction to the dynamism and success of the first term was a steadily increasing hostility. This made Herb’s position tenuous, and undermined his chances of success. The initial openness and outreach were replaced by a wary defensiveness, and before long the old lines were redrawn.
Herb respected and admired —and liked— RN. Of course that didn’t mean that he agreed with his every decision or approved of everything he did. And as time passed and the first term segued into the second, their relationship wasn’t without its disappointments and frustrations. But Herb was not only wise; he was sophisticated. He understood the nature of politics and he appreciated the demands —and loneliness— of leadership, and he never lost his respect or admiration —or affection— for his erstwhile boss and old friend. Herb’s 1980 book Making It Perfectly Clear, an Inside Account of Nixon’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Media, is one of the best accounts of what went right and what went wrong in those times.
Herb Klein led a long, rich, full, meaningful, and important life. And, like his dear friend and fellow Trojan Bob Finch, Herb leaves behind a living legacy of men and women who entered politics and public service and journalism inspired by his example and enriched by his friendship — many of whom will be on the Midway‘s deck this morning remembering and celebrating the life of this most excellent man.
In 2003 Herb Klein was a clue in The New York Times‘ crossword puzzle.