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Thursday, December 13 , 2018, 8:41 am | Fair 42º


Mark Shields: The American Underdog

Jim Bellows was a giant of journalism who always stood tall for the little guy

I like to believe that identifying with and backing the underdog, any underdog, is deep in our American DNA. You will almost always find us on the side of the night-school student competing against the heir to a family fortune. We cheer for the girl who was told she wasn’t good enough, or strong enough, or, worse, pretty enough. You will find Americans rooting for the every fearless David against any fearsome Goliath.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

By this standard, Jim Bellows, who died this month at 86, was the classic American. A runt of a kid who became a World War II Navy aviator before graduating from Kenyon College, Bellows went to work for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger in 1947. Over the next 34 years, Bellows made the newspapers he worked for better and an unforgettable impression on every journalist whose work he edited.

Don’t take my word for it. Here is what one of the 20th century’s very best political reporters, Jack W. Germond, wrote: “The best years I ever had in the newspaper business were the three in the mid-1970s when James Bellows was editor of the (Washington) Star. I did my best work, and I had more fun doing it. We didn’t beat The Washington Post, and eventually they buried us. But we put out a newspaper that was a ‘must read’ ... and we had a glorious time doing it.”

That was the Bellows formula. Put together a scrappy, outnumbered, outspent band of talented reporters, and send them into battle against the deep-pocketed and dominant city paper. That had meant his leading the Herald Tribune against the Times in New York before coming to Washington. And it would take him to the Herald-Examiner in Los Angeles to compete with the Los Angeles Times.

Yes, you’re right, none of the three underdog papers has survived. But, as Bellows subtitled “The Last Editor,” his excellent memoir: How I Saved The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency.

Among the better known whose lives he touched were Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Judith Crist, Dick Schaap, Richard Reeves, Gail Sheehy, Mary McGrory and Maureen Dowd. McGrory, a great reporter and a peerless writer, once recalled asking Bellows, her Star editor “for three heady years,” what she ought to say about their profession in receiving an award. “(Bellows) suggested that the absence of passion, from newspapers and their readers, could be a theme.”

Bellows never lacked for passion. As a rookie journalist in Georgia, he reported a story on the Ku Klux Klan that angered the Klansmen, who forced him to consume so much liquor that he passed out. He wrote about it on the front-page, and the story was picked up by Time and Newsweek.

In New York, the Herald Tribune under Bellows covered New Yorkers living on the outskirts of hope in the shadows of drugs and violence. His Los Angeles Herald Examiner covered the killing by two police officers of a black woman in her front yard over a $22.09 gas bill she refused to pay.

A personal note: In 1976, Bellows challenged me to “cover” by television the Gerald Ford-Ronald Reagan showdown at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. With three rented TVs, I watched the networks’ coverage (this was pre-cable) and then filed nightly after 11 p.m., by dictation, about 700 words of short takes and allegedly witty insights on the proceedings and the principals. It was fun and exhilarating and, as you can see, addictive.

The only advice Bellows gave me: “Just do what you do.”

Breslin, whom Bellows took off the sports page and made a columnist, explained, “I didn’t know what he was saying, but I knew exactly what he meant.”

Bellows’ nephew, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editor Martin Kaiser, may have captured it best: “His real gift to me and so many people he touched was his ability to make us feel we could accomplish great things.”

What a gift. Thank you, Jim, and thank you for always standing tall on the side of the underdog.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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