The death of Joe McGinniss this week prompted Rich Aregood, former editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, to hunt through his inbox to retrieve the late author's recollection of writing a Metro column for The Inquirer in the mid-1960s, and of publisher Walter H. Annenberg:
I entered the building one morning at the same time as Annenberg. He told me to join him on his private elevator. Went directly to whichever floor his office was on. . . . In any event, doors opened directly into the office.
He walked directly to his desk and sat down behind it. The desk seemed the size of the deck of an aircraft carrier. There were no chairs on the other side of it, so I stood and waited.
"I find your columns amusing," he said. "Your youthful zeal and bleeding heart, and all that." He chuckled. He actually . . . chuckled.
"Are you happy here?" he asked.
"I could use a raise," I said.
"That's not possible. But besides that, are you happy?"
"Yes. John Gillen, who hired me, is letting me write whatever I want three days a week.
"But there's one thing."
This was in September, 1967.
"There are a lot of Philadelphia kids fighting in Vietnam," I said. "Some are dying. I'd like to go over there and write my column for a while. It's hard to care about City Council meetings when Philadelphia kids are fighting and dying in Vietnam."
"How much time do you want to spend there?" he asked.
"I don't know. Maybe six weeks?"
He picked up a green phone on his desk. It was his direct line to his chief flunky and hatchet man, E.Z. Dimitman.
"I'm sending Joe McGinniss to Vietnam for six weeks. Make the arrangements with the Pentagon. And get him a visa."
And so I went, and wrote some fairly blistering columns that denounced U.S. involvement in the war. But I did it through reporting from the field, not sitting in the cocktail lounges of the Caravelle or Continental in Saigon.
When I got back, Annenberg arranged a luncheon at the Bellevue-Stratford at which I spoke to a few hundred major advertisers. He introduced me. He said, "This young man wrote very few words that I agreed with. But the way he wrote, he made me read. He's very naive and doesn't understand what the stakes are, but let's listen to him tell us about his experiences in Vietnam."
Sending me to Vietnam seemed to be the first journalistically constructive thing Annenberg had ever done, and he was proud of himself. And of his tolerance for my dissenting views. That spring, the U.S. announced the peace talks would be held in Paris. I told John Gillen [the managing editor] that since I had covered the war, I wanted to cover the peace. He called Annenberg upstairs. Half an hour later, he told me I was on a Philly-Paris flight at 7 p.m., I could stay for two weeks, unlimited expenses, write five pieces per week.