Gone: The lions and the lionesses
By Pranay Gupte
(Published in The Hindu, India, November 2, 2010)
In life, as in parables, there are lions and lionesses, and there are snakes. There are the good, and there are the greedy. There are those who smile, and there are those who stab. There are friends who limn one’s life with the joy of learning and laughter – but, like lions and lionesses, they are few and far between. Rarer still are friends who double as mentors and teachers.
Theodore C. Sorensen was one such friend. He’s gone now: The man who was President John F. Kennedy’s closest advisor died in New York late Sunday afternoon, some hours after an essay I’d written about him and Kennedy for The Hindu went to press. They say the cause of death was complications from a second stroke he’d suffered a few days ago. I think he went to join his great mentor, who was assassinated in Dallas 47 years ago this month, and whom Ted missed every single day since. I know they are together now.
I am at that point in life when friends and mentors like Ted are starting to go. The good fortune of journalism is that one gets to meet remarkable men and women in the course of work, sometimes almost by chance. I’ve always felt that you simply have to show up in order to run into such people. They may be few and far between, but you’ve got to get to where they are.
Abe Rosenthal was at one such place, The New York Times. He took me under his wings, he taught me the rudiments of journalism through tough love, and then he let me loose to become a foreign correspondent in the wilderness of Africa and the Middle East. He was a Jew, I a Hindu-born kid from Mumbai; he was a Canadian-born man who became a naturalized American, and I had retained my Indian citizenship at the time. We had little in common other than two things: an enduring romance with India, and an enduring romance with journalism.
India had been Abe’s first posting as a foreign correspondent for The Times in the 1950’s. He could never get the Subcontinent out of his system. He always said that covering India wasn’t just a journalistic assignment for one of the world’s leading newspapers; it was, Abe said, “high adventure.”
Because he viewed India through his own special prism, Abe’s dispatches had clarity and color, they were analytical and astute. He wrote with passion, but he also possessed acuity. Long before the world’s media came around to the belief that India had the potential to become a giant of the global economy, Abe believed in the country’s potential.
That is not to say he gave India a pass on such matters as bribes and political banditry which, well after his time in New Delhi, came to corrode the polity. Abe continued to write occasionally about India even when he got top job at The Times, that of executive editor. But it was always tough love for India: he did not condone the moral decay and the erosion of civic values. Just as he seldom failed to chide me when he felt that my dispatches were credulous or, worse, failed to fairly assess the social and political sensibility of the places I’d visited, Abe spoke out forcefully against those who, in his view, were gullible or culpable regarding corruption.
He did that with a powerful voice. In the end, that voice proved to be a liability for the owners of The Times, and they did the unthinkable – they fired Abe Rosenthal.
He continued writing for other publications after that, but his heart was clearly still lodged at The Times. In the end, that heart was just worn out. He spurned by the only institution he ever worked for on a full-time basis, and it had let him go.
That also happened to another sturdy friend of India, James W. Michaels, the legendary editor of Forbes magazine. He first went to India during World War II to serve as an ambulance driver for the Allies. He stayed on to become a correspondent for what was then called United Press. Michaels was not far from Mahatma Gandhi when Nathuram Godse shot the latter. It was Jim’s dispatches about the assassination that ricocheted around the world, bringing him fame early in life.
From India Jim went to Forbes, and in due course transformed the business magazine from a moribund publication to one that had snap, crackle and pop. But Jim really never left India, and he would visit every couple of years. He encouraged his correspondents to file more stories about Indian entrepreneurship. He supported me fully when I did investigative stories about the Bofors scandal, and about the Hindujas.
It was ironic that Ted Sorensen was the Hindujas’ lawyer at the time, and he tried to dissuade Forbes from running my cover story. Nevertheless, I understood that Ted was acting on behalf of his clients; our friendship did not deteriorate.
Ted is gone now, as are Abe Rosenthal and Jim Michaels. Gone are the lions (and the lionesses, too, such as my mother, Professor Charusheela Gupte, who also mentored my intellectual development), and there seem to be few left now. I seem to be going to more and more funerals these days. I wonder who will be left to come to mine.
(Pranay Gupte has completed his new book on India and the Middle East, which will be published in Spring 2011. He is currently working on his memoirs.)