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Robert J. Donovan, 90; Helped Transform Times

August 09, 2003|Jack Nelson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Robert J. Donovan, the best-selling author and reporter who helped establish the Los Angeles Times as a major force in Washington journalism, died Friday. He was 90. Donovan, a resident of St. Petersburg, Fla., died in a hospital there of complications from a stroke he suffered Aug. 2, family members said.

Donovan's career followed the arc of American newspaper journalism in the 20th century. He began in the heady days of crime stories dictated on deadline and extra editions hawked on city streets. But he evolved into an elegant observer of Cold War politics and a biographer of modern presidents, packing his stories with insights and analysis and with solid information from the highest levels of government.

"He was a man of unusual grace, both professional and personal, he wrote uncommonly well under the pressure of deadlines and there was a lovely, almost poetic quality to his work that stamped him as being different," wrote David Halberstam in his 1979 book on media giants, "The Powers That Be." "In a profession of hard-driving arrivistes, Bob Donovan was, and this was rare in the profession, liked as well as respected."

He came to Washington in 1947 as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, covering Harry S. Truman's 1948 whistle-stop campaign and the historic meeting on Wake Island between Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

By 1963, Otis Chandler, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times, had lured him from the Herald Tribune to become Washington bureau chief of The Times in hopes that he would add prestige and muscle to Chandler's efforts to make The Times a first-class newspaper with a national reputation.

Donovan conveyed to his reporters a sense of mission and to his sources a sense of competitiveness. He attracted a cadre of top-notch journalists in Washington. Soon, he turned the small, relatively unknown Times' bureau into a well-respected operation.

"He was a wonderful writer, but his leadership in transforming the Washington bureau of The Times was really extraordinary," said Edwin O. Guthman, a former national editor of The Times who worked with Donovan and is now a journalism professor at USC.

As Halberstam wrote, the Washington bureau "was not known in Washington journalistic circles as the Los Angeles Times Bureau, it was Bob Donovan's Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau."

Chandler on Friday recalled Donovan as "one of the best."

"Bob Donovan was a superb individual, a great reporter and a great writer," Chandler said. "He played a major part in rebuilding The Times and putting The Times on the map."

Although deprived of a college education by the Depression, Donovan was an avid reader with a great sense of history and a great ear for language. Among the 13 books he wrote were several bestsellers, including "PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II," about Kennedy's experience as a naval officer who survived the sinking of his patrol boat during a battle in the Pacific.

The book was published in 1961 and translated into 23 languages. "PT 109," which was later made into a film starring Cliff Robertson, became a leading symbol for the Kennedy administration.


White House Access

Donovan later recalled that when he first approached Kennedy about doing the book, the president told him, "Bob, don't do this. You'll be flogging a dead horse. Nobody wants to read that war stuff." But Donovan thought it would have wide appeal and help him gain access to the Kennedy White House. And it did.

"Bob Donovan was respected and revered as one of the great Washington journalists of his time," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Friday in a statement. "He was also a brilliant researcher and writer. When his book 'PT 109' was first published in 1961, I still remember how amazed and awed President Kennedy was by all the new information that Bob had uncovered about those extraordinary days in the Solomon Islands, and that my brother had never known. Bob's book became a family treasure and he became a family friend, and we'll never forget him."

Earlier in his career, Donovan had gained extraordinary access to the Eisenhower White House. Sherman Adams, Eisenhower's chief of staff, was so impressed by Donovan's first book, "The Assassins," that he recruited him to write a book about Ike's first term and gave him access to Cabinet minutes, memos, correspondence and other papers the president had refused to let Congress see.

Donovan took a leave from the New York Herald Tribune to write "Eisenhower: The Inside Story," and was assigned a second-floor White House office where he was furnished top-secret documents loaded onto carts. The book was a bestseller and was serialized by many newspapers, including The Times. But some critics called it a campaign book for Ike's second term.

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