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Hugh Sidey, 78; Journalist Wrote About the Presidency

November 22, 2005|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Hugh Sidey, whose personal portraits of America's chief executives appeared in Time magazine's "The Presidency" column over four decades, died Monday after suffering a heart attack in Paris. He was 78.

Sidey, who served as Time's White House correspondent and its Washington bureau chief, wrote "The Presidency" from 1966 to 1996. He was a contributing editor to the newsweekly at the time of his death.

Reflecting on the presidents in a 2003 interview, Sidey said: "They are not as tall or articulate as you think they should be. And they're not super people, so that is a bit of a letdown. Then you begin to understand, though, when you write about them as I have, how vital they are to the American system."

Beginning with John F. Kennedy, whom he once interviewed during a swim at the White House, Sidey enjoyed unusual access to the presidents. He tended to focus on the personal dimensions of those in power, and his balanced portraits, whether sympathetic or critical, often endeared him to the men who occupied the Oval Office.

"He proved you can write about people in power and still be the gentleman journalist," said James Carney, Washington bureau chief for the magazine. "He's in some ways the model we all aspire to."

Sidey joined Life magazine in New York in 1955, initially covering science. He went to the Washington staff of Time, a sister publication, in 1957, the year he began covering the Eisenhower administration. He wrote about every administration from then on.

Sidey traveled with Kennedy to the Berlin Wall and was in Dallas with him when he was assassinated. He traveled with President Johnson -- whom he considered the most fascinating person he ever knew -- to the Vietnam War front, and was with President Nixon on his trip to China. He was granted an exclusive interview with President Reagan just hours before Reagan's nationally televised news conference on the Iran-Contra scandal in August 1987.

During his long career, in addition to covering the commanders in chief, he wrote or contributed to seven books on presidents, including "John F. Kennedy, President," "A Very Personal Presidency: Lyndon Johnson in the White House" and "Portrait of a President."

His book on Johnson was probably the most widely reviewed and received good critical notices. Writing in the New Republic, Larry L. King, like Johnson a Texan, proclaimed that in analyzing Johnson's strengths and weaknesses Sidey "did not miss his mark by much."

Sidey viewed that "despite LBJ's 30-odd years on the national political scene he remained very much the small-town boy from Johnson City, his outlooks and decisions irrevocably shaped by his early experiences in a land where brute strength was often necessary to survival and generally was more prized than any virtues save -- possibly -- cunning."

In an interview with Washingtonian magazine in 1996, Sidey talked about his relationships with a number of the presidents. He said that he was perhaps too close to Reagan: "He didn't use me. I simply liked him too much."

Sidey told Washingtonian that he helped retire Johnson, Nixon and Carter.

"Carter was bitter toward me after I wrote how he was diminishing the presidency so much. One time, I was flippant about Carter banning booze in the White House. I wrote that trying a martini sometime might mellow him," Sidey said in the Washingtonian interview.

Sidey appeared as a panelist on the television program "Agronsky & Company" and its successor, "Inside Washington," for nearly 25 years. He also was a chairman of the White House Historical Assn.

A fourth-generation newsman, Sidey was born in Greenfield, Iowa, on Sept. 3, 1927. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from Iowa State College in 1950 and worked for newspapers in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, where he covered the Missouri River flood of 1952, as well as for his family's weekly paper in Greenfield.

In recent years, he stayed active writing guidebooks and biographies for the White House Historical Assn. He also narrated parts of the Public Broadcasting Service TV series on the presidency in 2000.

Sidey, who lived in suburban Potomac, Md., and his wife, Anne, married in 1953 and had four children.

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