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R.W. Apple Jr., 71; Journalist With an Appetite for Writing and Living

October 05, 2006|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

R.W. Apple Jr., a New York Times correspondent who distinguished himself covering the Vietnam War and became an influential political writer and roving epicure, died Wednesday of complications from thoracic cancer at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 71.

Over his 43-year career at the newspaper, Apple made prolific, aggressive and erudite coverage his signature. With his rare twin journalistic talents covering politics and food, he charted the fall of Richard M. Nixon, covered Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War, the Iranian revolution and the collapse of Eastern Bloc governments. He also illuminated the differences between regional hot dog specialties and the worth of Vidalia onions.

"From his sickbed, he hammered out his last words to readers ... negotiated details of the menu and music for his memorial service, followed the baseball playoffs and the latest congressional scandal with relish," New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said Wednesday in a memo to his staff announcing Apple's death. "He was himself to the last."

Apple set a spectacular pace for himself that endeared him to many of his paper's executives and editors but made him much envied and, at times, resented by peers he outpaced. His brusque personality did not smooth matters.

Well-rounded in more ways than one, "Johnny" Apple was instantly recognizable for his girth as well as his knowledge of politics, sports, grand opera, fine wine and rich food. While traveling on assignment, where experience might tell some reporters to pack water or extra batteries, Apple never neglected to bring along his own pepper mill.

A colleague once said Apple had "the best mind and the worst body in American journalism."

Joining the New York Times in 1963, he became bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He filed stories that challenged the military brass' sunny assessment of the war's evolution. He said his favorite was an account in 1967 that reported a "stalemate" between American and Communist forces, writing: "It is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening."

Apple once said President Johnson "went bananas" when the article "put the word 'stalemate' into the debate in this country." The commander of U.S. military forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, dismissed Apple by saying he "is probably bucking for a Pulitzer Prize."

Although that award eluded him, Apple did receive other prestigious honors for his Vietnam reportage, including the George Polk and the Overseas Press Club awards.

He went on to write about wars and conflicts in Biafra, the Falkland Islands and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also was a veteran of U.S. presidential campaigns and one of the first to recognize that the Iowa caucus was a solid gauge of presidential potential. This caucus gave him early insight that Jimmy Carter, a little-known peanut farmer and Georgia governor, had a realistic chance at the White House.

Within the New York Times, Apple was revered for his mastery of the "Q-head," the paper's name for the analytical sidebar to a major news event that adds historical context. At 6 one night, he received an order from the foreign desk for a Q-head and was strongly urged to incorporate the phrase "Not since Versailles" about the U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Apple protested, saying that his stepdaughter's wedding rehearsal dinner was to start in 90 minutes. Then he filed his story in an hour.

"It was written in clear English," his friend Calvin Trillin wrote in a New Yorker magazine profile of Apple.

"It had historical references to Salt II and the Panama Canal treaties and the tension between Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge during the formation of the League of Nations. It was 1,171 words long.

"Eleven of those words were, like a tip of the hat to [the editor], 'Not since the Versailles Treaty was voted down in November 1919.... ' "

Raymond Walter Apple Jr. was born Nov. 20, 1934, in Akron, Ohio. His father ran a statewide chain of grocery stores and never forgave his son for dedicating himself to another line of work, telling associates that his son was "in New York typing for a living."

Smitten with journalism as a teenager, Apple saw himself as a worldly Midwesterner who entered the field for the same reason many join the military or, in the romantic fashion of generations past, hop a freighter to the South Seas. "Travel," he once said, "was my ticket out of a hometown that I didn't very much like."

Expelled twice from Princeton University for shortchanging his studies in favor of the school paper, Apple graduated from Columbia University with a degree in history in 1961. He worked briefly at the Wall Street Journal then at the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press. He served in the Army, writing speeches for generals.

In 1961, he was hired by NBC News, winning an Emmy and eventually reporting on the civil rights movement for "The Huntley-Brinkley Report."

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