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OBITUARIES : Edwin O. Guthman, 1919 - 2008

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was L.A. Times national editor

September 02, 2008|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Edwin O. Guthman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and editor whose aggressive pursuit of Watergate stories during the 1970s earned him the enmity of President Nixon and the No. 3 spot on Nixon's infamous enemies list, has died. He was 89.

Guthman died Sunday at his home in Pacific Palisades, USC announced. He had been dealing with complications of amyloidosis, a rare disorder involving the abnormal buildup of proteins in organs and tissues.

Guthman, who was also a longtime USC professor and a founding member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, earned a Pulitzer early in his career for proving the innocence of a victim of McCarthyism. During a brief hiatus from journalism, he worked for Robert F. Kennedy as a Justice Department spokesman and became a Kennedy confidant.

He went on to serve as national editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1965 to 1977, a crucial period during which the newspaper expanded its journalistic mission and shed its parochial image. David Halberstam, in "The Powers That Be," wrote that Guthman gave the paper "instant prestige" and played an important role in its transformation under Publisher Otis Chandler.

A decorated World War II veteran, Guthman was profiled in the bestselling 1998 book "The Greatest Generation," by former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who wrote: "In any accounting of the good guys of American journalism, Ed Guthman is on the front page."

Guthman was born in Seattle on Aug. 11, 1919, the son of a grocery chain executive. Guthman earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Washington in 1941 and was drafted into the Army in 1942. He fought in Italy and North Africa during World War II, earned a Purple Heart and a Silver Star and left the service with the rank of captain.

When he was interviewed by Brokaw 50 years later, Guthman credited his military experience for the disciplined approach he took to documenting the newspaper stories he would later write and edit.

Pulitzer Prize

After a brief stint at the now-defunct Seattle Star, he joined the Seattle Times in 1947. The paper assigned him to cover the Washington state Committee on Un-American Activities, one of many local bodies formed to root out Communists during the McCarthy era.

The committee had targeted a University of Washington philosophy professor named Melvin Rader, who was alleged to have attended a Communist training school in New York in 1938. Rader denied the charges but could not disprove them.

Guthman found that the committee had confiscated pages from a hotel registry that could have corroborated Rader's contention that he had not been in New York during the weeks in question. Guthman also found receipts, library records and bank deposit slips that showed that Rader had been in and around Seattle at the time.

The stories Guthman wrote about Rader's case saved the professor's career, which had been in jeopardy.

Guthman's labors paid off in 1950 when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished reporting on national affairs.

In the next 10 years, Guthman turned his reporting talents to covering corruption in the Teamsters union and the ethics of Seattle's Dave Beck, who was president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1952 to 1957.

By 1956, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had begun examining corruption in the labor movement and was intensely interested in the high-living Beck. Robert Kennedy was the committee counsel.

Later that year, Guthman received a call from Clark Mollenhoff, a reporter for the Des Moines Register-Tribune (and later special counsel to President Nixon), who had been investigating Beck's counterpart in Detroit, Jimmy Hoffa.

Mollenhoff told Guthman that a Senate committee was about to launch a broad probe into unsavory activities by top union officials and asked Guthman if he would meet with Kennedy.

When informed that the committee attorney was the brother of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, Guthman was unimpressed and said, "That's fine, Clark, but can you trust him?"

Despite his reservations, Guthman met Kennedy and they began to share information. In 1957, Beck was called to appear before the committee and was accused by Kennedy of illegally using $320,000 in union funds. He ultimately was convicted of embezzlement and federal tax evasion and of filing a fraudulent tax return and was sent to prison.

Kennedy years

Kennedy became attorney general in his brother's administration in 1961 and, in one of his first acts, hired Guthman as his press secretary in the Justice Department. When Kennedy won election as U.S. senator from New York in 1964, he again asked Guthman to serve as press secretary.

In "We Band of Brothers," Guthman's 1971 memoir of his years with Kennedy, he made no effort to hide his affection for Kennedy, portraying him as a stalwart friend, an impassioned advocate for civil rights and a demanding boss, whose wry humor brought levity to many grim moments.

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