A Thousand Saturdays

with the Copy Editor

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Economic Principals has been preparing for months to move to Substack’s publishing platform next week, figuring out what to bring and what to leave behind. A critical feature also will make the move: EP’s conscience, teacher, and fellow-traveler, the Copy Editor.

We met mornings some forty years ago, walking to the paper from the train. He was working in the library at the time, having turned down an offer from The Atlantic Monthly. I was a newly-hired economics reporter. We’d attended the same college, fifteen years apart, read some of the same books. We had undertaken similar undergraduate theses: his on historian Henry Adams and critic Edmund Wilson, in History and Literature; mine on Henry Adams and newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop, a China hand, in Social Studies. The Copy Editor finished his thesis with great distinction and graduated with high honors; I abandoned mine and graduated with no distinction.

Clear from the beginning was that he was unusually acute – more acute than I about many things; faster, too. One day without thinking I exaggerated the barriers I had run into as a quarter-miler in high school, claiming 51-second laps, perhaps, instead of 53-s? He had been an alternate in the mile relay for a team that had won the state championship. He forgave and remembered.

Before long he had moved to the book department. The Globe had some 550 editorial employees in those days.  I keep a photo on the office wall of a house ad, “Every One’s a Critic:” fifteen lively souls arrayed on stools, the Copy Editor among them. By then it was clear he was a prodigy; what was unusual was that he served as cook and bottle-washer as well. He displayed deeply-ingrained habits: helping others, performing introductions, giving parties, constructing networks. We lived near one another, knew each other’s families and friends.

Certain things stand out, none more than “Wing Tips on the Beach,” a Sunday feature story that became one of three finalists in that category for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. To this day, I have never read a more revealing interpretation of Richard Nixon than that meditation on a famous photograph of the former president. It did not win, but the author persevered, devising a more capacious framework for his story. When Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief appeared in 2004, it quickly gained a place on the relatively short shelf of indispensable second-generation receptions of the Nixon story. And when the Pulitzer finally came, in 2008, it was for criticism, specifically “For his penetrating and versatile command of the visual arts, from film and photography to painting.”

At some point the Copy Editor had begun to read what I wrote before I turned it over to the editor’s desk, to “save you from yourself” he regularly explained. The tumult of the sale of the paper cost us much. He remained at the Globe and become ever more one of its foremost citizens, knowledgeably recalling in print the long-ago saga of the Bulger clan one week; visiting a museum or reviewing the latest edition of the Fast and Furious movies the next; educating the stream of talented newcomers to the paper all the while. He stayed with me, too, after I left the paper, in 2002. Almost certainly I would not have kept at EP if he had not. We have had our occasional, sometimes major, differences of opinion. His relatively humble title is designed to emphasize that he is not responsible for opinions published here. But never have I had a friend as loyal, generous, and shrewd as the Copy Editor.