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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

"The Great Man"   

Maynard Parkerís boundless energy and endless curiosity breathed life into Newsweek and its staff.


By Jon Meacham
Jon Meacham is a Newsweek managing editor.     

Maynard Parker, Newsweek's editor for the past 16 years, died in October of complications from pneumonia. The 58-year-old Parker was known for his propensity to "scramble the jets" to get breaking news into the magazine and for playing a major role in reinventing the weekly newsmagazine in an era of 24-hour news. A full version of these remarks was delivered at a memorial service in New York City.

I remember the first time I saw Maynard Parker. I was in New York, standing outside an editor's office awaiting my job interview, while Maynard--wearing a Hermes tie and a boldly striped shirt--was inside the office, trying to make a point about that week's story list.

He wanted something sexier, it seemed, something crisper, but coherence was not his long suit. He never finished a sentence, really; he didn't have to. The message was clear: I want news, I want something better.

I had heard of him: He was a fabled figure, a foreign correspondent from the days when foreign correspondents were automatically dashing; he had become the ultimate swashbuckling editor, and that, to me, was about the most glamorous thing you could be.

Interestingly, after four years of life with Parker in the trenches, he is no less romantic now than he was in my earliest speculations. He was the most invigorating man I have ever met; Maynard Parker was a force, elemental and vital--and as primal as a storm at sea, or lightning in a summer sky.

In private conversation--and I'm honestly not certain whether he ever knew this--we referred to him, without irony, as "The Great Man."

What was it that drew us to him?

For one, he was endlessly interested in everything. He covered wars hot and cold, sagas substantive and sleazy, and his tastes were nothing if not eclectic--China and Kathie Lee, Jonestown and Paula Jones, the Cultural Revolution and the rise of rap, Patty Hearst and Colin Powell, Chou En-Lai and Katie Couric.

He understood, and taught the rest of us, that a story didn't have to be important to be interesting, that what people were talking about was as relevant to the magazine as the things that people ought to be talking about.

He never let you rest. He gave all of us seemingly impossible missions--then, if you got the ungettable interview, or put your hands on the exclusive pictures, or helicoptered or ballooned or crawled into a war zone, his delight was transporting. You had pleased the Great Man, lived up to his standards, and become the stronger for it.

He was the finest teacher I have ever known--yet he did not teach in a way anyone would recognize. True, there were a few aphorisms, though even they were sometimes more confusing than clarifying: "We're bubbling our lips"; "Don't rap on the blackboard"; "You're breathing too hard"; "There is no next week"; and one of my favorites, "We need some more meat in the sandwich."

Oddly, he was not particularly strong on specific fixes for the problems he spotted. He wanted you to "say better pls," but couldn't tell you how. There was, instead, pure instinct: He would charge into a room, inchoate and incoherent, yet almost always right.

He loved the West, and the happiest I remember seeing him he was doing two of the things he loved most: drinking good wine and remaking Newsweek. It was last autumn, in Telluride, and he had summoned us to a session in the mountains to rethink his magazine.

On the last night in Colorado, he stood in firelight in the shadows of the Rockies. The rest of us were--very badly--singing whatever we happened to know, from old Anglican hymns to nearly forgotten Beatles songs, but through it all, Maynard was the quiet center: a commanding figure with a smile on his face, a glass of Cabernet in one hand and all our fates in the other.

He was where he wanted to be: in charge, conducting a symphony of renovation, able, somehow, down the decades, to command the loyalty and affection of his troops.

Why so commanding? What was it that made us--of different ages and sexes, backgrounds and ambitions--want to follow him?

I know one thing: For Maynard, there was no line between the professional and the personal. What happened in your life outside Newsweek's walls--weddings and wakes, hours of sickness and of death--mattered to him, and mattered deeply.

But, Lord, how maddening he could be. Stories got bounced, layouts chewed up, covers eviscerated. Line editors--whose job it is to choose photographs for the pages in the magazine--would, after three or four days of labor, arrive in his floodlit office late of a Friday to offer our wares for his inspection.

"Ahhhh," he would say, his half-moon glasses either on his nose, or--worse still--the rims already in his mouth, "Is this the best picture?" How many of us yearned to say, "No, Maynard, we purposely brought you the third-best picture"? Often, alas, it would turn out that he was right, and we were wrong, and the magazine was the better for it.

And that is the Parker legacy: the probing question, the restless energy--and a marvelous magazine.

All of us who loved Maynard, and who would follow him into any scrape or skirmish, into any battle against any foe, can say only this: He was the most dazzling man we have ever known, and we owe him a debt which cannot be repaid.