High-Wire Act: Instincts That Took Newsweek’s Editor To Top Save Him Now — Maynard Parker’s Bosses Back Him After Role in Hiding `Primary Colors’ Author — `Scrambling the Jets’ Weekly

How do you fall for a sensational forgery, help cover up a spectacular literary lie, and still hold on to one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism?

For the answer to that question, meet Maynard Parker, the editor of Newsweek.

He is the man who pushed his magazine to publicize the spurious Hitler diaries in 1983. This summer, he suffered another black eye when he revealed he had known all along that his columnist Joe Klein wrote “Primary Colors” — even as Newsweek published Mr. Klein’s denial and fingered other suspects as the best-seller’s anonymous author.

At many publications, either of those episodes would have cost Mr. Parker his job. And Newsweek is a magazine where turnover at the top has been so great that its senior editors are known as Wallendas, after the family of high-wire artists.

But Mr. Parker, who set his sights on being the editor of Newsweek as a young Vietnam correspondent and was passed over for the top job twice before he got it, has formidable talents for his chosen profession. He also possesses a potent package of survival skills — including driving ambition, perseverance in the face of humiliation and a courtier’s verve for pleasing both his superiors and underlings. Together, they are the perfect recipe for getting and keeping a job in any field — and at Newsweek they have helped Mr. Parker cheat death once again.

Even as speculation continues to swirl about Mr. Parker’s future, the most powerful people at Washington Post Co., which owns Newsweek, all offer strong support for the editor and his boss, Newsweek President Richard Smith. “If magazine editors were all free agents, without a second’s hesitation I would pick Rick and Maynard” to lead Newsweek today, says Post Chairman Donald Graham. “Really good editors are few and far between.”

Mr. Graham’s mother, Washington Post Co.’s executive-committee chairman, Katharine Graham, seconds the opinion, asserting that Newsweek under Mr. Parker has consistently outperformed archrival Time and saying, “Maynard gets total credit for that.” Post President Alan Spoon agrees: “Maynard has had his hand on the tiller of the boat that has led the regatta year after year.

The bottom line is that Mr. Parker’s superiors believe his talents are so great that they are willing to put up with the occasional embarrassment.

Those talents were on display at a recent Tuesday-morning story conference, the first scheduled event in the magazine’s weekly cycle. Mr. Parker said the magazine needed to do more on the political upheaval in Indonesia, but seconds later he was asking about a possible auction of Princess Diana’s love letters. Throughout the week, he marshaled his editorial troops and insisted on making last-minute changes in a relentless effort to keep up with the news. Says Mr. Smith: “At a time when most people want to get over the finish line, Maynard wants to make things better.”

Mr. Parker’s journalistic success has also bolstered Newsweek’s strength as a business. The Post bought Newsweek for $15 million in 1961, and it rang up that much in operating profit last year. And while savants have been predicting the demise of newsweeklies for at least a decade, Newsweek’s circulation has actually increased — to 3.23 million from 3.05 million in 1986. “The success of Newsweek has been mostly a circulation story,” Mr. Graham says, adding that all of the credit for that belongs to Mr. Parker.

But behind the support is also the story of a career focused on attaining — and holding onto — a single job. Once dubbed Mad Dog, Mr. Parker is known for his use of high-octane military language (“Scramble the jets!”). Now 56 years old, he is a tall man with a strong resemblance to the actor John Lithgow. “I have always been very competitive,” he shrugs, waving off the subject of where his enormous drive comes from.

An only child born in Los Angeles, Mr. Parker was editor of student newspapers in grammar school, in high school and at Stanford University. “I never knew him when he didn’t want to be the editor of something,” says Judith Parker, his wife from 1965 to 1983.

He signed on with Newsweek in Hong Kong in 1967 and quickly became its bureau chief in Saigon. In a press corps of news hounds, he stood out as someone who cared about management and tactics.

“What he reveled in was deploying the troops and organizing our coverage,” says Kevin Buckley, who was a reporter in the bureau.

“Maynard always said, `I am going to be the editor of Newsweek,'” says another reporter who was based there. “No one else was thinking like he was.” Mr. Parker says he doesn’t remember saying that but allows that “it’s possible.”

Every journalist who knew Mr. Parker in Vietnam remembers his almost seigniorial self-assurance. One says Mr. Parker rode to diplomatic receptions in the back seat of the bureau’s cramped car just as ambassadors did in their flag-flying limousines. “He was kind of a showman, more of a journalism entrepreneur than a reporter,” says James Willwerth, who was reporting in Saigon for Time.

“In his 20s, he comported himself like a middle-aged diplomat,” says Gloria Emerson, who covered the war for the New York Times from 1970 to 1972. She also remembers him as a reporter who wasn’t “the typical war correspondent out in the field” but tended to stick to the embassies and military offices in Saigon.

“I wasn’t a combat junkie,” Mr. Parker says. But he makes the point that there was much more to the Vietnam story than actual warfare. He also says that he rode in the front of the bureau’s car and sometimes drove himself.

Back in New York, the young Asia correspondent was making a strong impression. In 1972, when then-editor Osborn Elliott traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia, for a conference, Mr. Parker was there to help to see that things went smoothly. Mr. Elliott, who had been recently divorced, traveled on to Bali with a woman friend, where he was surprised to spot a cluster of colorfully attired dancing girls as his plane approached Bali’s airport.

“I said there must be some VIP on the plane,” he recalls. “But then I found out that Maynard had arranged them for us.” With a laugh, he adds: “I knew he would go far.”

Mr. Parker often lavished the same attention on his underlings, particularly after he left Saigon to become the magazine’s Hong Kong bureau chief in 1969. When visiting Newsweek correspondents arrived, “Maynard always had someone meet us at the airport in Hong Kong, and there was always champagne and a chit for caviar in the hotel,” says Nicholas Proffitt, a Vietnam-based Newsweek reporter.

One of Mr. Parker’s last assignments in Hong Kong was to organize a trip through Southeast Asia for Mrs. Graham. It was the first time she had met Mr. Parker, and she recalls, “I liked him.”

When they arrived in Manila in the Philippines, they were greeted at the airport by Imelda Marcos, who insisted that Mrs. Graham be fitted for a dress at Malacanang Palace for a dinner that was held in her honor. “After that trip,” a senior Newsweek editor says of Mr. Parker, “I think he was a marked man — in a positive sense.”

Mr. Parker moved to Newsweek’s New York headquarters in 1973 for a series of editing jobs. “It was always apparent that Maynard was born to be promoted,” says Time Inc. Corporate Editor James R. Gaines, who worked for Mr. Parker at Newsweek as a national-affairs writer — until Mr. Parker fired him in 1975.

By 1977, Mr. Parker had become an assistant managing editor and one of the Wallendas. Inside Newsweek he had developed a reputation as a shrewd practitioner of the newsweekly’s craft: sorting through the news and the Zeitgeist to mix up a cocktail of stories that will be compelling to readers days later. “A lot of the newsmagazine business is about instinct and stamina, and Maynard has both of those in abundance,” says Edward Kosner, Newsweek’s editor in the late 1970s.

But in 1979, Mr. Kosner was fired. His successor, Lester Bernstein, found Mr. Parker’s ambition rankling. Soon after Mr. Bernstein took the top job, he recalls, “Maynard told me that Kosner had promised that he would make him executive editor, and he made a big pitch to be appointed in that role.”

Mr. Bernstein says he was reluctant to promote him because he didn’t know him well, but Mr. Parker wouldn’t take no for an answer. Mr. Bernstein says Mr. Parker’s campaign continued even on a day when Mr. Bernstein was attempting to write a eulogy for a friend’s funeral: “I was up to my neck in this, and Maynard wouldn’t let go. He was hounding me.”

According to Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Parker had also made his pitch directly to Mrs. Graham. “She said he was someone worth keeping but that I would have to deal with it,” Mr. Bernstein recalls. Ultimately, he told Mr. Parker that he would make a decision in six months. At the end of the period, Mr. Bernstein says, Mr. Parker got the promotion.

Mr. Parker says he doesn’t recall pushing either Mr. Bernstein or Mrs. Graham to give him the job.

People who know Mr. Parker best say that assuming authority has always been instinctive to him. When Mr. Parker arrived late to a dinner party in the mid-1970s, he took the chair at the head of the table rather than one along its side. “It wasn’t self-aggrandizing — it was automatic,” says Kevin Buckley, who tells the story. Only later did Mr. Parker realize it was the seat of his host, a senior editor named Rod Gander, who was standing at a sideboard carving a roast.

“Everyone at the table considered Maynard to be a good friend, and he laughed and switched chairs when we called him on it,” says Mr. Buckley, who is still close to Mr. Parker. “He believes in rank and he believes in hierarchy, but he does have a sense of humor about these things.”

When Judith Parker was asked at a New York luncheon what she did for a living, she replied: “My job is to keep Maynard’s shirts unstuffed.”

Mr. Parker’s career slammed into its biggest roadblock when Mr. Bernstein left in 1982 and Mrs. Graham declined to replace him with Mr. Parker. Instead, she decided on William Broyles Jr., who had edited two monthly magazines, Texas Monthly and California, but had little experience with breaking news. Other passed-over rivals might have quit in disappointment, but Mr. Parker soldiered on as Mr. Broyles’s deputy.

Mr. Broyles says Mr. Parker went out of his way to be helpful, recommending a doctor for Mr. Broyles’s family and helping his children get into a school. But it was clear to him that Mr. Parker “felt the editor’s job rightfully belonged to him,” Mr. Broyles says.

“He had two goals — to do right by Newsweek and to get my job,” he adds. “There was an undertone of conspiracy most of the time.”

On the other hand, Mr. Broyles says he came to rely on Mr. Parker’s ability to put the magazine together. “If you had to change the cover on Saturday, Maynard was the person you wanted on the conn to scramble the jets and rearrange the stories and the graphics,” Mr. Broyles says. “The undertones of conspiracy were a small price to pay for the enormous dedication and the energy he brought to the magazine.”

Soon afterward, Mr. Parker stumbled on what he thought was the scoop of the decade: the Hitler diaries. The German newsmagazine Stern, which had obtained the documents, had offered to sell them to Newsweek and other publications around the world. Although Mr. Parker failed to persuade his superiors to acquire rights to the diaries, he was successful in urging them to devote the cover and 11 pages to the story, and he oversaw a team of translators. They worked round-the-clock in Mrs. Graham’s Newsweek office, shredding unnecessary papers, while a guard stood watch outside the door.

While the magazine noted that there were some doubts about the diaries’ authenticity, the second paragraph of the cover story announced: “It now appears that Adolf Hitler secretly kept a handwritten diary from mid-1932 until two weeks before his death in 1945.”

Editors who say they were skeptical about the diaries say they were reluctant to challenge Mr. Parker because he had championed the story, and he knew more about it than anyone else there, having shrouded the project in secrecy. “The problem was that it would have been a direct challenge to Maynard,” one editor says. Mr. Parker says there was nothing keeping other staffers from raising concerns about the diaries, though he concedes he should have included a wider circle of people in the editing process.

A week after the cover story, Newsweek reported on widespread doubts about the diaries’ authenticity, and a week after that, the magazine’s cover blared: “Forgery.” German authorities had by then declared the volumes a hoax, and Newsweek’s article went on to report on “disgraced” Stern editors.

Mr. Parker declines to talk in detail about how the fiasco came about, calling it “ancient history.” He does, however, say that it was the low point of his career and that the affair made him “more meticulous” as an editor.

The whole media world was talking about the bogus diaries and Newsweek’s humiliating mistake. Mr. Broyles, who acknowledges that he too bore responsibility for the episode, says the reason Mr. Parker survived the embarrassment was, as much as anything, his unswerving devotion: “He has this tremendous dedication to Newsweek itself, and that has helped him get through these things.”

But when Mr. Broyles left the magazine just 16 months after he arrived, he says he “strongly recommended” that he be replaced by Richard Smith rather than Mr. Parker. Mr. Broyles says his concern was that Mr. Parker relied too heavily on instincts rather than methodical thinking: “He was like a teenage driver — he had great reflexes, but you wouldn’t trust him with the keys to the car.”

Mr. Parker says Mr. Broyles was in no position to offer any judgments about his ability to run the magazine. “The bottom line is that he was a complete failure, and he knows nothing about the news business,” Mr. Parker says. “Broyles couldn’t cover a fire if it was in his own pocket.”

In the end, Mrs. Graham, who presided over Washington Post Co. as its chief executive from 1973 to 1991, did choose Mr. Smith. Adding to the indignity, Mr. Smith had been a protege of Mr. Parker’s.

Mrs. Graham says the diaries weren’t the reason Mr. Parker was passed over. She declines to be more specific, although she acknowledges that she once considered Mr. Parker to be “impetuous.” Mr. Parker says the diaries may have been a factor, but he doesn’t know for sure: “It might have been that, but Rick also had a comfortable relationship with Kay.”

Adding to Mr. Parker’s eclipse, Mr. Smith promptly hired Stephen Smith, who had been a senior editor at Time, and he became widely viewed as the heir apparent at Newsweek. But even then, Mr. Parker didn’t give up. “He can take an enormous amount of abuse — he’s a tank,” says Evan Thomas, the Washington bureau chief.

“I clearly hit a couple of potholes, but I never had any serious thought about leaving” Newsweek, Mr. Parker says. Susan Fraker, his second wife and a senior editor at Fortune magazine, adds: “He recognizes that a mistake is a mistake, but when he hits a pothole, he works even harder.”

After nine years as the top editor’s chief deputy, Mr. Parker landed the job of his dreams in 1991. His relationship with Rick Smith had survived Mr. Smith’s leapfrogging promotion, and when Mr. Smith, who had come to see his future as on the magazine’s business side, became its president, Mr. Parker finally got the nod. Rick Smith still serves as editor-in-chief, although he isn’t involved in day-to-day editorial matters.

As editor, Mr. Parker has pushed the magazine to become more dependent on a small stable of star writers and react more quickly to breaking news. On Friday nights, when much of the magazine is put together during marathon sessions, he is known for making last-minute changes. Just a few days after the furor over Mr. Klein, Mr. Parker was in the office from 10 a.m. till 12:20 a.m., deciding on the size of the type for the cover and asking that a photo of track star Michael Johnson be enlarged so that a tear running down his face was more visible.

“When news breaks, Maynard gets the dimensions right 95% of the time — he has a fantastic gut,” says Stephen Smith, now editor of Civilization magazine. “And once he locks onto a story, he pushes and pushes to get a fresh angle or the best picture. He’s as good as they come.”

But this year Mr. Parker found himself embroiled in another national controversy involving journalism and deception. Mr. Klein, Newsweek’s star political columnist, had approached Mr. Parker for permission to write a novel and mentioned that he planned to publish anonymously. Mr. Parker says he approved the request with little thought and agreed to keep Mr. Klein’s secret.

It was a risky move — even before Mr. Klein went on to lie repeatedly about his authorship in several interviews. An unflattering roman a clef about the Clinton campaign that portrayed the candidate as a philanderer and his wife as an ambitious Machiavellian, “Primary Colors” would certainly have tainted perceptions about any journalist’s political coverage. Indeed, in the wake of the furor, Mr. Klein, who had written both opinion columns and news articles, has been limited to columns.

Mr. Parker says he doesn’t believe it was a mistake to let Mr. Klein write the book. He says Mr. Klein was capable of separating his roles as journalist and novelist, and he notes that he regularly lets staffers write books, most of which receive relatively little notice.

But “Primary Colors,” it soon became apparent, was a different story. And Mr. Parker’s involvement led him to repeatedly publish material he knew to be false. In February, amid a nationwide media search to unmask the novel’s author, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter told Mr. Parker he was confident that “Anonymous” was Luciano Siracusano, a onetime speechwriter for former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Mr. Parker reacted curiously: He quipped that he had the same kind of confidence when he publicized the Hitler diaries — but he didn’t prevent the magazine from publishing an “exclusive” Periscope item reporting Mr. Alter’s choice.

In another February Periscope item, the magazine listed several of what it called its “favorite candidates,” who included author Chris Buckley and novelist Lisa Grunwald. And the magazine’s Perspectives column carried one of Mr. Klein’s many denials.

Mr. Parker says it was a mistake to allow the erroneous information to appear in the magazine. In addition, he says that he should have forced Mr. Klein to “come clean” as soon as his book became a big news story and that he should have told his boss, Mr. Smith, about Mr. Klein’s role. But he adamantly rejects criticism that he isn’t careful enough about decision-making.

“Yes, I charge ahead to get news, but that doesn’t mean I am not cautious,” he says. “I am the most prudent man in the world.”

Mr. Parker took a battering in news accounts of the Klein affair and suffered a public rebuke by Mr. Smith. But at the top of Washington Post Co., the fallout appeared to be milder. “Maynard and Joe made a couple of mistakes,” says Mr. Graham, who goes on to praise Mr. Parker’s “force and his drive.”

Mrs. Graham says she no longer considers Mr. Parker to be “impetuous,” and she praises his “compulsive interest in what’s going on,” declaring: “Maynard has grown.”

Post insiders believe the Grahams’ support is genuine and not just an effort to let the Klein affair blow over before they replace Mr. Parker. “Maynard has a couple of big things going for him,” one Post executive says. First, top managers believe that Newsweek is winning its battle with archrival Time and that they have Mr. Parker to thank. The second reason: “He works so hard. He’s always there for Newsweek, and even people who don’t like him respect that.”