Ben A. Franklin, 1927-2005

With this issue of the Washington Spectator, we bid farewell to our longtime friend and colleague Ben A. Franklin, who died after a long illness on November 19. Ben was only the second editor in the Washington Spectator‘s history, following Tristram Coffin, the veteran Washington reporter who started this newsletter as Washington Watch back in 1971.

Ben was a Timesman, although perhaps more by training than disposition. He first joined theNew York Times‘s Washington bureau in 1959. By 1964, he had become a roving reporter covering the civil rights movement and the violent backlash to racial desegregation. As the paper’s first Middle Atlantic correspondent, he reported extensively from Appalachia. Ben’s legendary reporting from the poor region brought national attention to the hardships and health hazards faced by mine workers and the environmental devastation caused by strip mining. Ben led a temporary Baltimore bureau in 1973 and helped to uncover bribes that Vice President Spiro Agnew took during his tenure as governor of Maryland—reporting that led to Agnew’s resignation and criminal prosecution.

By the time Ben surfaced in our search for Tris Coffin’s successor, he had retired from theTimes after a falling out with A.M. Rosenthal, the paper’s famously authoritarian executive editor. Ben always considered his dismissal by Rosenthal as a sort of badge of honor.

I recall our search process, conducted in a Washington, D.C., parlor. Our committee had interviewed half a dozen talented D.C. journalists, and we were parsing the slight variations of each of the candidates. Ben was a late entry referred to one of our committee by an outside friend, and we met with him last. Then in his mid-sixties, Ben was tall and strong with an avuncular presence. I don’t recall if he smoked his pipe or a cigarette on that occasion; if not, it was the only time in the subsequent dozen years of our acquaintance that he didn’t. His answers to our well-worn questions were unhurried. He gave little sense of his aspiration, and offered modest observations on the issues of the day and the potential of the newsletter. I cannot recall a less self-aggrandizing performance from a job applicant, and after he left, everyone in the room knew we had met our next editor.

Although—perhaps because—Ben was a seasoned reporter accustomed to writing to length and on deadline, in his early months at the Washington Spectator he had difficulty expressing his opinions in print. This was undoubtedly understood as a virtue in most journalistic quarters, but at a largely editorial vehicle like the Spectator, it was an unexpected problem. Ben, I suspect, had the first person singular beaten out of him in his years with the “paper of record,” and it required a virtual makeover for him to frame and compose his personal views for public consumption.

Gradually, Ben’s work at the Spectator came to reflect his true feelings about the Washington political merry-go-round and the wider public-affairs beats that have always been grist for our newsletter. What emerged, to the great fortune of both our readers and journalism as a whole, was a sharp, deeply principled, and unsentimental running commentary on the grand experiment. We are grateful beyond words to Ben for his constant intelligence, his integrity, his well-aimed indignation, and his fondness for the Spectator.

Lastly, a word about Ben’s widow, Jane Burrage Franklin. Jane and Ben were a team. She managed the traffic in the editorial office in Garrett Park, just outside the nation’s capital. She kept the accounts, read the copious reader mail and made certain the editor responded to his constituents. We recently received a note from Jane to us, and to you:

“I would like to say for my beloved husband, Ben, that he loved being editor of the Washington Spectator for almost 13 years. It was with a mix of pride and dread that he was facing retirement by the end of last year. In doing so, he especially wanted to thank the president of the Public Concern Foundation, Hamilton Fish; its board of directors; and its staff, Publisher Kevin Walter and Associate Editor Lisa Vandepaer. And not to overlook the many readers of the Washington Spectator who filled his mailbox with comments of both appreciation and criticism, thereby truly delighting and stimulating him.”

Farewell, Ben. Thanks for including us on your journey. We’ll do our best to maintain the standards you set for us.