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Joseph Pulitzer and His Most “Indegoddampendent” Editor
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
Samples of Cobb’s dry wit spiced life for the Chief as the two grew more closely attuned. Once Cobb scribbled, “This might interest Mr. Pulitzer” across the top of a letter from a reader, and sent it along; the letter began, “There is at least one thing for which your paper stands alone—its silly editorials.… You need an editorial writer, and badly, at that.” When J. P. blistered Cobb for failing to read an editorial in the New York Herald , Cobb sent him a statement solemnly swearing that he had done so—attested by the World ’s notary public. There was this gentle ribbing after a bet Cobb won: “By the way, I collected that Panama hat, which you told me to get, but … do you think an editorial writer can wear a hat like that, and retain his full measure of sympathy with the toiling Democratic masses?” And this, reflecting their avid interest in American history: “I am sending you Franklin Pierce’s Federal Usurpation … God help him, he seems to be a Jeffersonian Democrat, which in this day is quite as ridiculous as being a mastodon.” A Cobb epigram for J. P. on what we now call the Progressive Era: “There will soon be nothing left to reform except the weather.” Cobb to Pulitzer on New York’s Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr., son of the Civil War general: “He is the son of his father. Just as he starts to do something it rains, and he has to go back into camp again.” Cobb on William Randolph Hearst during a mayoralty campaign: “We are trying to treat Hearst ‘without prejudice,’ as you say, but I confess it is a damned hard job so far as I am concerned. I am prejudiced against Hearst.… Some day I shall consider it a precious privilege if you will lift the lid and give me permission to scatter his intestines from the Battery to the Bronx.”
A few years later, the subject of mayoral candidate William J. Gaynor, who was to succeed the drear McClellan, inspired these lines for Pulitzer’s private delectation: “Our friend, the ‘Christian jurist,’ will probably be elected. He has done what he reasonably could do to defeat himself, but the time was too short.… If he is really sane, I doubt if anyone was ever crazy; yet there is much to be said in favor of having a lively lunatic at the head of the city government for four years. Nothing has been gained by a safe and sane administration; so it is possible that an energetic crazy man could do some good.”
Part of their new-found rapport rested on Cobb’s talent for poking fun both at himself and at his hypercritical mentor. “Seitz is away on vacation,” he confided, “and I have nobody to quarrel with. That is very depressing.… I shall soon be 40 years old, and that is the most depressing thing of all. Forty is ten years older than 39, although I believe you hold to the theory that everybody is a damned fool until he is 40, and not necessarily very intelligent after that.”
Wary of subordinates who got swelled heads, Pulitzer never bestowed on Cobb the title of editor of the World , which Merrill had worn. Criticism continued like a drum beat, issue after issue. Now, however, it was sprinkled with “my dear boy” (once he called Cobb “my adopted son,” sending him, as he had to sons Ralph and Joseph, Lord Chesterfield’s Letters ), and his tone mellowed perceptibly: “And now forgive me and light a cigar and do read the news and pick out the right facts,” or, “Forgive me dear boy, child, son, anything affectionate, but why call McClellan all these names?… Is it consistent with your dignity as an unbiased judge?”
How much even these tempered admonitions would grate upon a man of Cobb’s intellect and spirit may be surmised. Periodically he sent Pulitzer his resignation, which J. P. simply ignored. In the end, the sulphurous old man’s personal magnetism, courage in adversity, and total devotion to the paper and its causes—progressive causes like vigorous antitrust enforcement (Pulitzer wanted jail terms), lower tariffs, the direct election of senators, the adoption of a graduated federal income tax, and the elimination of campaign contributions by corporations, in all of which Cobb deeply believed—could not but hold his editor, head and heart, to the fire. J. P. ran a far more rigorous school of journalism than any of the formal ones his famous legacy to Columbia served to inspire, and the discipline he imposed, in Cobb’s case almost always in the direction of restraint and fair-mindedness, unquestionably served to mold a greater editor.