A CLASSIC PCM STORY
from the Spring 1999 issue of
Pomona College Magazine
by Adam Rogers ’92
What you want out of a famous foreign correspondent is, perhaps, a little drama. You’d like, first of all, a trench coat. Maybe a Fedora. Flask full of bourbon in an inside pocket. Above all, you want someone who looks like he’s had to wear a flak jacket and keep his head down once or twice, who’s walked these mean streets and knows the evil that men do.
So it’s a little disconcerting that you don’t get any of that from Bill Keller ’70, who won a Pulitzer for covering the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union, who was chief of The New York Times bureau in Johannesburg, South Africa, and who is now managing editor of that newspaper.
Sure, on a winter morning he does show up to breakfast wearing a long overcoat, but he’s still surprised that the hostess recognizes him at a restaurant a couple blocks from the Times’ West 43rd Street headquarters. He drinks coffee with his fruit plate—and doesn’t add any bourbon.
None of that makes Keller any less a famous foreign correspondent, however. Now he is perhaps equally well-known for his Pulitzer and for the possibility that he’ll be the next executive editor at the Times, running the whole show. It’s been a long trip, from a clique of journalism wanna-bes at Pomona in the topsy-turvy late 1960s, through a string of newspapers to the Times and eight years overseas. “I don’t consider myself a scholar of world affairs, just a surrogate for a reasonably intelligent reader,” Keller says. But, he adds, “I’ve had the incredible luck to cover two amazing stories”—communism and apartheid. And now that experience informs the front page of what’s arguably the country’s best newspaper.
You wouldn’t be reading this article in this magazine if it weren’t for Keller’s father. An MIT-educated chemical engineer and one-time chairman of Chevron, he noted his son’s application to Reed College in Portland and calmly suggested gazing farther south. “He said, ‘you ought to take a look at Pomona,’” Keller recalls. “He described it as ‘Reed with shoes.’ The irony was, my roommate was a surfer from Santa Cruz who didn’t wear shoes.”
Keller’s journalistic career started at the Collegian, the five-college Claremont paper now called Collage. Senior year, he and a friend founded an alternative paper that “existed mainly to indulge our young political leanings,” Keller says. It was a weird time to be a reporter, even for a college newspaper. “We were all potentially draft bait. There were black students starting to think about what that meant.... I marched in a few marches, but by and large I tended to keep my distance,” Keller says. Whether that was an early stab at journalistic objectivity or just the temperament of a non-joiner (that would ultimately convert into a journalist’s stance), even Keller isn’t certain. The Pomona journalism sub-culture has always been one of the few things on campus that might actually constitute job training (full disclosure: Collage also launched the career of your correspondent). Keller’s time there was no different. At least half a dozen of his friends and acquaintances work as writers or editors, including the Times’ business enterprise editor, Tom Redburn ’72.
The liberal arts, though, turn out to be excellent preparation for life as a reporter. “Ostensibly I majored in English literature,” Keller says. “Actually, I guess I majored in eclectic studies with a minor in serendipity.” But Keller’s “dabbling with rigor” taught him to cover a variety of subjects in succession, to adapt to a shifting context. “If you choose to bounce around from thing to thing, you’re at least expected to write the paper and pass the test,” he says. “It’s not that different from moving from Russia to Zimbabwe to New York.”
The first dozen years after college found Keller at a handful of solid, smaller papers. He went from the Portland Oregonian to the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report in Washington, D.C., to covering Washington for the Dallas Times Herald, then to covering the Pentagon for The New York Times. That was 1984. Two years later, Bill Kovach, the D.C. bureau chief, sat down at Keller’s desk and asked what his dream foreign assignment would be. Keller said Africa. “I noticed Bill’s eyes glaze over. He said, ‘have you thought about Russia?’” Keller said he hadn’t, and his editor told him he was going to Moscow. “I had no experience, no qualifications that were evident to me, and I’ve tried since then to figure out what it was that possessed them to send me to Russia.”
After nine months of intensive Russian language training, Keller flew to Moscow. His plane landed in December 1986, and the Moscow bureau chief met him at the airport. “It was pretty magical. Jet lag helps. It was night, so all the dim streetlights were shining off the frost in the trees,” Keller says. “You didn’t quite notice the incredible shabbiness.” That winter brought with it the kind of Napoleon-beating, Hitler-beating cold that Moscow is famous for. “You learn things like the fact that Fahrenheit and centigrade are the same at 40 below, because it actually was.”
Keller’s tenure in Russia began just as the old regime was ending—he arrived only a couple of weeks before the government allowed dissident Andrei Sakharov to return from his internal exile. “Even though Gorbachev had been in power since 1985, nobody, including most Russians, had any feeling things were going to change,” Keller says. But one indicator to him was that travel restrictions were getting looser, which meant reporters could actually get out and talk to real Russians. “They were people who knew they’d been on this detour from history and desperately wanted to rejoin the civilized world,” Keller says. “They’d say, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ I’d say, ‘Like I know?’ But you were an emissary from this place where things worked.”
When the elections rolled around in March of 1989, Keller knew he was onto something big. Gorbachev had loosened up the process, and in some places, enough people now voted against Party candidates that they were defeated. “Gorbachev at that point thought it was entirely under his control,” Keller says. But the reporters there were beginning to see that what Gorbachev had started could take on a life of its own. “There was a period where we [reporters] were screaming, ‘holy shit!’” And by the time Boris Yeltsin came on the scene—in a more vigorous and stable incarnation than the Yeltsin of today—the revolution was in full effect.
Today, one of Keller’s responsibilities at the Times is preparing nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. But in April of 1989, he didn’t know much about the process and didn’t remember that early April is when the committee announces the winner. Keller was covering Gorbachev’s visit to Cuba. “We landed in Havana, checked into a hotel and I had a message to call the foreign desk,” says Keller. He made the call and got editor Joe Lelyveld. “He said he was sorry he called so late—they’d just been drinking champagne and toasting my victory. I was literally thrilled speechless.” But Keller had arranged to go out with a fellow reporter that night. “I didn’t know how to say, ‘Jesus Christ, I just won the Pulitzer!’” Keller remembers thinking, “I haven’t told him up to this point; how do I tell him now?” They had dinner, drank beers and went to bed. By the next morning, all Keller’s colleagues had found out, and probably thought he was humble and self-effacing instead of merely afraid of sounding as exultant as he felt.
In October of 1991, a month after an attempted coup against Gorbachev, Keller left Russia. By spring of 1992 he was onto another great story: the tectonic shifts happening in the apartheid culture of South Africa. As bureau chief in Johannesburg, Keller was responsible for covering the 10 southern countries of Africa—civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, white businessmen and the black government of Zimbabwe and the eccentric post-colonial leader of Malawi, among other stories. But, Keller says, 80 percent of his work was taken up by South Africa and the new government being formed just as he arrived. Nelson Mandela was out of prison and the African National Congress was a power in negotiations over the new constitution, but the country was terrified. South African blacks thought the process would collapse, either through duplicity on the part of then-President F.W. de Klerk or because of violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party; whites feared violent revenge. It didn’t get as bad as it could have, says Keller, but it got bad enough. “I covered all that stuff, ducked a few bullets (I was luckier than most), saw a bit of killing and a lot of tension,” he writes via e-mail. “In my memory—and this is not just distant hindsight, for it felt this way at the time—the movement toward a freely elected government seemed inexorable, and the making of it, the elections and the inauguration, were occasions of real euphoria.”
Keller came back to the U.S. in 1995, this time to New York as his paper’s foreign editor. “It’s very easy to describe what the foreign editor does,” he says. “The first 15 to 20 columns of The New York Times are filled with what you do every day.” Principally that means a day’s worth of meetings, starting with a more ruminative one in the morning and then a more serious one at 4:30 in the afternoon, when editors pitch their sections’ best pieces for the front page. That’s where the top editors focus most of their attention—those half dozen stories a Times reader sees first. It’s a disproportionate emphasis, says Keller, but "the silver lining of that was that people who run a department have a lot of autonomy.” In the end, section editors have more freedom to do what they want with their inside stories—in the case of the international section, those that run behind page one.
But that didn’t last long. Keller got bumped upstairs again (only figuratively, since his office is still next to the newsroom). As managing editor, his job is a little harder to describe. He presides all over those meetings he used to attend, as well as conducting job interviews, discussing long-term strategy with the folks who handle the business side of the paper and even dealing with logistical matters like copy flow—the progress of stories from reporter to editor to presses. Mostly, Keller says, it’s a matter of doing whatever Joe Lelyveld, the executive editor, needs done. “It’s a lot of meetings and a lot of walking around,” Keller says.
It’s also meant a lot of attention. The New York Times is at the top of the pyramid in a media-driven town, so changes in the cast get attention in the local press. A recent New York magazine article laid out some of the maneuvering in preparation for Lelyveld’s retirement. Keller called the piece “amusing, mainly because it managed to get so much totally, screamingly wrong in such a short space.” As for whether Keller really might take the throne, he points out that Lelyveld isn’t due to retire for four years, suggesting that publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. probably hasn’t started thinking about it yet. “In any case, he ain’t saying. And those who are saying, don’t know,” Keller says. “Neither do I.”
Meanwhile, though, the Times continues to expand its foreign coverage even as most U.S. newspapers retreat—which makes it a good time for Keller, the experienced foreign correspondent, to be in a top spot. “The collapse of the Thai bhat is affecting your pension plan. This is hardly the time to be pulling behind some wall,” he says. Medium-sized and smaller papers are cutting back on international, even national news, but that has allowed the Times to sell papers all over the country to fill the gap. At a more personal level, Keller has had the opportunity to witness first-hand the radical remaking of two wildly different countries, and to know some of the people who made history. It gives you the idea that maybe he has walked his share of mean streets. “I think I’ve fallen in love with just about every country I’ve covered,” he says, “with the possible exception of Angola.” Who needs a Fedora when you can toss off lines like that?