Herb Kaplow, A Giant in the News Business

Photo: News-Press

My friend and neighbor Herb Kaplow died Sunday morning. The veteran journalist was 86 and the victim of the cruelest of fates, the inability to speak coherently because of dementia. He suffered a massive stroke a week ago and died in a suburban Virginia hospital with his wife Betty and three sons at his side.

The last time I saw Herb was about a month ago at an assisted living home in Falls Church, and while he recognized me, we weren’t able to carry on a conversation, which is too bad because he had much to say.

I first encountered him as a Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers in the 1960s, and then in 1977 as press secretary for Vice President Walter Mondale when he was covering the White House as a radio and TV correspondent. We stayed in touch ever since.

A native of the Bronx, Herb worked as a radio announcer in New Brunswick, N.J., before enrolling in Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism where he earned a master’s degree in 1951. He then joined radio station WRC in Washington and became an NBC radio and TV correspondent who covered the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon administrations.

He became NBC’s White House correspondent before moving to CBS in 1982 until retiring in 1994. (Ironically, his Washington Post death notice appeared next to that of Lindy Boggs, widow of House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.) and mother of Herb’s fellow broadcast journalists Cokie and Steve Roberts. And famed White House reporter Helen Thomas died only a few days earlier.)

Herb had much to say since he had covered the Nuremberg trials for the Armed Force Network while in the Army, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution from Havana, in Little Rock and Birmingham the Civil Rights Movement, in Cape Canaveral the Mercury space program, as well as Vice President Nixon’s violence-plagued trip to Venezuela and his historic trip to China as president, as well as from some 50 countries. He covered 10 presidential campaigns and every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.

When I visited Herb (after helping myself to Betty’s candy dish), I often told him he should write a book about his experiences, which he loved to talk about. One of his favorites was covering Nixon during a campaign trip to Florida, when a state trooper was badly injured when his motorcycle crashed during a motorcade. The inarticulate Nixon tried to comfort the injured man by asking, “Do you enjoy your work?”

Herb’s den featured a framed letter from Nixon in July 1972 congratulating him on his move to ABC, declaring “NBC’s loss is ABC’s gain.” Two years later, he covered Nixon’s resignation. Another letter was from former President Eisenhower inviting him to dinner at the White House in 1959, and there was an autographed photo of Herb and Betty with Mondale at the White House in 1978.

When I told Mondale of Herb’s death, he sent this massage to his son Larry, himself a distinguished reporter who was Newsweek’s bureau chief in Baghdad for four years. “I’m sorry I can’t talk to your dad. He was one of the finest reporters and one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever worked with. Please know that our prayers are with all of the Kaplows on this saddest of days.”

Herb’s former colleagues recalled other highlights of his career on Facebook after his death, and there will undoubtedly be many more at the reception after his funeral Wednesday.

But since this is written before then, I’ll leave you with this personal observation. Herb Kaplow was one of the best journalists of his time, truly one of the giant figures of his profession who accurately reported some of the most history-changing events of his time. I’m proud to have been his friend.