Obituary: Haynes Johnson / Distinguished journalist won a Pulitzer, just as dad had done

July 9, 1931 - May 24, 2013


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Haynes Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, television commentator and author known in particular for his long association with The Washington Post, died Friday in Bethesda, Md. He was 81.

The cause was a heart attack, his wife, Kathryn Oberly, said.

Mr. Johnson, who joined The Post in 1969, was variously a writer, editor and columnist there before his retirement in 1994. He was previously a reporter on The Washington Evening Star, where he won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for coverage of the civil rights movement in Selma, Ala., and its aftermath.

In his four decades in journalism, Mr. Johnson was widely esteemed for his coverage of domestic affairs in general and of the capital in particular.

Reviewing Mr. Johnson's book about the Carter administration, "In the Absence of Power," in The Washington Post Book World in 1980, British journalist Godfrey Hodgson called him "one of the most perceptive, the best-informed, and the most levelheaded reporters in Washington."

Mr. Johnson wrote more than a dozen books in all, including "Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years" (1991), "Divided We Fall: Gambling With History in the Nineties" (1994), "The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years" (2001) and "The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism" (2005)

On television, he was a member of the original panel of the PBS program "Washington Week in Review," first broadcast in 1967, and appeared on it regularly through the mid-1990s. Mr. Johnson was also a regular presence on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and in the late 1970s was a weekly commentator on the "Today" show.

Haynes Bonner Johnson was born in New York City on July 9, 1931. His mother, the former Emmie Ludie Adams, was a pianist; his father, Malcolm, was a newspaperman with The New York Sun.

For The Sun, the elder Johnson won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for his 24-part series, "Crime on the Waterfront." That series, which exposed the unsavory, often violent alliance of labor unions and organized crime on New York City's docks, inspired "On the Waterfront," the 1954 film starring Marlon Brando.

As a youth, Haynes Johnson worked as a copy boy on The Sun before earning a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. After Army service stateside during the Korean War, he earned a master's in U.S. history from the University of Wisconsin.

Mr. Johnson was a reporter on The Wilmington News-Journal in Delaware before joining The Evening Star in 1957. There, he covered a wide swath of national news, including the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and the epochal Selma-to-Montgomery marches of March 1965.

Later that year, several months after reporting on the civil rights protesters' hard-won gains, Mr. Johnson returned to Selma to record the struggle's less visible aftereffects.

The result was a special report, "Selma Revisited," published in The Evening Star on July 26, 1965. In it, Mr. Johnson chronicled the discontents that had emerged among the city's blacks as they found their goals of equitable employment, housing and education even harder to realize than they had anticipated.

"Their leaders are struggling to regain precious momentum, but many of those who followed them so patiently are frankly bewildered and disillusioned," he wrote. "Selma's Negro community is, in fact, in an hour of new and more subtle crisis -- a tragic crisis when it is contrasted with the soaring hopes and selfless devotion they and their friends demonstrated here such a short time ago."

Mr. Johnson joined The Post as a national correspondent, where his portfolio included many presidential campaigns; he was later an assistant managing editor as well as a columnist there. He was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for his coverage in The Post of the impact of the recession on communities nationwide.

At his death, Mr. Johnson held the Knight chair of public affairs journalism at the University of Maryland.

His other books include "Lyndon" (1973, with Richard Harwood); "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point" (1996, with David S. Broder); and "The Battle for America, 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election" (2009, with Dan Balz).

Mr. Johnson's father, Malcolm, died in 1976, at 71. With Haynes Johnson's Pulitzer Prize a decade earlier, the two men became the first father-and-son writers to win the award.

"My father couldn't believe it," Haynes Johnson told United Press International in 1966, describing his win. "I'm really more pleased for him than for myself."

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