by Brooks DuBose
Strewn across Terry Smith’s kitchen table are three newspapers. Dozens more are stacked neatly nearby.
One is The Capital, the local paper Smith has read daily since 2014, when he moved to his home in Eastport overlooking Spa Creek. The others include The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Smith, 83, knows he’s a dwindling breed of news consumer who still gets the paper delivered to his door every day. Yet, what else can be expected from a retired reporter whose father is the legendary sports columnist Red Smith and who spent a five-decade career in print and broadcast journalism crisscrossing the globe, covering wars, high-stakes political affairs, natural disasters, and, most importantly, the people who were directly affected by those events?
He wants news the old-fashioned way.
While Smith’s byline no longer fills the pages of the Times, where he worked from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, he’s found another way to tell a story.
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In October, he published a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House,” that recounts his storied career and explores the upheaval the journalism industry has undergone from the middle of last century through today.
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As the title suggests, Smith’s career took him to war zones in Israel for the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars; stints in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia during the height of the Vietnam War; and, finally, on the island of Cyprus during a Turkish invasion. Despite serving in the Army reserve in his 20s, Smith never wanted to be a war reporter. His newspaper employers had other ideas.
Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” He is photographed in his home, here with one of his borzois, or Russian sighthounds, 4-year-old Anastasia on Monday, December 20, 2021.
Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” He is photographed in his home, here with one of his borzois, or Russian sighthounds, 4-year-old Anastasia on Monday, December 20, 2021. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette)
“There’s a wider world and people have different ways of working out their lives and solving their problems, and that fascinated me,” Smith said in an interview at his home. But, he said, “If you go to Israel as one of your assignments and Saigon to another one, the war finds you.”
Over the years, Smith’s work brought him in close contact with Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and numerous other world leaders.
In one of the book’s most riveting anecdotes, Smith tells of hearing the news that Robert F. Kennedy, then a presidential candidate, had been assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968. On a tip from the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Smith rushed to the home of the assassin’s father, who lived in the West Bank, and managed to interview the man who had no idea what his son had done.
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“There was no time to prepare,” Smith said. “I assumed he knew [about the accusations against his son]. It quickly became apparent that he didn’t.”
The book’s origins
For years, Smith, who retired in 2006, had mulled writing a memoir. He had lived in and around Washington, D.C., for much of his later career but finally moved to a home on the West River with his second wife, Susy, before landing in Annapolis. Two friends, Patrick and Catherine Stewart Roache, both authors who hold doctorates, encouraged him to put pen to paper after hearing his stories over glasses of wine in the cockpit of his sailboat Winsome on the Chesapeake Bay.
There were so many stories worth telling, like the morning in June 1967 when he woke with a hangover to a call from his Times editor telling him Israel and Egypt were going to war, and the interview he conducted the following year with Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who accurately predicted that the U.S. “would be forced to take your troops and leave Vietnam.” Seven years later, America would do just that.
Aided by decades of notes and clips from his career, and a needle-sharp memory that allows him to recall names, places and dates like they occurred yesterday, Smith set out to write about his career that began as a local news reporter for the Stamford Advocate in Connecticut and included stops at the Fort Dix Post, New York Herald Tribune and the Times before he jumped into broadcasting with CBS News and PBS NewsHour in the mid-1980s.
Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” e is photographed outside his home, with a view of Spa Creek and St. Mary’s Church on Monday, December 20, 2021.
Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” e is photographed outside his home, with a view of Spa Creek and St. Mary’s Church on Monday, December 20, 2021. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette)
When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020, all of the speaking engagements he had planned for the rest of the year evaporated.
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Writing the book became “a COVID creation,” Smith said. “I had no excuse.”
Smith’s itch to explore the world began at an early age.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in New York, Smith was taken by his parents on a six-week trip as a teenager to Europe to attend the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. It was in those weeks trekking around Finland with his father that a passion awoke inside him that he now calls his wanderlust gene.
“I really got interested in travel, and I very much wanted to go overseas as a journalist,” Smith said. “That idea, the romance if you will, of being a foreign correspondent for a major newspaper.”
Early in his career, Smith was one of five family members to work for New York newspapers in the 1960s, including his father; his uncle Art wrote a fishing and hunting column for the New York Herald Tribune and his cousin Pat covered sports at the New York World-Telegram and The Sun. Another cousin, Georgia, later became a features writer for the Times.
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His father, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for his sports commentary, never urged his son to follow in his footsteps, Smith said, but he was delighted all the same when Smith got a job with the Stamford Advocate in 1958.
“I went home and told my father I was a newspaperman. ‘Oh lord,’ he said in mock horror. ‘Another wasted life!’” Smith wrote in the memoir, which can be purchased at bookstores and online.
Sprinkled between tales of mortars landing outside his apartment in Saigon and temporary capture during an armed conflict in Cyprus, Smith shares major life events, including his lifelong friendship with his father; his marriage to his first wife, Ann; the birth of his two children, Christopher and Elizabeth; and first meeting his second wife, Susy, in a Washington bar.
Susy Smith served in the Carter administration and would go on to work for several other elected officials before becoming chief of staff to Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley in 2018. The two married in 1997.
Hope for local news
Smith’s memoir could be read as a personal history of the journalism industry.
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From the highly lucrative 1960s when budgets were bursting, thanks to exploding ad revenue that allowed newspapers to employ hundreds of journalists and send them all over the globe, to the contraction of the industry that began in the 1970s and has continued today.
Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” He is photographed in his home, here with one of his borzois, or Russian sighthounds, 9-year-old Ulla on Monday, December 20, 2021
Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” He is photographed in his home, here with one of his borzois, or Russian sighthounds, 9-year-old Ulla on Monday, December 20, 2021 (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette)
In the mid-1980s, Smith made the unusual but not unprecedented decision to jump from print to broadcast journalism, where he worked for 13 years with CBS News and “PBS NewsHour.” He went on to win two Emmy Awards after initially feeling like a fish out of water in front of the camera.
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Though he has been out of the news business for about 15 years, Smith is still a voracious news consumer and occasional writer. He remains positive about the future of journalism despite the upheaval and contraction it has seen during and after his career.
Between 2014 and 2018, Smith wrote a monthly opinion column for The Capital and has penned freelance pieces for the Smithsonian and other publications. He now serves on several boards and nonprofits, including the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
During his career, Smith was often faced with the existential question of whether journalism mattered, he said, pointing to examples of publishing bloody accounts of war only to have nothing change and the conflict carry on.
Still, he closes his memoir with a sense of hope for the industry he gave his life to, noting that “everything is changing — and will keep changing — but not everything is lost.”
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Should the convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy be paroled after 53 years in prison?
Should the man who shot and killed Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, walk free? That is the question the full California Parole Board is actively considering after a two-member panel declared him eligible for release on August 27. The final decision rests with California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has said he has not yet made a decision, but has been quoted noting that RFK was a big inspiration to him, adding: “I think that gives you a sense of where I might be leaning right now.”
Sirhan, who remains in jail, has been denied parole 15 times before. Even the nine surviving Kennedy children are split on the question: two believe it is time for him to be released, six adamantly do not, along with RFK’s widow, Ethel. The eldest, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has remained silent, finding it too emotionally difficult to discuss in public.
The whole debate summons a vivid memory for me, a haunting recollection of how I became the person to tell Sirhan Sirhan Sr. that his namesake son had been seized on the spot as the assassin. It is recounted in my newly-published memoir “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.”
On June 5th, 1968, I was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Jerusalem, Israel. I had spent a lot of time with Robert Kennedy, covering his successful 1964 campaign for the United States Senate from New York, the only campaign he ever finished. I had been skeptical of him at first, but had come to admire him when it became clear that his commitment to civil rights and racial equality was the real deal. Needless to say, I was stunned by the news out of Los Angeles.
The next day I was attending a reception at the home of the American Ambassador to Israel when he drew me into his study, closed the door and told me that he had just learned that Sirhan Sirhan, Sr., the assassin’s father, lived in a small West Bank village near Jerusalem, barely an hour away.
Heading straight there, I arrived at the darkened Sirhan house about 10 p.m. A diminutive man in pajamas opened the door, clearly puzzled why a stranger had come at such a late hour. I explained who I was and, typical of Palestinian hospitality, Sirhan insisted that I sit at his kitchen table while he made coffee for both of us.
I asked Sirhan if he had heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. He said yes, it was terrible, that Kennedy could have been a great president. I asked if he had heard that the assassin was caught on the spot. Showing no emotion, he said yes, he had heard that on the radio. Had he heard the name of the captured assassin, I asked? No, he said, he had gone to bed and had no idea who it was.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I slid my reporter’s notebook across to Sirhan. “I understand you have five sons, is that right?” He said yes, he was proud of them. I asked him to write their names on my notebook. When he wrote the 4th name, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Jr., I put my finger on that name and looked him in the eye. “That’s the name of the assassin they seized on the spot,” I said.
Stunned, Sirhan Sirhan Sr. stared at me. He could see I was serious. He gave me a hard, disbelieving look and shook his head. Then he erupted, first shouting that the assassin couldn’t be his son, Sirhan. “He was the best of the boys, the smartest, with the best grades,” he insisted, “I had the highest hopes for him.”
Then, his face darkened and his voice became angry. “If he did it,” he shouted, “he should hang.,” repeating that Kennedy could have been a great president.
Back and forth the father went, frantically switching from denial to accusation, back and forth for a half-hour, shaking his head in disbelief and then shouting that if his son was guilty, he should hang. He kept repeating that Sirhan Jr. was the brightest of his boys. “It couldn’t be, not Sirhan, not him,” he said repeatedly. “But if he did this dirty thing, he should pay for it.”
Finally, about midnight, I closed my notebook and returned to Jerusalem to write what little I had learned about the accused assassin’s family and background. I never saw Sirhan Sirhan Sr. again.
Postscript: the next day I interviewed the Palestinian headmaster of the school Sirhan had attended in the Old City. He confirmed that Sirhan Jr. had been a promising student with excellent grades. But, he said, the family was deeply troubled. The father had lost his job, blamed it on the Israelis, and took it out on his family, beating his wife and kids. The couple spit up; the wife took an offer from an evangelical Christian group and moved with the boys to the United States. That, said the headmaster, was why Sirhan Jr. was so bitter about Kennedy, whom he saw as a supporter of the Israelis, and so angry as Kennedy closed in on the presidential nomination.
So, should Sirhan Sirhan Jr. be released now, after more than half a century in prison? I would say no, but I am not impartial on the subject. That decision is up to the full Parole Board and, ultimately, Governor Newsom.