Sidey, Hugh Swanson

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Sidey, Hugh Swanson

(b. 3 September 1927 in Greenfield, Iowa; d. 21 November 2005 in Paris, France), Time magazine writer and White House historian who reported on ten American presidents.

Sidey was one of two sons born in the small town of Greenfield, Iowa, to Kenneth H. Sidey, a newspaper editor, and Alice Margaret (Swanson) Sidey, a homemaker. He was a fourth-generation journalist. His great-grandfather had founded a weekly paper, the Adair County Free Press, in 1889. Sidey began his own journalism career at the age of eight, when his grandfather gave him a job sweeping the floor at the newspaper’s offices.

After graduating from high school in 1945, Sidey served in the U.S. Army for eighteen months and then studied engineering at Iowa State University; before long he switched to journalism. He graduated with a BS in 1950 and then worked for newspapers in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska. During this time, he also sent articles to Time and Life magazines. Sidey married Alice Anne Trowbridge on 5 December 1953; they would have four children.

In 1955 Sidey earned an assignment from Life magazine to cover science in New York City. In 1957 Life assigned him to Washington, D.C., to cover the second-term administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The following year Sidey switched to Time to report on John F. Kennedy, and he remained with that magazine permanently, reporting on every president from then until his death in 2005. As such, Sidey was a witness to history. He befriended and became a confidant of many of the presidents he wrote about and thus was able to gain access and interviews that other reporters coveted. He talked to Kennedy while swimming with him in the White House pool and accompanied him to Dallas on the fateful visit that ended in his assassination. Sidey shared gossip about world leaders with Lyndon B. Johnson during flights on Air Force One, traveled to China with Richard M. Nixon when he opened diplomatic relations with that nation, and visited Moscow with Ronald W. Reagan during the cold war. Throughout his career, Sidey focused on the personal dimensions of the men in power as well as on their political decisions.

Sidey was generally well liked by the presidents about whom he wrote, with the exception of Nixon. Nixon wrote a memo in 1972 accusing Sidey of making derogatory remarks about him at a Washington cocktail party and of being “totally against us.” According to a file released by the National Archives, Nixon then schemed to have a pseudonymous letter sent to Sidey, in which a purported admirer would state that Sidey’s apparent bias against Nixon was unfortunate and that in order to correct this bias he should write more complimentary columns about the president. President Jimmy Carter also had a run-in with Sidey after the journalist remarked that Carter was diminishing the ceremony and grandeur of the White House by instituting certain restrictions. When Carter banned liquor in the White House, Sidey commented that Carter ought to try drinking a martini sometime, as it would mellow him.

Sidey was known for his sense of humor and for his lighthearted dealings with the people in power. In 1958, when Nixon was vice president, Sidey traveled to Alaska with Nixon and his wife to cover that state’s first presidential election. While there, he organized a press corps dogsled race, arranging the participation of other reporters and also Nixon’s wife, Pat. Sidey and the two reporters riding with him won when Mrs. Nixon’s sled hit a stump and overturned, tossing her into the snow. Sidey interviewed Reagan shortly before his 1987 address regarding his sale of arms to Iran. The interview focused on the controversial sale, but Sidey, characteristically, also ventured into more personal territory, discussing Reagan’s favorite job of working as a lifeguard when he was young. After Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush left office, they both retained their friendships with Sidey, finding that they could discuss current events with him without fearing that he would leak their comments to the public.

Sidey wrote or contributed to seven books about American presidents, including three individual biographies: John F. Kennedy, President (1963), A Very Personal Presidency: Lyndon Johnson in the White House (1968), and Portrait of a President (1975), examining the life of Gerald R. Ford. Of these books, Sidey’s biography of Johnson was the best known and most acclaimed. The book had its genesis as two million words of notes that Sidey jotted down over the ten years that he knew Johnson, and it was widely praised for its balanced and detailed portrayal of Johnson’s strengths as well as his quirks and weaknesses.

Sidey appeared regularly as a panelist on the televised political talk shows Agronsky and Company and its successor, Washington Insider, for almost twenty-five years. He became a contributing editor of Time in 1978 and remained in that position until 1996, when he retired to spend more time as volunteer chair of the White House Historical Society. Meanwhile, he continued to write for Time and was on assignment for the magazine until the week before his death in 2005.

Despite his long Washington career and his friendships with presidents and other influential insiders, Sidey remained true to his down-to-earth Iowa roots. He was noted for his modest manner and clear, unpretentious writing style. In presidential interviews, he asked penetrating questions in a quiet, respectful manner, usually eliciting in-depth answers. Sidey died of a heart attack in a restaurant in Paris, France, where he was taking his annual Thanksgiving vacation, and was cremated. After Sidey’s death, former president Ford wrote of his admiration for and friendship with the journalist, commenting, “Anyone who read him knew America’s presidents. Anyone who read him knew America.... By being the kind of person he was, no less than by setting the highest of journalistic standards, Hugh Sidey also embodied the best of America in Washington.” Sidey once said, “As for myself, give me a man or woman with common sense, a passion for fair play, a knowledge of his or her nation and the world, an itch for adventure, a touch of romance about his or her role and a good dash of boldness, and I think we will fare quite well.”

Gerald R. Ford’s eulogy of Sidey appeared as an editorial, “The Friendship, and Toughness, of Hugh Sidey,” in the Washington Post (26 Nov. 2005). Herbert Klein reflected on Sidey’s personal qualities in “Fond Recollections of a Columnist,” Washington Times (11 Dec. 2005). The story of Nixon’s pseudonymous memo to Sidey appeared in a compendium of brief articles in Time (28 Oct. 1996). Obituaries are in the Washington Post (22 Nov. 2005) and New York Times (23 Nov. 2005).

Kelly Winters