Howard K. Smith, who was one of radio and television's most outspoken and familiar voices in a long and often contentious career as an anchorman, news analyst and war correspondent, died Friday evening at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 87.
He died of pneumonia aggravated by congestive heart failure, his son, Jack Smith, told The Associated Press today.
Slim, silver-haired and handsome, speaking in the soft cadences of his native Louisiana, Howard K. Smith seemed the courtly Southern gentleman. But he was tough and insightful, stubborn and opinionated and frequently clashed with his bosses at CBS and ABC during his four decades in broadcast journalism. He came on the scene when radio news was playing a paramount role in bringing World War II home to Americans, and he made the transition to television with passion and authority. Mr. Smith, in fact, played a role in one of television's defining moments, serving as moderator for the first Presidential debate - Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Mr. Smith was a member of Edward R. Murrow's famous wartime team of CBS radio correspondents known as ``the Murrow Boys,'' a group that also included Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Richard Hottelet and Larry LeSueur and that set the standard for broadcast journalism in their time. He covered the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and the Nuremberg war crimes trial. He reported on the cold war and delivered uncompromising commentary on the tumultuous civil rights battles in Little Rock and Birmingham, the Watergate scandal and the war in Vietnam.
He insisted on forceful commentary. ``A dull and cautious editorial or a strong one on a banal issue are of no help to anyone,'' he maintained.
Howard Kingsbury Smith Jr. was born on May 12, 1914, in Ferriday, La., the son of a railroad conductor. He attended Tulane University, dabbling in student socialism and preparing for a career in journalism. He graduated with honors in 1936, studied briefly at Heidelberg University in Germany, where he developed an anti-Nazi zeal, then returned to Louisiana as a reporter for The New Orleans Item-Tribune.
Mr. Smith went to Oxford University in 1937 as a Rhodes Scholar, and two years later became the first American to be chairman of Oxford's Labor Club. Disdainful of Britain's ruling elite and its reluctance to confront the Nazi threat, he led protests against the Conservative Government.
Mr. Smith was hired by the United Press in London in September 1939 as war broke out in Europe. He was sent to Berlin by the news agency the following January, then joined the CBS bureau there in the spring of 1941. In November, Nazi officials, angered at his refusal to air material they had written into his scripts, forbade him to continue making broadcasts. On Dec. 6, 1941 - the day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor - he left by train for neutral Switzerland. Although the Gestapo had burned all his notes, a month later he had completed a book on his experiences in Germany called ``Last Train From Berlin'' (Knopf, 1942).
For the next two and a half years, Mr. Smith, from his station in Berne, reported on underground movements in German-occupied territory. He later accompanied American airborne troops in the Battle of the Bulge, covered the Allied crossing of the Rhine and witnessed the Germans' surrender to the Russians in Berlin in May 1945. When he re-entered Germany with the Ninth Army he tried to contrast the country he left at the beginning of the war with the nation he found. He told his listeners: ``On the roadside lie skeletons of streamlined gray Wehrmacht cars which careened to conquest over every highway in Europe. Now they lie, belly to the sky, burned out and red with rust from the autumn rain. The whole desolate scene is one of crushed power.''
Mr. Smith replaced Edward R. Murrow as the London-based chief European correspondent for CBS in 1946 and remained overseas for the next 11 years. He won the Overseas Press Club award for foreign reporting and commentary four times in the 1950's. His star at CBS was on the rise and many network executives thought he would inherit the mantle of Ed Murrow. Returning to the United States, he was chosen to do the commentaries on Douglas Edwards's television program and his role as the moderator of the first presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon earned him praise. He was the anchorman on several
CBS Reports,'' receiving a George Polk Award and an Emmy for his writing and narration of a documentaryThe Population Explosion'' in 1960. He was named chief correspondent and general manager of the Washington bureau in 1961.
He also found time to contribute regularly to The Nation and write
The State of Europe,''(Knopf, 1949) in which he voiced approval of the welfare state. His positions landed him in the McCarthy-era bookletRed Channels,'' which listed 151 prominent people in the news media and broadcasting whom its authors regarded as left wingers. Among others listed were Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Orson Welles, figures whom Mr. Smith later wrote ``one would be proud to be associated with.''
Despite his success, Mr. Smith chafed over restrictions by CBS executives who felt that his vigorous editorial views had at times overstepped network boundaries. He believed that television newsmen had an obligation to ``take sides on public issues.'' The conflict escalated over Mr. Smith's reporting and analyses of the civil-rights struggle. Mr. Smith had been a strong opponent of segregation since his childhood in Louisiana exposed him to the injustices of Jim Crow laws.
When Edward R. Murrow was leaving CBS he asked Mr. Smith to take over a documentary for
CBS Reports'' calledWho Speaks for Birmingham?'' The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had called Birmingham ``the most segregated city in the United States,'' and Bull Connor, its segregationist police commissioner, had a notorious reputation. In May 1961, while Mr. Smith and other reporters watched, members of the Ku Klux Klan viciously beat a small band of Freedom Riders arriving to test new federal laws banning segregation in interstate travel. Only after the attack did Birmingham policemen arrive from their station only a few blocks away.
Mr. Smith was outraged, and his eyewitness account was broadcast by CBS Radio and carried the next day by The New York Times. He used his Sunday radio commentary to warn that unless the United States moved to provide justice for black Americans it was in danger ``of becoming a racial dictatorship, like Nazi Germany, or reverting to barbarism, as has happened...in Alabama.''
Mr. Smith wanted to end his Birmingham documentary by quoting the 18th- century British statesman Edmund Burke:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'' But Richard Salant, the president of CBS News, refused to let him quote Burke or do any moreeditorializing.'' According to Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, the authors of
The Murrow Boys'' (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), Mr. Smith and his boss had a bitter argument.We won't allow you to adopt causes,'' Mr. Salant said. Mr. Smith said there was right and there was wrong, and right was not ``an equidistant point between good and evil.''
Mr. Smith tried to make his case at a luncheon with William S. Paley, the board chairman of CBS.
It wasn't a reasoned discussion of balance and fairness,'' Mr. Salant's deputy, Blair Clark, who was present, told Sally Bedell Smith in her bookIn All His Glory,'' a biography of Mr. Paley published by Simon & Schuster in 1990.
Mr. Clark was quoted in
The Murrow Boys'' as saying that Mr. Smithwas absolutely rigid on his right to do commentary. He said in effect `Murrow could do it, why can't I?' He just bore down on it and Paley got angrier and angrier...'''
In his memoirs,
Events Leading Up to My Death,'' (St. Martin's Press, 1996) Mr. Smith wrote thatPaley reached into an inside pocket and drew out my brief. He narrowed his eyes as he looked at me. Then he threw the document across the table to me.
I have heard all this junk before,'he said.If that is what you believe, you had better go somewhere else.'''
Mr. Smith's 20-year career at CBS was over.
He joined ABC and launched a weekly program,
Howard K. Smith - News and Comment,'' in 1962\. The program was popular with critics and viewers, but he found himself in trouble again overThe Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon,'' a segment Mr. Smith did on Mr. Nixon's career prompted by his defeat in the California gubernatorial election. Mr. Smith featured interviews with several people from Mr. Nixon's past, including Alger Hiss, the former State Department official convicted of perjury in a case that brought Mr. Nixon to national prominence. Mr. Hiss's appearance ignited a firestorm of protest. ABC stood by Mr. Smith, but his weekly program was canceled in 1963 after it failed to retain its sponsor.
His career languished until 1969 when Av Westin, a former CBS colleague and admirer, became the executive producer of the ABC evening news program. Mr. Smith was named co-anchor with Frank Reynolds; later, Mr. Reynolds was succeeded as co-anchor by Harry Reasoner. The Reasoner-Smith team remained together until 1975.
While expressing a liberal outlook on many domestic matters, Mr. Smith surprised his supporters by calling for all-out American military escalation to end the war in Vietnam, the invasion of Laos and Cambodia and the imposition of an income-tax surcharge to finance the war. His son, Jack, was seriously wounded while fighting with the Seventh Cavalry in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, and a year later, Mr. Smith interviewed him in Vietnam for a program titled ``A Father, a Son and War.'' Mr. Smith said his hawkish stance on the war stemmed not from personal considerations, but the failure of the democracies to confront Hitler during the late 1930's.
Mr. Smith remained with ABC until April 1979, when he resigned over the curtailment of his commentary. He lectured widely after that and wrote his autobiography, in which he reflected on the political history of the preceding half-century.
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 59 years, Benedicte Traberg Smith, a Danish journalist, and a daughter, Catherine.