THE BLOG

A Birthday Toast to Roger Rosenblatt

09/12/2011 10:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

Let me fill you in on Roger's stint at Time magazine, or as future biographers may well call the period, "The Lost Years." Lacking other stimulation at Time, Roger devoted himself to collecting books with weird titles. He had more than 20, all stashed in Steve Kanfer's office so Kanfer could take the fall in case of negative feedback. One of the books was 1587: a Year of No Significance. Another was The Bowel Book -- fully illustrated by the way. And a third and the most popular was a computer book, Using the Wang for Business.

But this collection did not come close to accounting for Roger's enormous impact on the magazine. Far from it. Much of that impact came from Roger's first major story.

Roger arrived at Time in late 1980, already a star, and the editors asked him to write the "Man of the Year" story on Ronald Reagan, who had qualified for the honor the same way that Obama qualified for the Nobel Peace Prize -- he had just been elected and hadn't done anything yet.

Writing the "Man of the Year" story is the worst assignment you can get at Time your job is to rehash shopworn anecdotes about someone so famous that the anecdotes have already been used a hundred times or more. So Roger decided to do something new. He went down to Washington, talked to Reagan and wrote a quite brilliant meditation on the man -- still the most impressive "Man of the Year" story Time has ever run. But Roger had violated the most crucial tradition of Time journalism. He had bypassed the bureaus. What writers are supposed to do -- let's say, on a local story -- is write a long query, stuff it into a pneumatic tube to the New York bureau, two floors below in the Time-Life building, wait a few days for a couple of reporters to leave their offices, gather some facts and get back to you. Even if writers wanted to do a piece on a person one block away, they couldn't interview that person themselves. That wasn't the Time way.

Now why did Roger dare to defy tradition in this blatant manner? We all know that Roger is a dedicated Luddite who has never owned a computer or sent an email. Except for books on how to use the Wang for business, he is not interested in computers at all. In the 1980s, Luddism had not yet clouded his mind, but in my opinion, he was boiling with resentment against the high-tech, state-of-the-art pneumatic tubes Time had installed. He regarded them, along with pencil sharpeners, as unwarranted intrusions into traditional culture.

I should point out here that in the Time system, the writers were regarded as stylists who couldn't report well, and correspondents were non-stylish fact-gatherers who couldn't write well. The result was a two-culture system, and the job of writers was to stay in the office and wait for facts to roll in, should they happen to feel the need for facts.

What Roger had accomplished -- a revolution really -- was that he made it possible for writers to leave Time offices during daylight hours for purposes other than lunch or dental appointments. This may sound obvious to you, but in the 50-year history of Time, historians tell us, this had never happened before. Other writers began to follow Roger's lead and some actually began to meet people they had been writing about for years. Writers found they could ask questions and jot down the answers just like correspondents did.

And Roger's revolution even extended to sexual freedom as well -- writers who thought they had to have all their flings in the building, realized they could have affairs outside with people who weren't Time-Life employees at all. Some writers actually married these outsiders, in what were understandably regarded as dicey mixed marriages. Roger had inadvertently led his people out of cultural captivity and into the wider world. He had become the Moses of 50th Street.

Congratulations on that, Roger, and happy birthday.