Former Strib editor stood on principle, and larger than life

Charles W. Bailey, the former editor of the Minneapolis Tribune and its successor paper, the Star Tribune, died Tuesday in a New Jersey nursing home. He was 82.

For the generation of young reporters and editors who entered the journalism business during Watergate, Chuck Bailey was the perfect editor in chief. He came from the East Coast and brought with him an air of old money. He reminded us a little of the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee. He could wear a bow tie and make it work.

Once during the news huddle he asked why the Tribune was giving so much attention to a Lutheran convention. One of the editors pointed out that Minnesota had substantial numbers of Lutherans. Chuck replied, “No, Episcopalians are substantial. Lutherans are merely numerous.”

That was the story, anyway. Chuck was larger than life, and it was sometimes hard to tell the legend from reality. He wrote “Seven Days in May,” a major political thriller that got made into a movie. He was there when Bobby Kennedy was killed. He was on Air Force One when LBJ took the oath of office. He went with Nixon to China.

That last one I was sure of, because I’d seen a photo from the trip in Chuck’s office. Even at the bottom of the Tribune’s food chain, I was often in that office, answering questions about my life and career plans. Once, when he found out I was planning to visit London on vacation, he pressed on me the home phone number of a famous foreign correspondent who he insisted would have me to dinner. He made me promise to call. I did, and though no dinner invitation came of it, I did have a memorable conversation.

It says something about a boss: that he would go to such lengths to make a young employee feel like a colleague.

Chuck wrote an occasional column for the editorial page of the Tribune. All too often these days, executive editors and publishers use columns like that to promote a coming series of news articles or to celebrate circulation gains or an iPad app. But Chuck never wrote promotional copy, and instead based his columns on the news. He was implicitly stating a principle: that he would hold himself to the same standards he expected of anyone else.

When he left the paper, it was again to state a principle, explicitly this time. After the Tribune merged with the afternoon Minneapolis Star — a merger that Star employees compared to the merger of a bug with a windshield — Chuck promised that staff reductions would go only so far. When the publisher told him he would have to break that promise and make more cuts, he quit. He announced his reasons in one of those somber shirtsleeves meetings that newsrooms always have when something awful is about to happen.

He did pretty well for himself after that, taking a job with NPR in Washington. But as he walked away from a job he clearly loved, he wept, and his staff applauded. In 30 years at the newspaper, I never heard that kind of applause again.

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