Missing the news cycle with a big story

Let me admit that hearing about Joe McQuaid’s recent book on Bill Loeb stirred a range of reactions in me.

The first was a yawning, “Who cares? Who cares now?”

The second was a recognition that most stories have short shelf lives, and Loeb was ancient history now, even in New Hampshire.

For background, you must understand that I spent the second half of my journalism career at the statewide newspaper Loeb had owned and notoriously thrust into the national spotlight from Manchester, New Hampshire. When I arrived, he had been dead six years and the paper was in transition from one known more for its vitriolic front-page editorials than for its reporting. The editorials had retreated mostly to the opinion page, and I was among the hires intent on improving the professional quality of the coverage. Or, as I overheard three figures accuse the managing editor my first week on the job, of already being “liberal media.” (That’s how far right much of the state was – and in some parts remains.)

McQuaid, under the wing of Loeb’s widow, Nackey, was a hometown boy on his ascent as executive editor and after her death, publisher. His father, Bernie, had been Bill Loeb’s righthand man in the newsroom – and Loeb kept a loaded revolver in his desk drawer, as I heard a few years before my move to the paper. In many ways, their arrangement was like family and a family business. I had worked for enough newspaper chains to appreciate the differences, as well as to appreciate Loeb’s determination to keep the paper independent of chain ownership.

There was always gossip, of course, which now gave me a sense that that if Joe could look hard and candidly at his subject, he might have enough inside dope to open fresh material for historians while also doing a bit of self-therapy in his retirement years. To me, his project looked something like my own attempt to better understand my grandfather and his legacy, pro and con – the man who labeled himself Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber. What I had was mostly genealogy and local history, one where my remaining living sources could openly differ with each other and with what I had collected from those now passed.

Joe, on the other hand, was dealing with a once well-known rabid anti-communist archconservative who was credited with derailing more than one presidential candidate and leaving a long shadow over local and state politics. New Hampshire politicians still dare not speak of income or sales taxes as a funding option. People either adored him or hated him – reader and advertiser aversion to his approach had killed several other papers he owned – but he was largely a curiosity and enigma, one sometimes seen as a big joke with occasionally fatal consequences. Take Loeb seriously? For starters, Joe had to go beyond Kevin Cash’s 1975 Who the Hell IS William Loeb, a fat blast that nobody I’ve met ever finished reading, even during Loeb’s last years on the throne.

The result was William Loeb and His Times: Provocative Publisher, Private Paradox by Joseph W. McQuaid, published by New Hampshire-focused Plaidswede Publishing in Concord at the beginning of the year.

Joe’s tome faces several huge challenges.

Loeb died 41 years ago and few readers remember him or the era. Why should folks care about someone others have tagged a pipsqueak? Quite simply, he’s no longer news. Move on to today.

Newspapers are no longer the powerful institutions they were, diminished both by the right-wing attacks of Loeb’s ilk and by internet sapping of readership and advertising. Who’s interested in their internal operations? Or even of Loeb’s uneven track record in advancing his causes and candidates?

Politics itself has become toxic, a consequence of unchecked right-wing shenanigans. Informed folks are still shell-shocked by the daily scandals from the Trump White House.

Joe’s attempt to make sense of Loeb’s sordid personal life and financial dealings could be of importance, not so much as something that happened “back then” but rather in the ways it seems to foreshadow the emergence of Trump and his ilk and of Fox television’s slanted presentation of public affairs.

Not that Joe can quite make the connection from the late 1940s and ‘50s that gave Loeb his rise to today’s quagmire. He can’t honestly paint Loeb as a hero, though the publisher’s diatribes fit that role for many, so that omission costs Joe potential readers on the right. But his revelations about Loeb’s personal life make an already repulsive subject even less attractive to potential readers in the middle and left. Even morbid fascination has its limits. Besides, these days it fits a pattern. Clarence Thomas? Ted Cruz? Newt Gingerich? Mitch McConnell? As for New Hampshire? It’s still seen as too tiny to matter across much of the nation.

And as a footnote, Clem Costello, publisher of the newspaper just downstream in Lowell, Massachusetts, could provide a similar subject for the era, if only to round out the history.

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