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Remembrance: Hugh Sidey: 1927-2005

6 minute read

Hugh Sidey, who covered the White House and the American Presidency for TIME for close to half a century, died Monday night in Paris of a heart attack. He was 78. Born and raised in Iowa, Sidey came to understand the presidents of the last 48 years as well as anyone. He was with Kennedy in Dallas and Nixon in China. He was the iconic insider, staying close to many presidents even after they left the White House, becoming great friends with Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush.

A fourth-generation journalist and son of a country editor in Greenfield, Iowa, Sidey never became a prisoner of the Beltway. He’d often go home to Iowa to listen and learn what Americans were thinking. He was among the first print journalists on regular television, appearing on the late Agronsky & Company. As he scaled back his work for TIME, he continued to be deeply involved in the life of the White House. He was active in the White House Historical Association and co-wrote a book, The Presidents of the United States of America, that is a good history of the men and the office.

Though retired, Sidey continued to work for TIME, and had been on assignment for the magazine as recently as last week.

Sidey Remembered by Colleagues and Friends

Matthew Cooper
TIME White House Correspondent

The Hugh Sidey I knew at TIME was endlessly genial. He’d come by the Washington bureau long after his “retirement,” always dapper in coat and tie, to see “what’s happening.” “How are we doing?” he’d ask, actually wanting to know about those of us still in the trenches and to get caught up on the latest gossip. He’d always have plenty of it himself, often providing delicious tidbits that had eluded those of us covering the Oval Office. When I had questions about the Bush White House, I’d often run them by Hugh and I’d find he’d have nuggets like how the 41st president loved to email friends racy jokes and how father and son had stopped talking about the war. Indeed, Hugh was the first to flag for me how deep the rift over Iraq was between allies of the father and son presidents. He also understood the Reagan family dynamic better than anyone. And he was always endlessly supportive to those of us who followed him, offering advice and counsel and encouragement. When I faced a possible prison sentence last summer for not testifying in the CIA leak case— I eventually did talk to the Fitzgerald grand jury—I had some close friends write letters to the judge, asking for mercy. The first person I thought of to testify for my character was the most respected man I knew, Hugh Sidey.

I was sad to see Hugh go at 78, still young and vivacious. But I smiled when I saw he had passed in Paris, having fun no doubt. He had just been in the office a couple of weeks earlier laughing and trading stories. No years of painful old age for Hugh. He had fun right to the end.

Dan Goodgame, Managing Editor, Fortune Small Business
TIME Washington bureau chief 1993-1997

Hugh was first and foremost a storyteller. He had, all through his long career, a great eye for the telling detail and the humorous, often incongruous anecdote that illuminated the humanity of the powerful. I loved watching him regale a group with tales of everything from Lyndon Johnson’s hydra-headed shower to the old Yale baseball mitt that the first President Bush kept in his desk in the Oval Office. People—important people, ordinary people—liked to tell Hugh things. He was trustworthy and fair-minded, and they could sense that. For all his time in Washington, Hugh never lost touch with his roots in Iowa and kept an abiding curiosity about the whole great middle of this country. On campaign trips, he moved easily from the candidate’s cabin to the fringes of the crowds, gaining insights from people with the simplest of questions: what makes your neighbors happy right now? What concerns them? Hugh was a blessing to the White House correspondents and bureau chiefs who followed him. He was quick with praise for a story well done, and offered advice only when asked—which was often, given the high quality of his advice.

Jay Branegan, Professional Staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
TIME Correspondent 1981-2001

Aside from Hugh’s hobnobbing with presidents, his graciousness, his wit, he holds another distinction in TIME’s history—he was the Washington Bureau chief during Watergate. Thanks to Hugh, along with the main reporter, Sandy Smith, and Managing Editor Henry Grunwald, TIME did a sterling job covering Watergate. It was the only publication (according to Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men) that could keep up with Washington Post on the story. Henry, of course, wrote the famous “Nixon should resign” editorial, and Sandy was the grizzled mafialogist and investigative reporter from the Chicago Tribune and LIFE Magazine who had the sources in the FBI and elsewhere and kept breaking stories. But Hugh was the one who kept pushing the story with the editors in New York, fighting for space, telling them that there was fire to go with the smoke. He helped stiffen their backbones when the Nixon White House was trying to scare other publications off the case, and encouraged Sandy to keep digging. As bureau chief his role may not have been as visible as others’, but it was an important factor in TIME’s overall performance during that tumultuous period.

Nancy Reagan

Today I have lost a dear friend and America has lost one of its most trusted journalists—a true gentleman in every sense of the word.

Hugh Sidey was such an important part of our lives over the years. Just a few weeks ago Hugh joined me at Ronnie’s Library to dedicate the Air Force One Pavilion. And of course, he was with me when I brought Ronnie home to California for the last time.

I will miss him, and my thoughts and prayers are with Anne and the family.

Sidey’s Writing in TIME

Below are some selected Sidey columns about some of the presidents he covered. You can read more of his articles here:

Richard Nixon: Trying to Grasp the Real Nixon
Mar. 18, 1974

Jimmy Carter: The Forge of Leadership
Dec. 3, 1979

Gerald Ford: Closing Out an Interim Chapter
Nov. 15, 1976

Ronald Reagan: Why the Criticisms Don’t Stick
May 21, 1984

Bill Clinton: H. Ross Clinton?
May 23, 1994

George H.W. Bush: Bush’s Final Salute
Apr. 7, 1997

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