Washington Press Club Foundation
Deborah Howell:
Interview #3 (pp. 35-44)
June 16, 1993 in Washington, D.C.
Donita Moorhus, Interviewer

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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Moorhus: Let's go back to the period 1971 to 1975. You were working at the Minneapolis Star and getting acquainted with Nick Coleman. Then in 1975 you and Nick were married and you were named city editor at the Star. I'd like you to talk more about that period and then how you handled your career and being a political wife.

Howell: I was just at the peak—when I married my husband in June 1975, I was just at the peak, or just at the jumping-off place, for my career really going someplace. I had been a good reporter and I had started an action line column [Column 1]. I had been the president of the union, and I had done some leadership things, but not all that much. When I became city editor, that was the big move forward in my career. I became city editor in the same couple of months' period that I married my husband. So we'd had a long discussion at the paper about me becoming city editor and being married to one of the state's most prominent politicians, and my managing editor had said, "Deborah is who I want. We'll make this work. She just won't directly edit stories to do with her husband." And I certainly agreed with that; it made good sense. But after all these years as a reporter—and I had gotten a taste of editing in starting this column and having seven or eight people working for me—I was ready for this big leap. But I want to tell you, we bought a house, got married, and I became city editor in a one-month period, and moved from Minneapolis to St. Paul. It was a big psychic shock.

My husband was very proud of my career, and he liked the fact he was married to a city editor. That was important to him. He had fallen in love with me when I was a reporter, because he knew what kind of style of person and everything I was. So that was no shock to him. But trying to juggle being a political wife and a journalist was often very difficult. It made for interesting conversations on occasion at home. We used to laugh that the biggest argument we'd ever had was over whether conference committees ought to be open or closed to the press. [Laughter.] He told me usually what was going on, and I usually kept his confidences.

Early in our marriage once he told me about some big story (I can't remember what it was now) and made me promise I wouldn't tell anybody, and the next morning I went right in to the paper, I couldn't help myself, and I called the capital reporter and said, "I heard this tip. Why don't you follow this story." I didn't, obviously, mention him. Of course, we had the story in the paper by the final edition that afternoon. He called me up and he was so pissed. And he was right to be pissed; I had violated a confidence. I said, "I'm sorry. I just couldn't help myself. God, I shouldn't have done it. You're right." So we made a deal that all of our conversations always were off the record and that I would tell him if I wanted to follow up something, and that never happened again.

But years later, for a week he considered running for Congress, decided not to, and then told me about it. I said, "How could you do this for a week and not even tell me about it? I'm your wife. Think of the fallout on me." He said, "I wasn't sure I could trust you." And so that was the arrow in my heart he had been waiting five years to deliver. I said, "Uggghhh!" [Laughter.] Then he ran for the U.S. Senate, actually.

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Moorhus: How did you feel when he told you that?

Howell: I had it coming.

Moorhus: Because of that one incident when you betrayed the confidence?

Howell: I had it coming. If he had decided to run, you see, he would have told me and we would have had a conversation about it. He had decided not to run, and it was his decision, not mine. If he had decided to run, I feel confident we would have had a conversation about it, because when he decided to run for the U.S. Senate then, we did have a big conversation about it. He had been waiting four or five years for just the perfect opportunity to get me back for that. [Laughter.] I mean, actually I was first pissed, and then I started laughing. I mean, what can you do?

I mean, there were some pluses. I really got to know the inside of politics and understand intimately how it worked. I always knew things that weren't in the paper. But actually I came to realize my reporters were really quite good, because they knew most of it. There were some touchy things. When he ran for the U.S. Senate, in the initial stages he wasn't doing very well, or he wasn't getting enough delegates. One of my reporters, and friends, wrote a story saying that in my newspaper. He was so furious, he called up when he saw the paper. He called up and he gave—he had a very bad Irish temper. He gave a total and complete batch of shit to the reporter who works for me. I'm sitting back in the bedroom, listening to this whole conversation, thinking, "Oh, Lord, why me?" I was actually glad when he decided to drop out of the U.S. Senate race. It wasn't clear if he could win the nomination or not, and it was going to get very ugly. He just decided that at [age] fifty-five, forget it. I was just as happy that he got out of the U.S. Senate race, because it was really hard.

Moorhus: Was it hard for you professionally dealing with that?

Howell: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I was watching every day in my newspaper, "he said," "she said" between he and his two biggest rivals for the U.S. Senate race, and it was hard. It wasn't so hard when he was just being majority leader. I mean, that really wasn't hard. But in the middle of a dirty—not a dirty, but a very aggressive campaign, I felt that was very hard. He was the only one who had been divorced and remarried, so I was not exactly helping him any at that particular time. I mean, it wouldn't be a big deal now, but at the time it was more of a big deal. But for a lot of the time, I was a city editor and he was Senate majority leader, and he brought me to work every morning. He used to pick me up every night.

We had very interesting lives, enormously interesting lives. I mean, I knew everything that was happening on this side of the world, and he knew everything that was happening on that side of the world. We had more interesting dinnertime conversations than most people I knew. As his kids came around and I became close to them, we had a very nice family life, always a lot of kids coming and going. He had six kids. We were outdoors a lot. We did big canoe trips and camping trips and backpacking trips, went to Ireland and went to Mexico a couple of times, and traveled a lot, and it was fun.

I tried very hard to balance. I did better then than I do now at balancing my family life against my work life, and Nick worked hard, but he wasn't a workaholic. He liked to play. When he came to pick me up, I'd always be fifteen minutes later than he wanted me to be, and I'd always be doing one last thing before I left the office. Sometimes he'd come in and pound on the city desk to get me to come home, and it was half a joke. I mean, people would say, "Here comes Nick. He's going to drag Howell out of here by her feet." But it was such a well-known fact that

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I was married to him that, I mean, it was a big deal, but it wasn't a big deal. The Senate race was the most uncomfortable because the paper, the publisher of the paper was getting a lot of heat from Republicans. I mean, there was some fallout on my career. I think it would have been wonderful if he had gone to the U.S. Senate, but it would have probably—God knows what would have happened to my career. I was willing to suspend my career for a time and see what happened. I personally had a feeling he was never going to make it.

Moorhus: If he had been nominated, would you have suspended your career at that point?

Howell: No.

Moorhus: Only if he had been elected.

Howell: Only if he had been elected. Then I would have tried to get a good job in Washington. I thought, "If I'm married to a U.S. senator, I can parlay that into a job on the Washington Post," but I'm not sure I could have. But I would have suspended my career in Minnesota, not my career altogether. My management career would have been suspended. I'd probably had to gone back to being a reporter or something else, much lower level, at the Washington Post, but I figured I could get a job out here. But I figured my career of being editor of one of the Twin Cities papers was not going to happen, and I ended up being that just at St. Paul, not Minneapolis.

Moorhus: Who did you socialize with?

Howell: We socialized with journalists and we socialized with politicians. Most of our camping and backpacking trips were with kids, although we did some with—we had a couple of hysterical canoe trips we took with a bunch of politicians. But at that time I went to fundraisers with him. Later I decided—a new editor came in and decided I shouldn't go to fundraisers, and I accepted that. I thought that was okay. I never gave money to either party, and Nick never had a lawn sign in my yard—in our yard. I never wore a button for him. It was funny. I put a lawn sign in our yard for him the day he came home from the hospital, after he'd been so sick with leukemia. It was just a little sign from me to him. I'd never allowed that before. I knew he was dying. I knew he was not ever going to run again for anything, and it was just a little nice gesture from me to him. I mean, I tried not to cross the line. But later, certainly as the lines got, as what was considered acceptable in journalism rose to another level, I got out of even going to the fundraisers.

Moorhus: Were these party fundraisers or for individuals?

Howell: No, it was party fundraisers or individual fundraisers, and I stopped going to them in probably the last six or eight months at the [Minneapolis] Star, although I was really going as a spouse, not as a campaigner. No one ever thought that I was campaigning for the DFL [Democratic Farmer Labor party]. I was loyal to my husband, but—

We socialized a lot, but we also spent a fair amount of time alone. He had a business that took him to San Francisco often, so we went to San Francisco often.

Moorhus: What was his business?

Howell: He owned an advertising and public relations firm. It still exits in St. Paul and San Francisco—Coleman Christenson.

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I had a fairly wide social life. When I first met Peter [Magrath], my first real long session with Peter was Peter and his first wife and Nick and I sat at a dinner table together at the St. Paul mayor's house for dinner, and then when Peter was married to his second wife, we socialized with them on several occasions, mostly at their house at university events. If anybody had ever told me I was going to be married to Peter Magrath one day, I would have said, "Huh? What do you mean?"

My career was rocking along, and we were doing good at the Minneapolis Star. I was a good city editor. At the time I only knew of one other woman city editor in the country. It was really rare to find a woman city editor. It's really relatively common now.

Moorhus: What were the challenges for you professionally, moving from the reporter/mid-level supervisor to city editor position?

Howell: Getting the old-time men reporters to respect me. I had to be really tough, and I was. I had a vision of what I wanted that paper to be, and a bunch of people working for me who themselves—my entire city desk, practically, wanted my job, and I got the job most of them wanted, were all men older than I was. I was thirty-four when I became city editor. So I had some go-rounds with them, but I won them.

Moorhus: Give me an example of how you were tough.

Howell: [Pauses.] I'm just trying to think of a specific. I can think of a St. Paul specific, but I'm trying to think of a Minneapolis specific. Getting somebody out of bed in the middle of the night to go cover a fire and them not wanting to, and I said, "I don't care what you want to do. I don't care if it's thirty degrees below zero. I don't care what your personal level of comfort is with this. This is an assignment. Get out of bed and go to this fire. Hear me?" Or telling somebody I thought their story needed rewriting and their story sucked and they should do it, and here's the way they should do it.

There was one guy, Jim Shoop, I really liked him a lot. He was a friend who was working for me, and he really wanted to be city editor, and I got the job. He was my political editor, so he was really key, because I was entrusting to him some of the things I couldn't do because of Nick. He was giving me a batch of shit about something, and I said, "You know, Jim, I know you wanted this job and I know you didn't get it and that I got it. Sometimes you resent the fact that I have it. I've got to tell you something. You were my hero as a reporter. In the days I was a young reporter around here, you were always my hero. I consider you one of the finest journalists in this room, and I hand-picked you to be my political editor. I wish you'd put aside the resentment that you have for me getting this job, and let's work together, because I really like you and I really respect you. If you don't do that, I'm going to have to kick you in the gonads." He laughed. I mean, I had gone through all this, and this was my punch line, something on that order. He started laughing, and I knew I could always get people to laugh, jolly them up a little bit. And we got along fine and it worked very well.

I found out a year into my job that he was making more than I was, that I was the lowest paid person on the city desk, and I was the city editor. They gave me a big raise when I became city editor, but these men had been making so much more than I was, and I still was making under them. I blew up. I went in and pasted myself all over the managing editor's [David Nimmer] office, then went and did the same thing to the editor, and I said they'd better do something about it, because in about twenty-four hours I was going to call my lawyer. I actually didn't mean it; I never did that kind of thing. But I was furious, and they all knew it, and they had let it happen.

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Moorhus: How did you find out?

Howell: Accidentally. I don't even remember. Saw somebody's paycheck. I don't even remember. So then I was told—they were very apologetic and increased my salary. That was just par for the course.

Moorhus: But they did increase your salary?

Howell: Oh, yeah. They knew they had to.

Moorhus: Did they make it equal to—

Howell: No, they raised me above all the people I was supervising.

Moorhus: Wow!

Howell: Well, they had to. If that isn't discrimination, I don't know what is.

Moorhus: Certainly is.

Howell: But I loved being city editor. In many ways it was the most favorite job I ever held. I loved directing reporters. It was one of the reasons I took this job, was because I would be nearer to the ground again.

Moorhus: What were the challenges about moving from the position that had put you in the union and as head of the union into management then?

Howell: Well, I did it overnight. I was president of the union, and the next day I was management. Well, I had come to their attention. My leadership qualities had come to their attention as the union president, and also in Minneapolis traditionally people who had been active in the [Newspaper] Guild tended to go into management. So it wasn't unusual. It was a little unusual that I was the president of the union and then went right into management, to being city editor, but it took a bit of—I had to screw my head on a different way. But I think I was a better manager because I had been a union type, because I knew what it was we needed to do.

Moorhus: What were some of the issues?

Howell: Being more participatory in management, paying attention to workers, not treating them like shit, standing up for people who worked for me. After I became city editor, I continued to pay my union dues for two or three years afterwards. The publisher found out about it and was furious and made me stop. [Laughter.] It was old loyalty. I was very fond of the union at that time. I'm not as fond, not fond of all newspaper guilds, but of that one I was very fond. It was a very progressive union, and I was very much a part of it. But I had been the chairman of the Negotiating Committee and almost led a strike, and had been very, very active. It wasn't all that much different, the leadership qualities that I needed. I was still dealing with a bunch of recalcitrant reporters either way.

Moorhus: But the perspective is different.

Howell: Yes, it is, but I'll tell you, for me it wasn't all that different. I never hated management; I most often just thought they were stupid. Some of them I liked a lot. A lot of the stuff I was

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arguing about was wages, hours, and working conditions, and I had done a good job in negotiating good salaries. That earned me respect among the troops, so I went in with their respect, and I don't think I ever abrogated it. On occasion I got a batch of shit because, "Oh, yeah, I remember when you were on the other side." "Oh, yeah, do I remember that?" "Sure." You know. So there was some of that that went on. But as city editor, I was never involved in direct face-to-face bargaining with the union, and I never had any problem with the union. I knew the rules, I knew the contract, I knew what to do, I knew what not to do. I also knew how to get around the contract if I wanted to. But it wasn't as much of a transition to being management from labor as it was probably to being married. I mean, there was all of these things happening at the same time, but I don't remember that as being a big problem.

Moorhus: Were there other women on the staff that were then working for you?

Howell: Reporters. There were no editors. I promoted a couple to be assistant city editors and assistant features editors, assistant business editors, stuff like that, but there weren't a lot of women editors. I mean, it just wasn't done. So I was the first, and I appointed a couple more, but it was still very male-dominated. It still is today, if you go back to Minneapolis.

Moorhus: How did the women reporters view you when you moved into a position of more authority?

Howell: They were very supportive. I had enormous support. I don't remember anybody trying to sabotage me. I had some of the guys try to sabotage me, but never any of the women.

Moorhus: Did they look to you as an insider, one of them on the inside?

Howell: Uh-huh. They did.

Moorhus: Did any of them try to take advantage of that in any way that you thought was unreasonable?

Howell: No. The only people I've ever had take advantage of me were men. I don't remember in my career ever having one of my women colleagues take advantage of me in a professional way. I simply don't remember it.

Moorhus: Then it probably wasn't a major thing.

Howell: Yeah. If there was a major thing, I'd probably remember it, although this is almost twenty years ago.

Moorhus: What about some of the kinds of decisions that one makes as an editor? You mentioned assigning reporters to do things. You mentioned the editing and the rewriting. What other kinds of decisions were you having to make?

Howell: It was an afternoon paper, so we started in at 5:30 in the morning. As city editor, I was in the thick of it. We were putting out the newspaper every day, pushing copy, laying out pages, getting it out on the street by nine o'clock. So I was assigning stories, I was editing stories, I was dealing with reporters, I was changing beats, I was starting new sections, all of that kind of stuff. It was a hectic job. There was lots of good news. I mean, there's always lots of news stories. It's a big city, and we were very much in competition with the Minneapolis Tribune, though we were owned by the same people and they were right down the hall.

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A little sideline. My eldest stepson, Nick J. Coleman, was working on the Tribune. He didn't like me very much, because he didn't like the fact that his father had married me, so he was kind of a jerk to me at the time. His two best friends were two reporters who worked for me, and so we had this little thing going on—was he ever going to speak to me. And finally, I mean, it came to pass that he did, but we were competitors for years. When we became friends, we were friendly competitors. He did a really wonderful story one time. He showed up at midnight on our front porch and knocked on the door on Saturday night and flapped the Minneapolis Tribune at my feet and said, "Watch that. Look at that," a story he had on Page One. We had several incidents like that. I wouldn't let his father tell him that he, Nick, Sr., was going to retire from the legislature until he called him at one o'clock, because it was in my paper first, which was a lot of fun. So I mean we played this game back and forth until I hired him when I was in St. Paul after his father died.

Moorhus: Do you think it made a difference that you were a woman as the editor?

Howell: In St. Paul?

Moorhus: Yes.

Howell: Oh, yeah!

Moorhus: In Minneapolis?

Howell: Oh, yeah, either way.

Moorhus: What kind of difference did it make to the paper?

Howell: I was interested in stories that some of the men weren't interested in. I was interested in covering issues of interest to women. I started a section called "You" in 1975, which was about relationships and family life and children and parents. I was much more interested in some of the traditional, though I came up the traditional male route, absolutely. In fact, I wrote an article not too long ago about "My Life as a White Male."* I came up that way, but I was interested in all these other things. So I improved our softer coverage as well as supervising the harder stories. I'm sure it made a difference. It gave a role model to women who had never seen a woman as an editor before.

Moorhus: Did you try to hire additional women?

Howell: Yeah, but I tried to hire the best people. I was trying to hire minorities, too. Yeah, I've always tried to hire pretty equally, although I wasn't as conscious of it probably back then as I am now about kind of numerical equality, but I hired lots of women. I hired lots of men, too.

Moorhus: What was "You"? Was it a column?

Howell: It was a section. It was a special section every Monday that was devoted to human beings. It wasn't devoted to the city council or the school board or whatever; it was just devoted to our lives as human beings. We just called it "You."

* Deborah Howell, "True Confessions—My Life as a White Male," Media Studies Journal 7/1-2 (Winter-Spring 1993): 197-203.

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Moorhus: Did you try to develop beats that were more—

Howell: I had some issue beats way back then similar to what I have now, and we had strong medical coverage and had strong education coverage and had a reporter who covered race relations. Not quite as thematic as I do now, but I had a lot of issue coverage. We even had an issues editor. I don't know anyone else who was doing it twenty years ago but me. So my idea for the [Washington] bureau [of Newhouse Newspapers], which people have thought, "Oh, boy, is that new and different," is not new; I was doing it twenty years ago, just no one else was.

Moorhus: Did you get a lot of visibility in the community at large from your position?

Howell: A fair amount, but not overwhelming. I always thought it was really interesting as a city editor married to a majority leader, but there was only one publication that ever did a story about it, and that was something called Twin Cities Woman, because, oddly enough, the St. Paul city editor, who was a woman—after I became city editor, the St. Paul paper appointed a woman city editor. We were the only two that we knew of in the country, and she was married to the president of the city council in St. Paul. This women's publication did a story on the two of us and our lives, which was kind of an odd parallel. But I was well known and I was quite visible, but I didn't get written about a lot or anything like that. I got written about more after I became editor in St. Paul.

Moorhus: Were you giving speeches locally?

Howell: I didn't give a lot. My speechifying really got intense—I used to give a lot of speeches when I was in St. Paul, but not in Minneapolis. I don't even remember being asked to give a speech in Minneapolis.

Moorhus: So you stayed as city editor for four years?

Howell: Uh-huh, till 1979. And then a new editor was hired from the Washington Post, a fellow named Steve Isaacs. He came in and he thought we were all for shit. "I'm from the Washington Post, and I know journalism, and you all are hicks." And he was kind of a jerk. He wanted to get rid of me because he didn't like the fact I was married to Nick, and he didn't like any of us. He wanted to get rid of the entire editor corps.

Moorhus: It sounds like he wouldn't have liked you even if you hadn't been married to Nick.

Howell: Yeah, and he didn't like women. I had already heard that; it was his rep [reputation] at the Washington Post. One day in a meeting with the managing editor, he called me a "dumb cunt," and I got really pissed. I said, "No one calls me that, not even my husband when he's mad at me." And it was overheard by a number of people, and it was just a firestorm. He was forced to apologize, but I thought to myself, "I've got to get out of here." But I was married. I felt stuck in the Twin Cities.

It was just about that time that David Hall came to St. Paul and took over as managing editor of the Pioneer Press and he was looking for somebody who was good at local news, and he heard I was miserable. He called me up and we had a courtship, and I ended up going to work in

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St. Paul as assistant managing editor for news, and kissed the Minneapolis Star goodbye. It folded two years later.

Moorhus: How long did that negotiation take?

Howell: About a month. It was very difficult. I had worked at the Star for thirteen years. All my friends were there. But I was never sorry. I was delighted to get the hell out of there.

Moorhus: It was not just another newspaper. There's a very serious rivalry between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Howell: Oh, yeah. I went over and I pounded their ass into the ground for the next six or seven or eight years. We just killed them. We just killed them. Here was this smaller newspaper with half the staff; we just pounded them into the ground. It was just wonderful. You want to talk revenge, I got my revenge. And the St. Paul paper was horrible. I went over to a horrible paper. They didn't think it was horrible, but it was horrible. David Hall and I together took that newspaper from nothing to something, and it was very hard work.

A couple of years after I'd been there, maybe about a year and a half, Nick got leukemia, and so it was extremely difficult. He was a public figure publicly dying, and he didn't want to admit he was dying. He really fought it all the way. It was very hard.

But the paper was good. I worked every day. I would go to work at eight in the morning, I worked till noon, I'd go up to the hospital at noon, come back about two or three o'clock, work until about seven or eight, go back to the hospital until about 10:30, and go home. And I did that for nine months.

Moorhus: He was in the hospital for nine months?

Howell: Most of nine months. He didn't get out very often. He was out for a few weeks, but most of it he was in the hospital.

Moorhus: Did the leukemia come without any warning?

Howell: Yes, absolutely. In fact, we were in the middle of a canoe trip in the boundary waters and he got sick. He had ulcers in his mouth, and we thought he just had some kind of—you know, who knows. So he went to the doctor. The doctor didn't think it was serious. We went to the emergency room, even, and nobody bothered to take a blood test. He finally went to a dentist, and the dentist told him he really needed to get a blood test and go to a specialist or something. It took two weeks to diagnose it, and by that time his counts were—he would have been dead in about two more weeks.

Got him over to the university [University of Minnesota], because actually Walter Mondale was a big help.* He and Mondale were buddies. (Mondale called me today.) A guy named Jim Johnson, who is now head of Fannie Mae, found this doctor for me, and she was in Minneapolis. So we went to Minneapolis. We were at Midway Hospital with this kind of know-nothing doctor, and we went over there. She had a very up-to-date treatment. He went into remission twice,

* Walter F. ("Fritz") Mondale, U.S. senator (D-Minn.), 1964-77; U.S. vice president (1977-81); Democratic candidate for president, 1984.

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but it just didn't last. He had a terrible case of leukemia. He had a very, very virulent form. So I never expected that he was going to live. I had very slight hopes. I did a good front, but internally I never felt it was going to work. So when she told me finally—she told me early on, "The chances are slim to none, but let's give it all we've got. You never know. Every once in a while we pull out a miracle case."

But it was a time of great healing, in a way, for the family. All the divisions were healed. By that time I was in like Flynn with his kids. I mean, we all liked each other and his mother liked me, and people who hated me had gotten over it.

Moorhus: So that process took three, four years?

Howell: Five.

Moorhus: For you to get in close with the family.

Howell: Uh-huh. And I worked real hard at it.

I think I ought to go, though. So we can start up with his sickness next time. So I can start there and kind of go through then the St. Paul years maybe next time.

Moorhus: Okay. When did he die?

Howell: 1981. March fifth. And we'd gotten married in '75, so we were married five and a half years, but we'd been together for ten, because I'd met him and fallen in love with him at the legislature in 1971. So it just took us that long to get married.

Moorhus: Okay, we'll pick up there then.

Howell: Okay.

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