Howard Fineman, political correspondent with analytical eye, dies at 75

Howard Fineman, a Newsweek political correspondent and television commentator for decades who provided behind-the-scenes insight into news cycles often dominated by coverage of horse racing, died June 11 at his home in Washington. He was 75 years old.

His death, due to pancreatic cancer, was confirmed by his son, Nick Fineman.

Mr. Fineman spent 30 years at Newsweek beginning in 1980, serving as chief political correspondent and deputy Washington bureau chief when the magazine, then owned by the Washington Post, was one of the weeklies in most read news in the United States.

He was also an analyst for NBC and MSNBC for years and became known to television audiences through his appearances on shows such as “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” PBS’s “Washington Week in Review” and “Capital Gang Sunday.” from CNN.

Deeply known on both sides of the political aisle, Mr. Fineman has won the admiration of news junkies and journalists.

“Everyone who dealt with him during his career found him fair, but tough, and a guy who did his homework,” Karl Rove, a Republican political operative and adviser to President George W. Bush, said in an interview. “He was on top of everything,” Rove added, “constantly checking and rechecking what he heard.”

Mr. Fineman provided a steady supply of cover stories for Newsweek on the major political figures of the day and the forces, seen or unseen, that sent the political winds in one direction or another.

During the 1996 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Bob Dole, a former U.S. Senate majority leader, often highlighted his childhood in the Kansas desert and his combat service in World War II that left him with a arm permanently disabled.

“This is something worthwhile and inspiring,” Mr. Fineman wrote. But it was also true that Dole and his wife, Liddy, had “lived most of their adult lives in a place you won’t see on the bio maps provided by Dole’s campaign,” he said. note. “It’s a three-square-mile area in downtown Washington.”

“Unless the Doles can convince the public that there is something redeeming about their world in Washington, they probably won’t move to the White House,” Mr. Fineman continued. “Initiates are also people. But that’s not an easy sell in a country that fundamentally despises its capital.”

Mr. Fineman even faced criticism, once remarking in a speech that President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was “at his best when he is at his most false.” (Mr. Fineman cited as evidence what he claims was a “fake tear” the president shed after noticing a television camera following a memorial service for Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died in a plane crash in 1996.) He contributed to Newsweek’s coverage of Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, who received a National Magazine Award for reporting.

Shortly before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Newsweek published an article by Mr. Fineman about Bush’s religious faith. The story, part of a set for which Newsweek received the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, featured Mr. Fineman’s attention to detail and the insight he could glean from it.

“George W. Bush rises most days before dawn, when the loudest noise outside the White House is the low, distant roar of F-16s patrolling the sky,” the article begins .

“Before he even brings his wife, Laura, a cup of coffee, he goes to a quiet place to read alone. His text is not an overnight summary of current events or intelligence dispatches. That’s for later, downstairs in the Oval Office. This is not recreational reading (recently, a biography by Sandy Koufax). Instead, he told friends, it is a book of evangelical mini-sermons, “My Highest for His Highest.” The author is Oswald Chambers and, in these circumstances, the historical echoes are strong. »

Chambers, Mr Fineman explained that he was a Scottish Baptist minister who preached to soldiers who were claiming Jerusalem for the British Empire at the end of the First World War. “There is now talk of a new war in the Middle East,” Mr. Fineman wrote, “this time in a country formerly called Babylon.”

Mr. Fineman previously contributed to news coverage in September. November 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for which Newsweek won another National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Aboard Air Force One on Thanksgiving 2001, he sat down with Bush for the president’s first major interview after al-Qaeda’s strikes on New York and Washington.

In that interview, Mr. Fineman wrote that Bush had already begun calling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein “evil.”

Mr. Fineman later said that, like many journalists and members of what he described as “the Washington decision-making apparatus,” he had not sufficiently questioned Bush’s arguments for a war in Iraq, particularly his claims about Hussein’s alleged mass weapons caches. destruction and the promise of a democratic revolution in Iraq.

“Washington and New York, the centers of American media, were attacked on September 11,” he wrote in 2013 in the Huffington Post (now HuffPost), where he became senior political editor, then global editorial director after left Newsweek in 2013. 2010.

“We all knew or knew people who had been killed. We only had one president, and as incurious and ill-prepared as he was, there was a natural desire to see him somehow grow in office to meet the present moment.

“Of course, for journalists, the most patriotic thing we can do is our job – which means we should all have been more skeptical and asked tough questions,” he continued. “Some did. I wish I could say I was one of them.

Mr. Fineman wrote one of his most personal comments following the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He had grown up in Squirrel Hill and celebrated his bar mitzvah in the congregation, where 11 worshipers died in 2018 in one of the worst episodes of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history.

The massacre, Mr. Fineman wrote in an essay published in The New York Times, had shaken his “perhaps naive faith in this country, a faith I began to develop as a boy growing up in Pittsburgh “.

Howard David Fineman was born in November. November 17, 1948, in Pittsburgh. His father was a manufacturer’s representative for a shoe company and his mother was an English teacher.

Mr. Fineman credited his parents with his vision of public life and the importance of robust debate in a democracy. There was a “direct line” from his family dinner table to “Hardball,” he reflected years later. His father, he recalls, “was like Chris Matthews because he asked and answered his own questions.”

At Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, Mr. Fineman was editor of the Campus Weekly and earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1970. Three years later, he earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

He began his career at the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky, then considered one of the nation’s leading regional newspapers, where he developed a reputation as an aggressive journalist. He also studied law and graduated from the University of Louisville in 1980.

Along with a colleague from a rival newspaper, Mr. Fineman was arrested in 1974 and charged with disorderly conduct after trying to eavesdrop on a meeting of the local Fraternal Order of Police. A judge returned a not guilty verdict.

Their publisher denounced their activities as “morally reprehensible,” Time magazine reported, but praised their “vigorous enterprise and competitive spirit.”

Mr. Fineman worked in the Courier-Journal’s Washington bureau before joining Newsweek. He played a role in the failed 1988 Democratic presidential campaign of Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator from Colorado who withdrew from the race following revelations of marital infidelities.

Hart had long been followed by rumors of feminization, but a 1987 Newsweek profile by Mr. Fineman — who quoted a former adviser as saying that “he always risks the gender issue being raised if he can’t keep your pants on” – has renewed interest in the issue from other national journalists and opposition candidates. (The advisor later walked back his comment, saying it was “contrary to the actual facts as I know them.”)

The Post sold Newsweek in 2010 amid a dramatic decline in circulation. Shortly after the sale was announced, Mr. Fineman joined what is now HuffPost, then a newcomer to digital journalism, where he remained until 2018. He then wrote for the sites Web NBC and MSNBC as well as for other media.

In 1984, he married Amy Nathan. Besides his wife, of Washington, survivors include two children, Meredith Fineman of Los Angeles and Nick Fineman of Manhattan; and a sister.

Mr. Fineman is the author of the book “The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country” (2008).

Although he sometimes frustrated politicians when he analyzed their weaknesses or expressed doubts about their prospects, Mr. Fineman earned their respect — and perhaps even a form of friendship.

During the 2000 campaign for the Republican nomination for president, Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona denounced Mr. Fineman on the radio show “Imus in the Morning” as one of Washington’s “gasbags” after Mr. Fineman correctly predicted that Bush, and not McCain, would be the ultimate winner.

Mr. Fineman, who was listening to the show, called to say that McCain had “a great photo.” The notoriously short-tempered McCain was appeased and then jokingly sent Mr. Fineman a pair of red boxing gloves, offering to settle their differences à la carte.

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