Monday, November 2, 2009

A Belated Tribute to Robert Cox

Tomorrow, November 3, the Municipal Legislature of the City of Buenos Aires will honor Robert J. Cox as a Ciudadano Ilustre, which literally means 'renowned citizen' but which would be roughly the equivalent in the United States of being given "the key to the city".The reason that this honor is being granted to Cox - a British-born journalist who worked in Argentina for twenty years and who recently retired as Associate Editor of the Charleston Evening Post (South Carolina), where he was employed for nearly another three decades after being forced to leave Argentine - is in recognition of his work in the field of human rights.

Caption: Robert J. Cox today

The award may be thirty years late in coming, but better late than never. He has been honored in many other ways in the meantime - having been, for instance, a recipient of the Mary Moors Cabot Award for excellence in journalism, having been the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), and having also been elected that institution's President.

During the dark years of extremely repressive State counter-terror activities in Argentina, starting under the government of Isabel Perón in 1974 and continuing under the military regime that took power in 1976, Cox spent half a decade, until his decision, under extreme duress, in 1979, to go into exile in the United States, denouncing the kidnapping and disappearance (read: murder) of political prisoners without benefit of due process or civil rights of any kind. Thirty thousand such disappearances occurred in the brief period from 1975 to about 1980.

Cox went a lot further than simply reporting on these almost daily events that included not only kidnappings by paramilitary gangs, but also institutionalized torture, summary executions, the underground "adoption" of missing people's children, and a long list of other aberrant acts that no law-abiding, civilized society could possible tolerate.

Through the newspaper that he edited, the Buenos Aires Herald, he created a virtual "registry" of missing people and of acts of extreme violence perpetrated by a rogue de facto government against its own people, and any foreigner that got into its way. The Herald was singular in its action, giving faces, names, histories and families to those who disappeared, thus preventing each of them from becoming just one more nameless body ground up in the cogs of the State counter-terror machine.

But his work went beyond his role in the newspaper. Cox built strong ties with the foreign press and the diplomatic community, particularly with the US Embassy under the Jimmy Carter Administration, to begin increasing pressure on the military regime so as to force it to modify its barbaric policies and move toward a greater policial and judicial opening, while publishing articles in the press in the United States and Europe to bolster the effects of the Herald's human rights campaign.

And thanks to his efforts, and those of the staff members and friends that accompanied him in his fight, pressure was indeed brought to bear, becoming so great t hat the regime decided that, one way or another, Cox had to go. They tried arresting him, but the international outcry was so swift and powerful in coming that they had to let him go within 24 hours of his detention. And so they began a campaign of threats and terror against him and his family until finally, after his nine-year-old son, Peter, receive a personal letter telling him to get his daddy to leave 'or else', Cox decided it was time to put his family's welfare before his cause, and left.

  • Caption: A photo of Bob Cox much as he looked when I first met him, on the cover of Dirty Secrets, Dirty War, a book by Bob's son, David Cox, about his father's exile (Published by Charleston Evening Post with Joggle Board Press).

I was privileged during those five years from 1974 to 1979 to work for Robert Cox and to be able to stay on afterwards until the end of the military regime, as news editor and editorialist, seconding editor James Neilson in actively demonstrating that "getting rid of Cox" would not be sufficient to shut the Herald up or even to shut it down.

It was Cox who gave me my first chance to work in journalism and he too who was my mentor. Those five years in which I went from being a starting-level apprentice to being the newspaper's general news editor were my formative years as a journalist and writer, and they were years too in which I was able to count Robert Cox as both my teacher and my friend.

The following is an excerpt from a book-length work in progress that I am currently writing, the working title of which is "The Truth in Any Language". This is the section of the story in which I tell about how Bob Cox and I first met. I want to share it with the readers of my blogs and I heartily welcome your comments:

Courting the Herald. (Excerpt from The Truth in Any Language, by Dan Newland, copyright 2009).

Armed then as I am today with three decades of experience, hundreds (thousands perhaps) of journalistic assignments under my belt and more rejections, too, than I care to recall, I never would have had the intestinal fortitude to impose my presence on a journalist of the austere eminence of Robert J. Cox. But at a brash 23, with a personal vision of my future laid out neatly in my mind as a sure road to success, I felt back in 1974 that I was owed a chance to prove my worth. And the fact was that the only show in town for an English-language 'wannabe' writer with a hankering for news-related experience was the Buenos Aires Herald.

I had already tried haunting the offices of the correspondents of the big U.S. publications and agencies — Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, AP, UPI, the New York Times and more — but to no avail. All of them either asked about my 'experience' or wanted to know what j-school I had gone to. Ultimately, to a man, they asked me if I had talked to "Bob Cox over at the Herald" yet.

Born in Hull, England, Cox had been recruited to the paper's ranks in 1959 as a copy-editor, but it was not long before his writing ability and news sense moved him up the ladder to news-editor. Founded in 1876, the Herald was one of Argentina's three oldest newspapers. Created as a maritime-oriented paper at a time of all but sovereign British power over Argentina's trade and transport interests, the Herald had gradually decayed, since the days of rekindled nationalist fervor in the 1940s and '50s, to become a rather pokey little rag serving the interests of what was left of an aging and shrinking English-language community.

In Buenos Aires, Cox had met and married his wife, Maude Daverio, a young lady of considerable status in Buenos Aires society, with whom he would have five Argentine children while rising to the post of Editor-in-Chief. Such strong ties to Argentina had already made the Herald his only viable source of full-time news work. Although he would also gain international prestige as an honored stringer for such sacred cows as Newsweek, the BBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times, among others. So it was that, by the time his predecessor, Norman Ingrey, retired in 1970, Cox was pretty much ensconced as a credible, savvy, foreign observer of political and social life in Argentina. His professional presence, in turn, was what kept the paper from sinking further and further into oblivion and dying what, otherwise, could only have been considered a natural death. As natural, surely, as the one the 'old school tie' Anglo-Argentine community was dying as its youth decided that they were less Anglo than Argentine and began wanting to 'mingle with the natives' in what clearly seemed to be shaping up as a post-colonial age.

Cox was aided in this task by the fact that at around this same time, the Charleston Evening Post Publishing Company (Charleston, S.C.) acquired about 60 percent of the Herald, which, since the 1920s, had been an (Anglo)-Argentine family-owned concern. There must surely have been some speculation at the time about why on earth the Charleston group would want a foreign white elephant like the Herald, but if so, it was only among observers who had never met Peter Manigault, then President of that media group and the moneyed son of the family that controlled it. A true Southern gentleman of urbane tastes and education, Manigault was also a bit whimsical. Add that to the fact that he dabbled in Spanish-language studies and loved South America and this was enough to provide him with all the justification he needed to purchase a quaint, colonial-style 'gem' like the Herald even if cynics must surely have asked themselves if it wasn't, perhaps, a tax write-off or something. At any rate, Manigault and Cox were to hit it off almost immediately — since if Manigault was uncommon, Cox was genuinely eccentric. And the friendship would certainly come in handy to Cox in the future when his authority was called into question by one on the local owners of the remaining 40 percent interest.

For now, however, in late 1973, when I first met him, Cox was the clearly over-extended Editor of a paper with plummeting advertising revenues and a shrinking readership. It could barely afford its skeletal staff and the third floor it rented in a shabby office building (that also housed the down-at-heel English Club) in what was then the red-light district near the port. As such, Cox could ill-afford the time or money to make any major changes in the paper itself. The result was a rather quirky, provincial, outdated, ill-proofed little 12 to 16-page tabloid with a wire-copy front and local news page, a few really good columns and stories provided by good-willed, ill-paid contributors and staffers, and an extraordinarily high-quality editorial page that made the rest of the paper look like a mere excuse to have a frame in which to publish it.

And that, in fact, was what it was fast becoming. Not that Cox wouldn't have liked to have professionalized it. He tried as often as he could to impress on his tiny staff the importance of dedication to objectivity and professional care, but he was obviously overworked and just as obviously more a writer than a hands-on editor, so he dedicated more and more time to chronicling the nightmare that was unfolding in Argentina on his editorial page and less and less to trying to extricate the rest of the paper from the malaise of routine mediocrity into which it had slumped and now wallowed.

Anyway, I simply decided one day to call the Herald and ask for an interview and, somewhat to my surprise, was given one for the following evening. When I arrived at 6 p.m., the advertising and administrative employees were bidding each other good night and leaving, as the editorial staffers were just arriving. There was no waiting room to speak of, just a green leather armchair wedged in at the end of the classified ads counter partially blocking the door to the editor's office and just a few feet from two big metal and translucent glass doors that bore a sign reading Editorial Department. I was asked to take a seat and wait. When the last of the clerks and ad reps had said good night and taken the elevator, a very prim, very English-looking woman with whom I had spoken on my arrival shut off all of the lights except for one just over my head and said, "He'll be with you in a moment." And then she added, "Good night," and followed her fellow workers down on the elevator.

I sat there alone for quite a long time with just the buzzing drone of the neon light to keep me company. Eventually, however, the double doors to the editorial department swung open and a pleasant-faced, rotund woman bustled through on her way to the restroom at the end of the hall. When she saw me, she stopped and said, "Hello, I'm Maggie," and extended her hand. I stood, shook it and said, "Hi, I'm Dan Newland."

"Does Bob know you're here?"

"I think so," I said a little dubiously. "He's been told."

"Have you been here long?"

I checked my watch. "About an hour," I said.

She said, "Just a minute," and went back the way she had come, through the editorial department. I could hear the teletypes and manual typewriters chattering away in her wake, before the heavy doors swung shut again behind her and wanted nothing more than to already be in there doing a job I knew I was made for. I sat back down but within an instant after Maggie had gone, the editor's door burst open and through it rushed a man with an almost wild look about him. His brow was furrowed in a look of genuine worry, his white dress shirt was wrinkled and perspired. He wore loafers, I noticed, that were in dire need of a shine and one was split along a seam so that you could see his bright red stocking through it, in sharp contrast to his conservative pinstriped trousers. He was slender and tallish and wore a full beard that was too neglected to be distinguished and his thinning dark-brown hair swirled in erratic tentacles around his head as if he were in the habit of running his fingers through it repeatedly, or had just been in a gale-force wind.

"So sorry, so sorry...must be Dan...Dan, isn't it? Yes...lost track of time, please come in...terribly sorry." he muttered almost under his breath as we shook hands.

His uneasiness was somewhat contagious and I nervously launched into my spiel as soon as we were seated, telling him my life story in five minutes or less: former professional musician, just out of the Army, three years with the Army bands, a little over one in Europe, married to an Argentine, always been a writer, what I want to do with my life, need a chance in journalism, fast learner, hard worker, etc., etc. But my uneasiness was hardly quelled by the surroundings. Cox's office was a truly extraordinary, almost horrifying place. The room was cramped, hardly executive dimensions, perhaps 12 feet by 7 feet, if that. The only light came from the bluish neon ceiling tubes, one of which hummed nerve-rackingly. Every square inch of counter, desk and table space was trembling under mountains of books, papers, magazines, wire copy, radio-photos and files. Stacks of them, piles of them, heaps of them, in no apparent order, almost as if a dump truck had simply avalanched it all into the room. There were heaps of papers on the floor against the wall, a stack on the chair in front of his desk that he cleared away for me to sit down, a mound on top of the radiator by the venetian-blinded window, a veritable landslide on the overstuffed green leather couch along one wall that dominated the tiny office and made Cox at his desk behind chin-high bales of paperwork look rather as if he had been bulldozed into a corner along with a load of wastepaper. The office bore no personal touches, no mementos, no hint of residence or proprietorship, except for the predominant influence of paper of just about every kind. En lieu of wall decorations, too, there was paper: rough drafts, printed articles, syndicated columns, notes, messages, invitation cards, scribbled reminders, underscored phone numbers and names, all scotch-taped to the plaster and all obviously pieces of information that were somehow more important to the editor than the general mounds of miscellaneous data that were heaped all over the rest of the room, and thus deserved a place of privilege on the wall, where he was sure to see them and perhaps recall whatever action it was that they merited. Finally, there was his "workstation", a weighty, battered Olivetti Lexicon manual typewriter. Parts of the machine's housing had been stripped away, obviously so that the user could tinker with it and make it work whenever it decided to pack up on him. It sat atop a ramshackle wooden typing table on wheels that had at one time been a fine piece of office furniture but that now listed in two directions, slightly west and dangerously north, so that it had to be propped against the only tiny piece of empty wall in the room in order to prevent it from simply keeling over and dying, taking the moribund Olivetti with it.

Cox had a polite and humble manner, not at all the kind of hard-nosed, disdainful cynic I had rather expected to meet. He listened patiently to my plea for a chance to "come in on the ground level" and "learn the trade". I added that he wouldn't be sorry, that I wanted to be a writer more than anything on earth and that I would be as dedicated as a monk. But while he was cordial and sympathetic, I noticed that sweat was beading on his brow, that he was almost compulsively scratching both of his forearms beneath the rolled cuffs of his shirt and that he kept glancing furtively over at the piece of letter-size, yellowed newsprint rolled into the Lexicon, where he had obviously been working on something when I arrived. It was calling him even now and he had to get back to it.

"Okay," I said, at last, "I've taken enough of your time. Please just tell me you'll give me a chance and I be on my way."

"Perhaps your could contribute..." he tried.

"No, Mr. Cox..."

"Bob, call me Bob."

"Bob, I want a full-time job. I want to be a newsman. I want to write for a living."

He looked a little pained, shook his head and said, "Look, Dan, this is a slave job. Nothing like what you'd expect. We do a little of everything here. And we all have to do other things outside the Herald. We write for papers abroad to make ends meet. This is very hard...a lot of sacrifice, and frankly, I simply don't have anything for you — for anyone right now."

"Can I stop by now and then to see if something has opened up?"

He looked doubtful but said, "Yes, of course. Perhaps next time we can have a coffee at the bar around the corner. I'm just a little, uh, busy at the moment and uh..."

That was enough for me. I had his permission to come back. And come back I did — once every week or ten days for several months. Even though he sometimes had trouble restraining his irritation at my simply showing up unannounced, he seemed to admire my persistence. I would camp outside his office door for as long as it took. Sometimes he would say, "Sorry Dan, but I'm just too busy today," and I would smile and say, "No problem, see you in a few days," and leave, only to return as promised. It seemed to make him feel guilty when he rejected me and the next time he would be extra polite and we would have a cup coffee at one of the bars nearby and talk for awhile about journalism and what was going on in Buenos Aires and how Perón's return was affecting the country and about our favorite authors, and so on.

I eventually contributed a couple of very lightweight vignettes to a weekend editorial page section called Saturday Sidelight, where just about anything went, but Cox liked them and assigned me a research article on the quagmire of identity documents, work visas and travel permits invented as bureaucratic stumbling blocks by the government and about which I was accumulating abundant personal experience. But still, no job. This went on for about six months, and although I felt that, to a certain degree, he and I had become friends, I eventually lost hope that Robert Cox was ever going to give me a job. So I quit going to visit him at the Herald, simply resigned myself to having to continue to rent cars for Avis while working on my writing and hoping for the best.

It wasn't three weeks before the phone rang at home one evening and my wife told me with no little excitement in her voice that it was Robert Cox on the line.

"Hello, Bob," I said. "What a surprise!"

"Yes, uh, Dan, uh, just calling to see if you're all right."

"Well, of course I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Yes, well, bad times and all, so dangerous for foreigners you know, and you haven't been by lately, I thought perhaps something..." he trailed off.

"Listen, Bob," I said. "I like you well enough, but did you really think I was just dropping by for coffee every week? I want a job in your newspaper. I want to be a journalist. Understand?"

"Uh, yes, well, pop by next Monday then...may have something for you. Cheers."

And there I stood still holding the phone, thinking, "Hey, did I dream this or did I just land a newspaper job?"