January 07, 2021 Feature

The Pentagon Papers

The many lessons learned by a future lawyer as he watched the famous legal struggle from inside the New York Times.

Kenneth P. Nolan

Download a printable PDF of this article.

I needed money. So, when my brother mentioned that the New York Times needed a copyboy on weekends, I immediately applied. I had no idea what a copyboy was—and really didn’t care since I had just started my second year of college and was desperate for cash. My parents were wonderful, actually, but never had an extra nickel. At Christmas, when everyone’s mom would ooh and ahh at the elaborate lights and decorations, mine would icily proclaim: “I’m glad I’m not paying their electric bill.”

At the Times building on West 43rd Street, I was interviewed by Miss Moody, a white-haired, courtly woman who ran the editorial department on the sedate 10th floor. I could only guess at her questions since she spoke slowly, softly, and with a Southern accent, all unknown in my world of loud, fast Brooklynese. I tried to wait for her question to end, but it took forever, and my mind wandered as this was the first I had ever spoken to someone with an accent.

I was elated when Miss Moody called to ask if I could start that Saturday, where I met George, a weekday copyboy, who gave me a cursory explanation of my duties to the 12 white guys—no women or minorities, one Catholic—who wrote the influential editorials that shaped world opinion. A go-fer, I delivered mail and carried typewritten editorials from one editor to another, and then to the composing room. This was 1968, a world of lead type inserted by hand into metal frames, of pneumatic tubes through which copy was sent from the Ivy League–educated men who wrote the editorials to the blue-collar mugs who turned those words into lead type on machines that looked like they were straight out of the Guttenberg era.

On Saturday, we scurried about until we stood on the 4th floor—the cavernous and noisy composing room—with the editor and makeup editor while the editorials, letters, and columns were assembled by the printer. Don’t mess with these guys, George warned, pointing to the union printers. If you break one of their million rules, they’ll walk off the job (which they did in 1962 and 1965). Proofs were printed and the editors read and reread the pages, searching for typos, errors in grammar or style, with an eye on the news to ensure that an editorial didn’t have to be updated.

After all, this was the New York Times, the most influential newspaper in the world, read by every dictator, president, and business tycoon from Bangkok to Buenos Aires. All worked frantically, desperate to make the deadline so the 1.5 million copies of the Sunday paper could be printed and delivered to the far reaches of the globe. I would like to report that I immediately realized the written word’s value and power, but I was young and foolish, and everyone I knew read only the tabloids. It was months before I began to appreciate the best education I ever received.

Illustration by Sean Kane.

Illustration by Sean Kane.

Premium Content For:
  • Litigation Section
Join - Now