Robert L. Healy, at 84; Globe editor, columnist, political insider

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 7, 2010

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Robert L. Healy, who spent more than four decades as a Boston Globe reporter, editor, and columnist, and played a leading role in some of the most notable chapters in the paper’s history, died Saturday of a massive stroke in his Jupiter, Fla., home. He was 84.

“He was best known for his political instincts and passion,’’ said Jack Driscoll, a former editor of the Globe. “Political conventions and campaigns were his bread and butter. He was a whirling dervish during those times.’’

Among the posts Mr. Healy held were executive editor (the news operation’s second-highest position), Washington bureau chief, political editor, and oped columnist.

“He turned out a tremendous volume of columns through the years, and most of that time he was also Washington bureau chief or executive editor in the later years,’’ Driscoll said.

During Thomas Winship’s tenure as editor from 1965 to 1984, Driscoll said, “Bob was his right-hand man. When it came to giving serious advice, and Winship turned to him often, he was always quick and to the point. The same was true of his column. He knew the point he wanted to make and he sat down and wrote in 15 to 20 minutes. He was a really fast writer.’’

In many ways, Mr. Healy personified an era at the Globe. His free-wheeling style and consuming interest in politics were emblematic of the paper during Winship’s editorship. So, too, were his stoutly liberal politics and his unabashed closeness to those in power.

Mr. Healy was one of three Globe staffers on the Nixon White House enemies list (the others were columnist George Frazier and Washington bureau chief Martin F. Nolan).

A gregarious and energetic inside player, Mr. Healy played touch football with Robert F. Kennedy. He was a tennis partner of Hamilton Jordan, President Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff. Eugene McCarthy unsuccessfully recruited Mr. Healy to manage his 1968 presidential campaign. He was a pallbearer at the funeral of former House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr.

In 1977, one of Mr. Healy’s admirers, the Washington Post’s David Broder, said he had “as many drinking buddies among important politicians as any reporter around.’’

Mr. Healy was sometimes criticized for being too cozy with the powerful, especially the Kennedy family. “The Kennedy years were a once-in-a-lifetime situation for a reporter,’’ Mr. Healy wrote in a 1988 valedictory column.

A touchstone for Mr. Healy’s critics was his role in a celebrated — some would say inglorious — moment in Globe history.

Edward M. Kennedy was running for the Senate in 1962 for the first time. Mr. Healy learned that Kennedy had been expelled as a Harvard undergraduate for cheating on an examination. In three sessions held in the Oval Office, Mr. Healy negotiated with President John F. Kennedy, the candidate’s brother, over release of the story. The upshot was the Kennedys would cooperate if the story was played below the fold on Page One (that is, on the lower half of the front page). Furthermore, it ran with the innocuous headline, “Ted Kennedy tells about Harvard examination incident.’’

Yet, Mr. Healy’s work as reporter, editor, and columnist on the nomination of Boston Municipal Court Judge Francis X. Morrissey to the federal bench not only helped earn the Globe its first Pulitzer Prize, in 1966, it also created a very public embarrassment for the Kennedys.

Morrissey was a longtime Kennedy crony. In 1961, rumors circulated he was being considered for a federal judgeship. Mr. Healy revealed Morrissey had twice failed the Massachusetts bar exam and had gained admittance to the Georgia bar under dubious circumstances.

Four years later, sponsored by Edward Kennedy, Morrissey was nominated. Mr. Healy played a leading role in a 10-man Globe team that found further irregularities in his professional past. The nomination was ultimately withdrawn, and the Globe was awarded the Pulitzer gold medal for meritorious public service.

Robert Leo Healy was born July 2, 1925, in Jamaica Plain. His father, John J. Healy, worked as a Globe mailer for half a century. His mother was the former Evelyn Walsh.

The Globe family connection extended beyond Mr. Healy and his father. Lawrence B. Healy, Mr. Healy’s brother, worked at the paper for 40 years, 15 of them as classified advertising manager.

Mr. Healy began at the Globe as a copy boy in 1942. He wrote his first newspaper story reporting from the mortuary where families of victims of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire had gone to identify their bodies.

During World War II, Mr. Healy was in the Army Air Corps and flew in bombing missions over Germany. He rejoined the Globe in 1946, working full time even as he attended classes at Boston University.

Mr. Healy began as a leg man, or street reporter. He quickly worked his way up to manning the Globe’s first mobile unit, a car equipped with a police radio that would race to the scene of a crime and phone in a report. Soon, Mr. Healy graduated to rewrite-man status. Soon enough, he was a full-fledged reporter.

Over the next decade, Mr. Healy covered a wide range of top stories: Mayor James Michael Curley’s release from federal prison; the Brink’s robbery; Curley’s last press conference; the sinking of the Italian ocean liner the Andrea Doria off Nantucket.

Mr. Healy got his first taste of national politics in 1952, covering the New Hampshire primary. He reported on nine national elections in all.

In 1955, Mr. Healy was selected as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

After a five-year stint as Washington correspondent, Mr. Healy returned to Boston in 1962 to assume the title of political editor. He also began writing a five-times-a-week oped column, Political Circuit, which he wrote with varying degrees of frequency for the next 26 years. In 1965, Mr. Healy was named assistant executive editor.

Mr. Healy was named executive editor in 1969, a post he held until 1979, when he was named associate editor. He became Washington bureau chief in 1981. He wrote his last regular oped column for the Globe on Dec. 23, 1988, but he remained an occasional contributor to the paper.

During 1997 and ’98, Mr. Healy served as an adviser on the Northern Ireland peace talks to US Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and special negotiator George Mitchell. He was working on a book about the peace process at the time of his death.

During the 1970s, Mr. Healy taught a seminar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on decision-making in the Kennedy White House. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“A great ride,’’ Mr. Healy called his career in his final regular column in December 1988. “I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.’’

Mr. Healy’s first marriage, to the former Janet L. Rush, ended in divorce.

He leaves his wife of 32 years, Mary (Dunavant) of Jupiter, Fla.; four sons, Robert Jr. of Falls Church, Va., Lawrence B. of Lakeville, and C. Jeremy and Peter B., both of Norwell; two daughters, Melissa of Bethesda, Md., and Martha Paradis of North Scituate; two stepdaughters, Carolyn Joy Roy of Palm Beach, Fla., and Lisa Pierotti of West Hartford; three stepsons, Lynn Pierotti of Sullivan’s Island, S.C., Harry C. Pierotti of Scituate, and Timothy Pierotti of Summit, N.J.; a brother, Lawrence B. of Roslindale; a sister, Evelyn Mulligan of Natick; and 26 grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11:30 a.m. Friday in St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cohasset.

Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this obituary.