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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Remembering a gentle giant

WASHINGTON

HE HAD these green golf tees, fistfuls of them, each inscribed with four words that simply belonged together -- Nyhan of The Globe.

When he called you up, the low, soft voice always made me smile the way it announced and established his presence -- Nyhan of The Globe.

David Nyhan, a gentle giant of a man, did not have to raise his voice, a voice that mattered as much as any other in the public square of Massachusetts for more than a generation. He didn't have to fulminate or pontificate or preen or strut the way so many writers and editors do who think getting a rep in journalism's locker room can substitute for communicating with the people who pay good money to buy the paper.

The words that flowed out of David's typewriter and later his computer for nearly 40 years were always clear as a bell, direct as a Sugar Ray Robinson jab in the face, and smooth as glass. Behind them, giving them their oomph, was this enormous heart that also gave them purpose and meaning, and whose failure over the weekend I find unfathomable and indescribably painful.

When he left these pages more than three years ago, he said with typical directness that he had been downsized. When I wrote in tribute to his importance I tried to respond in kind: "Sorry, pal, that's impossible."

The racket David chose is famous for hot flashes in pans. His fire burned white hot over decades, through tens of thousands of words and across a span of history that began for real in the hideous crucible of 1968 and was still shining over the weekend. Newspapers that matter are built on the shoulders of people who can do that -- not just on one day but over and over again until the word association is automatic -- Nyhan of The Globe.

As a reporter, David specialized in the complete ownership of the stories he covered, the real source of his clout, and a critical ingredient in this newspaper's emergence. I first bumped into him when he was the Associated Press guy on vice presidential nominee Ed Muskie's plane in 1968. Even in the AP's tight structural confines, he was the writer who first got the essence of Muskie's special gift to that murderous year -- a decent impulse that invited protesters up to the podium to say a few words. He also described the emergence of the hauteur that would contribute to Muskie's presidential undoing four years later.

At The Globe, he literally owned the State House in the early 1970s, setting the pace through campaigns and helping set the reform agenda that made Massachusetts such a special place in those exciting years. In Washington, he was the dominant reporter as the House Judiciary Committee went through the impeachment inquiry that sealed Richard Nixon's doom. Night after night, David's reports on the closed-door hearings established the factual basis for Nixon's guilt, in detail that no other reporter provided. It was never cheerleading; it was consistent, relentless reporting.

As an editor back in Boston after the 1976 campaign, his performance during one famous month has a poignantly ironic link to his death during the blizzard on Sunday. It was during the infinitely more severe Blizzard of 1978 that this newspaper published because David shook his big fist at nature to mobilize his newsroom. I will never forget the atmosphere when I got to Boston 36 hours into the nightmare (Nyhan of The Globe had called to ask for some fresh bodies) and saw that look on so many reporters' faces that illustrated the impact of leadership, with its unspoken, "I am not going to let that guy down."

And then the columns cascaded. I chuckle when I see the lame attempts at categorization that punctuate the journalism David never practiced, as if "liberal" was a box he lived in. As Ted Kennedy told me once, he was the working family's reporter. As much as anyone, he defined the type eventually known as the Reagan Democrat even as he pushed back against the man he labeled The Gipper -- and admired. It was mutual, by the way, because David blasted liberal excess in using special prosecutors to go after Reagan lieutenants for petty offenses.

In politics, Tim Russert (who took to David when he was working for Mario Cuomo and who leaned on him long after he became a big shot in TV) once offered the ultimate tribute -- that he had solved the puzzle. He knew more than anybody but never played the easy, inside game.

He also never lost his fastball. Political writers last year learned their way to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune's website to keep up with one of the first voices to notice John Kerry's problem with clarity. Last weekend, his commentary on Condoleezza Rice's prevaricating performance in the Senate was, as ever, a must-read. He was about to leave for Sri Lanka with a relief team to see post-tsunami trauma up close.

One of our mentors at this joint, Marty Nolan, for years owned the franchise on year-end stories about what he called The Real Majority, those who are gone but not forgotten. Marty reminded readers why that lovely song is played on New Year's Eve. In that tradition, the surpassing truth is that Nyhan of The Globe sleeps the sleep of peace and shall not be forgot, for Auld Lang Syne.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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