When Richard Nixon lost his race for California governor and delivered his famous promise, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” every reporter in the room knew who “you” meant. It was Richard Bergholz.
It also was The Times, for which Bergholz, who died Tuesday at age 83, was then a political writer known for his tough manner, penetrating questions and fair stories.
Bergholz, whose career spanned nearly 50 years, suffered a stroke at his home in Pasadena and died at St. Luke Medical Center.
The candidates he covered constituted a who’s who of American politics in the last half of the 20th century. They included Nixon, Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, John Tunney, Jesse Unruh, George McGovern, Tom Bradley and George Deukmejian.
Beginning his career when political reporters were little more than mouthpieces for candidates, Bergholz broke the mold. Constantly asking questions, he grilled candidates across the political spectrum.
George Skelton, Sacramento columnist for The Times who worked with Bergholz as a reporter and editor for more than a decade, called him “unbiased and absolutely objective.”
“I worked closely with him . . . and as a competitor before that--and still do not know whether he was a Republican or a Democrat,” Skelton said. “I have no idea how he ever voted. And you certainly could not tell by his writing. He was as tough on one side as the other.”
One of those who felt the sting of that toughness was Nixon during the California gubernatorial race in 1962.
The candidate, who had long enjoyed The Times’ support under publisher Norman Chandler, clearly was not prepared for the more balanced coverage led by Bergholz after Otis Chandler took over in 1960.
During the waning days of the 1962 race, Bergholz peppered Nixon with tough questions when the candidate, apparently lagging in the polls, began suggesting that opponent Brown was soft on communism.
As David Halberstam reported in “The Powers That Be,” it was just “Bergholz being Bergholz.” But the tone of the questions, far more biting than anything the former vice president had encountered in Washington, got under Nixon’s skin.
The day after Brown’s victory, Nixon gave his famous “last press conference,” which included the “kick around” remark.
Nixon went on to praise Carl Greenberg, another political reporter at The Times who had been trading off coverage of Nixon with Bergholz.
Halberstam said there was no doubt in the minds of Times editors, and most of the reporters in the room that day, that the comments were aimed at Bergholz and the paper, although The Times endorsed his candidacy. A chagrined Greenberg offered to resign but was refused.
“Dick and Carl brought honest political reporting to the L.A. Times,” said Bill Boyarsky, the current city editor who worked with both men while covering California politics in the 1960s and 1970s. “They set a standard for young colleagues.”
William F. Thomas, Times editor during much of Bergholz’s tenure, agreed. “He was at all times a competent reporter,” Thomas said. “He had a habit of asking penetrating questions which at the time were annoying to the public officials on the receiving end.
“But he never showed malice in the actual stories. We always remarked on how tough he was in questioning, but the stories were always fair and professionally done.”
Stu Spencer, a longtime political consultant who managed Reagan’s campaigns, among others, called Bergholz “one of a kind.” He most remembered the reporter’s “tenacity. He was always in my pocket for a story.”
Spencer said Bergholz “would play head games with the candidates. He’d be sitting in a front row at a press conference, and the [candidates’] answers would start coming, and Dick would just start shaking his head, sighing, ‘No, no.’ [Bergholz would] just rattle them. He never could rattle Reagan, but he would most of the others.”’
Skelton recalled Bergholz as a singular figure during a political race.
“On the campaign trail, he’d often break away from the pack and do his own story, ignoring the daily spin to dig into the meat of an issue,” Skelton said.
Recalled Boyarsky: “He was good at everything, but especially good at platforms at political conventions. He felt they represented what a party stood for and that politicians should be accountable for what was in the platform.”
Former Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said: “Dick understood politics thoroughly and covered it with great accuracy. He was perhaps a little cynical, but that was understandable given the way politics has been over the years.”
Bergholz was born in Corvallis, Ore. His father died in the flu epidemic of 1918 when Bergholz was a toddler. His mother, a teacher, raised Bergholz and his younger sister.
He earned a degree in journalism at the University of Washington and took his first job as a newspaper reporter in Ferndale, Wash. From there he moved to the Ventura Star Free-Press. He landed a job at the Associated Press in Sacramento in 1938 and, when war broke out, became a correspondent covering action in New Guinea, the Philippines, China and Manchuria.
After the war, he worked briefly at the Glendale News Press before joining the San Diego Evening Tribune as political editor. Seven years later Bergholz went to work for the now-defunct Los Angeles Mirror in 1954. He joined The Times as a political writer after the Mirror folded in 1962 and stayed with the paper as a writer and then political consultant until his retirement in 1985.
Even after that, he never stopped being a political reporter.
One colleague recalled that in 1998, Bergholz showed up at a breakfast meeting of GOP Senate candidate Matt Fong and peppered him with a much tougher line of questioning than was coming from reporters on the campaign trail. “He put us to shame,” the colleague said.
Another reporter said that even this year at meetings of the Friday Group, an informal gathering of political journalists, Bergholz displayed “a steel-trap memory for every figure in California politics.”
Bergholz is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Elizabeth, daughters Barbara Stacy of San Jose and Elizabeth of Pasadena, son Richard of Fallbrook and three grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to: California First Amendment Coalition, 2701 Cottage Way, Suite 12. Sacramento, CA 95825, (916) 974-8888.
A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Church of the Angels, 1100 Avenue 64, Pasadena.