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Anthony Day, 74; led Times’ editorial page to prominence

Times Staff Writer

Anthony Day, an architect of The Times’ independent editorial page during the era of publishers Otis Chandler and Tom Johnson, died Sunday at St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 74.

Day was admitted to the hospital Aug. 22 with respiratory problems related to emphysema and died of complications of the disease, his wife, Lynn, said.

Though Day was most recently associated with the paper as a scholarly reviewer of books, his legacy was the 18 years he spent as editor of the editorial pages. During that period, he collaborated closely with Chandler and then Johnson to sever the paper’s historic ties with the Republican Party and set it on a course that brought not only national but global recognition.

“I recruited Tony as the right man to remake The Times’ editorial page, and I always felt it was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Chandler, who died in 2006, told a Times reporter some years ago. “The most important thing was that Tony completely shared my vision of what The Times’ editorial page had to be -- independent and nonpartisan, free of the Republican Party or any party. We did that together. He was brave and erudite and believed, like I did, that the paper had to be a voice for all the people of Los Angeles and California.”

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Johnson, who succeeded Chandler as publisher of The Times in 1980 and went on to become president of CNN, said Day “exemplified the very best in our profession. He was a gifted writer, a splendid editor and a very decent man. Under Tony’s leadership, The Times’ editorial pages achieved genuine excellence. I will miss him greatly.”

During his tenure as editorial page editor, Day reported to William F. Thomas, the paper’s editor and executive vice president, who recalled Day as “fair, perceptive and extremely intelligent.”

“He saw all sides of an issue, and one could count on him always for a thoughtful and measured judgment. Tony rarely made up his mind until he had considered the matter from all aspects,” the now-retired Thomas told The Times on Monday.

Jim Newton, the current editorial page editor, noted that Day “produced works of courage and unswerving honesty; under him, The Times at last assumed a responsible position of journalistic leadership. The paper and the city were the great beneficiaries.”

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But Day’s remaking of the editorial pages was controversial with segments of the Chandler family who opposed the course Otis Chandler set for the paper. They made their opposition known to some members of the board of the Times Mirror Co., which owned The Times and several other newspapers until the company was bought by the Tribune Co. in 2000.

Day was relatively safe while Otis Chandler had a corporate role, but when Chandler dissolved his last official ties in 1988, the shield was gone.

Johnson and Thomas were pressured by senior members of the board to fire Day because they regarded him as too liberal. Both men refused, but two months after Johnson was replaced as publisher in 1989, Day was removed and given the post of senior correspondent reporting on ideas and innovation.

Born in Miami on May 12, 1933, Day was the eldest of four sons who all became journalists. Their father, Price Day, was a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun who won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1949 for a series of articles on the newly independent India. Price Day went on to become editorial page editor of the Baltimore Sun.

Tony Day graduated from Harvard College with a cum laude degree in the classics in 1955, and returned a decade later as a Nieman Fellow. After serving two years in the Army, he began his newspaper career in 1957 at the Philadelphia Bulletin, where he became nationally known for his coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court and the war in Vietnam. He later became the paper’s Washington bureau chief.

Day was hired by Chandler in 1969 as The Times’ chief editorial writer. And almost from the start, Day began pursuing a new course.

His reporting stint in Vietnam had convinced him that the U.S. should withdraw its troops, and he argued for such in an editorial once he arrived in Los Angeles. Such an idea was controversial at The Times because the paper had supported the war and President Nixon had been a longtime favorite of the Chandler family and The Times.

But on June 7, 1970, Day’s editorial appeared under the headline “Get Out of Vietnam NOW.”

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“The time has come for the United States to leave Vietnam,” the editorial began, “to leave it swiftly, wholly, and without equivocation.

“The president still has in his hands the opportunity to effect such an exit. He should seize the chance now as it presents itself, for it may not come so readily again.”

In 1971, Day was promoted to editor of the editorial pages, and he helped push the paper to adopt new, more balanced editorial stances, an unswerving support for constitutional rights and independent positions on a number of controversial issues, including gun control and capital punishment. He insisted that the page be a friend to the city’s Jewish community and cemented its firm support for the state of Israel.

A year later, the paper’s endorsement of Nixon’s reelection severely divided the newsroom and the community and led to the decision, at Chandler’s behest, to embark on a neutral editorial policy refusing, until recent years, to endorse candidates for president, the U.S. Senate and governor of California. The neutral policy notwithstanding, the paper continued to make strong editorial stands.

In 1973, the editorial board made its decision in the race for mayor, supporting black Councilman Tom Bradley, though he was then opposed by most of the city’s downtown business establishment, which long had relied on The Times’ backing.

And in 1974, at Day’s urging, The Times called for Nixon’s impeachment as a result of the Watergate scandal.

In 1976, Times editorial writer Philip P. Kerby won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials against government secrecy and judicial censorship.

Under Day’s leadership, editorial board meetings, which were then attended by Chandler as well as senior department heads from the newsroom, were lively discussions with open disagreements on difficult decisions.

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Edwin O. Guthman, a former national editor at the paper, said Day “was a moderating factor in the way he handled things.”

“He was not authoritarian in his leadership,” Guthman told The Times on Monday.

Day also opened up the paper’s opinion pages. Rather than relying solely on political pundits and analysts, he sought to entice a wider variety of voices to write for The Times.

He changed the composition of the paper’s editorial board as well, hiring the first woman, the first black, the first Latino and the first openly gay members of the policy-making body. He directed The Times’ editorial pages, op-ed page and Opinion section during Johnson’s entire nine-year tenure as publisher.

After leaving the editorial pages, he became a senior correspondent on cultural issues and their power and effect in the modern world. Day brought a breadth of erudition to his assignment, producing noteworthy pieces on subjects as varied as the Jesuit order in America and Nobel-Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz.

After retiring in the mid-1990s, Day’s byline continued to appear in the paper in his role as a regular contributor to the Book Review section.

“He was at ease across most genres and styles of writing, from fiction to foreign policy and politics,” said David L. Ulin, The Times’ book editor.

His final review, on Homer Hickam’s new book, “The Far Reaches,” appeared Aug. 1.

At the end of his life, Day was still editing a newspaper column written by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who reflected on their long association.

“Although he was a constant critic of the policies of the administrations in which I served, I always considered him a critic of exemplary fairness, ability and honesty,” Kissinger said in a statement.

“He then edited my column for a quarter of a century, even after he left the Los Angeles Times. I think of our association with affection and an enormous sense of loss.”

In addition to his wife of 47 years, Day is survived by son John, a grandchild, two step-grandchildren, and his brothers Joe and Tom of Santa Fe and James of Berkeley. His daughter, Julie, died in 1989.

Funeral services are pending.

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jon.thurber@latimes.com


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