Herbert G. Klein, the veteran newspaperman who covered Richard M. Nixon’s 1946 congressional campaign and then followed the California Republican through shattering electoral defeats to the White House to play his part in Cold War politics and the Watergate scandal, died Thursday after having a heart attack at his home in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla. He was 91.
Klein, who returned to journalism after numerous sabbaticals to serve as Nixon’s campaign press secretary and eventually as the first White House director of communications, parted ways with the president he had supported for three decades a year before Nixon’s 1974 resignation, settling into his longtime role as editor of Copley Newspapers.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles and a devoted USC alumnus, Klein told interviewers that he grew up wanting to be a sportswriter and did serve as sports editor and columnist at USC’s Daily Trojan. It was at USC that Klein met his future wife of 66 years, Marjorie Galbraith, whose death in February 2008 was said to have left him deeply shaken.
Klein began his career as a copy boy for the Alhambra Post-Advocate in 1940 but quit to join the Navy after the outbreak of World War II. He was sent to San Diego, where he served a three-year stint in public affairs, returning to journalism after the war as a feature and editorial writer for the Evening Tribune of San Diego.
It was as a special correspondent for Copley that Klein covered Nixon’s 1946 run for Congress, getting a taste for the interaction between politicians and the press. He quit his newspaper positions to serve as press secretary for Nixon’s failed campaigns for the White House against John F. Kennedy in 1960 and for the California governorship in 1962.
In 1960, Klein represented then-Vice President Nixon in setting the terms for the televised debate with Kennedy, a watershed moment both in presidential politics and in Nixon’s looming defeat as the marathon session left Nixon, then considered the front-runner, appearing unshaven and brooding against the handsome, affable challenger.
Klein told journalists on the occasion of his retirement in 2003 that “journalism has been my profession, and politics have been an avocation,” and that he’d benefited from his reporting years in his roles as press secretary for the Eisenhower-Nixon campaigns as well as the gubernatorial and presidential bids.
“You’ve got to understand those you’re dealing with,” Klein said of reporters on the campaign trail. “If you’ve been asking questions all your life, it makes it easier to answer them.”
He was at Nixon’s side through the bruising campaign defeats, but also for the historic meetings with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the 1972 trip to China that led to detente in one major battle of the Cold War.
But in 1973, with Nixon embroiled in the Watergate controversy and the president’s inner circle shutting him out as too media-friendly, Klein quit his White House job to go to work for Metromedia Inc., a national broadcasting group.
Seven years later, he rejoined Copley as editor in chief in San Diego, where he indulged his passions for football, politics and civic promotion until his retirement.
Klein was born in Los Angeles on April 1, 1918, and graduated from Roosevelt High School before enrolling at USC, where he earned a journalism degree in 1940. He met his future wife at an international relations class and married her in 1941, just before joining the Navy.
Klein served on boards for sports and economic development, bringing the Super Bowl to San Diego three times, as well as on the executive committee of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. He was elected to the USC board of trustees in 1982, a position he held for life, and established the Herb Klein Scholarship in Government and Political Reporting in 2006.
“Herb Klein was a statesman, a journalist, an author and a leader,” said USC President Steven B. Sample, hailing the alumnus and benefactor as first and foremost “a superstar in the Trojan Family.”
Klein is survived by a brother, Kenneth; a daughter, Patricia Root; three grandsons and three great-grandsons.