The man who didn’t disappear

NEW YORK — The formal interview was over, so Richard Nixon propped his feet on his desk while the journalist lingered in the former vice president’s Manhattan office.

“He just wanted to shoot the breeze a bit,” recalled John McCandlish Phillips, who was the New York Times reporter on the other side of the notebook that day. This was during the mid-1960s, when political consultants were creating the “New Nixon” who would reach the White House.

Nixon talked about TV, the press and much more. But the reporter’s spirit was troubled.

“He started talking about the art of not being himself. … He meant the art of being sincere on camera, in front of an audience, without really being sincere,” said Phillips, letting out a long sigh. “I held my tongue, but I should have said to him, ‘You think that no one sees that, sir, but there are some who see through it, immediately.’ “

In interviews, Phillip remained polite and, for the most part, silent. But he saw everything and sensed even more, during a brilliant two-decade Times career. His gentle questions and empathetic use of silence inspired people to confess the details of their lives.

The reporter wrote it all down and returned to his desk, his Bible and his typewriter. He rarely spoke in the newsroom either, which was unusual in a world of rattling keys, howling voices, police radios and titanic egos. Phillips did his talking in ink.

“He was the Ted Williams of the young reporters. He was a natural,” the legendary reporter Gay Talese once said, describing a staff that included the likes of David Halberstam, Richard Reeves and J. Anthony Lukas. “There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”

Phillips arrived in 1952 and landed a copy-boy job a day after, he said, God ordered him off the train he was riding home to Boston. A year later, he looked around the Times newsroom and realized he was the only conservative Christian there. So he stayed. He walked away in 1973, at the peak of his writing powers, to become a Pentecostal preacher with a small urban flock.

A lengthy New Yorker profile of Phillips called him “The Man Who Disappeared.” But the man didn’t disappear. The reporter did.

The 72-year-old Phillips has disappeared in the same way that a seed disappears in the soil. Friends on New York sidewalks know that “Pastor John” has invested his life in new believers, including more than a few journalists.

“Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize,” Talese told the New Yorker. “He is not interested in demeaning people. …He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer. Phillips is not even in the same jungle.”

If Phillips walked into the Times newsroom, few, if any, journalists would know his name. The same is true of New York’s giant churches. The skinny six-foot-six reporter is now an even thinner preacher, a decade after a knock-down battle with pneumonia. You can hear that when he laughs, with a squeeze-box wheeze that is both joyful and painful.

Phillips has lived in two radically different worlds. Few journalists appreciate what goes on in churches, he said, and few church people understand what goes on in newsrooms. He believes that this warps the news.

Reporters collect symbolic stories, like parables. Phillips recalled that, back in 1959, he told his editors that something big was happening in Brooklyn, where a Pennsylvania preacher named David Wilkerson was working with addicts and gang members. The editors weren’t interested. For years, Phillips pushed this story, while Wilkerson built a ministry that eventually expanded around the world. After a decade, Phillips got to write that story.

“The New York Times could not see … the importance or the validity of this approach to any issue as serious as addiction. Editors said, ‘You can’t put a few religious ideas up against something as real as addiction and expect any results,’ ” said Phillips.

“Well, the results were there. … This was just a story about a young preacher who had found an approach to drugs and gangs that was proving demonstrably effective in changing lives. It was worth attention. It was news. We miss too many stories like that and that’s a shame.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.