John Finney ’45W, a politics and military reporter for The New York Times and a former managing editor of the Yale Daily News, died of prostate cancer Friday at the Washington Home Hospice. He was 80.
After a two-decade reporting career that included some 2,500 bylined articles and provided much of the context for the U.S. debate over the war in Vietnam, Finney served as news editor at the Times’ Washington Bureau from 1978 to 1985.
Initially hired by the Times to cover atomic energy, Finney exposed inconsistencies in the official account of the Tonkin Gulf incident, dissent in the Senate over President Lyndon Johnson’s wartime policies and the fact that White House policy advisors accepted jobs with companies vying for government contracts.
“He covered the government skeptically, but not cynically, and with a lot of knowledge of the subject matter,” William Borders ’60, news editor at the Times, said of Finney. “He was the leader of a whole generation of Washington correspondents who wanted to do what he did.”
At Yale, Finney was one of many students scheduled to graduate in 1945 who had to delay graduation because of World War II. After a two-year stint in the Navy during the war, Finney returned to Yale, where he set a high standard for the News.
Former Yale Daily News Editor in Chief Philip O’Brien ’45W competed with Finney for a spot on the staff of the paper after both men returned from the war. O’Brien said Finney was committed to bringing the News — which had ceased publication during the war in favor of a Yale-printed periodical — back as an independent publication.
“We all remember John sitting at his editorial desk, a pipe in his mouth, screwing up his face reading a heeler’s copy, and patiently, patiently cutting the thing to ribbons,” said Wilson Nolen ’48, a sophomore during Finney’s reign as the News’ managing editor.
Henry Luce III ’45W, who served on the News’ board with Finney as business manager, said Finney’s impact in the world of professional journalism was predictable.
“We all knew he was going to be a star,” Luce said. “He was a splendid editor and teacher. He had a tendency to lecture but could be very eloquent.”
After retirement, Finney put this skill to use as a media and communications professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service from 1988 through 2000. In addition to teaching and advising, Finney tutored international students with limited English proficiency for oral examinations, according to a Georgetown alumni newsletter announcing Finney’s retirement in 2000.
Prior to his career in communications, Massachusetts-born Finney had attended Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford on a scholarship. After a brief stint at Yale Law School, he traveled the world as a cabin boy. During the war, he served for two years as a radio operator on a PT boat in the Navy.
Finney was very involved with alumni affairs, serving as class secretary and creating an e-mail group and Web site for the class, said John Carey ’45W, who was close friends with Finney for 62 years.
“He was the spiritual leader of our class,” Carey said. “I don’t know how we’re going to find someone who could do half as good a job as he’s done.”
Fellow Navy enlistee Elliott Vose ’45W LAW ’50, who attended midshipman school with Finney and spent nine months with Finney in Manila, where Finney was harbormaster, said Finney was “very worldly, a remarkable friend, understanding, kind of sentimental and passionate about the world.”
Carey said Finney remained passionate and involved after retirement at both the national level — Finney was vehement about the White House’s failure to reprimand those who leaked a CIA operative’s name last year, for instance — and the local level.
Finney’s Washington, D.C. neighbor Alma Gates, who served with Finney on a neighborhood advisory commission, said his persistence with Washington’s City Council was key to the commission’s success.
Gates said when she pushed Finney to finish work for the commission, Finney would “take a gentle approach to telling me to back off.”
“He told me that in the book ‘Seabiscuit’ they train the horses to go harder and faster using a series of bells,” Gates said. “‘Alma,’ he told me, ‘sometimes when you call, I can hear those bells ringing.’ He was tactful in every way.”
Borders said the world of political journalism has changed from Finney’s day, when this kind of tact was key.
“As the number two guy in the Times’ Washington Bureau, Finney kind of set the tone, and he was always very much a gentleman,” Borders said. “When you see all the shouting and screaming that goes on in Washington these days, it definitely makes you long for the days of John Finney.”
Finney is survived by a wife, two daughters and three grandchildren.