By Charles Layton
I don’t often burden the readers of Blogfinger with memories of my life in journalism, but today, because he has fallen ill, I’m thinking about an old friend and fellow editor named Jim Naughton.
Jim is a prankster. Once, for an office party honoring one of our reporters who had just returned from the Middle East, Jim managed to smuggle up the back elevator and into the Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom a live camel. If memory serves me right, he also smuggled in a goat, and if memory further serves me right, the camel caused no trouble but the goat had issues with its bowels.
On another occasion, in observance of the 46th birthday of our esteemed executive editor, Gene Roberts, Jim turned once again to the animal world for inspiration.
Gene’s nickname (long story) was “The Frog,” so Jim thought it would be appropriate, on that birthday morning, to sneak 46 large bullfrogs into Gene’s private office bathroom. Which is what he did. They were hopping all over the floor in there.
Gene came to work as usual, and as news about the frogs spread around the newsroom people waited and waited to see how our fearless leader would react. Well, if they expected Gene to burst from the office in shock and dismay, they were disappointed. Sometime in mid-morning, he calmly walked out to his secretary’s desk and said in an untroubled voice, and with a poker face, “Carol, there are frogs in my bathroom.” Then, just as calmly, he returned to his work.
Somehow, this was funnier than if Gene had run screaming in panic.
Before Jim Naughton became an editor at the Inquirer, he’d been a White House correspondent for the New York Times, covering President Gerald Ford.
Ford was running for re-election in 1976, and the reporters following his campaign were frustrated because he seemed more interested in fluffy banalities than in the pressing issues of the day. Naughton had trouble even getting Ford to call on him for a question at news conferences.
One day, at a political rally in San Diego, Naughton saw Ford point to a man in the crowd who was dressed in a chicken suit. The man turned out to be the San Diego Chicken, the famous mascot.
“I love this guy,” the President declared.
“I have to get me one of those chicken suits,” Naughton thought.
And he did. He bought a spare headdress from the San Diego Chicken for $100, and at Ford’s next campaign stop, in Portland, in he walked to Ford’s press conference. As the story was told to me, the chicken waved for recognition, the President called on him, and the chicken proceeded to ask a question.
Ford later said that, while he had seen some funny-looking people in the press corps, he’d never before seen anything like that chicken. “And then I heard it was Jim Naughton,” Ford said, “and that explained everything.”
In spite of being a superb journalist, Jim never won a Pulitzer Prize. But he always referred to his chicken stunt as The Pullet Surprise.