Claudia Rosett’s Wonderful Life
She started at age seven, serving tea and cookies to Milton and Rose Friedman, and rose to cover our political economy — and dodge machine gun fire to walk among the protesters at Tiananmen Square.
The death Saturday of Claudia Rosett takes, at age 67, not only a treasured friend and colleague but also one of her generation’s greatest journalists. She came up through the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, served a tour as its Moscow bureau chief and another as editorial page editor of its edition in Asia, where she covered, among other things, the Communist Chinese massacre at Tiananmen Square.
One of the things that made Claudia Rosett such a strong journalist — aside from her brilliance and passion for principles — was her mastery of political economy. She’d imbibed this at the knee of her father, Richard, dean of the University of Chicago’s business school and a free-market sage. At the age of seven, she took tea with Milton and Rose Friedman, to whom she served cookies. She mixed all that with a major in English literature at Yale — and her own true grit.
“Some people sail through in this great golden glow,” she once told the Hillsdale Collegian. “That wasn’t me. You just keep writing and you keep asking people for work.” She got an internship at the Journal, and “when that didn’t lead to a full-time job on staff,” she said, “I just began writing wherever I could … It was just going in, asking if they needed something or if I could write something for them. And just keep writing.”
Soon the Journal came back to her with an assignment to review a book by Dr. Seuss, looking at nuclear deterrence through a morally equivalent prism and imagining a feud over how to butter bread. Claudia wrote a review in the cadences of Dr. Seuss’s rhyme and concluding that the famed author had come down with a brain full of “oobleck” Wrote she: “The fable is cute, but it wears a bit thin / For those coming over the wall in Berlin.”
That prompted the Journal to hire her, and the rest is history. One of Claudia’s scoops was to get into a labor camp in Siberia that was part of what she called “one of the most sordid, and profitable, joint ventures in Russia” — a “state to state deal between Moscow and Pyongyang under which some 15,000 North Koreans, tended by North Korean guards, log the vast birch and pine forests of southeastern Siberia.” Even the Russians likened them to slaves.
Claudia was at Hong Kong, when word began to go around about an anti-government protest building across China, including in the communist capital. Claudia raced to Beijing, just in time to get a hotel room overlooking Tiananmen Square. She covered the protest from inside the square and, as it was suppressed, braving machine-gun fire as she dashed back and forth between the square and her hotel, whence she phoned in reports of the action.
When the Sun began publication in 2002, Claudia was freelancing — and became a contributing editor of the paper, delivering what the Times’ William Safire called the Sun’s “first world beat.” It disclosed that the son of the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, was still on a payroll related to the UN’s oil-for-food program, long after he’d supposedly left the payroll. Oil-for-food became a major UN scandal.
Once, when an ex-official of the UN failed to return her phone calls, Claudia flew to Cyprus, and without an appointment, fetched up at his apartment. She expected him to slam the door in her face. Instead, she got him to let her in for what became an illuminating two hour interview with the former UN undersecretary-general and “self-described scapegoat and retired pensioner at the heart of the biggest corruption scandal in U.N. history.”
One of our favorite conversations with Claudia was about the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She had a wry take, imagining the arch-capitalist, Mr. Potter, succeeded in taking over the bank run by Jimmy Stewart.* Some years ago Claudia found her beshert in a former officer of the British army, Tim Wilson. They settled beside one of the Finger Lakes of New York, where, with Tim holding her hand, Claudia spent the last hours of her own wonderful newspaper life.
* Claudia, as we recall it, wrote a piece along these lines, but we’ve been unable to find it.