The protracted war, the revelations of Watergate, a powerful Democratic Congress, and the Washington press corps, especially columnist Jack Anderson — who blew the whistle on the administration’s corrupt financing of San Diego’s aborted bid for the 1972 GOP convention, personally orchestrated by Nixon and Copley — all finally combined to bring down the roof on San Diego’s old-boy establishment.
One fact could not be disputed: Jim Copley and his newspapers, ignoring the avalanche of national coverage, protected Smith and his friends virtually until the very day in October 1973 when federal agents marched into Smith’s office at the United States National Bank and shut him down. At the time, it was the biggest bank collapse in American history.
Four months later, on October 6, 1973, Jim Copley died of a brain tumor, the same night the first copies of the Union rolled off the presses of the paper’s new printing plant in Mission Valley. He was just 57. The Copley newspapers had hidden his lengthy illness from the public, and even his closest executives had little clue to the succession plan. Copley CEO Robert Letts Jones, Stanford alum and all-around good old boy who had been a loyal company stalwart since the mid-1950s, was confident he had been chosen by Jim to carry on.
No outsider can say what really happened during that epic transition. Jim’s letters and papers are still locked away in the vaults of the Copley Library in La Jolla. But what later became clear through legal records was that, as Jim lay dying at Scripps Memorial Hospital, his second wife Helen engineered a bedside coup.
Before his death, Copley signed a revised will and a trust agreement, effectively giving Helen complete control over the estate and casting his two children, adopted during his first marriage, into a gilded wilderness. Jones was dumped, and the spin machine of the Copley Press went to work for its new master.
It became a national story. Nixon was soon to fall, feminism was on the rise, and East Coast magazine editors — as always, tantalized by San Diego’s small-town reputation for sun and sin — devised a Horatio Alger angle. Iowa-born Helen Copley, née Hunt, came to San Diego to escape the Midwest stigma of single, working motherhood, joined Copley’s secretarial pool, got lucky, and married the boss.
According to the national magazines, Jim Copley’s tutelage had transformed his second wife into a brilliant newspaper executive, ready and able to revolutionize the sleepy, right-wing, hidebound media company she’d inherited. No less a journalistic light than Gail Sheehy, later author of the best-seller Passages, was dispatched from Manhattan to produce a glowing profile of Helen Copley for New West, the West Coast spin-off of Clay Felker’s New York magazine.
Helen was already reforming the Union and Evening Tribune, Sheehy reported; the San Diego Zoo was no longer a “sacred cow,” the Copley term for those local institutions shielded by the papers from unflattering coverage in years past. From now on, the coverage of the papers would be straight, free of the taint of boosterism and politics that up until that point had been a hallmark of the Copleys.
It was a myth, of course, similar to earlier tales about Ira and Jim Copley being noble stewards of the public good. Helen was street-smart, but that was about it. She knew next to nothing about actually running newspapers; in fact she proved best at getting rid of one. She dumped the Sacramento Union, one of Jim’s ego ventures, a financially disastrous attempt to go head-to-head with the dominant Bee, owned by the liberal McClatchy family. She also sold off Ira Copley’s mansion in Aurora, along with the company airplane.
Helen’s pick to edit the San Diego Union was Jerry Warren, a former Copley editor who had gone to Washington to become Nixon’s assistant press secretary, reporting to the infamous Ron Ziegler. She hired back Herb Klein, Nixon’s old political operative, giving him the title Editor in Chief of the Copley Newspapers. The predicted breath of fresh air smelled more like stale West Wing deodorizer.
Not that there weren’t a few interesting moments. When the late Otis Chandler of the Los Angeles Times strode down Broadway in the late 1970s and proclaimed that the newly minted San Diego edition of the Times would soon conquer the local newspaper market, the Union and Tribune went on a hiring spree, bringing in J.D. Alexander from the Washington Post to become managing editor of the Union and snapping up local writers from a small alternative weekly called the Reader.
But Chandler’s bet that his brand of aggressive journalism could sell newspapers in San Diego went bad; circulation proved to be miserably low, and he began gradually folding his tent. When the San Diego operation was finally shut down in December 1992, the Times had a total circulation of 60,000 versus the Union’s 380,000, the New York Times reported that month. “Our study of the long-term prospects showed we could continue to grow, but in small numbers,” Phyllis Pfieffer, the San Diego edition’s general manager, told the New York paper. “Otis Chandler’s dream of being a newspaper from Santa Barbara to Tijuana isn’t going to happen in this economy.”
“The view in 1978 was that there was an opportunity there,” L.A. Times publisher David Laventhol told the New York Times. “It turned out to be less so than we thought.” Well before that, the Copley papers had reverted to form; Alexander quit to work for the Hearst paper in Seattle, and vaunted young lights, such as Carl Cannon, son of Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, returned to Washington.
For more than a decade, Helen Copley had stuck like glue to Pete Wilson, the so-called reform mayor elected in 1971, after his predecessor was indicted during the city’s infamous Yellow Cab taxi scandal. Wilson’s aspirations reached far beyond the city limits, all the way to the White House.
In many ways, Republican Wilson was Helen Copley’s Richard Nixon. Her editors backed his every move, with the exception of his so-called growth-management program, which he watered down to meet Copley’s objections. As Herb Klein under Jim Copley had performed for Nixon, the Union’s city hall reporter Otto Bos, a hulking native of Holland, was the paper’s go-between with the Wilson camp during Helen’s time.