Johnson was born in New York City to journalist Malcolm Johnson and Emma Ludie (née Adams), a pianist. He earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1952 and his master’s in American history from the University of Wisconsin in 1956. He then served in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant in artillery during the Korean War.
Johnson had begun his newspaper career earlier in Manhattan as a copy boy for the The New York Sun, where his father worked. In 1956 he began reporting for the Wilmington (Delaware) News-Journal, and the following year, Johnson joined the Washington Evening Star where he worked for 12 years, variously as a reporter, copy editor, night city editor and national reporter. He covered conflicts in the Dominican Republic and India, as well as the Vietnam War. Johnson joined The Washington Post in 1969, serving first as a National correspondent, as a special assignment correspondent at home and abroad, then as the paper’s Assistant Managing Editor and finally, as a national affairs columnist. Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1966, for his coverage of the civil rights crisis in Selma, Alabama. The award marked the first time in Pulitzer Prize history that a father and son both received awards for reporting; his father, Malcolm Johnson, won in 1949 for the New York Sun series, “Crime on the Waterfront,” which was the basis for the Academy Award-winning film, On the Waterfront.
He was the author or editor of sixteen books, five of them best-sellers, including his most recent work, co-authored with Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz, The Battle for America: 2008. Johnson also was a regular commentator on the PBS television shows Washington Week in Review and The News Hour. He held academic appointments at Duke University, Princeton University, University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University and served as the Knight chair of public affairs journalism at the University of Maryland from 1998 until 2013.
On May 24, 2013, he died of a heart attack in Bethesda, Maryland. Johnson’s survivors include his wife, Kathryn A. Oberly, an associate judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, and three daughters and two sons from his previous marriage, to Julia Erwin. Dan Balz, senior political reporter at the Washington Post, paid tribute to Johnson’s reporting skills: “I don’t say this lightly. He was a great journalist.” Professor and noted former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times Gene Roberts observed “He made his subjects come alive,” adding that “His writing had a flow and a polish.”
Former advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, former Chicago Tribune political writer and current NBC News senior political analyst David Axelrod stated: “When I was a young political reporter, Haynes Johnson was one of the great, iconic journalists we all aspired to be. May he rest in peace.” University of Maryland President Wallace Loh said of Johnson: “He helped anchor a new generation of journalists.” Johnson is scheduled to be inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists Washington DC chapter’s hall of fame in June, 2013.
- July, 09, 1931
- New York City, New York
- May, 24, 2013
- Bethesada, Maryland