Remembering Howard Fineman: What Every Journalist Should Aspire to Be

In his thousands of articles and appearances on cable news, and over 27,000 Tweets since 2012, Fineman shared reflections on his own life and perspectives on the trajectory of American politics.
June 19, 2024
Howard Fineman, Newsweek’s Senior Washington Correspondent, poses on the red carpet upon arrival at a salute to FOX News Channel’s Brit Hume on January 8, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

For political junkies in the U.S., Howard Fineman was a familiar face and trusted source of wit, deep political knowledge, and unwavering commitment to journalistic integrity. The esteemed journalist and political commentator passed away on June 11, 2024, at his home in Washington, D.C., after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 75.

President Joe Biden summed up Fineman’s contributions to political discourse in a statement the week of his passing: “Great journalists hold a mirror up to the Nation to reveal the good, the bad, and the truth of who we are as Americans. For four decades, Howard Fineman was one of the great journalists of our time.”

While his career in journalism spanned over four decades, it would be more appropriate to say that Fineman’s life spanned 18 Presidential elections. In his thousands of articles and appearances on cable news, and over 27,000 Tweets since 2012, Fineman shared reflections on his own life and perspectives on the trajectory of American politics. He had a front row seat to the minds and workings of the U.S. leaders dating back to the 1970s. Some of Fineman’s most profound reflections would happen in the days following the deaths of key players in American politics. Fineman was apt to make tributes but also put the lessons into the perspective and context of the present-day political landscape in the U.S.

Howard David Fineman was born on November 17, 1948, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, just weeks after President Harry S. Truman’s surprising victory over Thomas Dewey and Strom Thurmond.

His father, Charles Morton “Mort” Fineman, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II from 1942 to 1945 on a top-secret radar team. Fineman described his father as “Voracious reader with a symphonic sense of history. My best teacher. Heroes included Churchill, Truman, Asimov, Spinoza, Gauguin, Martha Graham, Frank Herbert, Lead Belly, Dylan, Thomas Wolfe, [Pittsburgh] Pirates.”

After the war, Mort met Jean Lederman in a philosophy of education class at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. They married in 1946. Jean, who passed away in 2016, taught in Pittsburgh schools for over 30 years.

Fineman grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Squirrel Hill, a Jewish neighborhood on the city’s east side. His parents were active members of the Tree of Life Synagogue, where they taught Sunday school, and Howard and his sister Beth Fineman Schroeter attended.

It was during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term, though, that Fineman’s early interest in journalism started to bud.

When he was eight years old, on the day of the rematch between the President Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, the young Fineman created his own “newsroom” at home during the election, and shared the results with his parents. Years later, Fineman would be an invited speaker at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

The Finemans became one of the first subscribers of the New York Times when it became available in Pittsburgh, he remembered that “the living room became immersed in papers.” While he was a political wonk from a young age, he had other interests. His dream “was to get an autograph from [professional wrestler] Bruno Sammartino at the Jewish Y, where he worked out.”

It was John F. Kennedy who really sparked Fineman’s interest in politics. “As a boy I loved to watch JFK’s press conferences,” Fineman wrote on the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in 2023. “I didn’t want to be him — an impossible dream — but I wanted to be in the press corps asking him questions. We all loved our country. We were inspired by his presence, wit, and ideals. Hope for us didn’t die with him, but innocence did.”

During the Civil Rights Movement, Fineman was inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “A good, strong, principled man,” Fineman said about King. ‘One of the best we’ve ever had in this country. I didn’t know him, never met him, but as a boy I watched him on TV, and came to believe that America could overcome the worst of its history to become, as Lincoln said, ‘the last best hope of Earth.’” In the 1960s, Fineman took notice of another civil rights icon from this era, future U.S. Congressman John Lewis.

“One of the most decent, inspiring men I’ve met in covering politics for all these years,” Fineman said on the day of Lewis’ passing. “He’s a civil rights hero, and as passionate a patriot as we’ve produced. The key to him is that he sees no conflict between the two; indeed, they’re the same thing.”

During his senior year of high school, Fineman’s two favorite Beatles albums were released. “[‘Rubber Soul’] and ‘Revolver’ are best,” Fineman wrote. “‘We Can Work it Out’ was my favorite when it came out and still is. The startling start, the harmonium, the tight vocal harmony, the staggered rhythm of the bridge. Their genius in a tiny package, plus the upbeat message. The sheer joy of being a band.”

Weeks after “Revolver” was released in August of 1966, Fineman entered Colgate University in upstate New York. There, he would edit the college newspaper, The Colgate Maroon. “ Fineman’s engagement with political journalism deepened as he edited the newspaper. In 2011, he’d return to his alma mater to give a commencement address. “A Colgate commencement isn’t always a good omen,” Fineman dryly told to the Class of 2011. “Four presidential nominees have spoken at commencement, and they all lost.”

Fineman was keenly aware of injustice and antisemitism. In August 2023, he shared a Jewish Journal article to his nearly quarter-million Twitter followers titled, “Has Princeton Returned To Its Antisemitic Roots?” Commenting on the article, Fineman wrote,  “a dear friend of mine was driven from Princeton in the late sixties by the toxic, pervasive antisemitism of the place.” The late 1960s were a time of much political upheaval. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was murdered. Two months later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, then the Democratic nominee for President, was murdered in Los Angeles. On the 55th anniversary of RFK’s assassination, Fineman looked back at that day and juxtaposed the elder Kennedy with his son who is running for President in 2024.

“RFK died on June 5, 1968 trying to bring fairness and decency to us all,” Fineman wrote. “His son and crackpot namesake would divide the forces of fairness and decency in a way that might insure the return of a dictator to the office once held by another Kennedy martyr, JFK. Shame on RFK Jr.”

In the summer of ‘68 the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. And it will be returning to Chicago in this summer. But in April of this year, Fineman reflected on the riotous convention in 1968. “The 1968 Dem convention was underway in Chicago the week I arrived in London to study abroad,” Fineman wrote. “We were listening to Radio Free Europe that infamous night of shouting on the floor. Radio Free Europe’s reaction? THEY SHUT OFF THE BROADCAST! Eerie silence. What’ll happen in Chicago this year?”

In the summer before his senior year at Colgate, the 20-year-old Fineman drove 100 miles south with his friends to attend the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, New York.

“When we got to Woodstock, entrance fences were down,” Fineman wrote. “We walked in. Found a spot with strangers on a blanket in the midst of the sea of people. Sound was not great; mud galore; Wavy Gravy’s bus! Sly Stone in command that night. I thought: yes, solidarity, but do we know for what?”

After graduating from Colgate, Fineman won a Watson Traveling Fellowship, a postgraduate award for a year abroad pursuing an original, personal research project. Fineman’s project was on Jewish and family history in Europe, Russia, the Baltics and Middle East. He called it “a pioneering Boomer ‘Kosher Roots’ odyssey.”

On Christmas Eve in 2021, Fineman wrote a Twitter thread reminiscing about his 1971 experience abroad  “I went to Bethlehem, a Jewish student bending low through a church door to see where Jesus was born. Fifty years on I value even more the message of that place and of Christmas, which as I hear it is: the world needs more love, hope and justice.”

Following the fellowship in 1972, Fineman would pursue a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. On his way to New York, Fineman took a detour to Miami, Florida to cover the 1972 Democratic Convention for a Denver magazine a college buddy had started. “I’ve been reporting on politics ever since,” Fineman wrote on the 50th anniversary of the convention.

After graduating from Columbia in 1973, Fineman began his career at the Louisville Courier-Journal, covering state politics, the coal industry, and environmental issues. His tenure at the Courier-Journal marked the beginning of his deep connection with Kentucky, a state he would still feel connected to long after he departed to cover national politics in Washington, D.C. Fineman covered the Kentucky Derby every year he lived in Louisville. “I’m honored that my ‘home’ newspaper, [Louisville] Courier-Journal, asked me to write about what it was like covering the Kentucky Derby in the 70s, when I was a cub reporter there,” Fineman wrote in March 2024. “Short answer: fun! My favorite assignment was the ‘backside’ with the horses, and walking with them onto the track.”

While at the Courier-Journal, Fineman would dive head first into reporting on Kentucky politics. He would also become friends with future U.S. Rep. Jon Yarmuth (D-Ky.). At the time, Yarmuth was the publisher of an alternative city paper. When Yarmuth retired from Congress in 2021, Fineman said that Yarmuth was “the classiest, kindest, most thoughtful politician I’ve had the privilege to know and cover.”

This was also the era of Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, which would change political reporting forever. “When I entered Columbia Journalism in 1972 my model was political saga-ist Teddy White [Author of “The Making of the President” books],” Fineman wrote. “By late Watergate spring of 73, it became relentless bloodhounds Woodstein [Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein]. If I were entering [journalism] now? Who? She might not even exist: a universally respected facts-only reporter.”

During Gerald Ford’s brief presidency, Fineman’s career continued to evolve. Also during this era, it was a great time to be a Pittsburgh Steelers football fan. In 1975, his beloved Steelers won the first of four Super Bowls they’d win by 1980. Looking back, he wrote, ‘the Steelers saved Pittsburgh. They WERE Pittsburgh. Still ARE Pittsburgh. A fifth-generation native, they saved ME in the grim 70s, as I slogged through the Nixon-Ford-Carter Years. The Steelers were a rare gem of excellence in a louche, crappy era of waterbeds and bad pot.”

In his later years, Fineman often compared the temperament of President Donald Trump to that  of his predecessors. “After Watergate, Jimmy Carter won in 1976 as a cleansing figure promising he’d ‘never lie’ to us,” Fineman wrote in 2020. “It helped that [he] was an outsider; a relative novice in politics who’d never held a DC office. Joe Biden’s been in and around DC since 1973. But Trump’s a far bigger liar than Nixon.”

President Carter would be the first U.S. President that Fineman would interview. They first met in Kentucky in 1977. When Carter fell ill in 2019, Fineman described the 39th President as “tough as nails and decent as the day is long. I covered his first State of the Union in Jan. 1978. America felt like one family for a year or two, believe it or not.”

Fineman joined the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Washington D.C. bureau in 1978, expanding his coverage to national politics. On the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration in 2021, Fineman looked back at this era and said, “when I started as a reporter, Jimmy Carter was rising in his role as antidote to criminal liar Richard Nixon, promising to tell the truth to the American people. I’m struck by how that echoes now. Biden in this is Carter redux: a prayerful truth-teller follows a criminal liar.”

Fineman earned his law degree from the Louis D. Brandeis school of law at the University of Louisville in 1980, having attended part-time while working as a reporter for the Courier-Journal. Though the best part of law school, Fineman said, happened three decades later: when Fineman received an honorary doctorate from the university as a whole, he got to spend time at the ceremony with Louisville native and one of the greatest athletes of all time, Muhammad Ali.

The 1980s were a period of tremendous professional growth and personal milestones for Fineman. In 1980, he joined Newsweek, where he would work for the next three decades. He held various positions, including political correspondent, chief political correspondent, senior editor, and deputy Washington bureau chief.

On October 31, 1981 at a Halloween party at Capitol Hill’s Tune Inn, he met Amy Lee Nathan, then a D.C. journalist (now a tech lawyer). “I was a reporter who’d attended Georgetown Law; Amy was a former reporter going full-time to GU,” Fineman wrote. Halloween would remain a special day for the couple and their family year after year. Fineman and Amy got married on April 21, 1984.

“She was busy studying for the D.C. bar. I was covering my first presidential campaign for Newsweek,” Feinman said. Even though it was a Presidential election year, Fineman and Amy would find time to honeymoon in Paris, France and Siena, Italy.

“My first campaign as Newsweek chief political correspondent in 1984 was Walter Mondale’s,” Fineman wrote on the day of Mondale’s passing in 2021. “He was a classy product of the respected tradition of Minnesota farmer-labor liberalism. ‘Well-run government could help us all,’ he said. Reagan scoffed; Fritz lost. Now the idea’s back at the forefront.”

Fineman continued to cover the changing political landscape during Ronald Reagan’s second term, providing in-depth analysis and reporting on the evolving dynamics within the Republican and Democratic parties of the mid-1980s. “In 1986, I sat across a table from Henry Kissinger at a small off-the-record dinner in DC,” Fineman wrote on the day of Kissinger’s passing in 2023. “It was supposed to be civil, but he quickly sized me up: a kid who in college had opposed the war in Vietnam and Cambodia. From then on he had hatred in his eyes. Scary, disproportionate.”

In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush ran for the GOP nomination; on the Democratic side was then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden from Delaware and U.S. Colorado Senator Gary Hart. Fineman’s been credited breaking  the story that ultimately ended Hart’s Presidential bid in 1988. It was about a conversation Fineman had with a Hart campaign staffer about the Senator’s alleged extramarital affairs. Hart, who was seen as a rising star, dropped out of the race and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis ended up winning the Democratic nomination that year.  “Last time a Newsweek cover labeled a GOP nominee a ‘wimp’ was 1987,” Fineman wrote. “It was George H.W. Bush, who went on to drub Dukakis with the Willie Horton ad.” George H. W. Bush’s inauguration would be the first of eight straight that Fineman would attend “at close range.” Fineman later wrote that he had to watch what would have been his ninth inauguration (Biden in 2021) on TV “thanks to COVID and Trump.”

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, largely through the advocacy of U.S. Senator Bob Dole. When Dole passed away in 2021, Fineman wrote, “I covered Senator Dole for many years, and admire his courage in overcoming bitterness and dedicating himself to public service after being severely wounded in the waning days of WWII. A lasting achievement is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which wouldn’t exist but for him.”

As Bill Clinton took office, Fineman’s role at Newsweek expanded. In 1993, he became Deputy Washington Bureau Chief and was appointed Senior Editor in 1995. During this time, Fineman also became acquainted with James Carville, a strategist for the Clinton campaign who became a political commentary fixture on cable television news. “I watched him whip the Clinton staff into fighting shape in New Hampshire in ‘92 like a Derby jockey,” Fineman said. “Funny, smart, effective.”

Fineman would later write about Carville, “…the best insult I ever heard was from one of my all-time favorite people, James Carville, who said of someone he despised — I forget who — ‘I wouldn’t piss in his mouth if his heart was on fire.’ That’s not Yiddish, but it might be Cajun.”

Fineman was a regular panelist on the PBS show “Washington Week in Review” on PBS from 1983 to 1995. He made frequent appearances on CNN’s “The Capital Gang Sunday” from 1995 to 1998.

Covering the 2000 election, Fineman wrote a cover story on McCain in Newsweek, “The McCain Mutiny.” After McCain dropped out of the race in 2000, Fineman traveled to Hanoi, Vietnam with McCain and his family and saw where the Navy pilot was shot down and  where he was a prisoner of war for five years. “We saw the source of his pain & courage,” Fineman wrote, adding that McCain “ran a campaign in 2000 that opened up politics in a good way.”

Fineman covered the contentious 2000 presidential campaign and the aftermath of the disputed election. Less than a year later, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 would change everything. “What I remember about this day: our kids hustled off their school playgrounds to shelter,” Fineman wrote. “The view from my office window of dark smoke rising from the Pentagon across the river; the sense that a dreadful new era was upon us. We live to honor those who died that day.”

Fineman’s interview with President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One only ten weeks after 9/11 was one of the most notable cover stories of his career. He interviewed Bush for another cover story in Newsweek in March 2003 titled, “Bush & God: How Faith Changed His LIfe and Shapes His Presidency.”

In 2004, Fineman would join the blogosphere, writing on msnbc.com in real time at the national conventions in New York and Boston — on his Blackberry. “I was a very early adopter, starting when it was little more than a glorified paging device with a tiny screen,” Fineman wrote. “Wanted to call it my ‘BlogBerry’ but Microsoft, which half-owned MSNBC, nixed it.”

Fineman’s book, “The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country,” was published in 2008. In the afterword of the book, Fineman wrote, “The real question is: How do we do it better? If our disputes don’t produce results, one reason is because we have lost a shared sense of — and pride in — ourselves as Americans. The most patriotic things we can do are to take part in the debate, and honor with all our hearts the humanity of whoever else does the same. Patriotism isn’t merely a salute; it’s the right to speak. Indeed, it is the very act of speaking.”

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 marked a new era in American politics, and Fineman was there to cover it.

“The decade began for me covering Tea Party rallies and town hall protests sparked by Obama’s ACA but also fear (immigration, global trade and race) and resentment (often justified) at Ivied elites,” Fineman wrote of the era. “In ten years that’s metastasized, ironically, into Trump’s reign of the rich.”

In 2010, Fineman joined The Huffington Post as senior politics editor and later became the global editorial director. He described it as a “hot startup” when he joined. “I was lucky to be asked by Ariana Huffington in September 2010 to join the core editorial ranks of The Huffington Post,” Fineman wrote. “She built an amazing global news site.” Arianna Huffington, founder of HuffPost, looked back at her time working with Fineman, remembering “His brilliant mentorship, insightful voice and fearless embrace of the news as our Global Editorial Director helped HuffPost scale to 17 international editions and over 200 million unique visitors.”

During Obama’s second term, Fineman continued to report at The Huffington Post. In 2011, he delivered a Commencement speech at Colgate. That same year, he received the Alumni Fellows Award from the University of Louisville’s Louis D. Brandeis School of Law. In 2013, he delivered the law school’s convocation speech and was awarded an honorary doctorate.

The open election to succeed Obama in the White House slowly heated up for three years. In 2013, future President Donald Trump praised one of Fineman’s articles, titled “Karl Rove Is Done,” tweeting “Great column by@howardfineman on @HuffPostPol.”

In 2014, Fineman wrote what (he realized in retrospect) was the first “mainstream” media interview with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and his presidential ambitions. “I didn’t dismiss him,” Fineman wrote about Sanders. In 2015, Fineman interviewed Trump in his office in New York. “I saw that no one could sit on the chairs and couches (except a chair in front of his desk) because they were piled high with plaques, trophies, framed certificates and other ego-feeding bric-a-brac,” Fineman wrote. The election of Trump in 2016 marked another massive shift in American politics. Fineman, deeply affected by the divisive rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration, continued to advocate for integrity and compassion in journalism — even as the president denigrated the institution of journalism as a whole.

In 2018, Fineman was deeply disturbed by the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue, which he attended as a child. On October 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire. Eleven people were murdered and six wounded. That day, Fineman, shared his reflections on his early life at Tree of Life: “My God Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is the loving, dignified place where my sister and I attended, and our parents taught, Sunday school; where I was bar mitzvah; where my sister wore to class a velvet jumper my mother made; the deep Jewish roots of my own tree of life.”

He wrote about the shooting in the New York Times in an opinion piece, “Shaking My Faith in America: The bloodshed in the Tree of Life synagogue is a sign that hatred of The Other is poisoning our public life.”

An excerpt of Fineman’s story in the aftermath of the shooting:

“I was reared in a Jewish paradise — aka America, my Promised Land. Not the one God gave us (though I love that one, too), but the one we chose for ourselves … Now I must wonder: If Pittsburgh isn’t safe for Jews, if Squirrel Hill isn’t safe, if the Tree of Life isn’t safe, what place is? Without diminishing anyone else’s suffering and death, it’s a sad fact that the Jews often are the canaries in the coal mine of social and political collapse. So, what does the bloodshed in the Tree of Life mean?”

In 2018, Fineman taught a seminar at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Then-former Vice President Biden was a guest lecturer. That same year, Fineman left the Huffington Post. He wrote that he “left in 2018 after Verizon’s B-school suits took control, but admire the journos there and cringe as [HuffPost co-founder Jonah] Peretti destroys what he invented.”

The election of Joe Biden in 2020 would be the last election Fineman would see through election day. He’d be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2022. Still, he remained actively engaged in political commentary and continued to mentor young journalists. Though he lived in Washington, D.C. for most of his life, he never forgot where he came from, those who raised him, and the generations before who built and defended the U.S.

Fortunately for the American people, Fineman recorded his observations on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to leading the country. “Not surprisingly, I’ve found that the best politicians are those who genuinely like people, who are gregarious and have a sense of humor about politics, life and especially themselves,” Fineman wrote. His Twitter feed was a reliable source of historical anniversaries, and often put into the context of the news of the day. Indeed, it’s that trail of memories and perspectives Fineman shared on Twitter between writing, reporting, and lecturing that made this obituary possible.

He would often bring up the inspiration he drew from his father at any opportunity.

“Mort served with pride to protect freedom and justice in a society defined by the democratically-elected rule of law,” Fineman wrote about his father on Veterans Day in 2021. “All that is under attack again, this time not by Hitler and Tojo, but from within, by leaders who sneer at truth, law and decency.”

In the days following Fineman’s passing, many of his contemporaries had glowing praise along with profound sadness at his untimely passing.

“Howard Fineman was the consummate political magazine reporter — a deft writer with great sources and a keen feel for telling anecdotes,” Jay Carney, Obama’s White House Press Secretary, said. “He was also funny and kind, even to those of us who tried (and usually failed) to compete with him.”

Ron Insana, a CNBC finance reporter, wrote “I had the pleasure of interviewing and working with Howard over the years. He was a true gentleman, scholar, and a lovely human being. He was a force for good in our chosen business and will be sorely missed.” Norah O’Donnell, the anchor of “The CBS Evening News,” called Fineman “a brilliant journalist—adored for his humor and kindness.”  And Arianna Huffington, founder of HuffPost, said “American journalism is better because of Howard Fineman, and I will miss him dearly,”

“I am heartbroken to share that my brilliant and extraordinary husband passed away late last night surrounded by those he loved most, his family,” his wife Amy wrote on Fineman’s Twitter on June 12. “He valiantly battled pancreatic cancer for 2 years. He couldn’t have been adored more. ”His son Nick said “the world was a better place because he lived in it and wrote about it,” said. “I was lucky enough to get to call him dad.”

Fineman is survived by his wife; their daughter, Meredith Fineman, an author and speaker, their son, Nick, a producer as MSNBC, and his sister, Beth Fineman Schroeter.

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