Fifty-five years ago this spring “a masterpiece was unveiled in our editorial office.” Thurston N. Davis, S.J., editor in chief at the time, was so taken with the new acquisition that he dedicated his entire Of Many Things column in the issue of April 26, 1958, to a description of it: “It is 12 feet long and of trapezoid shape. Under the satin sheen of the finish, the oaken grain has been matched in a lovely design; the angle-joints are so silky smooth to the touch that they seem no more than penciled lines. Every ounce of its 400 beautifully designed and executed pounds bespeaks the craftsman whose loving care and pride in his work has produced this masterpiece of the cabinetmaker’s art.”
The craftsman was Calvin Mahlmeister, a Jesuit brother; the object of Father Davis’s admiration was the new editorial boardroom table, the place where “we shall sit,” he wrote, “hammering out editorials and comments and the entire policy of this review.” Indeed, the table is magnificent. It is also extremely heavy. In 1965, when Father Davis moved America’s offices from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to Midtown, the table moved too. The movers had to use a crane to guide the table into the editorial board room through the large, second-story window. According to Father Davis, a crowd gathered on the sidewalk in front of America House just to watch the workmen maneuver the Buick-sized office piece.
Perhaps people are busier in New York these days; when the table was moved again last month, after almost five decades in the same location, not a single passerby took note. Once again, though, a crane guided the table out through the same window it had traversed 49 years earlier; several workmen then lowered it into the alley below and carried it around to the front entrance, into the lobby, then up the stairs and into my office. The table had to be moved because—a sign of the times—its former location will be converted into a multimedia studio for America’s Web and digital platforms.
Preparing to move the table was also not easy. Various permissions, lawyers, faxes and not a little frustration were involved. Still, we did not for a moment think about getting rid of it. Here America’s editors have debated the great matters of the day: the death of one president, the disgrace of another; wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan; the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath; the vicissitudes and legacies of six papacies; the end of the cold war, the beginning of the digital revolution. That editorial tradition continues. Following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, we discussed gun control and decided to call for repeal of the Second Amendment while gathered at this table. As you will see from the volume and passion of the correspondence we have received about that editorial (see State of the Question, p. 36), decisions made at the editorial table can elicit powerful reactions.
We know now that just before the Jesuits moved their editorial table to Midtown, the Soviets were moving nuclear missiles to the beaches of Cuba. After President Kennedy revealed the presence of the missiles, the world came perilously close to self-annihilation. Pope John’s response to the Cuban missile crisis was the encyclical “Pacem in Terris.” In this issue, another of my predecessors, Drew Christiansen, S.J., writes about Pope John’s prophetic vision on the occasion of the encyclical’s 50th anniversary.
As we acknowledged in the issue of March 25, 2013, concerning America’s coverage of the Vietnam War, we don’t always make the right decisions at the editorial table. Only God is perfect. Still, our hope and prayer is the same as that of Father Davis: “that our work, in content and style, will reflect—week in and week out—the hatred of sloppy craftsmanship that shines out of every shimmering grain of our new board-room table.”