Robert Smith’s death as the W. Post covered it: Nothing on Skyline or secret Ribicoff investment

image How did the sprawling Crystal City complex, near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, get its name? In the 1960s, developer Robert H. Smith dressed up his first apartment building there with a chandelier in the lobby, and soon the name spread to other Smith properties. It was, as I see it, a perfect example of the Smith family’s marketing prowess. Telling details like that enlivened a generally excellent Washington Post obituary on Smith, whose father, Charles E. Smith, was a partial inspiration for the Seymour Solomon character in The Solomon Scandals. Similarly the Post obit lavished space on the Smith family’s charitable activities, exactly as it should have.

imageBut here’s a mystery. In more than 1,100 words, why didn’t the obituary even briefly mention the Skyline Plaza tragedy, which, as a timeline from the Fairfax County Public Library shows, was a major event in county history? The Smiths and friends owned the project, and the controversies over the disaster were rather public. Fourteen construction workers died at Skyline, and dozens were injured. The Smiths denied responsibility for the collapse, and I won’t reach any conclusions here, but, for what it’s worth, Robert Smith was running the construction arm of the Smith interests at the time. Not mentioning Skyline was an injustice against the workers’ families.

Still, I can appreciate the pressures of space and time, the explanation kindly given to me by the one of the obituary writers today. Now I’m rooting for the obit crew to do a follow-up in the lively and thoughtful Post Mortem blog, given the Smith family’s importance in D.C.-area history and local society.

image image Likewise, alas, the lengthy obit failed to mention Sen. Abraham Ribicoff’s secret and apparently illegal investment in another Smith-related property, the CIA-occupied Key Building in Arlington County, Virginia. Robert Smith’s name appeared on the lease documents (partial PDF reproduction), which contrary to regulations, failed to list all the partners. I myself broke the story for Connecticut papers via the old States News Service. The Smiths told both me and NBC Nightly News correspondent James Polk that the Ribicoff investment was an accident.

Still, Ribicoff sat on a Senate committee overseeing the General Services Administration, the agency that enriched the Smiths in Crystal City and elsewhere. Ribicoff held perhaps as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars in Smith-related investments in nongovernment projects, too, and while there’s no proven quid pro quo, couldn’t the Post have briefly mentioned the relationship to let readers judge for themselves? Why were Ribicoff’s investments hidden behind a trustee, David Kotkin, who said he didn’t want anyone pestering  Ribicoff about leaky faucets?

image Is it possible that the Post obit crew didn’t know about Skyline and the separate Ribicoff investment? Actually no. I personally alerted Staff Writer Matt Schudel, who was chronicling the death of Robert Smith in a pre-print blog item. He and another writer did a stellar job on the whole in both the blog post and the finished article, but I’m still disappointed that the obit didn’t mention Skyline, given the Smiths’ connection with this rather public and historical tragedy. And around D.C. mightn’t the Smiths’ friendship with Ribicoff have mattered, one way or another?

To his credit, Matt Schudel offered a prompt explanation via e-mail when I asked if deadline pressures or respect for the dead might be responsible for the omission: “You are correct. We had limited time and space to prepare the obituary of Robert Smith and had to make several cuts for space at the last minute. I’m sorry that we had to leave out the subjects you refer to.” I’d respectfully disagree with the Post’s decision not to run the Skyline and Ribicoff mentions, but my hunch is that the reasons for the omissions were in fact innocent.

Luckily, we’re in the era of the Net, and as noted, I’d love to see the Post follow up in the obit blog with the details that didn’t make print. Yes, I can put myself in the obit writers’ place. Here’s Robert H. Smith, described as a god by VIP friends and associates, and then out of the blue I call up Matt S. about troubling old clips and documents and expect him to make instant sense of them. Still, for the sake of history, I would strongly encourage the Post’s obit crew or others there to do a sequel online at least and maybe even in print.

Robert Smith, after all, was one of Washington area’s biggest property owners with a gift for bringing powerful politicians and other VIPs into his partnerships (not to mention his major political contributions to members of both parties, as well as close ties with the media, as shown by his $5-million Newseum donation and his company’s major advertising in D.C. publications). So why not give readers a more balanced account, through a sequel, rather than just picking up the paeans from the Smiths’ admirers? Like his father, Smith was a most well-connected figure. Even the late humorist Art Buchwald, a close friend of Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, was an investor. So, if I recall correctly, were at least two Supreme Court Justices. Post readers thus deserve more than just an obit done within the local media’s standard storyline about the Smiths. When Skyline caved in, people could hear the rumble for miles.

An aside: I don’t always have a chance to read it, but when I do, I really like the obit blog, which covers some deaths even before the news reaches print, and which allows reader feedback—one way to help the Post get the details right for the print edition, no small challenge when ready-to-go obits aren’t around. More papers should do obit blogs. A great service, especially considering the importance of obituaries for families and friends of the dead.

An addendum, Jan. 5, 2010: I should have mentioned an earlier collapse, on June 6, 1968, at the Crystal City Mall, where three construction workers died and 33 others suffered injuries. I’ll not attempt here to determine if there was a meaningful connection with the Skyline collapse—for example, whether construction deadlines from the Smiths might have been involved in one or both cases. I don’t know.

Related: Robert H. Smith dead: Son of the builder who helped inspired the Solomon character.

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David Rothman

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