Mr. Topping’s years on The Times masthead, as assistant managing editor, deputy managing editor and managing editor coincided with Mr. Rosenthal’s 17-year tenure in charge of news operations, from 1969 to 1986. That was no accident.
While the two were as unalike as night and day, Mr. Topping was Mr. Rosenthal’s handpicked alter-ego, as tough as the boss, but with none of his rough edges. Mr. Topping’s quietly diplomatic, good-natured calm had a temporizing influence on Mr. Rosenthal, a table-pounding former correspondent whose brilliance as an editor did nothing to mask an abrasive, mercurial temperament that sometimes eroded staff morale.
Mr. Rosenthal acknowledged as much years later, explaining why he had chosen Mr. Topping over another deputy. “I passed over Arthur Gelb, a very close friend, because we were both emotional and excitable,” he told John Stacks, a biographer of the Times editor James Reston. “I chose Topping. There were things I was very good at, and things I wasn’t good at. Topping was very good.”
It was an excellent fit in other respects, too. Mr. Topping’s news and personnel judgments were solid, and he and Mr. Rosenthal, above all, prized high standards of reporting and editing, which demanded fairness, objectivity and good taste in news columns free of editorial comment, political agendas, innuendo and unattributed pejorative quotations.
Together, the two men shaped The Times’s news coverage of a tumultuous era — the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers case, the Watergate scandals that drove Richard M. Nixon from the presidency, the vicissitudes of the Cold War and successive crises in the Middle East.
Throughout their tandem tenure, Mr. Topping took the lead in staff meetings, even with Mr. Rosenthal present, as editors decided which articles would appear on Page 1, and with what emphasis — decisions that influenced the judgments of news editors across America. And Mr. Topping basically ran the newsroom for weeks or months at a time when Mr. Rosenthal was away visiting correspondents, off on occasional reporting trips or absented by long-running problems in his personal life.