Master builder - journalist at heart

THE dynamite blast goes off outside the blue-and-white striped tent, and there is nervous laughter from the crowd gathered to watch Mortimer Zuckerman dedicate his latest multimillion-dollar hole in the ground.

As if on cue, he appears - a slight man in a gray glen-plaid suit, who walks with his hands behind him like Prince Charles reviewing the troops. Behind Mr. Zuckerman, who is the new owner of U.S. News and World Report, stretches the block-long excavation for his new Park Hyatt Hotel. It is part of the $200 million enclave he is building around U.S. News in Washington's West End. He takes the mike and jokes that he used to be just the landlord for U.S. News.

But in truth he is an empire builder. He has built a real-estate empire as chairman of Boston Properties, whose buildings stand in 15 cities from Boston to Los Angeles. And he is building a publishing empire as the new chairman of U.S. News, with its 2.1 million circulation and 10.4 million readers, and as chairman of the Atlantic magazine and of Atlantic Monthly Press, which publishes books.

In fact, there is something Napoleonic about his bold face with its dark, darting eyes as he smiles and works the tent crowd like a politician. After the speeches he leads the crowd of investors, reporters, and politicians to a party across the street in the orange-brick and glass U.S. News headquarters he built. They are following one of the 400 richest men in America, worth an estimated $ 210 million, a former Montreal kid who earned his first million before he was 30 .

Inside the headquarter's lobby, tables are piled with fresh lobster, crab, pate; a string quartet on the balcony, surrounded by U.S. News balloons, plays Zuckerman's favorite Vivaldi. Over hors d'oeuvres, Zuckerman's real estate partner, Ed Linde, describes him as brilliant and admits that Zuckerman is interested in politics ''but not in political power.'' Hyatt Hotels executive Nicholas Prizger calls him ''a compulsive doer and a closer'' as well as a visionary and dreamer.

As they talk, Zuckerman moves like mercury through the party and then suddenly, somewhere between the stuffed pheasant and baby orchids, he disappears. It's as though he's been airlifted out, probably back to one of the three other cities he has homes in: Boston, New York, Easthampton, L.I. He also has 53 other buildings across the US, representing 10 million square feet of space.

Zuckerman is making his imprint not just on publishing and politics. He is also putting his print on major US cities with buildings designed by top architects, from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's U.S. News headquarters, which won an American Institute of Architects award, to the glassy spires of Edward Larabee Barnes designed for 599 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

He talks about it all one morning over a sunrise breakfast at his unobtrusive , red-brick town house in Washington's Georgetown district. ''The only part (of real estate) I'm interested in,'' he murmurs, ''is building buildings, putting together what it takes. I don't buy buildings, I don't do anything other than build buildings.'' As a former city planning professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design, he admits, ''I am an urban alcoholic.'' His own Georgetown home looks like a layout from House Beautiful, with its airy Palladian windows, mocha rooms decorated in suede and chrome, and a modern art collection that ranges from Frank Stella to Modigliani.

''I get carried away describing my buildings,'' Zuckerman sighs. But there are those who are more curious about Zuckerman as news baron than master builder. Zuckerman backed Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Gary Hart as presidential candidates; the conservative Washington Times brands him too flamboyant and liberal to publish U.S. News. But Zuckerman denies it, describes his own views as ''fairly conservative.'' He says he supports a strong national defense and conservative fiscal policy and opposes massive social programs. ''All of these are not liberal views,'' he points out quietly.

Zuckerman adds that he doesn't expect any personal problems with being involved in a magazine that presents ''the news itself on the most direct, straightforward, factual, serious, authoritative basis.'' He estimates that it will be well into next year before his plans for U.S. News completely fall into place.

But Zuckerman already has installed his ex-Atlantic Monthly press editor, Harold Evans, as editorial director. Mr. Evans is former London Sunday Times editor. He is also the author of the best seller ''Good Times, Bad Times,'' in which he documents the Insight technique of investigative journalism that made him famous and his battle with Times takeover publisher Rupert Murdoch. Zuckerman is very interested in Insight journalism, he says, so Evans is working on a feasibility study for introducing it at U.S. News.

Managing editor Lester Tanzer had earlier said Zuckerman assured the staff that any change in the magazine should be evolutionary. At the magazine, where rumors and uncertainty are rife, many wonder whether Evans will eventually become editor when Zuckerman drops the other silver-buckled shoe. Evans discounts that possibility and says present editor Marvin Stone ''has done a fantastic job over the years.'' He points out that he himself is not involved in day-to-day editing and plans a long-range impact, adding, ''I hope to have a strong influence on the magazine.''

Evans compares Zuckerman to Lord Thomson of Fleet, the late owner of the London Sunday Times: ''Thomson had an extraordinary instinct for candor. He had an instinct for truth. Zuckerman is a more diplomatic or discreet person than Thomson, but has the same feeling that what really matters in journalism is this curious thing called truth, and that has as much validity in journalism as making money or propaganda. . . .

''Their characters are different. Thomson was folksy. Nobody would ever say that Mort Zuckerman is folksy. He's not a playboy, either, since he's deeply interested in current affairs. And he's a writer. . . .''

Zuckerman is no slouch at writing, either. In a New Republic article he wrote after a fact-finding tour of Central America, he captured a Salvadorean colonel in one concise line: ''A short, stocky man, he spoke in the clipped, flat voice of a man who commands, not listens.''

The Mort Zuckerman who sits down to a breakfast of whole-wheat French toast talks in hushed, almost solemn tones about his empires. He presides over the mahogany dining room table like the chairman of the board; every dark hair on his head carefully in place, freshly shaven face with its alert, olive-brown eyes, meticulously tailored navy suit, white shirt, subtle navy foulard tie, as carefully in control as he is dapper. Wait.

Zuckerman has been talking about U.S. News and about his first dinner at the White House that Tuesday night, when he suddenly bolts from the table and barks, ''I've got to catch that plane!'' His limousine is late; he jumps into a gray BMW stashed in the garage and yells, ''OK, folks, now for the ride of your life!'' Then he blasts the car out of the garage, and we hurtle down through Georgetown with his housekeeper-factotum, Mrs. Gretchen Corbin, riding shotgun, calling out directions.

After a wild ride to the airport he sprints in the lobby, never missing a beat of the interview for the tape recorder: following a hard day with a particularly difficult person, he whispers, he draws that person's face on a squash ball and beats the stuffing out of it in his daily game. He scoops up two magazines and two papers at the newsstand, pouncing on Newsweek with a triumphant ''We had that cover last week!'' Then he vrooms through the security, setting off the alarm three times (his dozens of keys) finally reaching the Boston gate where he does a quick goodbye spoof of Woody Allen's ''Play It Again , Sam'' and disappears amid a chorus of laughter.

There is this fey side to Zuckerman as Ms. magazine editor Gloria Steinem (a friend) confirms. She says he once closed out a real estate deal by sending the other firm a singing telegram warbling ''The Deal is Off! The Deal is Off!'' to the tune of ''Hooray for Hollywood.'' Ms. Steinem squelches rumors about a merger, says marriage is unlikely. She says he's a good publisher because he loves it so much. ''He cares so profoundly about the quality of writing and influencing public policy.''

There are those who do not agree, among them Robert Manning, the former Atlantic editor Zuckerman fired. Mr. Manning is suing Zuckerman for breach of contract and, with other stockholders, for allegedly not paying the full price agreed for the magazine. Zuckerman's countersuit alleges he was misled about the magazine's finances. Manning, who last year called Zuckerman ''a liar and a cheat'' in the Washington Post, says, ''I've seen nothing since to change my mind.'' He calls Zuckerman's purchase of U.S. News ''a bad day for American journalism'' and predicts Evans is in for a surprise. Zuckerman also sued his former employer, Boston's Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, and is involved in litigation with former employee-stockholders of U.S. News who felt their shares undervalued.

Ms. Steinem says, ''It's not that Mort's litigious. He hates conflict. But he certainly has a sense of outrage and unfairness'' about what he considers wrong. As for the stories about his stealing home plate in his favorite softball games or in life, she suggests, ''He's seen that way because he's very smart and fast, the kind of guy who's a bit faster than the next fellow, and a bit resented. But he's not bending the rules.''

''He was always going fast, always catching up in school'' because he was a year younger says his sister Pauline Gertler of Montreal. They and their two sisters grew up in a middle-class Montreal family, their father a tobacco and candy wholesaler who died young, their grandfather a rabbi. Young Zuckerman ''out of desperation'' stayed in school till he decided what to do in life: degrees from McGill University, Wharton, and Harvard Law School, time done at University of Paris Law School and Harvard Business School. Now he doesn't think of himself as mogul or magnate: ''I don't think of myself in terms of what I do but in terms of who I am, and I think of myself as a loyal friend, as somebody who cares about ideas and the intellectual life, and somebody who is deeply devoted to squash and softball.''

Zuckerman likes to carry a fresh issue of The Atlantic in his attache case, whipping it out proudly as he did at an Urban Institute trustees meeting when the discussion veered to Congress, the cover story of its December issue. Under Zuckerman, the magazine's once sinking circulation has increased 35 percent (to 400,000), its advertising lineage, 400 percent. He has increased its editorial budget nearly tenfold, he says, because ''if you design and build or put out the best product you can (in building or publishing) sooner or later your various audiences will recognize that and support it. . . .''

The new Atlantic has become a high-profile magazine, from William Grieder's controversial Reaganomics interview with the President's budget director, David A. Stockman, to excerpts from Robert Caro's biography on President Lyndon Johnson. Does Zuckerman feel he's put his thumbprint on The Atlantic? ''ented people like (editor) Bill Whitworth . . . could work. Mr. Whitworth says, ''The atmosphere under Mort is terrific. He promised me editorial freedom and has given me that and support and the budget he promised.''Harold Evans says, ''Anybody who's seen what happened to The Atlantic under Zuckerman knows he's a quality man.'' Evans says ''he's always been a secret publisher and journalist in his heart . . . so he wants to have an influence on . . . (U.S. News). He wouldn't have bought it if he simply wanted to make money out of it - he could have put up another skyscraper.''

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