Soft-spoken by nature, Martin Smith mixed bite with occasional humor in columns for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy Newspapers, where he served as political editor for 15 years.
His ability to jab politicians without losing their respect, sometimes in a lighthearted way, is being recalled this week following Mr. Smith's death Thursday at age 82.
"It's been a great month for Assemblyman Stan Statham," Mr. Smith wrote in 1992. "He saw his proposal to split California into several states gain voter approval in 27 of 31 counties, most of them by overwhelming majorities. And Jay Leno even joked about the idea during his 'Tonight Show' monologues."
That same year, 1992, Mr. Smith wrote about politicians' penchant for publicity-seeking. "Like many other politicians, Jerry Brown headed for Los Angeles after the riots erupted this month. His political instincts were sound. After all, that's where the television cameras were."
Smith died of complications from Parkinson's disease in Washington state, where he had lived after retiring from McClatchy Newspapers in late 1992.
"Marty Smith reminded me of Clint Eastwood he was laconic, polite, but he was a very good BS detector," said Patrick Johnston, a state legislator from 1980 to 2000. "He had people's respect."
Rick Rodriguez, former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee, described Mr. Smith as a "consummate gentleman" who rarely lost his cool.
"In many ways, he saw what was going on in California, in terms of demographic changes and political maneuvering, before many of his generation did," Rodriguez said.
Mr. Smith's daughter, Karen, said her father "believed the best about everyone."
"If somebody was mean and nasty, he would always say, 'Maybe he's just shy,' " she recalled.
Mr. Smith enjoyed a good laugh even at his own expense.
Once while attempting to change the pilot light in his water heater, he visited a hardware store and was reassured that "any damn fool could do the job," Karen recalled.
After failing at the task, Mr. Smith poked fun at himself in a letter to his other daughter, Catherine: "You'll be happy to know that your father is not any damn fool," he wrote.
Mr. Smith was born on April 20, 1930, in San Francisco, the only child of shoemaker John Edgar Smith and his wife, Anna, a homemaker. He graduated from Balboa High School and later obtained his bachelor's and master's degrees, the latter in journalism, from UC Berkeley.
He loved newspapers and read at least one every day until shortly before his death.
"He probably went to his grave with ink-stained hands," Karen Smith recalled.
Mr. Smith began his journalism career as a copy boy for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin as a teenager. His professional career included stints at the Yakima Morning Herald and Modesto Bee before he joined The Sacramento Bee as a political reporter in 1965.
In Sacramento, Mr. Smith rose through the ranks to become Capitol bureau chief, then managing editor he quipped that his qualifications for the latter were simple: "He had two teenage daughters who squabbled a lot," Karen said.
Mr. Smith became political editor in 1977 for McClatchy Newspapers, The Bee's owner. He was a Sacramento reporter or editor from the governorship of Edmund G. "Pat" Brown to that of Pete Wilson.
Jim Richardson, a former Bee reporter, wrote a biography of former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown that cited a column by Mr. Smith as a cog in a chain of events that helped the San Francisco Democrat secure pivotal GOP support needed to win the speakership in 1980.
In retirement, Mr. Smith enjoyed gardening, swimming, hiking and cross-country skiing.