Her pen was mightiest
The political wit of Mary McGrory.
The life of a political journalist can be tricky terrain for a biographer. It is not enough to capture the experiences of your protagonist; you must do justice to the events the journalist covered. This mix gets messy. How to avoid confusing the person with the era?
In the case of the late Mary McGrory, such overlap is not a hindrance but a necessity. The most prominent liberal columnist of the post-World War II era— her work spanned the 1954 McCarthy hearings to the 2003 Iraq invasion — McGrory was enmeshed in the power struggles of the age. She was friend and counselor to the Kennedys, but also their critic. Eugene McCarthy wrote her love poetry; she plotted campaign strategy with him. Lyndon Johnson wanted to sleep with her, even while complaining that she “is the best writer in Washington, and she keeps getting better and better atmy expense.” Richard Nixon put her on his enemies list; she struck back with a Pulitzer Prize for her Watergate commentary.
“It’s all handed to me on a platter,” McGrory said in 1973. “I just have to sit here and take it all in.”
If only it were that easy. Depicted with admiration by writer John Norris, McGrory is what you get when proximity to power, keen observation skills, painstaking reporting, a judgmental streak and passionate liberalism coalesce in a singularly talented writer— one whose abilities are matched by the times.
Relying on family letters; McGrory’s papers; interviews with relatives, friends and co-workers; and her thousands of columns, Norris captures a bygone era of Washington journalism, yet reveals McGrory as a precursor to its current forms. Clickbait and harsh comments would not have been alien to her. Nor would conflicts between reporting and opinion, between personal and professional loyalties. “If I wanted to be fair and objective,” she explained, “I wouldn’t be writing.”
That writing could eviscerate in single lines. Of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, she observed: “I had seen his likes allmy life, at wakes, at weddings, at the junior prom. He was an Irish bully boy.” Robert F. Kennedy: “His tragedy was not only that he had not achieved his full potential, but that uncertainties and pressures had prevented him from seeing what it was.” Nixon: “A sense of grievance is not a good paramount quality in a president.” Carter vs. Reagan: “a choice between a Democrat who can’t govern and a Republican who won’t.” Gore vs. Bush: “a battle between the unlikable and the unprepared.” She would’ve been great on Twitter.
Once a book critic who worried that no one paid “the slightest attention” to her reviews, McGrory caught her break when the Washington Star assigned her to the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. She wrote a column for each day of the hearings— 36 in all — and adopted a personalized approach that was rare at the time. Cover the hearings like you’re describing it all to your favorite aunt, her editor urged. The columns became a sensation, anticipating how newspapers would deploy more opinionated voices to compete with the immediacy of television news. “It did not matter that readers had to wait until the next day to read them— indeed, they were usually an even better read if you were already keeping up with the story,” Norris explains.
By the late 1960s, McGrory’s opposition to the Vietnam War had made her a de facto Democratic operative, as she sought the strongest antiwar candidate. She advised Eugene McCarthy on his Democratic primary schedule and enlisted campaign hands for him, simultaneously publishing “shamelessly promotional” columns about the senator, Norris writes. Yet she was also encouraging Robert F. Kennedy to enter the race. McGrory should have recused herself from covering the 1968 contest, Norris argues. “The lines between her personal and professional life were not just blurred but obliterated.”
Wherever the action turned, there was McGrory. She sat next to Nixon at the funeral service for Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta. (They shared a hymnal, with Nixon “making sure I was ready when he turned the pages,” she recalled.) She was with Eugene McCarthy when the news came that Robert Kennedy, his rival for the party’s nomination, had been shot. (“You know, he kind of brought it on himself,” McCarthy mused.) And it was McGrory’s question about work-family balance that elicited Hillary Clinton’s famous response: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.”
Norris writes affectionately about McGrory’s volunteer work at St. Ann’s orphanage; the legendary parties at her Macomb Street apartment, where the company was as glorious as the cooking was bad; and her springtime gardening columns, which described her battles with the vermin of Rock Creek Park. “If you really want to get the public going,” she admitted, “you should write about squirrels.”
Yet he also undercuts some McGrory mythologies. Norris regards her Boston Irish identity as “something of a contrivance.” Though McGrory’s father was Irish, her mother, of whom she rarely spoke, was of German descent, and McGrory grewup in a bilingual home, with German pot roast among her favorite meals. After she moved to Washington, Norris writes, “Mary’s German heritage was simply written out of the story.”
McGrory did not get married, and Norris recounts her infatuations with politicians and decades of longing for journalist Blair Clark. But her true love was the Washington Star, where she worked from 1947 to 1981, and which became her “substitute family and lover,” Norris explains. “I breathe better there,” McGrory said. “I want to drop dead in the newsroom.” When the Star folded and McGrory joined The Washington Post, Norris writes, she found her new workplace “terribly self-important” and complained about the booze-free newsroom celebrations.
The sexism of her age was less subtle than in today’s newsrooms. Before assigning her to the McCarthy hearings, a Star editor asked if she ever planned to marry. Scotty Reston tried to lure her to the New York Times, as long as she would “handle the switchboard in the morning.” In the 1950s, the National Press Club still denied membership to women, tolerating them at lunch events if they sat in the balcony and asked no questions. (In 1998, the club awarded McGrory the Fourth Estate Award, its highest honor.)
Even so, McGrory was a “reluctant warrior on the front lines of feminism,” Norris writes. She did not support affirmative action for women. On the campaign trail, she enlisted male reporters to carry her bags, embracing what she called the “enjoyable side of inequality.” Yet her influence on subsequent generations of journalists is undeniable. Norris cites Molly Ivins, Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins as columnists who embraced McGrory’s style, “their knockout punches usually wrapped in humor.” Let’s add The Post’s Dana Milbank to that list; McGrory’s legacy need not be reserved to one gender.
It is the fate of revolutionaries to later be dismissed as insufficiently subversive. Early in her career, McGrory was often the lone woman at the hearing or on the trail; by the end, Norris writes, she was a relic from a time before female reporters covered politics and had families. “Mary had gone an entire career without ever being the norm,” Norris concludes. One of her final columns— a February 2003 piece titled “I’m Persuaded,” praising Colin Powell’s U.N. speech against Saddam Hussein— brought outrage from liberal followers. “Truly, how could you?” one wrote her. She soon apologized.
A stroke left McGrory unable to speak before her death in 2004, an especially cruel condition for a gifted communicator. After reading this book, I reached out to Post veterans who knewher well. They invoked the powerful simplicity of her writing, her mix of toughness and manners. They recalled small kindnesses, yet the expression “didn’t suffer fools” surfaced repeatedly. I asked if any journalist today resembled McGrory. “No,” one told me. “Oh, no.”
She was her own institution in a city full of them. During the 1987 Iran-contra hearings, the best seats in the press section had signs with the names of news organizations. “Only one seat was different,” Norris writes. “It bore a placard that simply read, MARY MCGRORY.”
MaryMcGrory pictured in 1975, the year she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her columns onWatergate.
by John Norris Viking. 342 pp. $28.95 MARY MCGRORY The First Queen of Journalism