Her pen was might­i­est

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Washington Post. Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP

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.”

BERNIE BOS­TON/WASHINGTON STAR- NEWS

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

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