A Washington Dramatist
It was in 1978 that I first met Mary McGrory, the subject of the well-crafted biography by John Norris, Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism. Time Inc. had just purchased The Washington Star. I had done some reporting for Time years earlier in Vietnam. Some of my old editors asked if I might want to leave The Detroit Free Press, where I had been a reporter for five years, and work as an editor for their new enterprise. It seemed like a good move—with a special benefit, becoming a McGrory colleague.
The Star long had a reputation for being a less formal and more rambunctious daily than its rival, The Washington Post, and it suffered from being an afternoon publication when afternoon dailies were dying throughout the country. Evening television news was killing the afternoon newspaper market.
Nevertheless, I made the move.
McGrory first drew serious attention when she left her book section editing position at The Star to cover the Senator Joseph McCarthy hearings. As told by Norris, it was the Star editor Newbold Noyes who first gave McGrory the break she needed, allowing her to enter the almost completely male-dominated field of Washington journalism. She had already been a columnist for America and had developed a reputation for clean, sharp prose. Now she had a chance to do some serious reporting for the paper. Returning the first day from the hearings, she struggled to find her footing. Noyes didn’t like her first draft. Too much like a wire service story, he told her. He wanted something more personal and with more drama.
“Write it like a letter to your favorite aunt,” he told her. And so she did. Her first Star column appeared on April 23, 1954. “It’s too early yet to tell about the plot, but they’ve certainly got a cast there.” She went on to describe the characters, their personalities, their interplay and dynamics. She was finding her groove.
Scotty Reston, the powerhouse Washington bureau chief and columnist for The New York Times, soon tried to woo McGrory aboard his team, but negotiations collapsed after Reston suggested that in addition to her afternoon reporting duties, she would need to handle the switchboard in the morning. Oh the sexism! We have indeed come a long way in just over a generation. I think McGrory, who had to fight a woman’s way to the table, overturning old habits, ended up also more sympathetic to others who remained excluded.
Norris points out that McGrory was one of the first columnists of her time to understand she was competing with television and, to be effective, she had to offer something special, something lively and personal, something that would draw in readers who wanted an inside vantage. And she delivered, producing 36 columns over 36 days of hearings. By the time the political drama reached its height, with the lawyer Joseph Welch famously demanding of McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” McGrory’s columns were the talk of the town. Her career as a columnist had been fully launched.
From that assignment through her fascination with all things Kennedy, her flirtations with Eugene McCarthy, her Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Watergate, her damning observations of President Bush after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, McGrory humanized the players on the political stage that was Washington.
Well before I joined The Star I had become fascinated by McGrory’s writing. She was solidly progressive, quick to take up lost causes and not afraid to tackle abusive authority. There was also both a predictability and unpredictability to her columns; you knew from where she was coming but not always where she was going.
When at the Star (we overlapped for two years, but I left The Star to become editor of The National Catholic Reporter in 1980), I quickly tried to get to know McGrory better. I would walk by her small, cluttered office outside the Star newsroom. To my surprise she greeted me warmly, as if we had been friends for years. She would ask me to come in and sit down in front of her desk, and off we’d go speaking about whatever headline was capturing attention that day. But invariably she would bring the subject back to Vietnam.
She was fascinated that I had spent some four years there as a volunteer working with refugees and later as a local hire for Time and The New York Times. But it was my early writing for N.C.R. from 1966 to 1968 that she remembered most. She seemed most focused on the Vietnamese people, what they had thought about the war and what lessons I took from my experiences in Southeast Asia. McGrory was known as a great storyteller, but I remember her more as someone who listened well. She had a seemingly insatiable appetite for my Vietnam recollections, making me feel quite special. Thinking back over these many years I wonder how many others she made feel this way and what a remarkable—and effective—gift she had. Whether it was a personal trait or a tool of the trade, to this day I have not a clue.
It was clear from our conversations that we shared many values and had a common outlook on life. We were both Catholic and progressive in instinct. We were both idealists and instinctively suspicious of authority, which we both agreed was easy to abuse. We had witnessed it in our church and among our nation’s political leaders. We had both tasted the pre-Vatican church, were not quick to throw out tradition, but recognized the need for more justice in church and society. We had both been influenced by the idealism of the 1960s—John XXIII and John Kennedy—and were troubled by the conservative reactions that began to settle in in reaction to those years. We both wondered aloud why our nation’s leaders could not learn the lessons of Vietnam. The same old warriors were beginning to show up, leading wars in Central America. Would we ever learn?
Then there was simple journalism gab, journalist to journalist. I remember one Vietnam journalism story in particular that McGrory seemed to enjoy. It’s worth telling once again, maybe because it fractures the myth that any person, journalist or not, can be neutral in the midst of the deceit of war. One day in a particularly destructive month during the Vietnam War, the New York Times correspondent Gloria Emerson and I had spent several hours walking through a bombed-out, smoldering village outside of Saigon. She was gathering information and I was her interpreter that day. We spent considerable time talking to survivors, some of the elderly, women and children. The scene and scenario were all too common. North Vietnamese soldiers entered the village; U.S.-supported South Vietnamese warplanes retaliated from the air, carrying U.S. bombs. Much of the village was destroyed, with the greater measure of the destruction, by far, from the bombing. In the end the North Vietnamese soldiers vanished, as they often did, and the village was left in ruins with widespread civilian casualties. Was this the way to “win hearts and minds”?
As was the habit during those wretched war years, U.S. and South Vietnam military spokesmen would gather at the end of the day in a downtown Saigon building for what the press corps dubbed “the five o’clock follies.” We asked about the bombings: Who had ordered them? Did anyone count the casualties? It was infuriating.
That evening Emerson and I figured we’d had enough, and somehow we had to respond. That night, after 10, after a Saigon curfew had gone into effect keeping people off the streets, after journalists had filed their stories, we left the Time bureau and walked the deserted street below to the “follies” briefing building. Our plan: I would distract the guard, speaking to him in Vietnamese, which I had picked up; Emerson would sneak into the briefing room and with black felt pen in hand, write in large letters across three walls: “FATHER, FORGIVE THEM. THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.” The plan went off without a hitch. The next day there was outrage—and press silence. Some suspected the culprits but no fingers were ever officially pointed. McGrory loved the tale. It appealed to her mischievous nature.
She remained a journalism fixture for five decades, not only writing about presidents but also befriending them. Norris highlights that McGrory admired President Kennedy enormously and explains how she got close to Bobby and Ted and good friends with Eugene McCarthy. He tells the story of McGrory rebuffing an advance by a jealous President Lyndon Johnson one evening in her apartment.
For those who have followed politics and journalism since the 1960s or even further back, reading Norris’s account of McGrory’s life and career is a bittersweet journey through decades of social change and political turmoil. It was a period in which the United States shed its innocence and Americans became comfortable with a government that was no longer embarrassed at brandishing its iron fist. Norris and McGrory take us through the Central American wars, Reagan’s aid to the Contras, U.S. complicity in the death of the four missionary women in El Salvador, the first and second Iraq wars and the disputed presidential election.
Norris tells the story of the night after John F. Kennedy’s death. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time the assistant secretary of labor, gathered a small group of friends in McGrory’s apartment. Moynihan told the others how he had been in the White House that afternoon, just down the hall from the Oval Office, when he heard the news. The staff was replacing the rug in the president’s office, and the furniture had been out in the hall, with J.F.K.’s rocking chair sitting atop his desk, “as if new people were moving in.”
After a long pause, McGrory declared, “We’ll never laugh again.” “Heavens, Mary,” Moynihan replied. “We’ll laugh again. It’s just that we will never be young again.”
The last time I saw McGrory was only a few years before her death. The former congressman and N.C.R. columnist Robert Drinan, S.J., McGrory and I had a meal together in a Georgetown restaurant. It was a special though uneventful gathering. I felt proud to be at a table with these Washington giants. We shared stories, laughed and maybe even shed a tear or two together as we looked back and considered human triumphs and failings. We had seen plenty of both. Our Catholicism, politics and journalism all bonded us in special ways. I remember some moments that night we sat in silence. Each of us had made long careers using words. And now maybe they were no longer necessary to say what was in our hearts.