Columnist Mary McGrory Dies at 85

Dear Readers,

It was only a few years ago that I had begun to read Mary McGrory’s weekly column and her piercing writings reminded me what does assertive journalism means.

Mary McGrory had been writing for more than half a century, won Pulitzer Prize many years back, and she had continued her fearless journalism career to the very last column she had written for The Washington Post.

It was only last year, just days before the Iraq invasion had begun, just hours before “shock and awe” and “precision” bombs had commenced showering over Iraqis, children included, Mary McGrory wrote in that opinion column: “Although you can depend on her to produce her lovely weapons, Mother Nature cannot be programmed. Already, the authorities are conceding that the cherry blossoms will not be in their prime for the festival, an annual event that draws thousands of visitors. That is, if they're not afraid of retaliatory acts of terrorism once the laser-guided bombs start dropping on Baghdad -- with specific instructions, as we understand it, not to kill those children who are on so many minds. The prime minister of Canada made a sensible suggestion to George Stephanopoulos: The United States should declare victory over Iraq. The strategy of a huge force on the border, inspection teams at work and world pressure bearing down has worked -- war is not necessary.” [Read the Full Article]

Before the almost daily happenstances of bomb blasts in recent days, terrorism around the world, before our world has become more polarized, Mary McGrory wrote in her March 9, 2003 article: “Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni made the same point before a congressional hearing. His nightmare was the prospect of seeing, on a split TV screen, Israelis killing Arabs on the West Bank and Americans killing Arabs in Iraq. He suggested it might stimulate enlistments in al Qaeda.”

One year ago she correctly pointed to the facts, separating fable and fiction, and wrote: " Bush does not like to hear about the consequences of his obsession and deals harshly with those who discuss them. The most severe punishment was meted out to Larry Lindsey, his erstwhile economic adviser, who put the bill for the war in Iraq at $200 billion. He was fired. Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, committed the error of truth-telling and was set down hard. When asked, he estimated that it would take "several hundred thousand soldiers" to occupy Iraq. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz landed on him. "Way off the mark," he steamed. Bush said at his news conference, almost airily, that the costs of the war would be taken care of in a supplemental appropriation. In the Bush circle, zeal is much prized. Niccolo Machiavelli's advice to courtiers is followed: "Do not question the ends of the prince -- just tell him how to best do what he wants to do." Bush insists that war or peace is all up to Hussein. To the American people he says, remember 9/11, trust me. As he said at his news conference, "when it comes to our security, we really don't need anybody's permission." In other words, let the shock and awe begin. “

Read the full article from the following link:¬Found=true

When her writings had stopped getting published in The Washington Post last year, like many, I was saddened to read news of her severe illness.

Mary McGrory died this week, but her intrepid writings, her assertive conscience deduced from her articles, should be a constant reminder for many of us, that the battle for freedom and liberty and justice is not fought with bombs and bullets only that could stimulate more violence in return with senseless deaths and destructions to follow, pen could be mightier in progressive causes if used with care and dedication. The memory of Mary McGrory’s brilliant writing career and life that ended ought to remain as a tribute and inspiration to this truth.

Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
April 22, 2004

Columnist Mary McGrory Dies at 85
Legendary Newswoman Covered a Half-Century of Washington

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2004; 4:10 PM

Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, a major figure in 20th-century American journalism, a writer of lasting influence, exquisite technique, liberal convictions, a contempt for phonies and a love of orphans and delphiniums, died last night at George Washington University Hospital.

A hospital spokeswoman declined to give the cause of death.

Born Aug. 22, 1918, in Boston, McGrory had 85 poetic and eventful years on a sometimes disappointing but often amusing Earth.

"The most luminous writer and clearest thinker in the business," New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd declared of McGrory at a tribute to her career several years ago. This opinion was widely held. Longtime Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship called her "the undisputed best handler of the English language in the news business." One of her rivals for that title, former Times columnist Russell Baker, noted her influence on later generations: McGrory was, he said, "a pioneering force in today's tell-it-like-it-is, show-them-no-mercy journalism."

Her career stretched from the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, when the unknown McGrory jolted the capital with her charming but rapier daily reports, to the Iraq war of 2003, on which she wavered with characteristic candor before coming down squarely in opposition in some of her last columns before a stroke silenced her voice. Her last column was published in The Washington Post on March 16, 2003, and she retired at the end of that year.

Her résumé included the Pulitzer Prize and membership on the Nixon administration's notorious "enemies list."

"Mary was simply one of the best opinion columnists of her time," said Leonard Downie Jr. , The Washington Post's executive editor. "She wrote lyrically, and she never had difficulty expressing an opinion. But perhaps most impressive was Mary's reporting. She seemed to know everyone in politics, and in many other fields, besides. And her columns always revealed something to readers that they never would have otherwise known."

It seems safe to say that Washington won't soon see her like again. McGrory could command senators to sing old hymns for her lasagna; her lawn boys went on to senior positions in government and journalism; and through nearly 50 years of covering politics she managed, by flirtation and intimidation, always to avoid schlepping her own suitcase.

Colleagues will remember McGrory for her work ethic, which was nearly unmatched -- even after decades in the rarified air of national syndication, she still staked out the Speaker's Lobby and sat through interminable photo ops -- for her eagle eye, which always caught the telling detail, and for the effortless grace of her prose, which came only by enormous effort.

Devoted readers may recall other things: the annual dispatches from Antrim, N.H., and Rome, gardener McGrory's perennial battles with the bulb-eating squirrels of Macomb Street NW, the Christmastime reports on the resilient children of St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home.

For lifelong Washingtonians, McGrory's death is a sort of last winking of the once-bright light that was the Washington Star. Though her column appeared for more than two decades in The Washington Post after the Star's demise, McGrory never shifted her loyalties. "Mary was the Star," said one of the many journalists she nurtured there, Jeffrey Frank, now a senior editor at the New Yorker. With champagne in times of joy and a sardonic laugh in times of sorrow, McGrory was "the grand Earth Mother" of the city's roisterous afternoon paper, Frank said, and she sang "Nearer My God to Thee" outside her office as the ship went down in 1981.

Making Her Mark

Mary McGrory made her life and her mark in Washington, but she was Boston Irish to the core. She preferred scamps, underdogs and Yeats to prigs, Brahmins and Dickens. Of politicians, she could tolerate almost anything but dullness. She once summed up the view of politics she learned as a girl at the family breakfast table: "If you're going to do all these dreadful things, you should be funny about it."

Her mother was Mary Catherine McGrory, her father a postal clerk named Edward Patrick McGrory. He was her hero, who taught her by example "how people ought to act. . . . He taught my brother and me to recite poetry and to treasure words -- and to enjoy the small things of life, like walking and talking and nice dogs and fresh raspberries and blueberries and things like that."

The Girls' Latin School near Fenway Park was a rigorous public academy for promising college-bound students. Mary McGrory found herself there, "11 years old and toiling through Gaul with Julius Caesar," mastering verb declensions and diagramming sentences, veni and vidi and vici. "It was sort of like the Marine Corps," she recalled. "It was basically impossible. Nothing was good enough."

But the rigors of grammar would prove as useful to her as anatomy to a surgeon, for McGrory discovered her calling on the comics page of the Boston Herald-Traveler, in a strip called "Jane Arden" about an intrepid "girl reporter."

The question was how. There was no clear path for women into the newspaper business. McGrory's route ran from Boston's Emmanuel College to the Hickock Secretarial School to the publishing house of Houghton Mifflin as an editorial assistant. She hired on as secretary to Alice Dixon Bond, a Beacon Hill clubwoman who served as book editor at the Herald-Traveler.

"I was crazy about newspapers," McGrory remembered in an oral history preserved by the Women's Press Club Foundation. So she gritted her teeth through Bond's "endless gossip about the Women's City Club" and seized every chance to write -- book reviews, author appearances, dog stories. "People love dog stories," she observed.

At night, McGrory sailed from party to party, singing, laughing, hearing and telling stories, and always her favorite tales came back to politics. A lover of Thackeray and Jane Austen, McGrory understood that great stories are rooted in great characters, and the political stage was teeming with them -- like the pol named Russo who said his name was his platform: "R for Righteousness, U for Unity, SS for Social Security, and O for Honesty!"

She begged for a shot in the newsroom, but the answer was always no. However, her book reviews caught the eye of John K. Hutchens, book editor of the New York Herald Tribune, who began commissioning pieces from her. Hutchens gave McGrory a letter of introduction to a friend at the Star, which was looking for a second book reviewer. In 1947, she began life with her two great loves: the nation's capital, and the Star.

"It was Heaven," she said wistfully of the paper that launched her career and nurtured her character, "wonderful, kind, welcoming, fun . . . full of eccentrics and desperate people trying to meet five deadlines a day. . . . I loved it the minute I set foot in it."

The Star was then a reflection of Newbold Noyes, national editor at the time, who could shape the paper to his own tastes because his family owned it. Noyes filled his shabby newsroom with dazzling, if sometimes unformed, talents.

The eager book reviewer turned heads with her gift for concise observation. Not long after she arrived in Washington, McGrory was sent to cover a book party for the actor James Mason, whose eyes, she wrote, were "brook brown."

"Where'd you get that?" asked a skeptical editor.

"In New Hampshire, the water in the brooks flows over the rocks and it's brown," she answered. "I've seen it."

Early in 1954, Noyes approached McGrory and asked, "Say, Mary, aren't you ever going to get married?" In those days, there seemed to be little point for an editor to advance the career of a woman destined for motherhood. But with McGrory past 35 and still single, perhaps she was worth a risk.

"We think you should add humor and color and charm and flair to the news pages," said Noyes, as McGrory often recounted the story.

To which she answered: "Oh, is that all?"

The Army-McCarthy hearings were her first assignment.

The McCarthy Hearings

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, had roiled the country for several years by then with his sensational allegations of communists in high places. Now he had fatefully set his sights on the U.S. Army, a dramatic miscalculation that again and again brought shades of Shakespeare to McGrory's mind. Noyes told her to write what she saw just as if she were writing a letter to her aunt.

"The star, Senator McCarthy, ploughs his high-shouldered way through the crowds amid small cheers. He is tanned and grinning," she wrote in her first dispatch, published April 23, 1954. "Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens, by contrast with the Senator, looks about as dangerous as an Eagle Scout leading his first patrol." McCarthy's devious counsel, Roy Cohn, was "pale, wan and a trifle aggrieved," she continued; "he looks like a boy who has had a letter sent home from school about him and come back with his elders to get things straightened out."

She continued thus day after day through the tumultuous hearings, which unspooled through the year and ended with McCarthy's undoing. The pieces, which ran unobtrusively on inside pages, instantly galvanized an audience. "Reaction was so vehement, you know, pro and con," she recalled. Within a few days, other journalists were commenting on her; the columnist Doris Fleeson declared that "she's been coiled up on her bookshelf all these years just waiting to strike."

McGrory tore the edges from newspapers on her desk and rolled them into tight balls as she fretted over each word. Reporter Chick Yarbrough dubbed these her "anguishes," and counted them each morning. "There were 36 anguishes last night," he announced one day. "You must have had a very bad time."

In fact, she was having the time of her life. "It was what I had thought I had wanted to do all along," McGrory once said, "take huge events and get a little angle on them . . . observing closely, accurately, and picking out the right thing or the right person to begin with, to be the focal point . . . and making a pattern or some sort of sense of it."

As her column moved on to other subjects, some in the business speculated that her approach was distinctively feminine, an opinion that McGrory was unlikely to appreciate. She never identified with other woman writers nor did she take up the cause of feminism. Her approach was to say, "I made it in a man's world and you must make it, too," Spencer explained. "She felt like you get what you deserve and if you can't work out a better deal it's your failing."

She compared herself to the legendary columnists Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin: "We go places, we talk to people," rather than lunching with sources and stroking one's chin.

Laughter and Song

As with so many political reporters, her first campaign was her favorite -- the failed 1956 effort of Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver. In her recollections of this and many other milestones of her life, one theme emerged: That Mary McGrory would overlook almost any flaw in a person or event that offered laughter and song. By the time her column went into national syndication in 1960, McGrory was already famous as Washington's "leprechaun-turned-reporter," as Newsweek put it, whose best-known trait was her genial yet adamant assumption that men were alive to serve her.

Writers as distinguished as Kempton, Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times, Marquis Childs of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were described in Newsweek as "McGrory's Bearers . . . expected to carry the typewriter, coats, notes and sandwiches" of their queenly colleague.

"They'd do everything but write your lead for you," she said of her retinue, which over the decades came to include just about every male political writer alive. "It was wonderful."

The Star syndicated McGrory as a way of fending off overtures from Post publisher Philip L. Graham, who was dazzled by McGrory's "rising star" and "kept trying to hire her," the late Katharine Graham, his widow, once recounted.

McGrory displayed supreme confidence in her judgments concerning character and emotion. After witnessing Richard Nixon's furious news conference after losing a campaign for governor of California in 1962, she wrote an award-winning column that declared: "Mr. Nixon carried on for 17 minutes in a finale of intemperance and incoherence perhaps unmatched in American political annals. He pulled the havoc down around his ears, while his staff looked on aghast."

A year later, in a fever of grief, she churned out scene pieces and tone poems and even an editorial for the Star when her adored John F. Kennedy was assassinated. "He brought gaiety, glamor and grace to the American political scene in a measure never known before," one piece began. "That lightsome tread, that debonair touch, that shock of chestnut hair, that beguiling grin, that shattering understatement -- these are what we shall remember."

Following her heart, McGrory once arranged a secret meeting between Nixon's foreign policy guru Henry A. Kissinger and a group of student activists opposed to the Vietnam War. It was a rare foray into behind-the-scenes powerbrokering and it failed miserably, she felt. While she honored her vow of confidentiality, she told a historian, Kissinger leaked word of the meeting to portray himself as open-minded. "It was a mistake and I shouldn't have done it," she concluded.

By contrast, McGrory played down the value and influence of her cogitation on matters of policy and great moment. Despite years of columns protesting the Vietnam War, she couldn't even persuade her own editorial page, she modestly noted.

The Pulitzer

McGrory's Pulitzer Prize was a question of when, not if. When it came, the timing was apt. With Watergate. Washington and the nation were once again riveted by Senate hearings, just as in 1954. Once again, McGrory's was the definitive eye.

She "felt at home" at the Watergate hearings, she once said. "You know, it always comes down to the characters," and here was the best cast since McCarthy Co. At the center of it all was the special committee chairman, Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), "the rock that all those waves had to dash against," as McGrory put it.

McGrory followed the drama through its climax in Nixon's August 1974 resignation, and for her work that year she received journalism's highest honor. Her aversion to Nixon had not wavered after that wild 1962 news conference. McGrory lit into him straightaway once he reached the White House and never let up, and when the list of White House "enemies" compiled by Nixon aides became public in 1973, no one was surprised to see her name on it.

Membership on the list "was great," McGrory later said. Columnist Art Buchwald complained that he, too, should have been on the list -- "he'd written as much anti-Nixon stuff as I had," she recalled him saying. But he took her to the place of the moment, Sans Souci, to celebrate, and when they walked in, the diners rose in a standing ovation.

Once a columnist has the top prizes and a syndication deal, the last remaining motivation is pride. In this, Mary McGrory was unparalleled. After the Star, she covered more than 20 years of major stories for The Post with a column so richly reported that it fit comfortably into the news pages.

By her career's end, she had a good decade on David S. Broder, more than that on Rowland Evans, Robert Novak, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, nearly a generation on George F. Will. And yet she never slacked off. In 1992, well into her seventies, she bulled her way into a "closed" event at a posh New York law firm and demanded to hear what would-be vice president Al Gore was saying. "Is this man running for partner of Cravath, Swain Moore? Or is he running for the vice presidency of the United States?" she cried?

McGrory pounded the pavement and fretted her adjectives far into her eighties, and she applied the same bemused and laser eye to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that she first focused on Joe McCarthy and John F. Kennedy.

The songs she had once sung with Estes Kefauver were now sung to the piano accompaniment of Clinton aide Mark D. Gearan. The orphans she took to splash alongside Kennedy children at Hickory Hill kept returning with her each summer long after those children were grown and gone.

"I wish I'd been more assertive," she once said, summing up her regrets. "And I wish I'd gotten married . . . . I wish I'd been quicker to see things, understand things . . . . I wish I'd been better organized and hadn't spent so much time trying to find things I'd lost, dropped, forgotten. I wish I could have cracked the White House somehow. . . . We could be here all night talking about what I would do differently."

But what she did is a public record -- her peers would say a public monument -- that both recounted and improved her times. "Any reporter brave enough to print an absolutely unvarnished fact in a newspaper can't be all bad," Russell Baker said in tribute to Mary McGrory, and by that measure, she was excellent indeed.