Massacre and peace talks bracket reporter's career

January 24, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

For more than 40 years, Walter Trohan watched much of American history from the front row.

As a young reporter in Chicago, the Columbia resident was the first journalist to arrive on the scene of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

During his 21 years as the Chicago Tribune's bureau chief in Washington, he covered three summits and the Paris Peace Talks in 1968. Along the way, he ate, drank, joked, argued and traveled with five American presidents.

In the wake of last week's inauguration, Mr. Trohan will share some of his thoughts on the press and politics at an 8 a.m. breakfast Tuesday at the Columbia Hilton.

The University of Notre Dame Alumni Club of Maryland is sponsoring the event. Mr. Trohan, 89, graduated from the school in 1926.

Last week, Mr. Trohan sat in the darkened living room of his town house and reminisced. The sun filtered through Venetian blinds, casting strips of light across a worn, Persian rug. Mr. Trohan, who wore a maroon sweat suit, talked for hours about presidents, the press and Chicago in the 1920s.

Franklin "Roosevelt was a very pleasant fellow, but he was no great brain," Mr. Trohan said.

Herbert Hoover -- his personal favorite -- "was a wonderful, good-hearted person."

Mr. Trohan misses the days when relations between reporters and presidents were cordial and casual.

While covering Mr. Roosevelt, "you wandered all over the White House," he said.

Roosevelt routinely held press conferences in his Hyde Park study. Mr. Trohan ate hot dogs with the Roosevelts at picnics.

"We were a part of the family," he said.

Mr. Trohan said he never softened his coverage of the president. He reported, in his own oblique way, the president's relationships with other women.

"I would write a lead, for example: 'For the fifth time in five weeks Crown Princess Martha of Norway joined Roosevelt at his home in Hyde Park. Mrs. Roosevelt's in Oregon.' "

"The inference was there," he said.

In the old days, reporters had more respect for confidential -- or off-the-record -- comments than today, Mr. Trohan said. He recalled Roosevelt's off-the-record criticism of one of his detractors.

"Well, what else can you expect from a Jew?" Mr. Trohan recalled the president as saying.

"Of course, if that word got out it would be murder," Mr. Trohan said, "so we protected him."

Mr. Trohan thinks the news media of today are too liberal and unfair. To his mind, reporters were far harder on Dan Quayle about his draft record than they were on Bill Clinton.

The news media's attitude toward Mr. Clinton was: "He's a draft TC dodger, but he's our draft dodger, so we got to like him," Mr. Trohan said.

Mr. Trohan was born in Mount Carmel, Pa., in 1903. His family moved to Chicago when he was five and he began working as a reporter at a small, daily newspaper when he was in his teens.

Mr. Trohan specialized in feature stories -- those that often focus on a colorful personality, or an interesting place or event. Like other journalists of the day, he sometimes made things up to give his pieces more flair.

"I would sort of stretch the facts," he said.

Some of his subjects didn't mind. He invented witty dialogue for them and they appeared all the more clever.

But one day Mr. Trohan got in trouble.

He was writing about an employee who fled a mortuary claiming it was haunted. Mr. Trohan wrote that police had investigated the mortuary and that the only spirits they found were in a bottle.

Funny. But not true.

The story was written during Prohibition. The young man complained and Mr. Trohan obliged with a correction.

One of Mr. Trohan's biggest breaks came around noon Feb. 14, 1929. He was filling in for another reporter when a call came in that some men had been killed in a garage. The city editor was skeptical and refused to give him cab fare to cover it.

"So, I took a streetcar to go cover the biggest crime story in gangland . . . history," Mr. Trohan said.

When he arrived at the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, he learned that six men had been executed with machine guns.

"Twenty, twenty-two North Clark Street," he said. "I can remember the address."

"The room was full of blood. Some of them had the tops of their heads cut off with bullets. It was pretty bad."

Soon afterward, the Chicago Tribune hired him.

After retiring from daily journalism, Mr. Trohan spent six years in Ireland writing his memoirs, "Political Animals, Thirty-Eight Years Washington-Watching by the Chicago Tribune's Veteran Observer." The book was published by Doubleday and Co. in 1975.

Mr. Trohan moved to Columbia three years later to be closer to his grandchildren. Although he lives outside the Beltway now, he stays in touch with some of his former subjects.

Last month, Richard Nixon sent him a copy of one of his recent books. Included was a personal note.

"I wanted you to know . . . how grateful I am for your hard-hitting and objective coverage of my activities over the years, but even more for your counsel and loyal friendship," Mr. Nixon wrote.

Mr. Trohan no longer reads newspapers. His eyes are failing and he must use a magnifying machine to read books or sign checks.

He doesn't write much anymore either.

"I've done all my writing, and I don't think I'm Shakespeare," he said. "I was a journalist -- let's face it -- not a great writer."

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