Across the river in the 'Puzzle Palace,' a true expert flourished tTC

April 03, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- When young reporters come to the nation's capital to seek truth and make names for themselves, the beats they usually covet are the White House, the State Department, politics and Congress. Being assigned to the Pentagon, more often than not, is regarded as a one-way ticket to journalistic Siberia.

Although the distance in miles is not much -- just across the Potomac River, a short subway ride these days -- covering the Pentagon is pretty much another world in terms of the subject matter and the political psychology that dominates Washington. And the Department of Defense in some ways can be the stiffest and least congenial of government agencies for a reporter, what with all that brass walking around in uniform, snapping off salutes. Working there day in and day out is no barrel of laughs.

It takes a particular kind of reporter to find out the truth at the Pentagon, and there's very little chance to make a name for yourself in the world's most famous but remote five-sided building. A few, like the late great Baltimore Sun correspondent, Mark Watson, did so years ago. And when he was gone, so did one of his successors at The Sun, Charlie Corddry, who died over the weekend at 76.

Charlie, like Mark, found the truth the old-fashioned way -- by digging relentlessly for it, with impartiality and fairness. As long as Mark was around, they worked in friendly competition in the Pentagon press room, Mark for The Sun and Charlie for the United Press (later United Press International) in what now is known as the Mark Watson Room. It was Charlie's success in truth-seeking that opened the door for him to make a name for himself, despite the almost institutional anonymity to which reporters posted ''across the river'' normally are accustomed.

The one weekend television talk show that is rigidly, even religiously, devoted to conveying information and informed analysis without pizzazz -- public television's ''Washington Week Review'' -- somehow found Charlie Corddry in 1967. Its producers made him a regular panelist, specializing in clarifying for average viewers what really was going on in what is still known as ''the Puzzle Palace'' on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

Like many sports writers who never played the game they cover but nevertheless in their love for it have become experts, Charlie, rejected for a physical problem, never served in the American military but was devoted to its mission and to the men and women who performed it. He was a staunch defender of both in times of triumph and despair, and especially during the darkest days of the Vietnam war, when Americans who served in it bore the brunt of criticism from so many of their fellow citizens.

He could be, and often was, critical himself of the various snafus that afflicted the conduct of military affairs in both Republican and Democratic administrations, usually out of pique that the civilian -- that is, political -- leaders of the department had made unwise use of the men and women in uniform under their command.

Pentagon ''exile''

Young reporters ''exiled'' to the Pentagon encountered almost a bunker mentality among veterans of the press room who had toiled there for years without glamour or much recognition from ''across the river.'' But first Mark Watson and then Charlie Corddry offered helping hands. A number of Pentagon reporters later signed on as assistant secretaries of defense for public affairs, raising eyebrows in the press room, but neither Mark nor Charlie was among them. Each remained to the end a seeker of truth, not a disseminator of an official line.

Charlie covered shooting conflicts from World War II and Korea to Vietnam, through the Cold War and beyond, winning journalistic awards as he went. But, more important, he earned an unofficial award from his colleagues, who regarded him as a legitimate expert in an increasingly complex field of new strategies and technologies -- and old loyalties and standards of integrity that he himself embodied.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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