First one 'inside the Beltway' Politics: In journalism of the 1920s, Frank R. Kent of The Sun was a groundbreaking political writer who had unusual access to inner sanctums. He was a top commentator in "The Great Game of Politics."

Sun Journal

April 16, 1997|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Before "Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group," before Germond-Witcover, before Robert Novak and William Safire, before Sam and George and Cokie and even before David, before "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert, even before "Meet the Press" with Lawrence Spivak, there was -- Frank R. Kent.


Frank Richardson Kent of The Sun, who more or less invented "inside-the-Beltway" journalism in the 1920s and honed it into its present-day shape and sharpness in the 1930s. He was also one of the first nationally known political writers. This was before there was a Beltway, and in any event Kent lived not in Washington, but in Baltimore, and did most of his reporting and writing from here.

Kent also is the unrecognized "author" of one of the most enduring phrases of criticism of the modern Democratic Party. No week goes by even now that you won't hear it uttered, usually with scorn. More about that later.

Kent began his daily column -- "The Great Game of Politics" -- for the front page of The Sun in 1923. He had already become a fixture at the paper. A native of Baltimore, he became a police reporter for The Sun in 1900, learning the trade with another cub, his friend Henry L. Mencken. From 1902 to 1910 he wrote state and local politics. He was Washington correspondent for a year, then served as managing editor (of The Sun and The Evening Sun) from 1911 to 1921 and as London correspondent from 1922 to 1923.

"The Great Game of Politics" was also the title of a 1924 Kent book. That book was as groundbreaking as his column would turn out to be. A review in The Nation said: "As a straightforward account of actual conditions written from the 'outside' from a rich background of 'inside' information and observation of our political life, it fill a conspicuous gap in our materia political."

The column was also inside stuff written by an outsider with unusual access to inner sanctums. It ran daily till 1942, then three times a week till 1947, then somewhat less regularly till 1958. In the 1920s and 1930s, his was one of a very few nationally circulated and known voices of reportage, exposition and commentary on national affairs. In the early 1930s, it was the most widely syndicated column of its kind.

Not only did Kent have a large audience of readers, he was read closely by his peers. When Arthur Krock became chief of the Washington bureau of the New York Times in 1931, he later said, Kent, Richard V. Oulahan (Krock's predecessor at the Times) and J. C. O'Laughlin of the Chicago Tribune were the best and most influential members of the Washington press corps, "not only in their coverage of the general news, but in producing news of special depth and authority due to the fact that they had quick access to presidents, Cabinet members and the leaders of Congress."

This "entree to important news sources lifted them above the rest of the pack," as Donald A. Ritchie put it in his history of the congressional press gallery.

Kent also had access to one of the best sources of gossip and inside information in Washington. That was Alice Roosevelt Longworth. She was the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt and widow of Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth. She and Kent held regular social sessions for Washington notables. She dished him plenty of dirt. He was rumored to be both her ghost (for a syndicated newspaper column) and her lover.

When Kent began "The Great Game of Politics," Washington and the federal government were not as central to the national imagination or interests as they are today.

By the mid-1930s, the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt had changed that. The whirlwind of activity "downtown" and the many colorful characters centrally involved -- and the fact that suddenly what happened in Washington was important in all Americans' daily lives -- made a column such as the one Kent had developed widely interesting.

His idea of political writing is implied in the title of the column: He commented on and analyzed politics as if it were a "game" or sporting event. The process became as important, if not more so, than the substance of the policy that resulted. Who did what to whom? And why? And who "won"?

Kent had started out a Wilsonian liberal. He originated the "TRB" column in the New Republic in 1925. But he quickly became anti-FDR and anti-New Deal, so much so that his attack on a prominent New Dealer led a Senate committee to call before it Kent and other prominent journalists who had followed his lead, to be grilled about their sources.

That was nearly 60 years ago, but the comment in question is still part of everyday political rhetoric.

In 1938, shortly before the mid-term elections, Kent quoted FDR aide Harry Hopkins as telling a friend, "We are going to spend, spend, spend, tax, tax, tax, elect, elect and elect." Thus was born the epithet, "tax-and-spend Democrat."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.