On Mary McGrory

April 23, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The death at 85 of Mary McGrory of The Washington Post ends one of the most unusual love stories in the annals of American political journalism. The object of her affections was politics itself, and particularly the Don Quixotes who jousted with noble intent at its windmills for more than half a century.

Mary never married, but she had a long list of celebrated male admirers in both politics and journalism, captivated by her rare combination of Irish wit, toughness, insight and irony, tempered often with sentimentality.

Professionally, at least, she fell in love with political figures such as her surviving contemporary, former Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, whose guts in taking on President Lyndon B. Johnson over the Vietnam War turned her into one of his prime champions.

In equal measure, she despised others, such as President Richard Nixon, whose number she had as a classic schemer long before the Watergate scandal hearings, whose coverage brought her a Pulitzer Prize.

Another villain she skewered, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, provided Mary her start in political writing after her impressive stint at book reviewing at her beloved, now long-defunct Washington Star.

As a novice political reporter, I first encountered Mary covering the famous Army-McCarthy hearings that proved to be Mr. McCarthy's undoing - with the help of her rapier dissection of him as a political bully and fake.

While others of us would press around committee members and witnesses to glean their wisdom, Mary would spend more time talking to plain folks in the audience, mining their observations about the mighty for her own pithy assessments.

It was not until several years later that I really met her, in West Virginia, covering a visit there by LBJ in his futile challenge of John F. Kennedy for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. It so happened that Mr. Johnson's arrival was marred by the news that an American U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union.

LBJ called in the reporters as I sat at the far end of a long table straining to hear him as he spoke in a low voice. In came Mary. "What's he saying, kid?" she whispered to me as she squeezed in beside me. It was the first of many occasions when I would be called on to give "a fill," willingly, to the late-arriving Mary.

It was also only one of the services expected of her male colleagues, including toting her typewriter and her luggage, fetching her cigarettes and driving her to various political events. Though Mary drove a car herself, she usually would persuade some reportorial pal or other to chauffeur her.

Much later, I got to know Mary better at the Star, where she was a late-night fixture in the newsroom, one of the last, if not the last, of its reporters to surrender her typewriter and master, with much effort and not always successfully, the mysteries of the desktop computer.

But more demanding were her own high standards, which often kept her agonizing at her desk long after other staffers had departed, choosing and discarding words until her column for the next day's paper read as if it had been dashed off effortlessly.

As a Boston Irish woman, Mary, of course, also had platonic love affairs with JFK and the other Kennedys, and one of her more wrenching times came in 1968 when Robert Kennedy tardily entered the Democratic nomination fight against Eugene McCarthy. She retained her loyalty to that other Irish Catholic, Mr. McCarthy, to the consternation of the Kennedys, yet continued her political romance with the Kennedy clan through the surviving brother, Teddy.

Above all, though, it was Mary's love for the world of newspapers - first at the Star and then, when it folded in 1981, at the Post - and for the English language, whose unerring and faithful mistress she was, that defined a life she traveled as a solitary figure, but never alone.

Mary's old pal, cartoonist Herblock, liked to kid her about an admirer who wrote her saying, "I hope to make the name Mary McGregory a household word."

After 85 years, he didn't have to.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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