From Mary McGrory, words that last


April 25, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- When veteran newswoman Mary McGrory is buried this week, she will leave a legacy of words -- columns known for their searing insight, whimsical prose and unshakable convictions.

McGrory, who died Wednesday at age 85, loved being wherever history was happening. At The Washington Star, she wrote Washington as theater. She won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1974 for her coverage of Watergate.

In 1981, she moved on to The Washington Post, where her syndicated columns were never timid in their liberal outlook or curiosity about the world.

Her range of subjects was immense. But whether she was writing about presidents or the garden she loved, with McGrory, it was always a tale well told.


At Andrews Air Force Base, when John F. Kennedy's body was returned to Washington, McGrory described his bronze casket carried from the plane:

"The men picked up their inexpressible burden and placed it on the top of the platform and it was lowered into the hearse.

"Then in the frame stood his wife, Jacqueline, in a rose-colored suit with black facings. By her side was his favorite brother, Robert, the Attorney General, who had somehow gotten onto the plane although he never left Washington. He was holding Mrs. Kennedy by the hand.

"She was lifted down from the platform and opened the door of the gray hearse and climbed in the back. Bobby followed her.

"Several minutes later, the new President walked slowly down the ramp with his wife.

"With tears on their faces, the leaderless men of the New Frontier went up to greet him."

-- Nov. 23, 1963


At the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, she painted a picture of the panel's crusading anti-Communists, including Sen. Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel, Roy Cohn, as well as the senators on the panel:

"Roy Cohn, one half of the cause of it all, suddenly appears years younger than his precocious 27 years. Gone for the moment is the demon prosecutor, the remorseless Red-hunter. Pale, wan and a trifle aggrieved, he looks like a boy who has had a letter sent home from school about him, and come back with his elders to get the thing straightened out.

"Senator McClellan has ever the sad and reproachful look of the bloodhound, but he can be wrathy, too. When he defends a brother's rights, his voice quavers with anger. Senator Dirksen, a grandiose monogrammed handkerchief sticking out of his pocket, knits his brow in fretful concentration as Senator Mundt reads the committee statement, but he seems to be listening to different sounds from far away."

-- April 23, 1954


She brandished her pen when President Nixon attended a prayer breakfast during Watergate:

"Nixon believes that what this nation needs to do is 'to pray in silence and listen to God and find out what he wants for us and then we will all do the right thing.'

"Some 11 hours earlier he had stood before Congress and boasted of his deeds, flaunted his shredded power and hurled defiance at those who have been authorized to judge him.

"At the National Prayer Breakfast, he was somewhat out of his element. His position as a spiritual leader has been somewhat diminished. His wife, earlier this week, had urged a group of wives of National Religious Broadcasters to 'pray for the press.' "

-- Feb. 1, 1974


Though a trailblazer for women, she didn't see herself inside the feminist movement:

"I knew all about inequality. I, for instance, resented deeply having to sit in the cramped balcony of the National Press Club, looking down on some Department of Agriculture flack, who, because he was a male, sat on the floor enjoying a second cup of coffee and a better look at the speaker -- whom I was covering and he was not.

"I have to say, though, that it wasn't all bad. On the campaign trail, being the only woman, or one of a handful, with 90 colleagues was not the worst thing that ever happened to me. I never carried a typewriter or a suitcase -- wicked, treasonous, I know now -- and always got the good hotel room. It was the enjoyable side of inequality."

-- July 21, 1985


She loved her garden (squirrels excepted), and she frequently found political analogies in her flowerbeds:

"Ordinarily, the triumph of the squirrels, an annual event, would be a major item. It took them a while, but they finally solved my squirrel-proof bird feeder -- a beautiful object with wrought-iron scrolls that did seem to baffle them at first. One morning, however, I looked out and saw a gray object wrapped around the seed cylinder like a fur piece. He was hanging by his heels from the top perch, resting his head on the bottom one, gorging. After that, I thought they might go easy, but they broke open the coco-mulch bag and began feasting around the clock. Squirrels are about eats the way politicians are about money: There's never enough."

-- July 13, 1997


McGrory wrote that the "Playboy fare" of then-President Clinton's impeachment trial was an endurance test that Democrats and (almost all) Republicans were glad to see come to an end:

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