In 1975, two equally important events happened in the life of prolific political journalist Mary McGrory; she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her coverage of Watergate, and it was revealed that she was on President Nixon’s enemies list. There was no love lost between the two. “If he were a horse, I would not buy him,” McGrory wrote of Nixon.
In John Norris’s new biography “Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism,” readers learn that Nixon’s hatred of McGrory led to her being audited by the IRS three years in a row. McGrory was the winner in that regard. Her significant charitable giving resulted in receiving a bigger refund than she had realized. As detailed by Norris throughout the book, McGrory usually emerged the winner in any tussle with a political figure.
Women have long been employed at newspapers, though prior to the 1970s it was usually covering soft news. For McGrory, a Boston native, her entrance to the Washington Star was as an assistant book critic in 1947. While still reviewing books, she began writing profiles about interesting politicians and discovered she had had a knack for pulling colorful or revealing quotes from her interviewees. For example, she once got Lyndon B. Johnson to say, “I’m a Communist in Texas and a Dixiecrat in Washington.”
Her political features led to her covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. Her editor told her to take lots of notes and then “write it like a letter to your favorite aunt.” After six hours of writing and rewriting her first column, it ran on April 23, 1954. “It’s too early yet to tell about the plot, but they’ve certainly got a cast there,” she began. “The star, Senator McCarthy, ploughs his high-shouldered way through the crowds amid small cheers.” McGrory wrote about McCarthy attorney and confidant Roy Cohn as resembling a boy who had been reprimanded and “come back with his elders to get the thing straightened out.” Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens was described as looking “about as dangerous as an Eagle Scout.”
She covered the hearings each day, publishing 36 columns. Her coverage led her to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year. Soon after, she was moved to the national desk, her writing quickly made her a celebrity. Time described McGrory as “Queen of the Corps” and the United Press’s Washington bureau chief said her writing was the best he had ever seen. President Johnson called her “… the best writer in Washington, and she keeps getting better at my expense.”
Norris also delves into McGrory’s Boston and Irish background, which led to a natural alliance with Senator and future President John F. Kennedy. The pair once even went on a date. After Kennedy was elected, McGrory was a regular at the White House. When she later won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote that McGrory should win the award every year.
President Kennedy’s assassination shook up McGrory to the point she told Kennedy aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan “We will never laugh again.” As Norris relates, Moynihan responded: “Mary, we will laugh again. But we will never be young again.” Her connection to the Kennedys continued as she would later cover Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign and argue bitterly over his lack of objection to the Vietnam War. He said of her, “Mary is so gentle – until she gets behind the typewriter.”
McGrory covered politics, along with a gardening column on the side, until the Star closed. Washington readers were not deprived of McGrory’s wit and insight, however, as she continued assailing politicians from the pages of The Washington Post. For example, she took on the Gore versus Bush Presidential campaign: “A battle of the unlikeable and the unprepared.” And in her final columns in March 2003, she would oppose the war in Iraq. She died at age 85 in 2004.
While McGrory is a legend who deserves her place in journalism and political history, other women, such as Betty Beale, Helen Thomas and Vera Glaser, were in Washington covering politics during this same time frame.
Beale, for example, covered Washington, D.C., parties and social life from 1945 to 1990. She described her colorful career in her book “Power at Play: A Memoir of Parties, Politicians and the Presidents in My Bedroom.” It is estimated that she attended about 15,000 parties ranging from the Truman to the Reagan administrations. At the height of her career in the 1960s, approximately 90 newspapers published her column. After one party, she angered the Eisenhower administration by reporting that the White House was serving hard liquor at an afternoon reception. It led to a protest by non-drinkers and the practice was discontinued where reporters were present. In her book, she wrote:
The essence of Washington was not to be found in presidential pronouncements or congressional commitments. Instead, it was alive and thriving on the nightly social scene where the activities of the day and the predictions of the morrow were reported, sorted, aborted, or distorted and promptly exported to the next pair of ears at the next party.
Washington’s social gatherings often made women journalists welcome. According to historian Maurine Beasley’s research about female journalists in Washington, D.C., and the discriminatory environment many of them faced, they still found ways to prevail: “Washington women journalists have viewed news differently and more broadly than their masculine competitors. Due to their own roles, engendered by societal expectations, they had to move beyond the limitations of a journalism that focused on reporting and commenting about conflicts and controversies.”
As lauded as McGrory and many of her fellow female journalists were for achieving heights in political coverage, their place as marginalized reporters was clear. The National Press Club, which featured significant speakers, did not allow women as members. Previous to 1970, women were excluded from membership in industry organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Club. If women wanted to cover a speaker at the Press Club, they were required to be in the balcony and enter through the back door. Said Newsday reporter Bonnie Angelo of the practice, “Here were the people in the balcony, distinguished journalists treated like second-class citizens. It was discrimination at its rawest.” McGrory deeply resented the practice, Norris writes in his book, and she described “some fat lobbyist lighting his cigar and having his second cup of coffee.” This wasn’t the only time McGrory dealt with sexism. As related in “Drunk Before Noon: The Behind the Scenes of the Washington Press Corps,” New York Times bureau chief Scotty Reston had wanted to hire McGrory but told her that she would also have to learn to operate the switchboard. She rejected the offer.
Norris’ book about McGrory is an important addition to women in journalism history. The last decade of scholarship has shown that women’s contributions to newspapers – from soft news to political commentary – were more complex and nuanced than previously documented.