You only need spend ten minutes at the annual White House Correspondents Association to discern the permeability between journalists and those they cover.
There’s a mutual desire to please that, especially in Washington, makes access a prized possession. Even more, there’s at least the illusion, at times even the reality, of influence.
Drew Pearson is probably a forgotten name these days to the young and ambitious racing about the capital. But few had more influence — and played on both sides of the journalist/politics boundary line quite as routinely — as Pearson during decades as one of the two or three most influential political columnists.
“From the thirties through the sixties, no one crossed the journo-politico line in search of real policy impact with greater fervor than Drew Pearson, the author of the syndicated newspaper column Washington Merry-Go-Round,” writes Thomas Mallon in the latest New Yorker. “Accompanied by Pearson’s mustachioed thumbnail image, it ran so widely and for so long that the purveyor became a figure in the popular culture.”
The second volume of his diaries, “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” is out (published by Potomac and edited by Peter Hannaford). They take up most of the 1960s before his 1969 death and show “even more convincingly the extent of Pearson’s direct involvement in politics, often at the Presidential level, and the degree to which it derived not just from standard elements of ego and competitiveness but also from an emotionally committed world view. “
“The vote went against us, as I expected, but we polled twelve,” Pearson wrote on Jan. 31, 1962, coming off more like an actual senator than like a reporter as he expresses disappointment over the confirmation of a CIA director.
In a world long before the Internet, he wrote tons of hand-written notes to Senators, “whipping” legislators as if he were seeking votes as part of the Democratic Party’s actual leadership team. He’d wanted to be a diplomat and loved to host Soviet officials and grasp any opportunity “to serve as a back channel to the Soviets,” Mallon writes. On occasion, Pearson did.
He wasn’t sympathetic toward rogues or ethical mishaps. He covered most of the scandals between Teapot Dome and Watergate, the latter playing out after his passing. It would have been unsurpassed grist for his ever-plotting mill.
He’s a reminder, too, of the more discreet mores of the day. Yes, he wrote, President John F. Kennedy was “laying every girl in sight.” But, as Mallon, notes, everybody among the media elite seemed to gossip about Kennedy’s sex life, nobody reported on it.
But he was ultimately more interested in financial corruption than personal indiscretions. He loved tracking links of friendship and enemies and always believed one could figure out most actions by understanding them. “One imagines Pearson fingering these links late into the night, the way other people tell their rosary beads or count sheep.”
His professional life involved very obvious quid pro quos; doing favors for powerful people by writing about something or, occasionally, not writing about something (like a senator’s tax-avoidance legislation to help a big company in his state).
Writing about a Kennedy press conference, he acknowledges that he’d wanted to assist Kennedy but didn’t get to his press secretary (Pierre Salinger) in time. “I had planned a question about the Free University of Cuba but couldn’t get hold of Salinger to coach Kennedy in advance.”
His was a world of exchanges where information was bartered. While he voted for Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, he still withheld from readers knowledge that Republican candidate Richard Nixon had received psychotherapy. He was looking to get something in return.
He withheld, too, investigating tax breaks that then-Senator Lyndon Johnson had obtained for a Texas company in return for Johnson backing Pearson’s preferred Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Years later, Pearson helped to write Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address, though their relationship was complex and, yes, he was still a syndicated columnist.
He operated in a pantheon of potent columnists, led by Walter Lippman and Walter Winchell, with no real counterpart these days (perhaps Tom Friedman of The New York Times when it comes to issues of foreign affairs.). Television was nowhere near the same influence on politics, and political talk radio didn’t really exist.
It’s not to say that the likes of Rush Limbaugh don’t exert influence these days but it’s not quite a direct and tangible as it was for Pearson.
Plus, there is a sense often today that being provocative for provocation’s sake can animate the star journalist. Even the new breed of comic provocateurs, like Jon Stewart, can get policy-minded at times but they don’t seem to lose their self-identities as entertainers.
It was different for Pearson.
He “never lost the conviction that his own items were purposeful and history-making. On every page of the diary one senses how much it all matters to him.”
Before his death he told Jack Anderson, his longtime aide who inherited the column, “We’ve got to live a long time. We’ve got so much to do.”