Washington is less today than it was yesterday. Mary McGrory is dead.
She was the best liberal newspaper columnist of the latter 20th Century. Sorry, Molly Ivins, Frank Rich, Anthony Lewis, Jimmy Breslin and others. But--as any sentient political writer would agree--there's nothing wrong with being in Mary's shadow. Just being in the vicinity of her shadow would be an accomplishment.
For those unfortunates unfamiliar with her work, Mary was a columnist in Washington for fifty years, first for The Washington Star, then after the Star perished in 1981, for The Washington Post. Last year she suffered a stroke, and on Wednesday she died at the age of 85.
Mary was truly unique among newspaper columnists: she left her office to do her job. Most op-ed pundits sit at their desks, go to lunch, work the phone. But Mary married the gumption and discipline of a beat reporter with the style and insight of an opinion journalist. For nearly two decades, I would cross paths with her at committee hearings, press conferences, campaign events. An anthropologist of political Washington, Mary believed in doing field work. She wouldn't just pop in and out of an in-the-news hearing. She would be there for hours, sitting with the poor journalistic grunts who had to stick it out gavel-to-gavel. You never knew when you might find something interesting, she once told me.
Nothing slowed her down--particularly not age. I can recall one set of hearings that she attended while her leg was in a cast. She had trouble walking but she managed to maneuver herself through narrow rows and find a place at the front of press table. When the hearing was over, she hobbled up to dais to ask senators why their questions had not been more penetrating. (You will never see George Will doing this.) She was independent--in her thinking, in her journalism, in her life. At the 2000 presidential debate in Boston, I saw her afterward walking away from the John F. Kennedy Library in the dark by herself. She was trying to find a bus that was supposed to take her back to her hotel. But the scene was a bit chaotic, and she appeared unsure where to head. I was about to get on the subway and offered to help--to find the bus, escort her home on the subway, or locate a taxi. I practically insisted. She pushed me away, and, with a twinkle in her eye, said, in her straightforward but graceful manner, "Need I remind you that we're in Boston." Mary was Boston Irish, and her decades in Washington never changed that. She quickly turned and walked off into the night, certain that she would find her way.
Mary reported the hell out of her columns. She was not shy--no, not at all--about sharing her views. But she made her case with information, not assertion. (The Post has reprinted some of her columns here.) For many years, the Post published her columns not on the op-ed page but within the news pages, showcased in a box. That was a testament to the undeniable fact that Mary was more reporter than pontificator. But she was so irrepressible she could not avoid telling her readers what the facts meant. And she had the knack for finding that one hearing-room exchange, that one fact that fully captured a story or brought home a point, and often that entailed shining a bright light on the phony argument or hypocrisy of her target.
The obituaries make the obvious points: she was a pioneering newswoman who covered and explained the great events of her day; she was a Pulitzer winner; she was a passionate and vigorous liberal voice; she made Richard Nixon's enemies list and took that as a great honor; she didn't just write, she wove words together with flare and strength. But what I've read so far about Mary misses what might have been the basis for her success. She loved to listen. A conversation with Mary usually began with her asking, "Well, what do you think?" She was less eager to tell you what she thought. That's what the column was for. The first time I met her, in the early 1980s, I was writing a lot about nuclear arms control issues, as she had been, too. I introduced myself and immediately she began quizzing me on what I thought would happen next with one arms control matter after another--the nuclear weapons freeze, the MX missile, the Euromissiles. Her sources were certainly better than mine. I was flattered. And what an ego-boost: to be treated by Mary McGrory as a colleague. I wanted to know what she knew, believing I had less to offer than she did. But for Mary, there was always another piece of information, another point of view to collect. You never knew where you might find something interesting.
Perhaps because she preferred listening to talking you didn't see her on television performing in the cable-news circus. She wouldn't do it. Once, when I was hosting a radio show, I managed to coax her on as a guest. But that took much effort. She was wonderfully irascible on air, but quick to defer to the other guests.
I would occasionally send Mary an article that I had written--only bothering her when I thought (rightly or not) that I had concocted a point or uncovered a fact that deserved wider circulation. She was always gracious in acknowledging receipt. But more often I would read her column and see that she had beaten me to the punch. Or I would read her column and reach for a favorite phrase of my pal Jack Shafer: "I was going to think that."
With Mary gone, those who labor in her wake will have to work harder, think better, and write more stylishly. She set a standard that intimidates and inspires. Her voice--needed as much now as ever--will not be replaced. But if we're lucky, the echoes will continue to reverberate. She was the tops. Her column was missed this past year, and now anyone ever touched by Mary and her work will miss it forever.
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