Editor’s note: On Thursday, March 10, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society will host author John Norris in conversation with Don Ritchie, historian emeritus of the Senate. They’ll discuss Norris’s recent book, Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism. Below, Norris writes about McGrory’s interactions with Members of Congress and her skills as a journalist and writer. If you’re in DC, please join us on Thursday for the event! It’s free and open to the public, but pre-registration is recommended.

 

–by John Norris

Mary McGrory, the pioneering columnist from first the Washington Star and later the Washington Post, was most famous for covering presidents and presidential politics. The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, she featured prominently on Nixon’s infamous Enemies List, and her column was syndicated in close to 200 papers around the country.

Mary McGrory at the Watergate Hearings (Library of Congress)

Mary McGrory at the Watergate Hearings (Library of Congress [M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico])

But McGrory always had a special place in her heart for Congress. For a woman who wrote four columns a week, and whose big breakthrough came because of her coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings, McGrory knew that she could always find a story worth telling on the Hill.

But as one of the few women on the beat in the 1950s and 60s, her reception was not always a warm one. Journalist Russell Baker recalled that when he started out as a reporter, in the mid-fifties, a number of congressional graybeards pointed Mary out to Baker “as the very model of what I as a congressional correspondent should never be if I wanted to succeed covering the Hill.” Mary’s mortal sin: she had printed, verbatim, the harshly anti-immigrant views of a Pennsylvania congressman. “No reporter had ever before done him that discourtesy,” Baker recalled, explaining that most reporters in those days thought it unfair to accurately quote congressmen.

The great key to Mary’s success on the Hill was her dedication to spending long hours roaming the halls, talking to members and their staffs, and sitting through lengthy press conferences and hearings. “She was absolutely loyal to that proposition that if you didn’t see it yourself and ask questions about it yourself, you had no right to sit down and write about it,” observed anchorman Roger Mudd.

Mary would sit patiently on the leather benches below the oil portraits in the Speaker’s Lobby off the floor of the House of Representatives, lying in wait. That patience was usually rewarded. “Men naturally like to explain things to women,” Mary observed, “and I have given them exceptional opportunities in that regard.”

And equally important, Mary was able to find a certain poetry in politics and enliven even mundane proceedings on the Hill. She once described a debate on the senate floor between Everett Dirksen and Paul Douglas as looking like “two elderly polar bears negotiating the pas de deux from ‘Swan Lake.’” Efforts by a politician to restrain a freelancing underling during a hearing were akin to “a small man trying to take a large dog for a walk.”

Mary complained half-heartedly that she often played the role of a therapist to politicians eager to unburden themselves about wayward children and unhappy wives. But Mary’s were crocodile tears; she enjoyed the socializing as much as the politics. Understanding politicians as people allowed her to effectively build columns around personal observation. Many Republicans in Congress, accustomed to reading Mary’s sharp words, were pleasantly surprised to find Mary gracious in person. “The fact that I don’t raise my voice,” Mary remarked dryly, “seems to impress them favorably.”

John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism which was recently announced as a finalist for the LA Times Book Award.

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