1985 Fellow Mary McGrory

Columnist,<i> The Washington Post </i>
 
 
Convocation Address
I accept with great gratitude the Elijah Parish Lovejoy award. I will not belabor my unworthiness. If I were to go into detail about my misprecisions, as mistakes are called at the Reagan White House, the wrong judgements, the off-the-mark predictions--you might want to take it back, and I don't want that to happen. There are limits to the Elsie Dinsmore strain in my nature.

What I find most humbling about accepting this award is the character and achievement of Elijah Lovejoy. Very few journalists, although, sadly, there may be more in South Africa soon--can breathe easily in his aura, there being none who made a greater sacrifice in the pursuit and expression of the truth. He did what editors and reporters are supposed to do. He told people things they did not want to know. In the face of their wrathful and violent rejection, he persisted and paid with his life at the age of 35, for the principle that in a democracy, the press has an obligation to report what is happening, and to explain to its citizens what is expected of them in the face of these facts. The mob that attacked his press and shot him tried to wreck and kill the truth. Of course, they failed. Because of Elijah Lovejoy and men like him, we have to remember, they always will fail.

" Very few journalists, although, sadly, there may be more in South Africa soon--can breathe easily in his aura, there being none who made a greater sacrifice in the pursuit and expression of the truth."

I am subdued also by the knowledge of other recipients who are known to me and plainly more deserving of this honor. I will speak only of three whom I have known or whom I know well. Edwin A. Lahey, whose name is associated with the Chicago Daily News, for one. He was a melancholy and hilariously funny Chicago Irishman who never went beyond the eighth grade, and who, in treading the corridors of Washington power, never forgot where he came from. He wrote with piercing clarity and wit, regularly defrocked the pompous, the preeners and the evil-doers who are so conspicuous in Washington. He wrote with breathtaking speed and polish. It is hard to say whether he was a better reporter or writer, he was so good at both. He borrowed his motto from Thomas A. Kempis--"fawn not upon the great." He observed it to the letter. He loved his trade and was affronted by those who did not always appreciate the privilege of practicing it. "Remember, honey," he said to me once when I was whining about the conditions, "two million people in this country work in steam laundries."

Another recipient was Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post, the paper where I work. When she was publisher of the Post, Mrs. Graham had the crushing responsibility of deciding whether or not to print the Pentagon papers and, soon after, whether or not to go forward with what turned out to be the story of the century, Watergate. Mrs. Graham never expected the burden which fell on her, the direction of the paper she inherited from her father. She was, and is, no bomb-thrower. But she stood up to it all, the taunts, the threats, the fears and she presided over the publication of stories that led to the first resignation of an American president. She put her newspaper's fate, and her own, in the hands of two reporters who were under 30 years of age.

I don't think many could match her courage. I know I couldn't.

Then there is my dear friend Thomas Winship, who for 25 years was editor of the Boston Globe. Under his buoyant leadership, that splendid paper moved from being a nice fuddy-duddy Uncle Dudley to becoming the conscience of New England. He did it out of sheer energy, constant reference to a little notebook in which he scribbled every idea or name that came to him--and with an indestructible faith in the human potential. No one I know did more hand-holding and nurse-maiding of young reporters and aspiring writers. What he did during the crisis of the desegregation of the Boston public schools was in the Elijah Lovejoy tradition. He is here tonight. I salute him.

There is something else I should tell you right now, if you haven't already guessed it. I don't make speeches, something the judges may not have known when they made their singular choice. You have heard many notable addresses on this occasion. I have read as many as your kindly public relations department could provide. They were, in some cases, important statements about the state of the press, how it is doing, where it is going, where it is falling short and where it is veering towards dangers. They have warned us that we are about to fall from the weight of our own incompetence, our sloppy writing, our cowardice, or our arrogance. They have told us we should pay more attention--or less--to the business side. They have told us in the printed press that we are about to be devoured, or simply swept aside, by the incomparable immediacy of television.

I agree with them, in some degree, on all counts.

The people you have chosen before have all been press statesmen of one kind or another. They are all, as far as I can see, what I call forest people. That is, they have the commanding aerial view of our trade. They see its acreage, its spread. They spy the flames of the forest fire licking at the edges.

I am not of forest calibre. I am strictly trees. I have spent my working years examining the underbrush, the saplings, and the occasional tall pine. The long view, the big picture, are beyond me. I might say that writing three columns a week makes me more frantic than thoughtful. The sheriff, in the form of the next deadline, is ever at my heels. A columnist has freedom to record impressions, to react to events without full examination of their significance. Someone like me is arrested, perhaps frivolously, by a quirk of speech, a mannerism, an aside, as I hunt for the personality inside the personage. That's my alibi, anyway. I don't know where the press is going--or where it should go. My first editor, Newbold Noyes, editor of the Washington Star, the paper where I was until it folded, instructed me, when he sent me out to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, to "write it like a letter to your favorite aunt." It kept me from the cosmic and it is still with me. I have never gotten over the idea that i'm lucky to get in to see events while other people stand outside in the hall, behind ropes. And I stubbornly cling to a rather primitive concept of journalism which is that the job is to tell the public something it doesn't know. If I can't do any reporting, I can at least suggest a new way of looking at the facts that are already on the record, the only kind often available to a columnist who does not have the president to dinner--as some of my kind do--or who is invited to lunch with the Secretary of State, as are some others. There are people in the White House who won't admit to reading me--fat chance they're going to take my calls. That is not self-pity speaking. I.F. Stone for years wrote the most stimulating, provocative and illuminating newsletter washington has ever seen, strictly from the public record.

"In a democracy, the government's business is our business, but some days you'd hardly know it."

After anxious weeks of studying what others have said in their summary statements about the press, I have decided to talk to you about something I know something about. I was prompted to do so by Jim Bellows, who, for three heady years, was editor of the Washington Star. When I asked him what in the world I should say to you, he suggested that the absence of passion, from newspapers and their readers, could be a theme. He didn't suggest whether it begins with us or with them, whether we've stopped writing it right or whether readers simply don't care any more. I think the fault may be on both sides.

In the past several years, probably beginning with the Reagan administration, there has been a sharp fall-off in the kind of impassioned mail that came my way when such enormous events as the Vietnam War and Watergate were unfolding. I have begun to wonder what people care about, or if they care at all. I still hear from some readers who share my indignation at seeing their tax dollars at work in Nicaragua killing peasants, or at U.S. Support of the murderous Chilean dictatorship we helped put in place, or at spending billions for worthless weapons and peanuts for food for poor children. But they make no comment about the education secretary who vehemently champions the rights of private schools when public schools should be his first concern. Nobody seems to mind that our president rejected out of hand and within hours of receiving it, an offer from the Soviets that we ban nuclear testing for a while. My friend Congressman Ed Markey thinks the press clearly deserved the blame for that blank. He points out that the test-ban proposal was on page one for one day, was kicked to page eighteen the second, and hasn't been seen since.

In a democracy, the government's business is our business, but some days you'd hardly know it. For instance, recently the Washington Post printed a story about a CIA plan, approved by the president, for the subversion of the government of Libya. To some of us, it meant that the CIA was ready to go down the "rogue elephant" road again, back into the disrepute of past years so copiously documented by the church committee. But the letters to the editor castigated us for printing the story and demanded an investigation of the leak. Nobody asked for an investigation of the policy.

I might tell you that in the last five years, the three columns that called forth the most response were in this order: Menachen Begin, Jane Austen and squirrels. I wrote at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that Begin should not come here with blood on his hands. We received a flood of mail and more telephone calls than we could handle. This could be explained by the unfailing vigilance of Jewish readers, who more than any other group in this country, understand that in a democracy an outcry is essential. I should add, parenthetically, that a majority of them agreed with me about the invasion. I wrote an account of a Jane Austen Society meeting in 1983, and we are still hearing from it. A clergyman in Ohio reproached me in the most Christian manner for failing to give the address of the headquarters. I think it is wonderful so many people appreciate Ms. Austen's incomparable writing of eighteenth century village life in England. I just wish they cared as much about urban American life today.

It's questionable advice to give to a young or aspiring journalist, but I have to tell you that if you really want to get the public going, you should write about squirrels. I have several times recounted my struggles to keep squirrels from raiding the bird feeders, and have had to stand back while the responses poured in. One woman confessed to having confounded them by rigging up a bird-feeder with charged copper wires. Too many have sent in diagrams with instructions to "go to your hardware store and order three feet of tubing, six brackets and..." It's all lost on me. My mechanical aptitude barely extends to tuning in a radio.

I tell you this in honest bewilderment. I don't know what it is if the public is sublimely content--that could be that Ronald Reagan has restored a sense of public happiness to the republic; if people have decided the issues are too complex and have retreated into comfortable assumptions that the poor get what they deserve, that industrial pollution is inevitable, that politicians are always corrupt, that in international affairs it's a simple question of "us against them" and that government secrecy, which a conservative administration is ever increasing, is not to worry, if whether those who believe deeply as I do, that a democracy is only as good as people insist that it be, have just decided it isn't worth the struggle.

I give you an example of where I think it is. The other night I met an old friend, a Vietnam activist who spent ten years trying to right what he thought, as most of us, a national wrong. He is now a member of a committee which is trying to save a parking-lot in our neighborhood. The claim is that it is an historic monument, being the first Stop-and-Shop site in Washington. I never thought he would be sentimental about a parking lot. I remember him arguing with John Ehrlichman in my living room about the moral obligations of a great nation.

"I think there may be a simpler explanation, which lets us all, writers and readers, off the hook. It is the absence of political opposition in this country. The two-party system is presently just not functioning."

I think there may be a simpler explanation, which lets us all, writers and readers, off the hook. It is the absence of political opposition in this country. The two-party system is presently just not functioning. The Democrats, understandably demoralized, are hopelessly divided. They are divided on the subject of defense, an issue dumped on them by Ronald Reagan, who, after spending trillions of dollars in the past five years, continues to tell us we are dangerously behind the Soviets. Some Democrats say they must vote for useless weapons like the MX and obscene weapons like nerve gas to erase the awful charge that they are soft on defense. Others say that this kind of me-tooism is as deadly as nerve gas and that the public wants them to trim back Pentagon spending and to go after waste. The battle rages on. There have been no victories. And there is no national voice, such as there was when the Democrats were in the desert when Adlai Stevenson spoke for those who wanted a different way. When people hear their own thoughts expressed by an articulate spokesman, they take heart, they respond.

I tell you all this not as a way of taking the discussion from the shortcomings of the press. We can always do it better. Chaucer was right when he lamented "the lyfe so shorte, the crafte so long to lerne." Maybe it's our fault. Maybe we spent so many years telling people what officials were doing wrong that they hated to see us coming. Maybe the nightly news, which presents the issues in pictures, is all they want to know about what is going on. Maybe we don't put the questions right. Maybe we don't write with enough fire, force and point to make people understand that they are involved. I have deliberately left the campus out of it. Much has been written about the apathy and self-absorption of our youth. I am sure it does not apply to Colby, the college of Elijah Parish Lovejoy.

I conclude by renewing my thanks to you for the honor you have given me, and offering assurance that I will try to do my part by trying to be more accurate, more thoughtful and more mindful of my duty as a member of a most privileged profession. I hope you will do yours by reading your papers with the idea of doing something, or at least saying something about what you have read.

Thank you.