In 1954, Mary McGrory was a single woman who had been writing spirited book reviews for a number of years. After her boss at the Washington Evening Start ascertained that she wasn’t planning to get married any time soon, McGrory was suddenly transferred to the news desk at and sent off to cover the McCarthy Hearings. What an amazing way to jump start a nearly fifty year career as one of the country’s most successful political columnists. Somebody really needs to make a movie of about McGrory. She was an epic character in an epic time.
In the meantime, John Norris has written an excellent biography of McGrory – Mary McGrory – The First Queen of Journalism. While Nellie Bly enthusiasts may quibble about the “First Queen” designation, McGrory undoubtedly reigned as queen of the Washington political reporting scene for half a century. She could be imperious, selfish and demanding, but she wrote a heck of a column. As a long-time columnist, she knew everyone and covered presidential campaigns from Adlai Stevenson through the George W Bush years. The campaign stories alone are worth reading this book, particularly since McGrory started out at a time when reporters knew a lot of dirt about politicians, but didn’t necessarily spill it. The stories of politicians trying to charm her or squirm out of answering deceptively mild yet go-for-the-jugular questions are priceless.
Although McGrory was an unabashed liberal and wrote highly opinionated columns, she did give politicians on both sides of the aisle a difficult time. Bill Clinton was said to get apoplectic about her critical columns. At the end of the day, McGrory was a very strong personality who was hard to pigeonhole. She could be nice or she could be horrible to competitors. The stories are hilarious, but they carry a serious bite.
I can’t help but wonder how McGrory would have reacted to the present school of journalism, where Fox is consistently conservative and constantly accused of skewing its news reporting accordingly and MSNBC often faces similar accusations from the other side. In her day, unfazed by political neutrality niceties, McGrory didn’t just express her political view point in her columns. She took it a significant step further. She could be a political activist and push people like Bobby Kennedy to run for office. Despite the highly opinionated tone of her columns, McGrory’s column almost always appeared on news pages, rather than editorial pages, and she waged ferocious battles to keep it that way. Issues of journalistic ethics crop up throughout the book, but it seems that McGrory’s powerful personality held sway for her columns.
John Norris has done a skillful job of showing us McGrory, with all her fine points and her not-so-fine points. Above all, I am just grateful that he has given us a highly readable record of a unique and powerful life. I wasn’t familiar with McGrory’s story and am really grateful that now I know about her. I strongly recommend this book.