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.