Jim Perry: A Long and Good Life as a Journalist


Jim Perry in 1969

A notice in today’s Washington Post said that James M. Perry, 89, died Wednesday, November 23, with his two daughters by his side. It said he was a World War Two Marine veteran, career journalist, historian and blogger who was awarded the Fourth Estate Award from the National Press Club in 1997.

And he was a journalist to the end, writing columns for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a paper edited by David Shribman, a longtime Washington journalist who worked with Perry at the Wall Street Journal. The author’s note for Jim’s columns described him this way:  “James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.”

His last column, which appeared November 21, was “Perry on Politics: Flabbergasted over Facts.” It starts:

I have appointed myself the unofficial fact-checker for Section Five of the Village of Chevy Chase, Md., and for anywhere else that fact and fiction are so muddled they threaten our basic democracy.

My new career began innocently enough when I took note of a Facebook posting by an old family friend saying that hardly anyone participating in the D-Day landing June 6, 1944, believed he would emerge alive. Many, of course, did. As many as 200,000 Americans landed on the beaches of Normandy; about 4,500 of them died. But she was acting out of concern for the dead and anger that the wounded weren’t being treated better. Her heart is in the right place.

Facts are deeply significant. When millions of Americans don’t believe the facts laid before them – that’s what happened in this election – then we all are in deep trouble. A fake news story told us that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president and it was almost immediately shared on a million web sites.

Facts have always been elusive. Politicians, by their very nature, tend to cover up bad news. Generals exaggerate their enemy’s casualties, downplay their own. But it is only with social media that fake stories dashed off by men and women with their hearts in the wrong place sweep through the internet. These people must all be cynics.

I met Jim in 1968 when he was at the National Observer, a Dow Jones weekly, and I was a Congressional Fellow in Vice President Humphrey’s office. When I joined the Washingtonian in 1969, very little was being written about the media and Jim wrote the first media piece we ran: “Scrambled Eggs and Headlines.” It  was about the breakfasts hosted by Godfrey Sperling, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Christian Science Monitor, that allowed select journalists to dine and talk with influential government officials. Some excerpts from the story:

Breakfast with Godfrey has become a Washington institution; it has also become, in some specialized circles, as controversial as the question of constructing an ABM system.

Since January of 1966, when it all began, Mr. Sperling has invited his friends to breakfast on about fifty separate occasions. His guests have included the late Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, Eugene J. McCarthy, Nelson A. Rockefeller, George W. Romney, and Spiro T. Agnew. Of all the nation’s leading political figures, only Richard M. Nixon has regretted an invitation to breakfast with Godfrey.

In Washington jargon, the Sperling breakfasts are “backgrounders,” or at least they were when they began. Backgrounders—designed to tell it like it is, off the record and for background only—serve a number of purposes for politician and for journalist. First of all, backgrounders allow public figures and the men who write about them to meet and measure one another (it would be difficult to exaggerate the difficulties a single reporter faces in Washington in arranging a quiet, uninterrupted interview with a busy bureaucrat). Secondly, they permit public figures to say some things they might not want to say out loud in public.

There is at least one other important consideration: Attendance at backgrounders is a measure of a reporter’s professional clout and even his social position in the Washington pecking order. If, say, the Secretary of State wishes to make a subtle (and usually self-serving) point, he will invite a handful of trusted reporters to drop by. Those he invites, ipso facto, have clout and status, as diplomatic correspondents. Or, at least, they believe so.

Breakfast with Godfrey, however, is different. It is an institutionalized backgrounder run by and for the newspapermen themselves. It has come to be the biggest show of its kind in town….

Some of the breakfasts have been memorable, one way or another. The first time George Romney showed up he talked about Vietnam—and talked and talked and talked—and suddenly the national press began to sense that Mr. Romney didn’t know what he was talking about. It was ultimately the undoing of his Presidential ambitions….

Mr. Sperling limits the group to about eighteen members because, he says, that all that can fit around the big table. He does not pretend that his group is representative, only that it’s congenial to him.

And that’s the rub.

Reporters in Washington are stratified like rock formations. There’s one group that covers the White House; there’s another at the State Department; another at Defense; another on Capitol Hill. There are other reporters who go wherever whimsy takes them; they’re the columnists and bureau chiefs. But the most recent development is a group that specializes in national politics.

Those reporters who now cover national politics regularly and who are not members of the Breakfast with Godfrey Club are understandably outraged. One of these outsiders is James S. Doyle, a feisty little reporter for the Boston Globe. Mr. Doyle has refused to accept his outsider status with equanimity.

Jim wrote that Doyle would find about a Sperling breakfast and then call two or three reporters who had been at the breakfast.

“I’d ask them what had happened,” Doyle said. “Usually they’d tell me. Then I’d write my story and come right out and identify by name the ‘highly placed Democrat’ or the ‘Republican strategist.’ It was kind of interesting because I could get my stories into the Boston Globe before Sperling could get his into the Christian Science Monitor, and my stories would identify the guy and his wouldn’t.”

Jack Germond of Gannett also was unhappy. Along with other outsiders, he was unhappy that the breakfasts were a Christian Science Monitor operation. “Who the hell is the Christian Science Monitor?” an outsider asks.

There is, as a result, dissent at the breakfast table. It has led some of the Sperling regulars and some of the outsiders to organize a new, competitive group. “We held our first cell meeting at a spaghetti joint on Pennsylvania Avenue,” one of the founders says. “We held our first formal organizational meeting in the Falstaff suite at the Sheraton-Carlton. I think we’ll call ourselves the Political Writers for a Democratic Society….

Outsiders coming in from the cold include Doyle of the Globe, Germond of the Gannett Newspapers, James Dickinson of the National Observer, and Jules Witcover of the Newhouse newspapers.

PWDS will insist that its sessions be real backgrounders. “There will be no headline hunting,” says one member. The sessions will be held in the evening at homes of the members. (The first meeting was held in May at Mr. Germond’s home.)

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” one of the founding members asks, “if we could get Nixon as our guest, call up Sperling, and ask him if he’d like to drop by?”

Jim’s 1969 Washingtonian article also was a kind of who’s who in Washington journalism back then. Among the names mentioned: Warren Weaver, Jr., of the New York Times; David Broder of the Washington Post; Philip Potter of the Baltimore Sun; Paul Hope of the Washington Star; Robert Donovan of the Los Angeles Times; Alan Otten of the Wall Street Journal; William Theis of the Hearst Newspapers; Russell Freeburg of the Chicago Tribune; Thomas Littlewood of the Chicago Sun-Times; Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News; Jerry Green of the New York Daily News; J.F. ter Horst of the Detroit News; Robert Boyd of Knight Newspapers; Earl Mazo of the Reader’s Digest; Lawrence Spivak of Meet the Press; and columnists Robert Novak, Bruce Biossat, and Joseph Kraft. From the Christian Science Monitor: Saville Davis, Joseph C. Harsch, Roscoe Drummond, and Richard L. Strout (also the New Republic columnist TRB).
Godfrey Sperling died in 2013. His obit in the New York Times had the headline: Godfrey Sperling, Who Made Eggs for Press, Dies at 97.
A few of this week’s tweets about Jim Perry:

Jim VandeHei ‏@JimVandeHei
Perry was a treasure: wicked sharp mind, humor, writing touch. One of life’s great joys: my lunches w Jim and David Rogers. 2 amazing men.

John Harwood @JohnJHarwood
RIP Jim Perry – treasured WSJ colleague, insightful political reporter, accomplished author, funny, crusty friend. Thankful for your life.

Timothy Noah ‏@TimothyNoah1
James M. Perry, former chief political correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, wrote like a dream. RIP.
The Washington Post on December 5 published a good obit on Jim Perry. Here’s the lede:

James M. Perry, a political reporter who wrote engrossing books about the shortcomings of the press, costly episodes of bluster and blunder in the military, and the ways poll-driven marketing reshaped politics, died Nov. 23 at a hospital in Washington. He was 89.

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