Drew Pearson: “For almost 40 years, there was no more widely read, and perhaps no more widely hated, journalist in America”

From a review in the Wall Street Journal by Fergus M. Bordewich of a book by Donald A. Ritchie titled “The Columnist”:

For almost 40 years, there was no more widely read, and perhaps no more widely hated, journalist in America than the ferociously independent syndicated columnist Drew Pearson. In a career that spanned every presidential administration from Hoover to Nixon, Pearson prowled the corridors of government, embarrassed the powerful, savaged the venal, fought secrecy, exposed blunders, and entertained and offended the public.

In “The Columnist,” a biography of Pearson, Donald A. Ritchie sums up Pearson’s storied career by tracking the acute displeasure he provoked…”Dwight Eisenhower ostensibly ignored him while having his press secretary trash him. John Kennedy griped that the powers of the presidency gave him no influence over the columnist. Lyndon Johnson did his best to co-opt him. Richard Nixon put him at the top of his enemies list.”

Mr. Ritchie, a former historian of the U.S. Senate, is the author of several previous books, including “Press Gallery,” a history of Washington journalism in the Civil War era, and “Electing FDR,” a chronicle of the 1932 campaign. As Pearson’s biographer, he is judicious if mostly friendly. Along with delivering a richly anecdotal account of the life, he offers up a crowded playbill of insider Washington dramas. Pearson comes vividly alive as an opinionated man of intense moral force, entrepreneurial energy and sometimes questionable judgment….

Drew Pearson was born into a “thee-ing” and “thy-ing” Quaker family in Illinois. He trapped skunks as a boy and in his teens served as an advance man and tent-pitcher for traveling Chautauqua gatherings. Having acquired a strong sense of moral indignation, an education at Swarthmore, urbane manners and a lust for travel, he established himself as a one-man newspaper syndicate and worked his way across the Pacific as a deckhand in order to freelance in the Far East, where, barely into his 20s, he talked his way into an interview with Mahatma Gandhi. On his way home through Europe, he snagged another with Benito Mussolini. A few years later, he gained entrée to Washington society by marrying the daughter of Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, the city’s wealthiest woman and the owner of the influential Washington Times-Herald.

In 1932, Pearson and his then-partner Robert Allen created Washington Merry-Go-Round, the daily column that for generations was every morning’s must-read for the capital’s movers and shakers. Pearson later added a newsletter, a weekly radio broadcast and eventually a television program….At its peak, Washington Merry-Go-Round, always Pearson’s flagship, appeared in more than 600 papers, while his radio show reached some 20 million listeners….

Pearson’s formula for success was what the Saturday Evening Post called “aggressive indiscretion”: hooking readers with the promise of insider revelations and tales of conflict at the highest levels of government. Pearson told his staff that when people in power betrayed their trust, “then it is your job to be ruthless in exposing that betrayal. You must be their watchdog. You must let them know what the publicity penalty is—if they fail.” Writes Mr. Ritchie: “He had a knack for making enemies, preferably those with big names, who kept him at the center of public controversies. He could also invest trivial matters with urgency and present gossip as established fact.”

In contrast to his contemporary Walter Lippmann, Pearson was less an analyst or pundit than a bulldog reporter. He relied on his own connections as well as on a team of enterprising leg-men, a vast network of sources, and leakers planted in virtually every federal agency, the White House, Congress and the military….

A 1944 poll of the Washington press corps rated Pearson (and not Walter Lippmann) as the columnist who exerted the greatest influence over national opinion. But when it came to reliability and fairness, he received hardly any votes….

Pearson’s relationships with public figures often resembled a pas de deux of mutual exploitation. J. Edgar Hoover was a case in point. In the 1930s, Pearson helped craft Hoover’s reputation by lavishing praise on the FBI chief, whom he dubbed “Super-G-Man.” In return, he received a generous flow of tips from the agency. Later, as Hoover’s power swelled unchecked, Pearson regretted that he had helped to “create a monster,” as he put it. Hoover put agents on his trail and tapped his phones in an effort to expose his sources….

Pearson was willing to withhold stories when he felt they truly jeopardized national security, and he almost never even hinted at a politician’s sexual improprieties. Virtually everything else was fair game. He chastised Douglas MacArthur for driving impoverished Bonus Marchers out of Washington at bayonet point in the early 1930s; flayed Spanish militarist Francisco Franco during that country’s civil war; broke the story of Gen. George S. Patton’s scandalous slapping of shell-shocked soldiers in 1943; and hounded Dwight Eisenhower’s bribe-taking chief of staff, Sherman Adams, until he resigned.

Although never close to the Kennedys, Pearson remained a force to be reckoned with throughout the 1960s. He had long admired Lyndon Johnson, tagging him as early as 1940 as a rising star. When LBJ became president, Pearson applauded his administration’s anti-poverty programs….He occasionally even wrote speeches for the president. He stood with Johnson on the bombing of North Vietnam but finally broke with him over the war in 1968. Pearson’s relations with Richard Nixon had been frosty since Nixon’s Red-baiting days in the early 1950s and didn’t improve when Nixon entered the White House. But by the late 1960s, Pearson had handed over much of the responsibility for Washington Merry-Go-Round to Jack Anderson, his hand-picked successor. Even so, he was still working at a daunting pace when he died of a heart attack in 1969, age 71.

The press has radically changed since Pearson’s day. Today no reporter possesses anything like the personal power or notoriety that Pearson flaunted. Transparency laws and the internet have vastly multiplied the sources of information available to both journalists and ordinary citizens. What was “once available almost exclusively to columnists and commentators,” Mr. Ritchie notes, is now, potentially, available to all….

In the end, Mr. Ritchie persuasively concludes, despite Pearson’s occasional mistakes, “the evidence affirms his claim that he performed a public service by revealing how politicians and government really worked.” It is still a public service that journalists today perform, though few can match Pearson’s astonishing energy and relentless sense of mission.

Bordewich’s most recent book is “Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America.”

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