he Mary McGrory I knew did not much like drama, unless she was its agent. We met in early October 1978, in Rome, inside the Vatican pressroom 100 yards from St. Peter’s Basilica. The word “met” understates the encounter.
The pressroom of that era was a tumultuous array of desks and cubicles representing the collective messes of several dozen news organizations and their reporters. This paddock of temporal industry was overseen by Father Romeo Panciroli, the Vatican’s oval-mouthed press spokesman who, when he chose to emit (infrequently), did so in arcane sentences wed to the conditional tense. Insiders appeared to understand him, entering glyphs and scrawls, but most of us were lost. Panciroli’s most endearing trait came when he had information to impart, a task he obviously disliked: He’d enter the room and clap his hands until all went silent. Sometimes his glasses trembled.
It was this sort of world into which McGrory happily hurled herself 26 years ago. She had been sent by the Washington Star to cover the second papal conclave of 1978 and found herself adrift in the rarified realm of Italian “Vaticanists,” a journalistically xenophobic tribe.
Reminiscences, like romances, are easy to embellish (perhaps a blue-ribbon panel of judges of my peers awaits me), but my first McGrory recollection remains crystalline. It is of a disembodied female voice delivering one unforgettable line: “What number pope is this!”
I turned, and there, at the entrance to the room, stood a smallish woman, maybe 60, her arms slack beside her, demanding relief from her bluntness. When no response came, the woman tried again, this time slightly adjusting the wording and tone, “Would someone please tell me what number pope is this?” The included “please” mitigated neither the urgency nor the noblesse oblige. Mary was Mary.
It’s amusing how journalists behave in circumstances that demand parting with information. Like bystanders forced to reckon suddenly with a beggar, a barker, or an emergency, many close up and shut down. That’s what happened.
I answered Mary McGrory — the number was 265 — but only because I was nearest to the impending threat of her asking the question a third time.
Thus began a long friendship.
Together, we watched Karol Wojtyla become pope. “A Pole?” said Mary McGrory. “I don’t know about this.” Nor did the Roman bricklayer beside us (McGrory wanted to know his profession), who bellowed, “Mo hanno eletto un giapponese.”
Quietly, I translated.
MARY MCGRORY died last week. She was 85. Eulogies and elegies have been abundant; summing them up is difficult.
McGrory was an old-school Washington political columnist, Irish Catholic, with a keen sense of right and wrong. She was relentless, clever, idealistic, mischievous, and helped grow the brilliant Maureen Dowd into journalistic maturity (and, like Dowd, ensured that a candle was lit for my mother, who died in 1988.) She was much about loyalty and caprice. She invariably helped her friends.
My first job in American journalism, as a local reporter at “her” Washington Star in 1980, owed her all: She convinced then-managing editor Bill McIlwain to take a chance on a kid from Rome; the editor, Murray Gart, a dour Time former chief-of-correspondents, reluctantly went along.
A few years later, she responded to my joining fledgling USA Today with another one of her singularly wry lines, “Do you have to?”
Well, not really, I didn’t have to, I explained, but I had met an editor, a certain Karen Jurgensen, whose energy – Jurgensen edited the cover stories section of the newspaper – seemed quite wonderful. The paper was also keen to expand its global coverage, or so it said.
“Really?” was Mary’s response, since pitched skepticism always suited her.
It is this skepticism I pause to consider now, when, in a strange bit of irony, both McGrory and Jurgensen have taken their leave in short order – Mary from the planet, Jurgensen from her position as editor of USA Today.
By way of paying tribute to McGrory, and to Jurgensen as well, I have my own line to speak: I don’t understand my profession any more, and what I do grasp makes me glad that my modest career is half-over.
Consider Jurgensen. She was forced to resign after revelations about reporter Jack Kelley, who fabricated international stories over a number of years and under a number of chiefs. Other top editors have followed suit, as if USA Today felt a Stalinist urge to copy scandal management from the newspaper it most envies, The New York Times, and the one it lives near, the Washington Post. Behold a one-upmanship of inferiority complexes.
The mad Kelley case has given the millennium American media another chance to do what it does best: become its own best reality program, its own best actor in a leading role. Everywhere are victims and survivors, theatrics and vendettas, humiliations and hair-renting righteousness, lives ruined or redeemed. All is earsplitting.
The Post, to which McGrory passed when Time magazine allowed The Star to die in 1981, spends tens of thousands a words a week obsessively analyzing and dissecting the industry’s carnival rumors about politics, and about itself. It’s a venal exercise, borderline tawdry, tapping into the voyeuristic foundations of the highly-rated Clinton-Lewinsky soap opera.
What’s happened, it appears, is a kind of McLuhanesque Full Monty, the forced evolution of media from responder and amplifier of external events into transponder – a maker, producer and conveyor of its own events, scoops and outrages. It’s media much the way the late Paddy Chayefsky sketched it in “Network,” the starkly prescient film made two years before I met McGrory.
The Pentagon Papers, Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals animated this unofficial self-importance, which was codified during Clinton-Lewinsky (Dowd won a deserved Pulitzer Prize, but her punishing treatment of Clinton was often cruel and inhuman.) Now, reporters and editors, and the world they occupy, shine equally with the news they present, the unconscious achievement of a media dream to not only wag the dog but to be it.
Politicians tailor responses to media whims, not the other way around. The lies of a reporter-gone-wrong – take the Kelley case – are no longer an infidelity to be criticized, overcome, even forgiven over time. No. They are instead galactic deceits requiring a hysterically principled response from just-for-the-occasion elders.
The movie-reel zeal of prosecuting a reporter, and of provoking a stream of knee-jerk resignations in his former newsroom, has a Watergate crescendo, with all the attendant publicity. It’s the negative perfection of a prurient but puritanical journalistic culture that has grown to value itself as government (which is to say executive) and to extrapolate its obligation into a common law marriage with the public good, as if the whole of that good depended on media – which it does not. USA Today itself summed up the conversion when it referred to Kelley in terms of the “the enormity of his transgressions.”
What a choice of words.
In a less choleric and more proportioned time the phrase might have been applied to Stalin, Pol Pot or Pinochet, not to a desperately truant journalist who in 1978 would have been punished by firing. The end.
And it would have been the end simply because more pressing and valuable questions would have needed answering.
Among them, “What number pope is this?”