National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 7, 2004

Mary McGrory, Post columnist, dies


In downtown Washington, eight city blocks separate the National Press Building and The Washington Post. Of the many lovely and lively times I spent with Mary McGrory, few are as memorable as the years-ago summer midday walk we took between the two sites. Everything about that jaunt is still fresh.

I recall it as a metaphor for Mary’s vocation as a newspaperwoman: the national columnist most revered for journalistic legwork engaging, naturally, in physical legwork. Cabs were for the press corps lazies or, worse, those of punditry entitlement. As in every McGrory column, her pace was fast, her direction clear and her eye alert to the details, including her thoughts on the tulips, squirrels and war protesters in Lafayette Park. She endorsed all three.

As on that day, when she was in her early 70s, covering ground was what set Mary McGrory apart from the pack. Her opinions were based on fieldwork reporting, a trade fewer and fewer columnists ply. McGrory died at 85 in Washington April 21. A year earlier, she had suffered a stroke that kept her from writing. When readers began asking where the McGrory column was, the Post ran letters and columns, all of them ardently grateful for the years and years of her labors.

“Newspaper work is very humbling,” Mary had written. “because you can always make a pluperfect fool of yourself in front of the whole world, get it wrong, fail to put it together properly, have the lead in the tag line, or, you know, do something really stupid, but you have another chance the next day to do it right. That to me is its great charm -- always another chance.”

I’d be hard pressed to remember anything wrongheaded Mary ever put into print, although it might have happened.

She served as a longtime volunteer at the St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home, Hyattsville, Md.

Mary had leanings based on loyalties, not biases. Between the McCarthys in the Senate, she loathed Joe and loved Gene. Of the popes in Rome, she preferred John XXIII to John Paul II. Of those on Capitol Hill, her affections were for the elevator operators, not the K Street operators. Her heart was with the Peace Corps, not the Marine Corps. She stood with diehards, not blowhards. In the Post newsroom, she took to copyeditors more than managing editors. She wanted to drive the CIA from Washington and replace it with big league baseball. She made connections between political decisions in Congress and the results far away, as when nuns and priests were slain in Latin America by people Ronald Reagan hailed as freedom fighters.

Born into an Irish Catholic family in Boston, Mary was a schoolgirl at the Girls’ Latin School during the Depression of the early 1930s. She went on to Emmanuel College, a small liberal arts school in Boston. It might have been at scrappy Emmanuel that she became attached to those on the outside and to those who gratefully remembered who battled for them. “I don’t mind if you call me a liberal,” she wrote in 1988. “I still think it’s a respectable word. It’s root is liber, the Latin word for ‘free.’ ”

If Mary was personally loyal to her liberal Irish Catholic Massachusetts -- she adored its politicians, from the Kennedys and Tip O’Neill to current members of the House Jim McGovern and former Peace Corps director Mark Gearan -- she had a professional loyalty to the paper in the Capitol that hired her in 1947, The Washington Star. It folded in 1981. The Star had a breezy and boozy newsroom peopled by the intellectually disheveled. “It was heaven,” Mary wrote. “It was just great. Just a wonderful, kind, welcoming, funny place, full of eccentrics and desperate people trying to meet five deadlines a day. It was just wonderful. I loved it the minute I set foot in it.”

Coming to the starched, stressful and WASPy Post was for Mary, in her own words, “a culture shock.” It must have escalated into political shock in recent years when the Post’s editorial page veered sharply right, a megaphonic cheering section for U.S. military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Even Mary -- now I remember her being wrong -- lapsed. Like nearly all of the establishment media, she let herself be convinced by Colin Powell and his February 2003 United Nations marching-off-to-war speech. “Colin Powell,” she wrote, “has convinced me that [war] might be the only way to stop a fiend, and that if we do go, there is reason.”

Faithful readers, shocked but not awed, let Mary know of their disappointment over her defection. A month later, she wrote a “Dear Readers” column: “It was my fault. I did not make it clear enough that while I believed what Colin Powell told me about Saddam Hussein’s poison collection, I was not convinced that war was the answer. … I failed as a writer to take time to make myself clear. And I did something that George Bush never does: I offended my base. You see how sorry I am. I hope now that all is forgiven and that I can come home again.”

No prodigal daughter, or son, ever said it so well. Just as Mary said everything else so well. At the Requiem Mass April 26 at the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Washington -- no empty seat anywhere -- Mary was in another of her homes. Except it was one she had never left.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 2004

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