Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Salty and petulant

Andrew Russel, otherwise known as Drew, Pearson died forty years ago today. He was one of the most well-known American newspaper and radio journalists of his day, particularly because of the syndicated newspaper column Washington Merry-Go-Round which was often aimed at exposing scandal and corruption in government and business. A collection of his diary entries was published in the mid-1970s. Time magazine called them ‘salty’ and ‘often petulant’ but, nevertheless, said they provided ‘a kind of layer in the archaeology of American journalism’.

Drew Pearson was born in 1897 in Evanston, Illinois, but when still young his family moved to Pennsylvania, where his father taught at Swarthmore College. Pearson himself was educated at Swarthmore. In his early 20s, he went to Serbia for two years helping to rebuild houses that had been destroyed in the war. On returning to the US, he taught industrial geography before making a tour around the world, a trip financed by writing articles for newspapers.

In the late 1920s, Pearson reported from China, the Geneva Naval Conference, and the Pan-American Conference in Cuba. In 1929 he was appointed Washington correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, and three years later he joined the Scripps-Howard syndicate, United Features. He wrote a famous but anonymous column (with another journalist, Robert Anderson) called Washington Merry-Go-Round which was syndicated across the country and featured sensational exposes. But, when his political views (in support of Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal, and in favour of US intervention in Europe) became increasingly censored, he moved to The Washington Post.

During the war, Pearson became a radio personality, and after the war he supported the United Nations, and he helped organise the Friendship Train. In the early 1950s, Pearson was one of the few journalists to stand against the McCarthy policies, and he is credited with playing an important role in McCarthy’s downfall. In the 1960s, he was often chosen to interview national leaders; and in 1962, he accompanied Kennedy to Venezuela and Columbia. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Diary Junction, and the American University Library Special Collections Unit which holds an archive of the Washington Merry-Go-Round typescripts.

During his lifetime (he died on 1 September 1969, exactly 40 years ago today), Pearson wrote a number of journalism-based books. He also kept a diary, and this was edited by his stepson Tyler Abell, and published posthumously, in 1974, by Holt, Rinehart & Winston in New York and Jonathan Cape in London - Drew Pearson: Diaries, 1949-1959.

A review of the book by Time magazine at the time, available online, claimed that Pearson’s diaries were ‘chiefly valuable as a kind of layer in the archaeology of American journalism’. The diaries show that Pearson was immensely proud of his eminence and influence through the Washington Merry-Go-Round column, the review says, and that he considered his almost daily entries as ‘footnotes to history, not merely private ruminations’. While there are no major revelations in the diaries (since, as Time says, his scoops were the daily bread and butter of his column) ‘they do reflect in a detail that could not appear in his column the man’s exhaustive knowledge of what went on in Washington: Joe McCarthy’s bruited homosexuality and alcoholism; the acceptance of gifts by Truman five-percenters; the venality of sundry Congressmen.’

Time calls the diaries ‘salty’ and ‘often petulant’ in the way Pearson ‘pitilessly pilloried the drinking and wenching habits of his foes, while ignoring the public and private peccadilloes of the men who fed him information’. Pearson was often wrong too, Time notes. In his diary, for example, he falsely charged that Jack Kennedy’s Pulitzer-prizewinning Profiles in Courage had been ghostwritten. The diaries also show that he spent much time preparing press releases and speeches for senators and congressmen who were sympathetic to his causes - ‘a practice that today would probably get a Washington correspondent fired forthwith from any newspaper or magazine’, Time comments.

Another review - this one from The Village Voice - can be found online thanks to Google Newspapers. These diaries are not a whitewash job, the Voice says, ‘Pearson’s personality comes through with all its warts’. ‘He was a singularly self-centred man’, it adds, ‘viewing the world as a carousel that spun around him.’

A few extracts from Pearson’s diaries are available at the Spartacus Educational website. The first concerns James Forrestal, a US Secretary of Defence in the second half of the 1940s. Pearson criticised him mercilessly, for his conservative views on foreign policy, and is said to have claimed he was ‘the most dangerous man in America’ and could cause another world war. Some blamed Pearson for Forrestal’s death. Incidentally, Forrestal was also a diarist - more information is available from Adam Matthew Publications.

22 May 1949
‘Jim Forrestal died at 2 am by jumping out of the Naval Hospital window . . .

I think that Forrestal really died because he had no spiritual reserves. He had spent all his life thinking only about himself, trying to fulfill his great ambition to be President of the United States. When that ambition became out of his reach, he had nothing to fall back on. He had no church; he had deserted it. He had no wife. They had both deserted each other. She was in Paris at the time of his death - though it was well-known that he had been seriously ill for weeks. But most important of all, he had no spiritual resources . . .

But James Forrestal’s passion was public approval. It was his lifeblood. He craved it almost as a dope addict craves morphine. Toward the end he would break down and cry pitifully, like a child, when criticized too much. He had worked hard - too much in fact - for his country. He was loyal and patriotic. Few men were more devoted to their country, but he seriously hurt the country that he loved by taking his own life. All his policies now are under closer suspicion than before . . .

Forrestal not only had no spiritual resources, but also he had no calluses. He was unique in this respect. He was acutely sensitive. He had traveled not on the hard political path of the politician, but on the protected, cloistered avenue of the Wall Street bankers. All his life he had been surrounded by public relations men. He did not know what the lash of criticism meant. He did not understand the give-and-take of the political arena. Even in the executive branch of government, he surrounded himself with public relations men, invited newsmen to dinner, lunch, and breakfast, made a fetish of courting their favor. History unfortunately will decree that Forrestal’s great reputation was synthetic. It was built on the most unstable foundation of all - the handouts of paid press agents.

If Forrestal had been true to his friends, if he had made one sacrifice for a friend, if he had even gone to bat for Tom Corcoran who put him in the White House, if he had spent more time with his wife instead of courting his mistress, he would not have been so alone this morning when he went to the diet pantry of the Naval Hospital and jumped to his death.’

28 November 1949
‘Parnell Thomas’s trial started this morning. Looking at him in the courtroom, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. I can’t relish helping to send a man to jail. Nevertheless, when I figure all the times Thomas has sent other people to jail and all the instances when he has kept men away from combat duty in return for money in his own pocket, to say nothing of salary kickbacks, perhaps I shouldn’t be too sorry.’

24 April 1951
‘This afternoon McCarthy sounded off with another speech on the Senate floor claiming that the Justice Department had now finished its investigation and had a complete espionage case against me. He also pontificated that I had received State Department documents from the State Department via Dave Karr, whom he described as a top member of the Communist party. McCarthy also claimed that the column today, which dealt with developments in the atomic bomb field, paraphrased a secret report and was a violation of security.’

21 May 1951
‘The facts were that MacArthur had wasted blood most of his career, not only in Korea. I urged the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when they testify, should show up MacArthur’s glaring errors and his well-known ‘extravagance with his men’. For instance, General Eichelberger, who commanded the 8th Army during World War II, could testify to MacArthur’s shameful laxness on New Guinea and his refusal to visit the front at Buna even once.’

16 January 1952
‘Benton told me that McGraph and the President both were working on the matter of the young lieutenant involved with McCarthy. This is the third report on McCarthy’s homosexual activity and the most definite of all.’

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