Now that anyone with a Facebook page and an opinion can be a political pundit, it’s hard to believe there was a time—and not that long ago—when a newspaper columnist could wield real political power. Mary McGrory did for nearly half a century. She entered the news business as a book reviewer but switched to politics in 1954 after her editor at the Washington Star assigned her to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings—not just as a reporter but as a reporter who was “opinionated.”
“Mary, for good and bad, was one of the important forerunners in the trend of newspapers blurring the line between hard reporting and commentary,” writes biographer John Norris. In that capacity, she covered every presidential campaign and administration from the last term of Dwight Eisenhower through the first term of George W. Bush. Generally leaning Democratic—but not uncritically so—she became an enthusiast for such political progressives as Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy (whom she once dated), Eugene McCarthy and Mario Cuomo. She was ambivalent about Lyndon Johnson (who once came to her home—Secret Service in tow—aiming to seduce her), but she persistently opposed him on the Vietnam War. Her columns were syndicated in 1960, and after the Star closed in 1981, she spent the rest of her career at the Washington Post.
McGrory became so influential—she would win a Pulitzer in 1975—that she regularly hosted senators, Supreme Court justices and other bigwigs at her home. Richard Nixon thought her sufficiently dangerous to include her on his enemies list. The downside of being such an insider, Norris notes, was that she “was more interested in capturing the character of politicians on the page than trading her access for exclusives.” Little wonder, then, that it took two relative outsiders—Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, her fellow reporters at the Post—to dig out and write the stories that would topple Nixon. Norris says McGrory regarded the Watergate expose as one of the greatest feats of modern journalism. She died in 2004 at the age of 85.