Leaks, Lies, and Libel in Drew Pearson’s Washington
By Donald A. Ritchie
In 1944 a poll of Washington reporters rated the syndicated political columnist Drew Pearson first among his peers for his influence on public opinion generally, and second, behind only this newspaper’s Arthur Krock, for his influence inside the nation’s capital. Pearson’s “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” which appeared every day from late 1932 until his death in 1969, was a formidable pulpit, and the columnist held forth from it to great effect. But the same poll rated Pearson nearly last for reliability and fairness.
This new biography of Pearson, apparently the first in four decades, thoroughly researched and ably crafted by the former Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie, leaves us in no doubt that the findings of the poll were well grounded. Pearson gained his power playing by pre-modern rules of journalism that we would now find reprehensible, and were often a bit much even for his contemporaries.
Working in the years before World War II with Robert Allen and after it with Jack Anderson, Pearson broke the stories of Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing plan, the Lend-Lease deal with Britain and what really happened at President Harry Truman’s 1950 Wake Island showdown with Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Pearson was an early and courageous opponent of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts, and first revealed the favors done for Pvt. G. David Schine by the McCarthy aide Roy Cohn. Pearson’s columns, Ritchie says, “helped trigger” the pivotal Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. And he turned on McCarthy despite the senator’s having previously been useful to him. “He may be a good source,” Pearson said, “but he’s a bad man.”
But Pearson, often and inexcusably, also got things wrong. Three stories are illustrative. He was the first to report the terrible extent of American losses in the attack on Pearl Harbor, but declared as well that 90 percent of the ships at Pearl were “wiped out.” The true figure was more like 20 percent. With the war ended, he was almost alone in reporting the growing mental instability of Defense Secretary James Forrestal, but kept up that reporting — including inaccurate particulars — even after the secretary resigned; many in Washington blamed Pearson for Forrestal’s eventual suicide. In 1956, he (correctly, as we learned only many years later) reported an emotional collapse on the campaign trail by President Dwight Eisenhower, but got so many of the details wrong that associates took to referring to that column as “the boo-boo.”
Throughout his career, Pearson freely mixed news and opinion, reporting and advocacy, truth and falsehood. He denigrated — and, it seems, occasionally blackmailed — politicians who crossed him or whose views he opposed, while writing speeches and suppressing stories for those he liked. He was a man of personal contradictions, a literally tweedy graduate of Exeter and Swarthmore, lord of an extensive Georgetown townhouse and a relentless professional brawler. He was fond of being called a “muckraker,” though he notoriously underpaid his staff.
Ritchie relates almost all of this, but he seems to excuse it or at least strain to explain it. Part of that may stem from the unusual origins of this book, which, the author forthrightly tells us, grew from a friendship between him and his wife and Pearson’s stepson and daughter-in-law. From them he got not only encouragement to tell the Old Man’s story, but also access to the unpublished portions of his diaries and other papers, including the raw materials of his unwritten memoirs and the oral histories the stepson had produced.
When Pearson died, this newspaper editorialized about his “pugnacity,” “vindictiveness” and “irresponsibility.” But it also lauded his “fearless dedication to the belief that the independent and resourceful reporter is the indispensable guardian of good government.” Unlike those of many historical figures, Drew Pearson’s contradictions were pretty well understood even in his own time.