(Richard Nixon Presidential Library)

The woman who challenged Nixon: The Watergate story that transcends Woodward and Bernstein

No secret sources. No anonymous tips. Mary McGrory covered D.C. with real quotes, real experience, real observation


John Norris
October 4, 2015 4:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Mary McGrory" by John Norris

Watergate was changing journalism in ways too numerous to count. Not only had the Washington Post gotten the scoop of the century; it had established itself as the second most important paper in America, behind only the New York Times. The Star lagged badly behind. Watergate also produced a new zeal for investigative journalism, pushing reporters and politicians into ever more wary and antagonistic relationships.

In the fall of 1973, a television crew filming a documentary on the media and Watergate caught up with Mary McGrory as she sat in the hearing room. The young interviewer asked why the reporters covering the hearings were not out scouring for new evidence and allegations.

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“Yes, except that some of us can’t do it,” Mary explained. “It’s a gift, investigative reporting, and a lot of people don’t have it. They don’t have the stomach for it; they don’t have the brass that it takes to go up to a total stranger and take him by the lapels and say, ‘Now you tell me.’ I can’t for instance.”

The interviewer pressed on, hoping to embarrass Mary: “You’re more comfortable in this situation?”

“Yes,” Mary said. “It’s all handed to me on a platter. I just have to sit here and take it all in. It’s much easier than going around knocking on doors at midnight and meeting people in underground parking spaces in the dead of night, which is what, as you know, Woodward and Bernstein did.”

“But you’re going to say there’s something of value in your being here, I hope,” suggested the interviewer.

“It keeps me off the streets,” observed a bemused Mary. She was far from an armchair pundit and sourced all of her material firsthand, unlike many of today’s commentators. But at the same time, she never had any taste for relying on anonymously sourced quotes or tips. She did not engage in intrigue when it came to reporting.

Mary covered every single day of the hearings, and her work underscored her unique ability as a reporter and a writer to take events that we could see with our own eyes and layer in observations, emotion, and detail that provoked us to think again—and think differently—about what we had seen.

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It is no coincidence that Mary’s most famous columns—on the Army-McCarthy hearings, Nixon’s “exit snarling” press conference, JFK’s funeral, and the Watergate hearings—were all written about public events. She helped people make sense of public life. She humanized the players on the stage. She took what people knew and used it to help them understand how they felt. She looked at the world with eager, discerning eyes, even after decades in the business.

Mary did not sprinkle her column with anonymous background quotes from politicians and press secretaries. As much as she admired Woodward and Bernstein’s approach, her style was simply different. The Post reporters had built Watergate on double-sourced anonymous tips, mainly from law enforcement officials and key contacts in the administration. The identity of their main source, “Deep Throat,” was a matter of speculation for more than a quarter of a century. By contrast, Mary’s work was transparent. She was not looking for book deals or speaker’s fees, her quotes were on the record, and she thought what the man in the street had to say mattered.

Mary’s style was perfectly suited for an era when television was making it harder and harder for newspapers to keep up. Because her columns were built on the strength of her observation and wit, it did not matter that readers had to wait until the next day to read them—indeed, they were usually an even better read if you were already keeping up with the story.

As prosecutors and Congress slowly pried out the White House tapes, Mary and other reporters got their first taste of the detailed conversations that had taken place in the Oval Office when the large blue book of tape transcripts arrived at the newspaper on April 30, 1974. “It was torn apart in big chunks like loaves of bread at the zoo,” Mary recalled.

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In July 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that the nation’s constitutional form of government would be in serious jeopardy if Nixon were allowed to withhold tapes of his choosing. Sentiment was growing in Congress, including among Republicans, to impeach the president.

In early August, Mary headed to Antrim for vacation. Her editors had told her to take a break and prepare for the coming impeachment debate in the House of Representatives. On August 7, she was walking up the path from Gregg Lake, where she had been swimming, when she spied the owner of the Maplehurst Inn rushing down the trail. “Your office just called,” he panted. “They think he is going.” Nixon was going to resign. Mary’s vacation had lasted twenty-three hours. One of her cousins drove her at breakneck speed back to Boston so she could fly home. By 8:45 p.m. Mary was in her office at the Star.

On August 8, President Nixon announced in a televised address to the nation that he was quitting the highest office in the land. Mary thought the speech was unmemorable and bereft of contrition, sounding “eerily like thousands of others he has given during the almost 40 years he has been seeking, gaining and losing public office.” But, as Mary observed, “Richard Nixon’s small store of pity had always been reserved for himself.”

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Nixon’s resignation marked the end of an era for Mary. She had written about him more than anyone else during her career. Mary viewed Nixon’s fall as a victory for a free press, and she felt no small measure of vindication. As she wrote to a Nixon defender shortly after he stepped down, “I realize he still has many friends, but I don’t think history will be among them.”

“He was a man who never should have been president of the United States, not even in politics as far as I was concerned, because he didn’t like people,” Mary maintained. But at the same time, she recognized that Nixon had given her endless fodder as an opinion writer. “He was really something. Divine. Really, divine. I miss him still.”

On August 22, 1974 (her birthday), the House Judiciary Committee, under Representative Peter Rodino, passed a unanimous resolution, 38–0, praising Mary: “Resolved, that in her conduct of the office of the press, in her exercise of the constitutionally protected First Amendment right of freedom of speech, Ms. Mary McGrory has, to the best of her ability, preerved, protected and defended the people’s right to have access to the truth from one who writes like the wind and speaks from the heart.”

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At the White House, the beleaguered staff tried to restore some measure of normalcy and calm as Gerald Ford became president. At the daily press briefing, the White House spokesman sonorously intoned to the gathered journalists, “This is not the time for partisan recriminations.”

A slender hand rose firmly from within the overwhelmingly male sea of reporters pressing their questions. It was Mary.

“If now isn’t the time for recriminations,” Mary wondered, in her soft but direct voice, “when would be the time?”

Excerpted from "Mary McGrory" by John Norris, published on September 22, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by John Norris, 2015. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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John Norris

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Books Journalism Mary Mcgrory Richard Nixon Watergate

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