Do you know the name Drew Pearson?
If you do, it’s probably that of the Pro Football Hall of Famer who starred as a wide receiver in his decade with the Dallas Cowboys, beginning in 1973. Now a bit of trivia: His parents named him for their favorite newspaper columnist. The latter is the subject of a new and richly-researched biography, The Columnist, by Donald Ritchie.
Pearson’s daily column appeared in hundreds of newspapers for decades, augmented with a weekly newsletter, radio broadcast and TV show—a combination of breaking news scoops and opinion.
When I was a grad student in Washington, D.C., I became a regular reader of Pearson’s “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” fascinated by the fact The Washington Post published the column on its comics page.
Pearson’s column was controversial, gossipy, feared by people in government who had something to hide and not always accurate. The Post was averse to lending the column the credibility of its opinion page but afraid not to provide readers Pearson’s muckraking reporting.
Newsweek called Pearson “that rare combination of showman and newsman, and every day his pungent blend of punditry and titillating gossip would set off quaking shocks on the Washington seismograph.” Ritchie writes, “He combined Quaker morality with a driving ambition to prevail professionally, attract attention, influence policy, shape politics, and better the world.”
Pearson considered himself a national watchdog and public protector, but he saw no line between his kind of journalism and being an activist. He would write speeches for politicians and trade favorable treatment in his column for insider information.
He ended his radio broadcasts with predictions, some of which he knew were a certainty but couldn’t, for various reasons, readily report—sometimes because of wartime censorship.
He knew, for instance, that the U.S. had successfully tested an atomic bomb but simply predicted Japan would develop a desire for peace before the end of 1945. “I can’t go beyond that, except to say that when peace with Japan comes, it will come just as suddenly and unexpectedly as Pearl Harbor.”
Pearson had dealings with every president from Hoover to Nixon. Most fraught was his uneasy relationship with the thin-skinned Lyndon Johnson. Pearson had coached LBJ during his presidential campaign, wrote strategy papers, admired his anti-poverty programs and broke with the president over the Vietnam war. Still, Pearson was inclined to go easy on Johnson in his column, telling his underpaid staff, “if he stubs his toe on some minor matter which is likely to make him see red if we report it, let’s be charitable. Of course, if he rapes his grandmother in Lafayette Square we will have to report it.”
Richie’s book goes deep into the weeds of Washington politics and Pearson’s role in reporting and influencing it. Pearson’s own diaries are a frequent source in this fully-documented work. I, of course, found most interesting the chapters that dealt with things that happened while I was “inside the beltway.”
For a glimpse of what Pearson’s columns were like, take a look at this one ( https://auislandora.wrlc.org/islandora/object/pearson%3A34079#page/1/mode/1up ) from 1969, written about a month before Pearson’s death, about Sen. Ted Kennedy’s return to Capitol Hill after the incident at Chappaquiddick.
The Columnist provides a deep, unvarnished view of this powerful crusader. Upon Pearson’s death at age 71, The New York Times editorialized, “…beneath the pugnacity, sometimes marred by signs of vindictiveness and irresponsibility, there was always the fearless dedication to the belief that the independent and resourceful reporter is the indispensable guardian of good government.”