• U.S.

The Press: The Colonel’s Century

23 minute read
TIME

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Just to reassure himself, City Editor William Donald Maxwell got the fireworks company on the phone. “Tell me,” he pleaded, anxiously chomping a long cigar. “I don’t care if you’re spending five thousand bucks or 15 thousand. But are you sure this is going to be the damnedest fireworks show anybody ever saw, anyplace?”

“Yessir,” came the answer. “Damnedest fireworks show anybody ever saw, anyplace.”

Don Maxwell knew it had better be. His awesome and exacting employer, Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, was sparing neither money, manpower nor gunpowder to make his Chicago Tribune’s 100th birthday celebration next week the most colossal show since the Chicago fire.

The Colonel had invited 5,000 carefully screened leading citizens to sip punch and nibble cake with him at a reception in Tribune Tower, his 36-story, $8,000,000 Gothic pile at 435 North Michigan Avenue. He had bought a $20,000 hour on 240 stations of the Mutual network (in which the Trib owns a fifth interest and a key outlet, WGN) to salute his paper and himself. And he had commanded his battery of giant presses to spin out a centennial edition that would make his newsboys stagger.

For next Tuesday night, on the flat Lake Michigan waterfront, he had decreed a grand finale: a covey of acrobats performing like June bugs, surfboarders jumping through flaming hoops, the “damnedest fireworks show” with two Niagara Falls, Hiroshima (in natural color), pinwheel portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Dick Tracy and Orphan Annie, and tableaux from the Tribune’s history. The Colonel expects fully 400,000 readers to turn out for the show and sing Happy Birthday.

Pyrotechnician. The fire-breathing monster which calls itself the “World’s Greatest Newspaper” (and which Oswald Garrison Villard nominated as the world’s worst) is accustomed to writing its history in fireworks. Of the 1,700 dailies in the U.S., the Chicago Tribune, an organ of tremendous vigor and imposing technical virtuosity, is easily the loudest and perhaps the most widely feared and hated. It is also the biggest (circ. 1,040,000 daily, 1,500,000 Sunday) among papers of standard size; its flashy offspring, the tabloid New York Daily News, is the biggest of all. Between them, parent & child rake in profits as high as $13 million a year, and Tribune Co. stock is worth $42,000 a share.

All through the five-state empire (see cut), which Colonel McCormick likes to call “Chicagoland” (the late Frank Knox, “afternoon colonel” of the rival Chicago Daily News, liked to call it “Scatterville”), the trumpeting Tribune is the autocrat of town & country breakfast tables. Its strident voice of command, always heard if not always heeded, is shrewdly pitched to pierce the eardrums and excite the ancient prejudices and suspicions of the Midwest heartland. In fighting the draft, heckling the war effort and filibustering against U.S. participation in the postwar world, the Tribune has coldly appropriated to its own uses the Midwest’s vestigial isolationism and the regional inferiority complex that shows itself in a belligerent assertion of superiority. There is more to this process than mere toadying to local tastes: Colonel McCormick feels the same way.

The Trib still sees silk-hatted Wall Street bankers lurking around every State Street corner, and redcoats behind every red oak tree. (In 1943, its publisher solemnly told a Detroit audience that after World War I he had helped the U.S. General Staff work out plans to repel an invasion from Canada by 300,000 British regulars.) But even when it is up to no good, Colonel McCormick’s xenophobic “World’s Greatest Newspaper” is one of the last, anachronistic citadels of muscular personal journalism.

Bertie v. Dante. Like William Randolph Hearst, the Tribune’s Robert Rutherford McCormick is more easily caricatured than portrayed. The sharpest shaft ever aimed at him—that he possessed “the greatest mind of the 14th Century” — did Bertie, as well as Dante, a disservice.* So have the oversimplified pictures of McCormick as a feudal lord of the manor, aping the English aristocrats he professes to detest; as a fascist menace; as “Col. McCosmic,” the frustrated military strategist; as a crackpot Midas.

A realistic portrait would show a tall (6 ft. 4 in.), ruddy, 200-lb. man of 66 who can still get into his World War I uniform. The haughty eyes, ice-water blue, would window an inordinately shy, insufferably proud, incredibly prejudiced mind, acutely aware of its heritage.

It is in some ways a brilliant mind, with some appalling blind spots. The Colonel is well-read in history, at least in the names and dates of battles, but has learned from it only his single-track, narrow-gauge approach to world affairs. The people he despises most are amateur military strategists, and none more than that fellow amateur, Franklin Roosevelt.

What Hath He Wrought. The Colonel is not sure that his own equal in military knowledge has existed since Hannibal. In February 1942, when a onetime Tribune employee asked him how he could campaign so hatefully against the Administration when the nation was at war, McCormick wrote him in reply:

”What the most powerful propaganda organization in the world has misled you into believing was a campaign of hatred, has really been a constructive campaign without which this country would be lost.

“You do not know it, but the fact is that I introduced the R.O.T.C. into the schools; that I introduced machine guns into the army; that I introduced mechanization; I introduced automatic rifles; I was the first ground officer to go up in the air and observe artillery fire. Now I have succeeded in making that the regular practice in the army. . . .

“On the other hand I was unsuccessful in obtaining the fortification of Guam. … I was unable to persuade the navy and the administration that airplanes could destroy battleships.

“I did get the Marines out of Shanghai, but was unsuccessful in trying to get the army out of the Philippines. . . .

“The opposition resorts to such tactics as charging me with hatred and so forth, but in view of the accomplishment I can bear up under it.”

Chicago Poet Carl Sandburg’s admiring comment was: “And on the seventh day he rested.”

Poor Little Rhode Island. The Colonel once imperiously read Rhode Island out of the Union for packing its supreme court with Democrats, and ordered a star (Rhode Island’s, that is) taken out of the flag in the Tribune lobby. When a deskman suggested that defacing the flag might be illegal, the Colonel had him call the Tribune’s attorneys, and stood by for their ruling. Out of the receiver came the lawyer’s anguished squawk, loud enough for the Colonel to hear: “Now who in hell wants to cut a star out of the flag?”

McCormick starts each year with a baronial New Year’s reception at the office. It is a command performance: his employees file past their morning-coated boss (a police dog mounts guard at his side), shake his hand, then pass on to the cigars and the punch bowl. Watching the show, his cousin, the late Captain Joseph Medill Patterson of the New York Daily News, once drily observed: “Bertie certainly likes to crack the whip and watch the serfs march by.”

Farm to Market. The Colonel rises at 9 a.m. in his 35-room Georgian mansion (begun by grandfather Joe Medill the year Bertie was born) at Cantigny,* his 1,000-acre farm near Wheaton, Ill. Over a frugal breakfast of coffee and juice, he scans the Trib’s fat, one-star final and Marshall Field’s skinnier Sun, tearing out clippings. He scribbles swift notes on them and stuffs them into his pocket for delivery to his editors. For an hour he strolls Cantigny’s gardens and rolling fields (now mostly idle). He has given up riding: “Can’t get a groom, dammit,” he complains. “There just aren’t any good grooms any more.”

At 11, one of his two chauffeur-bodyguards brings one of his Buicks around to the door for the 29-mile drive into town (via an arterial gallingly named Roosevelt Road). After one recent commuting trip on which he noted that the crows seemed to be getting out of hand, he was moved to take over the Tribune farm column for a short essay on weapons: “The firearms manufacturers,” he wrote, “have been dead from the neck up for about 40 years. . . . The crow easily gets away from anything the old-fashioned shotgun can throw at him. There is needed a crow gun to decimate this pest. . . .”

In McCormick’s cavernous, walnut-paneled 24th floor office, guarded by two secretaries and one of the Trib’s 45 pistol-packing cops, the daily schedule ticks off with military precision. First come Leon Stolz with his squad of editorial writers, and Carey Orr with his crew of highly skilled cartoonists, to hear the orders of the day. The discussion often goes into luncheon at the 19th floor Overset Club, the executives’ dining room.

Sometimes a big advertiser is asked to lunch (for buttering), or a politician (for fence-mending). Like many big dailies, particularly in well-bossed cities, the Tribune has found it convenient to live with its local administration. For years the Colonel, a rampant Republican, lived in harmony with Democratic Mayor Ed Kelly and his machine.

But the Overset Club can seldom toast an unqualified political victory these days. Against McCormick’s advice, Chicago and Illinois went for F.D.R. all four terms. Today, as the state’s No. 1 GOPoohbah, the undaunted Colonel is embarrassing his party’s national leadership with lavish gifts of his time, thought and peremptory advice. He is scheming to capture the state delegation to Philadelphia in 1948, if not the convention itself. He has already cut down most presidential timber, thinks General MacArthur “the only successful man in public life today.”

What’s the News? Back from his light lunch, McCormick phones Managing Editor J. Loy (“Pat”) Maloney. They talk over the news and the Colonel’s slants on the news. The rest of the afternoon the Colonel reads his mail, takes tea & toast, researches his weekly radiorations on forgotten U.S. heroes, sends off memos (signed “R.R. McC.”) down his chain of command, and summons department heads to the sanctum. They have learned that it is well to lay a problem crisply on the line, get his decision, which is almost invariably prompt, and get out fast.

“You can’t hold his interest if you change the subject on him,” says one executive. “Got too much on his mind—logs in the rivers, paper at the mills, the new presses. . . .” He is also getting a little hard of hearing; the man who stays too long finds the boss drifting off into a Yogi-like silence. His men are careful not to smoke in his presence.

Visitors to McCormick’s office find him sitting in lonely magnificence behind a great marble desk that dwarfs grandfather Medill’s plain wooden one, standing near by. When they get up to leave, they find no exit. Sometimes McCormick lets them stand there, in mounting confusion; then, with a glacial chuckle, he taps a kickplate in the baseboard and a panel in the wall springs open. He is enough of a gadget-lover to wear a watch on each wrist. One is a fancy computing chronometer. “Tells what day it is, too,” he says. “Very convenient when traveling.”

He knocks off around 5:30, heading for Wheaton or his old and elegant Astor Street town house, where Winston Churchill was a prewar guest. Before bedtime (11:30) he gives the early editions a hawklike once-over.

A virtual social recluse for several years after his first wife died, McCormick has mellowed and relaxed since December 1944, when he married his neighbor and onetime tenant, gay and gracious Mrs. Maryland Mathison Hooper. Last year he joined the Wheaton First Presbyterian Church, and plunged into an enthusiastic study of Presbyterian theology. Nowadays at Cantigny there are movies and a buffet on Friday nights, and the Colonel and his lady take frequent flying jaunts in his well-appointed Lockheed Lodestar. At his party last Christmas night (complete with boar’s head and singers from WGN), he unbent so far as to lead the family in carols around the piano.

Abe & Joe. McCormick comes by his strongest opinions honestly, by bequest from the man he probably reveres most, his grandfather. Famed Tribune Editor Joseph Medill never had any use for Easterners, Englishmen or kowtowing to anybody. A founder of the Republican Party, he once told Abraham Lincoln: “Take your goddamned feet off my desk, Abe!” Years later, he went to Washington to protest the high Illinois quota in a Civil War draft call. “You, Medill,” the President scolded him, “are acting like a coward.” After all, said Mr. Lincoln (as Joe Medill told it), the Tribune had helped promote the war. “Go home,” he commanded, “and send us those men.”

Robert McCormick was born in downtown Chicago 33 years after the Tribune, and almost within earshot of its presses. He has remarked that more people visit his birthplace than Lincoln’s; the room is now the upstairs bar at the Key Club, one of Chicago’s better eating places. He was a reserved boy; some of his relatives guess that strong-willed Kate Medill McCormick lavished most of her affection on Medill, her charming first-born son. A lonely second son, Bertie grew into a proud and lonely rock of a man. In preparation for Groton and Yale, he went to school in France and England. He was too young for it to do him any permanent harm, as it does the more mature Rhodes

Scholars who, he firmly believes, turn into British spies. At Groton he was one form behind F.D.R. who, he recalls, “was not regarded as one of the most promising boys. If he had not become President, I doubt if I would have remembered the man at all.”

At first the snobbish Eastern “Grotties” gave Bertie the country-cousin treatment; he has never forgiven the East for that. When he went home and complained, his father assured him that he came from a fine old Virginia family. Says the Colonel: “I just put my nose a little higher than the rest of the boys, and I got along fine.” He went on to Yale, later studied law and decided to become a judge. (“They had a lot of Yale men on the Supreme Court then, and we got the idea that it was the thing to do.”) At that moment in history Cousin Joe Patterson, lately out of Yale, was writing socialist plays. Joe’s sister, Eleanor (“Cissie”) Patterson, now boss of Washington’s rancorous Times-Herald, was cutting capers (as Countess Gizycka) in Continental society. Then death came to Joe’s father, the editor of the Tribune. Says McCormick: “There was no one else to take over the paper, so that ‘elected’ us to the newspaper business.”

One Who Survived. Monthly, from 1914 on, the cousins took turns editing the Tribune. In off months, Bertie tended to the business side, and Joe, a born Sunday section-hand, began weaving his magic with comic strips. Because the two often disagreed, readers of their editorials were frequently confused. In France, in 1918, they hit on a better plan. McCormick had had his day of battle (at Cantigny) and was on his way home. “I construed my orders very liberally,” he says. “Douglas MacArthur, a good friend of mine, was chief of staff of Joe’s division and gave me a permit to go see him.”

On a dunghill back of a farmhouse at Mareuil-en-Dó1e, the cousins held the famous conversation that sired the fabulous New York Daily News. Excited by the success of Lord Northcliffe’s tabloid London Mirror, Patterson talked McCormick into joining him in a Manhattan picture paper.

After a colicky start, their brainchild shot into the black in its second year. While Patterson ran the New York invasion, the Colonel proceeded to knock Hearst out of the Chicago morning field in a circulation war organized by the late rough-&-tumble Max Annenberg, whom the Trib had hired away from Hearst. As a sure source of newsprint, Bertie also built the gargantuan trees-to-Tribunes production line that now grinds out 300,000 tons of Canadian paper a year, insuring both papers against shortages.

Master’s Voice. The uses to which McCormick has put that newsprint have horrified critics of the U.S. press. On its 75th anniversary the “W.G.N.” crowed that “Homer would have liked to work on the Tribune. … So would Horace . . . Balzac, Addison, Samuel Johnson, Dickens, Hardy, Kipling and Mark Twain.” In the paper’s “golden era” they might have, if they were hard up; they would have found Ring Lardner, Charles MacArthur, Percy Hammond and Burton Rascoe at nearby desks. But they would not have liked the period between wars. By then, McCormick was spreading his direction from the editorial page to every page, and the Tribune was shamelessly but cleverly angling and twisting the news to suit his fears and whims.

It was a hectic era that found Colonel McCormick touting Fascism (a 1927 editorial: “Dictatorships frequently are constructive. That is the case with Mussolini.” 1928: “. . . we can use that sort of government here”). He pooh-poohed the bomber (1926: “. . . the outlook for bombing plane versus battleship does not favor the plane”). In a careless moment, ic even nominated Roosevelt II (1929: ‘In this role he might . . . from the White House restore the rich heritage of constitutional order . . .”).

But it was on the naming issue of war & peace that McCormick won his reputation as the most bitterly hated press lord of his time. Beginning in 1939, daily & Sunday, the Trib’s eight-column banner lines screamed McCormick’s ideas on the approaching conflict:

WAR BLAMED ON U.S. ENVOYS HALIFAX STEERS F.D.R. BILL HOUSE PASSES DICTATOR BILL FIGHT JAPS. BRITONS TO U.S.

It was that kind of talk that goaded Marshall Field III (whose grandfather had staked McCormick’s grandfather when he bought the Tribune) into starting the Chicago Sun, three days before Pearl Harbor exploded the issue of isolationism v. interventionism.

First with the Most. Today, after shattering his lances on the Trib’s tough hide for 5½ years, White Knight Marshall Field, at a cost of about $10,000,000, has proved one thing, if nothing else: that it takes more than good intentions, an unlimited bankroll and an Associated Press franchise to make good in the newspaper business. What it takes, the Colonel has got.

The big reason for his Tribune’s success is that McCormick has simply made it indispensable. No paper in all Chicagoland can match its overwhelming coverage of the news. When a big story breaks, the Trib can throw a score of men on it to outreport and outwrite the opposition. In sports, in comics, women’s pages, signed columns and display ads it offers all things to all people. It is the housewife’s guide, the politician’s breakfast food, a bible to hundreds of small-town editorial writers. A classless paper, it is read on the commuter trains from swank Lake Forest, and on the dirty “El” cars taking workers to the stockyards. (The Colonel once banned foreign titles from his pages, still insists on simplified spelling, i.e., “frate” for freight.)

Two years ago Louisville Publisher Mark Ethridge made a realistic appraisal: “I have always felt that those who said [the Tribune’s] great hold came from comic strips and other features were wrong: it possesses an animal vigor. . . .” Out of the side of its mouth, the Tribune proudly accepted the tribute: “Comes the dawn. It ain’t Orphan Annie. It’s the hair on our chest.” The editorial staff has a talent for translating the Colonel’s often pompous edicts into gutty, readable prose.

Arms & the Men. The Tribune is a tightly run command, but it is no one-man show. McCormick’s army of talent is extraordinarily well paid, headed by high-powered brass:

Chesser Campbell, 49, the Tribune’s $100,000-a-year advertising manager, is a Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Michigan, who started with McCormick’s old, expatriate Paris Tribune in 1921. One measure of his success: last year the Trib led the world in advertising lineage.

Louis Rose, 66, tiny, tough-talking director of Circulation ($110,000 a year), is an ex-newsboy, disciple and brother-in-law of the late Max Annenberg. He is the only executive who can stop the presses (with a buzzer that blows a siren in the press room). “Louie” Rose cruises his newsstands at night in a new, $5,000 Packard. His boss bought it, found the roof too low for the high McCormick head, told Rose: “If you like it I’ll give it to you.” Rose liked it.

Arthur H. Schmon, 52, mustached president of McCormick’s Ontario Paper Co. and head of its timberlands, paper mills and ships, bosses more people (7,850) than the Tribune and Daily News employ together (3,200 apiece). He was the Colonel’s World War I adjutant, named a son Robert McCormick Schmon, is probably closest to the boss of all executives (none of them calls him “Mac,” and few presume to call him “Bert”).

Elbert M. Antrim, 61, rosy-cheeked business manager, watches the Tribune’s fat till.

Pat Maloney, 55, head of the 420-man news department, transmutes the boss’s notions into type. He is a Phi Bete from Dartmouth, flew with Rickenbacker in World War I, graduated in reporting from the cooperative City News Bureau, from which he hires up to 18 bright young newsmen a year.

Arch Ward, 50, is a $50,000-a-year sports editor who looks more like a mousy small-town merchant. But his merchandise is one secret of the Tribune’s success: a whole generation of readers has grown up thinking of the Trib in terms of his staff’s well-done sports reporting and his own huge promotions (the Golden Gloves, Silver Skates, all-star football & baseball games). His “In the Wake of the News” column was once Ring Lardner’s.

The Hired Men. From top officers to plain foot soldiers, the Tribune’s staff is an efficient, well-equipped army of professionals who march on full stomachs. People of good will sometimes wonder how men of all political and sociological stripes can work for McCormick without forfeiting their journalistic souls. The answer is that Trib men are not required to put their hearts into every cause for which they bear arms. The conscientious objectors are not assigned to combat duty on McCormick campaigns—although those who join the crusades get ahead faster.

The airy, relaxed, two-story local room is a good place to work, where the Colonel is felt (he has a rule against feet on desks) but rarely seen. The “R. R. McC.” memos and verbal orders are polite and direct. “There’s a lot of rain,” he will tell his farm editor. “Maybe we ought to tell people how to plant beans.” The C.I.O. Newspaper Guild has made no headway on the Trib: it has little to offer newsmen who get good salaries, free dental service, big bonuses, home loans, chests of silver when they marry, and even a “drunk bank” for the man who wakes up broke after a binge.

The shock troops of the 13-man Washington bureau are so well conditioned by the time they go to an assignment in the capital that they need no telling how to slant their stuff. They get a constant stream of impatient queries from the Colonel (sample: “What’s happened to Robert M. La Follette?”), are the best-paid ($137 minimum) staff in the capital. Walter Trohan now directs them; 70-year-old Arthur Sears Henning, a sort of commander emeritus, gets $30,000 a year for life, whether he works or not.

For all its array of talent in depth, the only Pulitzer Prize the Tribune ever got went to old-school Cartoonist John T. McCutcheon. It gets awards of a different sort: next to the Hearst papers, it was voted “least fair & reliable” in a 1936 poll of Washington correspondents; “the newspaper . . . most flagrant in angling or weighting the news” in a 1944 poll. Its publisher was named No. 1 in a U.S. “hall of fame” five years ago—by Rabble-Rouser Gerald L. K. Smith.

The Tribune has had to live down scandals that would have crippled most papers. There was, for example, the murder of Reporter Jake Lingle, who, it turned out, was so tied up with his underworld news sources that he had piled up a fortune of $150,000. Prosecutor C. Wayland (“Curly”) Brooks got a conviction against the murderer, an obscure gangster. Later, with the Tribune’s blessing, Brooks was elected to the U.S. Senate. Even more embarrassing to Military Expert McCormick was the Battle of Midway story that irresponsibly gave away the vital war secret that the U.S. had cracked the Jap code.

In His Steps. The eccentric newspaper genius who has made the Tribune what it is today is wholly dedicated to his job. He considers his top aides his best friends, and he is suspicious of overtures from anyone else. He once told his attorney, Weymouth Kirkland: “The minute I become friendly with a man, he wants me to keep his divorce out of the paper or something.” When he dies, the Colonel will leave his empire in the hands of a junta of its officers. He has no son & heir, but he has a favorite niece, blonde Ruth McCormick (“Bazy”) Miller, 26 (daughter of the Colonel’s late brother Medill and Ruth Hanna McCormick), who is learning the business with her husband by running a small-town daily in La Salle, Ill.

At his 65th birthday party, the Colonel asked Bazy Miller to stand up in front of his 170 guests. “Bazy,” he rumbled, “tradition has an important part in every organization. And when, 15 or 20 years from now, I am no longer [here], Ruth Elizabeth—Bazy—will be carrying on the tradition of Joseph Medill, an invaluable thing to all of you.”

By the Colonel’s own estimates, that will not be until 1960 or 1965. So he is by no means ready to drop the reins; he has nothing but pity for his Yale classmates “who went into the big Eastern banks, retired at 60 and now have nothing to do.” He has plenty to do. The country is still to be saved; the Midwest has still to be rescued from the East, and the U.S. from the British Empire.

Last week an interviewer asked him if he hoped one day to be President of the U.S. The Colonel shot him a withering look. “Out of the question,” he snapped. “No big publisher has ever held high public office.” As any fool could see, if a man had a commanding view from the Tribune Tower, what would he want with the White House?

*Also slighted: Chaucer, Petrarch, Boccaccio, John Wycliffe. *Originally named Red Oaks, renamed by the Colonel after the first real battle of World War I in which U.S. troops (including McCormick) participated.

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