• U.S.

The Press: The Colonel

11 minute read

As ruler of a paper that historians have called “one of the most powerful journalistic voices of the past hundred years,” Colonel Robert Rutherford (“Bertie”) McCormick commanded the No. 1 fortress of personal, daily journalism in the U.S. He put the mark of his eccentric, sometimes pugnacious personality into every column of the Tribune. His skillful and intensely opinionated brand of newspapering might often be wrong, but it was never dull. Even those who violently disagreed with what the Trib said in its news and editorial columns candidly admitted that no one said it with more bounce and bite. In the 41 years that he ran the Trib, the Colonel turned it into one of the most readable newspapers in the world, increased its circulation from 261,278 to a peak of 1,076,866, and made it the biggest moneymaker among U.S. newspapers.

Under his benevolent dictatorship, the Trib’s 4,700 well-paid employees learned to expect from their boss the best in office housing and printing equipment. He even provided for his staff in case of an atomic attack, set aside a deep basement of Tribune Tower as a bombproof shelter stocked with cans of pineapple. Characteristically, he announced: “The best remedy for radium burns is pineapple juice.”

Signed: RRMcC. Colonel McCormick’s real journalistic achievements were often lost in the tidal waves of vituperation that crashed around (but never engulfed) his tower fortress on North Michigan Avenue. In a 1936 poll of Washington correspondents, the Tribune was placed among the “least fair and reliable” newspapers in the U.S.; others denounced it as a “ceaseless drip of poison.”

McCormick himself was damned as an “Anglophobic, isolationist crackpot,” and the “greatest mind of the 14th century.” Once he had the dubious honor of being named No. 1 in a U.S. “hall of fame” by Rabble-Rouser Gerald L. K. Smith. In Europe McCormick was almost as well known as Senator McCarthy. But midst the crossfire, the Colonel, erect (6 ft. 4 in., 200 lbs.) and proud, had a simple way of summarizing his rank and station: “I’m the publisher of the World’s Greatest Newspaper.”

He rarely visited the Trib’s enormous city room, and when he did, he was often followed by his German shepherd dogs. From his huge, marble-topped desk in the Trib’s Gothic tower, he bombarded his staff with memos signed “RRMcC.” They ranged over thousands of subjects, from international political skulduggery to the most nonsensical trivia. “Everyone should be interested to know how hard a lobster pinches,” the Colonel once scribbled. “Crabs, clams, oysters. This information should be easy to get. I suppose.”

When he concluded that the sap rises in trees because the spring wind causes a pumping action in the branches, a staffer, missing the chance for an argument-provoking essay in pseudo science, made the mistake of writing a Trib story setting out the scientific facts. The Colonel noted: “Our sap expert missed a trick.”

After one of his daily trips to his home in suburban Wheaton in his bulletproof Rolls-Royce, strapped to the seat with a safety belt, he rightly decided the highways around Chicago were too narrow. Out went an order: “Please see that our radial highways into Chicago are widened to 40 ft.” The Trib launched a campaign, and the Illinois legislature authorized a $30 million bond issue to improve the roads.

The rare staffer who strayed out of line was quick to hear about it. In the early days of World War II, Edmond Taylor, the Trib’s Paris chief, suggested that Russian-German collaboration could lead to an attack on Rumania. The Colonel cabled right back: “Your fantastic Rumanian story, hysterical tone . . . and other vagaries indicate you . . . are [a victim] of mass psychosis and are hysterically trying to drag the U.S. into war. Suggest you join Foreign Legion or else take rest cure in sanitarium.” (Taylor quit.) No task was too small or too big for his staff. After the Trib carried the news of the first A-bomb dropped on Japan, the Colonel tore out the Page One banner and sent it to an assistant with a note: “Find a remedy for this.”

Occasionally, he would overlook a story and ask for it again. Instead of replying with a clipping, a reporter would rewrite the story, and the Trib would print it—sometimes as many as three times until it caught the Colonel’s eye. “When the Colonel asks for a drink of water,” explained onetime Managing Editor J. Loy Maloney, “we turn the fire hose on him.”

The Subservient East. The hose was turned on full force to satisfy the Colonel’s political whims. He carried his vendetta against the New Deal to every member of the Roosevelt family, once headlined across five columns of Page One: REVOKE MRS. F.D.R.’S DRIVING LICENSE. The Trib, he was fond of saying, “is an American newspaper for Americans.” One way he put this dictum into force was by banning all titles of nobility from the paper. A literal-minded editorial writer promptly referred to the British “House of L—ds.” The Colonel’s distrust of any one east of the Alleghenies blossomed into hundreds of RRMcC stories under headlines such as CUBISTIC ALIENS PUZZLE HOOSIER VISITORS IN N.Y.; FURTIVE FACES IN CROWDS AROUSE DISTRUST.

He also heaped his scorn on: the Marshall Plan (“To hell with [it]. It’s really a snob plan”), President Dwight Eisenhower (“I Too Ike”), Tom Dewey (“Buster Dewey, the cheap trickster”), the United Nations (“Anyone who speaks up for [it] is obviously either a Communist or misinformed”). Before the 1952 election, he advised Trib readers to vote for neither presidential candidate, formed the American Party to support such “patriotic candidates” as Senators McCarthy, Cain and Jenner.

Feet off Desk. Bertie McCormick seemed to have come by his autocratic, opinionated ways by inheritance. His grandfather, Joseph Medill, one of the founders of the Republican Party, once characteristically hollered at Congressman Abe Lincoln “Take your goddamned feet off my desk, Abe.” (The Colonel enforced his own Trib ban against feet on the desk.) Unlike his grandson, Medill led public opinion in the U.S. Almost singlehanded, he assured Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency. Then, with the power of his Trib, he swung Midwestern opinion in support of Lincoln in the election of 1860, forcibly preached the abolition of slavery. (He advised hotheaded Southern editors to “take the ice out of their juleps and put it on their heads.”)

When Medill died in 1899, he left a $130 million estate, and the editorship of the Trib fell to Robert Patterson, Medill’s son-in-law and uncle of Robert McCormick. When Patterson died suddenly, a group of stockholders had about decided to sell the Trib to a publishing rival when young Robert McCormick stepped in. He persuaded them to keep the Tribune in the family. From 1914 on, he and his cousin, Joseph Medill Patterson, took complete charge of the Trib.

At 34, when he and Patterson became active co-editors and co-publishers of the Trib, Bertie McCormick was a strapping, blue-eyed young man with an air of Old World gallantry, a feeling of noblesse oblige and a love for the military. He had gone to grade school in England, graduated from Groton one form ahead of his archenemy-to-be, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After Yale (’03) he moved into Chicago’s swank Union Club and began law courses at Northwestern (“They had a lot of Yalemen on the Supreme Court about then, and we got the idea that it was the thing to do”).

When Bertie and Joe Patterson took over the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” they set out to make the paper’s slogan come true. They livened up the Trib with crusades against crime and political corruption, lured in more readers with some of the first serial comic strips (Moon Mullins, The Gumps, Little Orphan Annie) ever printed in a U.S. daily. They watched the paper’s circulation and profits soar, bought vast Canadian pulp forests and a fleet of vessels that still supply the Trib with paper. But the cousins seldom saw eye to eye. Though he bitterly condemned the idle rich, Bertie reveled in his own aristocratic background; Patterson, a turtleneck sweater man at heart, rebelled against it, became an active Socialist. While he rode the streetcars of Chicago, rubbing shoulders with his readers, cousin Bertie rode to hounds.

Wine of Death. During World War I McCormick, an Illinois National Guard officer, and cousin Joe Patterson went overseas. (Wrote McCormick later: “I have tasted the wine of death, and its flavor will be forever in my throat”.) At war’s end Captain Patterson and Colonel McCormick launched the Daily News in New York. A few years later the cousins split; Patterson began to run the News alone, and McCormick bossed the Trib.

In the far-ranging territory that he called “Chicagoland,” the Colonel made the Trib indispensable reading for its comprehensive news coverage, crusades and top features. He never let Chicago forget who ran the Trib. Over the paper’s radio station, WGN, the Colonel gave weekly talks on his pet projects, peeves and successes, notably as a military man. He even claimed credit for introducing the U.S. Army to such improvements as the machine gun, the automatic rifle and mechanized warfare. During the 75th anniversary celebration of the Trib in 1922, the paper blared: “Homer would have liked to work on the Tribune . . . So would Horace . . . Balzac, Addison, Samuel Johnson, Dickens, Hardy, Kipling and Mark Twain.”

Often the Colonel’s outrageous political views were mistaken for the authentic voice of the Midwest. Actually, the Colonel was a lonely figure politically. In Cook County, the heart of Chicagoland, the voters remained solidly Democratic. Democrat Adlai Stevenson, fiercely opposed by the Trib, was elected governor of Illinois and Paul Douglas, whom the Trib also damned, easily beat the Colonel’s own candidate C. Wayland (“Curly”) Brooks in the 1948 Senate race. Nationally, such McCormick presidential choices as Taft and MacArthur never even were nominated. In recent years the Trib seemed to move more and more to the Colonel’s odd political cadences. Maryland McCormick, the Colonel’s handsome, outspoken second wife (his first died in 1939), once described the Colonel’s biggest weakness. Said she: “The odds seem to be against the extreme right wing. Very sad, but true, and why not face it?”

The political power of the Trib has slipped, along with its circulation which is down 17% in the past eight years. When the Colonel tried to invade Washington by buying the Times-Herald (“To take Americanism into the national capital”), the paper was a failure, and finally had to be sold to the international-minded Washington Post (TIME, March 29, 1954). The Colonel’s political sympathizers were outraged by the sale, but he characteristically explained that Post Chairman Eugene Meyer was a good “professional” newspaperman, and he did not want to sell to “amateurs.”

The Heirs. Who will take over the empire that Colonel McCormick built? The Colonel ran the Trib as trustee for the 1,050 shares in the McCormick-Patterson Trust of the Tribune Co.’s 2,000 shares of stock (valued at $42,000 a share).* The Colonel, who was the largest single stockholder, voted the other shares held by family stockholders such as his niece, “Bazy” Miller Tankersley, former Washington Times-Herald editor, and his cousin, Alicia Patterson, publisher of Long Island’s Newsday, the bright journalistic star of the fourth generation of the dynasty.

But at week’s end, as they awaited the reading of the Colonel’s last instructions, none of the family stockholders was expected to take over the Trib. Instead, it was predicted that the Trib would be controlled, like the New York Daily News, by the family trustees and the paper’s top executives. Three top executives: Chesser Campbell, 57, vice president of the Tribune Co.; Don Maxwell, 54, the paper’s managing editor; and J. Howard Wood, 54, former financial editor and now business manager. Working with the trustees, they are expected to be in day-to-day command. And no matter how hard they try, the Trib will undoubtedly lose much of its bite and flavor. No one can take the place of Robert Rutherford McCormick.

*Many of the shares of stock held outside the McCormick-Patterson Trust are scattered among the estates of former Trib executives and employees. The Colonel also held proxies for many of them.

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