The Strout touch

For 60 of the 73 years since this newspaper was founded, Richard L. Strout has been its preeminent chronicler of the Washington scene -- indeed of the American civilization. He has seen nearly one-third of the presidents in America's history come and go.

We reached that 60th anniversary this week. In any profession that would be an extraordinary event. In modern journalism it is without parallel.

Normally, we at the Monitor don't like to see such superlatives used in print. They are too often misused. But in this case they are fact.

What is even more extraordinary about Dick Strout is the sustained high quality of his work. Even since he drove to Washington in his Model T (a three-day journey from Boston in the 1920s) he has described the tumultuous events, the mundane but often fascinating detail, the rich intermixture of idealists, pragmatists and scoundrels that make up the American political tapestry -- described them with such freshness that you would think he came new upon the scene in each of those 21,915 day since 1921.

Journalists are usually cast in the role of mere spear-carriers for the historian. STrout seems to combine the two professions. His sense of perspective was evident from the start. Many reporters catch today's scene accurately; but they fail to relate it to the flow of history, to its cycles, to events elsewhere on the globe. Many historians read the broad architecture of humanity's march acutely; but they fail to capture the color, the detail, the "feel" of how things were. Strout has consistently succeeded at both.

As such he has been an inspiration to young reporters for generations here at the Monitor -- and at other publications as well. Most of the current editors and senior correspondents of this paper grew up studying Strout "leads," those opening bars of an article that are as important as the opening chords of Beethoven's "Eroica."

One lead in particular has stuck in the memory of Monitor alumni as if it were a password to be remembered whenever one sat down to the typewriter. It read; "Russia has put over the Marshall Plan." Seven short words. Ten syllables. They said volumes. Harry Truman had been having trouble with Congress over the large aid expenditures called for in George Marshall's European recovery program. Moscow engineered a coup in Czechoslovakia. The Russians had done what President Truman could not, and Congress responded.

If the leads have been signs of Strout's unflagging curiosity and instinctive feel for the meat of a story, the stories themselves have often been fascinating narratives from stem to stern: of Henry Ford's inventive, eccentric train of thought; of the new cross-country commercial flight (like that Model T trip, a two-day affair, done in a trimotor assisted by a train); of meeting a young lieutenant named Eisenhower sitting at a small desk outside General MacArthur's office; of that saturnalia in the supermarket when Khrushchev and a herd of news photographers visited a grocery in San Francisco. Butcolor and intriguing detail never overwhelmed meaning. Dick wrote tellingly of world population and food questions long before the subjects were journalistically fashionable. And he kept after them with persistence. He explored the problems that would grow with the Hispanic influx into America long before most journalists caught sight of the matter. He has consistently observed the flaws in the otherwise fail-safe system of checks and balances that has preserved American democracy from men on horseback or runaway majorities. For years he has studiously examined the obstructive clashes between president and Congress that so often thwarted timely action on great national needs. He was calling for reform well before the collisions that delayed a national energy policy in the '70s and now threaten to slow the economic and tax reforms of the '80s. And he has frequently examined attacks on America's landmark egalitarian public school system as well as attacks on the fundamental doctrine of separation of church and state -- coinciding erosions which threaten irrevocable change in the way the nation works.

Fortunately, he will continue to uncover such major themes in his news articles and in his perceptive columns on this op-ed page.

In 1979 Strout appeared on a two-part TV interview with Dick Cavett. His command of both broad sweep and intimate detail of the history of the country was evident. But Cavett could not lure him into discussing any lurid gossip about the leaders of America. That was typical of this lucid stylist, who relishes detail but eschews irrelevance.

He would deny it -- probably with impatient self-effacement -- but there can be little doubt that Richard Strout is one of the very few journa listic giants of our time.

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