Harding to Reagan With Dick Strout
IN the 82 years since this newspaper was founded, no other reporter matched the performance of Richard L. Strout, who passed on in Washington this week. Indeed, in all of 20th-century journalism only a few reporters were in his league.
He was the preeminent chronicler of the American scene - indeed of the American civilization. Some great newsmen and newswomen roved more widely. Some covered more wars. Some specialized more - captives of the White House or a single regulatory agency. But few, if any, covered more of the history of our times, and did so in both intimate, homey detail and historic sweep.
Strout's career was unusual. He stayed in one post - Washington - for an extraordinary 63 years. He saw nearly one-third of the presidents in American history come and go. He was content to let the rich cast of idealists, pragmatists, and scoundrels that have always populated the American capital pass before him like one of those 19th-century panorama paintings that unrolled between cylinders before awestruck crowds.
Reporters who hit Washington determined to Teapot Dome or Watergate their way to fame, but then burn out within a few years, are legion. They allow themselves to become bored with what they unimaginatively feel is the capital treadmill. Strout, by contrast, never tired of the fresh flow of characters; the never-ending struggle of forces within such a complex democracy; the tumultuous events pressing in upon the Oval Office from Pearl Harbor, Berlin, Beirut, Beijing, or Panama. Nor did he tire of ferreting out the impact that subcommittee maneuvering would ultimately have upon the life of a waitress in Sioux Falls or a melon picker in Fresno.
The sustained high quality of Strout's work was legendary at Monitor offices - and at many other news organizations. From the moment he drove to Washington in his Model T (a three-day journey from Boston in the 1920s), he wrote dispatches of such freshness that you would think he came new upon the scene on each of those 23,000 days since 1921.
Journalists are usually cast in the role of mere spear-carriers for the historian. Strout seemed to combine the two professions. Good reporters capture today's scene with immediacy, but often fail to relate it to the flow of history. Good historians cast X-ray eyes on piles of contemporary reports and discern the bones of history. But they often fail to do the camera work, to capture the ``feel'' of how things were. Dick was both camera and X-ray machine.
As such he was a one-man journalism school for several generations of young Monitor reporters. Many of the current editors and senior correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, magazine, television, and radio organizations grew up studying Strout ``leads'' - those opening bars of an article that are as important as the opening chords of Beethoven's ``Eroica.''
If leads were signs of Dick's unflagging curiosity and instinctive feel for the meat of a story, the stories themselves were fascinating narratives from stem to stern. Strout stories never ran out of gas. You went with him to interview Henry Ford and caught that dogmatic genius's inventive, eccentric train of thought. Or you found yourself encountering a young lieutenant named Eisenhower sitting at a small desk outside General MacArthur's office.
Then there were the trips: The ocean voyage to England where he started his reporting career. The Model T. trip around America that he and E.B. White recorded in a popular book. Quadrennial circuits with presidential hopefuls. The saturnalia in a supermarket when Khrushchev visited a grocery near San Francisco and a wild herd of news photographers tore it apart.
Dick wrote tellingly of world population, food needs, and the homeless long before those subjects were journalistically fashionable. And he kept after them with persistence. He helped readers understand Fed and monetary policy decades ago, when most newspeople had a hard time understanding Economics 101.
He exposed flaws in the system of checks and balances that preserve American democracy from men on horseback and runaway majorities. He warned of obstruction and delay growing out of the power struggle between president and Congress. Till the end Strout championed the idea of converting Washington to the parliamentary system.
More realistically, he kept a journalistic vigil over attacks against America's egalitarian, melting-pot public school system and attacks against the doctrine of separation of church and state. He felt that erosion in either area threatened irrevocable change in the way the nation works.
From Harding to Reagan he explained America to Americans and non-Americans.
We will not see his like again. Or will we? Look around at press conferences, breakfasts, and briefings in the victorious and uneasy capital of the free world and you can find disciples of the Strout journalism school. Trying to carry on.