MARY MCGRORY can't take two steps into a banquet room where a slew of reporters and television crews await Tom King, Britain's defense secretary, without running into a veteran correspondent and talking for ten minutes about the troubles that befall a writer who crosses James Baker III, the United States secretary of state. She cannot walk to the front of the room, past two dozen journalists liberally availing themselves of coffee and luxury-brand cookies, without nodding and smiling in response to ``Hello Mary'' several times.
She can't even buttonhole Mr. King without being recognized. ``Ah yes,'' he says after a press aide mentions her name, ``we've met before!'' He sounds delighted.
After more than 30 years of writing a syndicated column, first for the now-defunct Washington Star, and now for the Washington Post, it's not surprising that Ms. McGrory has gained a certain presence.
But she's recognized around town because she is often around town, ``trundling,'' as she puts it, off to briefings and luncheons, hanging out on Capitol Hill, ``trolling'' for bits of information and insight that will lead to the column she writes three times a week.
In an age when the leading purveyors of opinions are walking multimedia operations, converting their columns into television talk show appearances and radio commentaries, and compiling them into full-length books, McGrory says she can barely get it together to handle reporting and writing.
``This is all I can do,'' she says in her glass-walled office just off the newsroom at the Post. Her office has been hit by the same tornado of clutter that has almost destroyed the main room. ``I know people who have little children, and husbands, and lecture contracts, and book contracts, and they do it all, and I can just barely do what I do three times a week. And it is a terrible admission,'' she adds, scolding herself.
Consequently, McGrory's biting, occasionally smug, and resoundingly liberal analysis of politics and other matters is left to the printed pages of the Post and the 160 papers that run her syndicated column.
Lack of time isn't the only consideration. ``I don't like the way I look on television, and I don't like the way I sound.''
And there simply will not be any books, memoirs, or even collections of her work. ``I really don't think they're that good. I don't think they deserve being in hard covers,'' she says, adding that she speaks only of her work, not of the practice of publishing collections. Of her columns, she says, ``You know I'm often wrong, and tinny.'' She's droning a bit, as though she has long tried to overcome these faults, but has come to accept them.
But McGrory's views find their way onto television and radio even without their author. Several weeks ago she wrote a piece on US dealings with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the war. Larry King read the column, all 800 words or so, on his nationwide, very-early-morning radio show. In came dozens of requests for the column.
And if you ask her about the influence she wields, she'll deny she has any, and then tell a story she likes very much. It's a story about the power that opinion-makers have to influence other journalists, and thus increase the spread of their message.
``The Reagan White House,'' she recalls, ``made a great point of saying nobody read me.'' She lists the adjectives applied to her by the ruling conservatives: ``Over the hill, liberal, out of step, out of touch, etc.''
But at the end of the first Reagan term, ``there was a wonderful incident'' at a reception for a departing White House official. ``I was standing there minding my own business and Richard Darman [then a White House aide and now President Bush's budget director] came up to me ... and said, `You have no influence, you know.''' The memory of his put down amuses her, and she begins to sound just a little triumphant.
``He said, `I read you, ... but you're just so predictable, there's no real point in reading you.... I read you because I think it's well written and it's logical and in many ways it's the best of what's printed, but,' he said, `You have no influence whatever, just so liberal, so predictable.'
``At precisely that moment Ann Compton of ABC, one of world's nicest women, came up to me and said, `Oh Mary, I want to thank you. Because of you and what you wrote I wasn't just on ABC News tonight, I [had] the lead [story].'
``I said, `Oooh, how interesting!' I'd written a piece about trying to make an arms agreement with the Russians while accusing them of arms treaty violations.
``I said, `Just as a matter of interest, what [did you report]?'
``And she said, `Oh, I just took what you wrote and put it on the air.'
``So I said to him, `Well, ... no influence, eh?'
``And he said, `Oh, just with 80 million people.'
``That was an extremely satisfactory moment in my life,'' McGrory recalls. ``Very satisfactory.''
Switching to seriousness, McGrory denies that she has any influence with the public. She says instead that the columnist is a kind of ``psychiatric nurse.''
``You make people feel better because they agree with you,'' she says. ``The first weeks of the war, the mail was coming in here: `I thought I was crazy until I read you and realized that somebody agreed with me.' ... That's what happened all through Vietnam. They just read you to give their mind a little ease, because they're getting all this other stuff.''
Of course, conservative readers aren't exactly put at ease by McGrory's writing. ``That's true,'' she admits with a smile. ``But I tell them not to read me. I tell them to read George Will and they'll be much happier.''
Even if McGrory's column isn't a balm, it does offer insights that she's gathered around Washington. McGrory is often out of her chair and out of the office, trundling and trolling. She describes part of her routine: ``On Tuesdays when Congress is in session, ... the Senate has ... its caucus lunch, and you stand outside, and they come out and they tell you what they were talking about, and what they said, and you get snippets, and maybe you don't get a story, but maybe you get an idea.
``Then you go over to the House side, and you go and sit in the speaker's lobby on those benches, those leather-covered benches, and people come pouring out of that chamber and they can't wait to talk to you. And if you spend a little time there you can find out almost everything that's going on, because they're tremendous gossips and they're lonely and neglected and they just love attention.''
``I write,'' says McGrory in a brief, reflective mode, ``for the people who couldn't get there. I'm the lucky one who was able to get into the press conference and the hearing room and the whatever. So I write for the people who couldn't get there. Tell 'em what it was like.''
Two earlier interviews with columnists Carl Rowan and George Will ran Feb. 22 and Feb. 28 respectively.