RICHARD L. STROUT was a journalists' journalist - one of the greatest of this century. His dispatches from Washington became the curriculum of a one-man journalism school for three generations of American reporters.
Strout covered - knew - nearly one-third of the presidents in America's rich and turbulent history. He seemed to combine the professions of journalist and historian effortlessly. He joined the Monitor just 13 years after its doors opened and served for an unprecedented 66 years.
When we sought to salute his service after 60 of those years, it seemed natural to center the party on a giant chocolate cake in the form of a roll-top desk. Strout's antique oak monster was the nerve center of his office. But his main filing cabinet was several hundred megabytes of pungent and historically telling memories stored in his head.
A random sample: Bumping into a young lieutenant named Eisenhower sitting at a small desk outside General MacArthur's office ... the tense vigil outside the Oval Office after Pearl Harbor ... Henry Ford's inventive but decidedly eccentric turn of thought ... news photographers tearing apart a San Francisco supermarket trying to capture the reactions of bumptious Nikita Khrushchev ... the first cross-country commercial flight (two-days in a tri-motor plane with one leg by train) ... Senator Joseph McCarthy's rise and fall in the bully's pulpit ... Watergate ... astronauts ... oil crises.
The ``leads'' of his stories were legendary. Example: ``Russia has put over the Marshall Plan.'' Those seven short words explained, as no one else did that day, how Truman's enemy saved his strategic plan to rebuild war-ravaged Europe from likely defeat. Moscow had engineered a coup that toppled the Czech government - and in doing so accomplished what Truman could not: persuade Congress to vote the Marshall billions.
Strout sometimes walked the several miles to work from his quiet, book-filled home on the northwest side of the capital. Once, during a London stint, the 80-something reporter walked five miles during a subway strike to file his dispatches.
Such trips abroad were a rarity. He traveled from Washington mainly to cover political campaigns or to do Tocqueville-ish assessments of middle America. He let the rich admixture of rogues, idealists, and pragmatists file past his view, like one of those mile-long dioramas of Americana that were popular in the 19th century - painted scenes of history that unrolled like a giant window shade.
Strout seemed to be refreshed by each new drama, each new change of characters. In person a gruff bear (with a heart more like Pooh's), for his readers, he was an enthusiastic impressionist painter of landscapes, portraits, and historic scenes in a city that graduated under his gaze from a sleepy Southern town to a world capital too big for its beltway. Although he would have harrumphed impatiently at the description, he was one of the few journalistic giants of this century.