No Washington columnist was more feared than Drew Pearson during the last century. In his “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column, which was syndicated by more than 600 newspapers at his death in 1969, the man known as “the Scorpion on the Potomac” alternately entertained and outraged tens of millions of followers with scoops that consisted of an uneasy mixture of genuine information and stinging personal attacks. A profile of Pearson published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1945 described his journalistic strategy as “aggressive indiscretion.” More recently, Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, called him “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.”
For political foes that he deemed beyond the pale, Pearson functioned as a deadly character assassin. But as unscrupulous as his methods may have been, they often bore fruit. He took credit for the indictment, imprisonment, censure, and expulsion of a half-dozen members of Congress and the defeat of many more. He was a staunch liberal, but prepared to target any politician. He uncovered that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had approved wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. He exposed Dwight Eisenhower’s White House chief of staff, Sherman Adams, for accepting a valuable gift—a coat made out of luxurious vicuña wool. He reported on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s demagoguery. And more. At a moment when the Washington press corps often printed what it was fed by government officials, Pearson stood out as a journalistic bloodhound.
In The Columnist, Donald Ritchie, a former U.S. Senate historian, offers a comprehensive look at Pearson’s colorful career. He depicts him as essentially running a government within a government with a corps of agents who were constantly looking to solicit, or even bribe, any official for inside information about Washington politics and policy. His ability to break national security secrets was so formidable that the FBI gave up trying to track down the sources of his leaks. Ritchie, who has drawn heavily on Pearson’s diaries and private papers at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, provides a fascinating account. Throughout, he seeks to demonstrate that Pearson’s unfettered approach set the stage for the later exposure of Watergate and other Washington scandals.
Pearson’s righteous indignation about transgressions by the powerful has often been traced to his religious background. His father, Paul Pearson, was a Quaker and became a professor of public speaking at Swarthmore College. Drew, who was born in 1897, attended Phillips Exeter Academy for high school and, later, Swarthmore College. After graduation, he joined a small band of Quaker volunteers in 1919 to help build houses in the war-torn
Balkans—one grateful Serbian town even renamed itself “Pearsonovatz.” After returning to America in 1921, he aspired to join the foreign service, but was disappointed to learn that it depended on attracting wealthy young swells who could afford to cover the cost of living abroad themselves. The resourceful Pearson embarked on a personal world tour, funding his travel across Asia and Europe by writing freelance articles.
But it was a book that he published anonymously in 1931 together with the Christian Science Monitor correspondent Robert S. Allen that truly launched his career. It was titled Washington Merry-Go-Round. “Pearson and Allen,” Ritchie writes, “shared a belief that the newspapers of their era were too timid to show how Washington really worked. They intended to present an uninhibited view of the political scene, revealing secrets and naming names.” Washington Merry-Go-Round sold like hotcakes. Insiders knew who the authors were, and an irate President Herbert Hoover, Ritchie reports, intervened to get Allen fired. A sequel, More Merry-Go-Round, led to Pearson being terminated as well from his post at The Baltimore Sun.
But having successfully clambered aboard the carousel, Pearson was not about to get off it. In 1932, he and Allen, who referred to the Washington press corps as “trained seals,” began to collaborate on a column named after their first book. Anyone was fair game. They revealed that General Douglas MacArthur, then the Army’s chief of staff, had persuaded his father-in-law, a big contributor to the Republican Party, to pressure the secretary of war to speed up MacArthur’s promotion. MacArthur filed a libel suit against Pearson, but retreated after the journalist played hardball, obtaining letters MacArthur had sent his young lover.
Pearson’s staunch support for the New Deal and denunciations of isolationism perturbed the conservative newspapers that syndicated him. But the only thing worse than running his popular column would have been not running it. He broke too many stories—including Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 plan to pack the Supreme Court—to be ignored. So successful was Pearson at disclosing tensions between the British and American governments and reporting on military waste during World War II that each government shadowed him and tapped his phone. Pearson was undeterred. He revealed that General George S. Patton had slapped a shell-shocked soldier in a hospital in Sicily. His report resulted in Patton’s temporary removal from the battlefield.
Sometimes, Pearson printed rumors he wasn’t able to verify—with disastrous results. In the late 1940s, Pearson assailed the probity of Defense Secretary James Forrestal, accusing him, among other things, of fleeing from the scene when his wife was robbed of her jewels in front of their home. It was, as Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley note in their biography of Forrestal, Driven Patriot, “a totally false version” of events. His attacks on Forrestal were later indicted by Pearson’s own assistant, Jack Anderson, as a descent into “poison gas.” Pearson loathed Forrestal for his earlier career on Wall Street, for his opposition to the recognition of Israel in 1948, and for his staunch anti-communism. He viewed Forrestal as a “Trojan Horse of the Right” who had no business serving in a liberal Democratic administration. When a mentally tormented Forrestal committed suicide in May 1949, Pearson refused to accept any responsibility.
But he fought good fights, too. His best one came in his courageous battle against McCarthy. Much of the press, not to mention Eisenhower himself, remained silent or cowered before the combative senator. Not Pearson. In February 1950, McCarthy traveled to Wheeling, West Virginia, and delivered a sinister speech on “enemies within,” launching a years-long anti-communist crusade. In the speech, McCarthy claimed to hold a piece of paper with the names of more than 200 communists working at the State Department. Pearson rebutted that claim in his column a few days later. “Senator McCarthy is way off base,” Pearson declared. “The alleged Communists which he claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.” Ritchie writes, “Two of the people the senator named had resigned years earlier from the State Department; one never worked there; and another had been cleared and reinstated.”
In all, Pearson wrote 58 columns decrying McCarthy. He reported that the senator’s inspiration for his anti-communist push came during a dinner with Edmund Walsh, the founder of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, who advised that the issue could increase his popularity. When McCarthy encountered Pearson months later at the Sulgrave Club on Washington’s Dupont Circle, McCarthy kicked him in the groin and slapped him on the head in the cloakroom. California’s newly elected senator, Richard M. Nixon, intervened. After Pearson grabbed his coat and rushed from the room, McCarthy turned to Nixon and said, “You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.” Three days later, McCarthy dubbed Pearson the “voice of international Communism.” But even as advertisers fled his broadcasts and newspapers canceled his column, the columnist never buckled.
Ritchie notes that Pearson never won the Pulitzer Prize that he coveted. Instead, his protégé Jack Anderson, who inherited the column after Pearson’s death, was awarded it in 1972 for exposing the Nixon administration’s secret tilt toward Pakistan during its war with India. Though Pearson’s name may have faded over the decades, Ritchie contends that “his influence persisted through the investigative reporters who followed him, in print, on air, and online.” But Pearson’s legacy probably cannot be tied up so neatly. In a twist that Pearson would doubtless have abhorred, his methods, if not his aims, can also be discerned in the rise of a right-wing media that specializes in hearsay, calumnies, and falsehoods. Washington Merry-Go-Round, indeed.