The cloakroom of the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C., on the night of December 13, 1950, showed no evidence that it was the season of good cheer. Instead, a burly ex-boxer, the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, was pounding, kicking, and choking a smaller man 20 years his senior, the equally infamous — in the eyes of some — reporter and columnist Drew Pearson.
McCarthy, as usual, was full of alcohol and venom, and he was undoubtedly getting the better of the fight. He had Pearson on the floor, gasping for air and wondering if this Christmas season would be his last.
The person who saved Pearson that night was none other than Richard Nixon, then a young senator from California, who had little love for Pearson himself. He pulled McCarthy off of Pearson, allowing him to grab his overcoat and beat a hasty retreat into the night.
Word of the fight spread quickly around Washington with each of the combatants testifying to his own version of the event. It was a source of delight and rich with symbolism and irony.
McCarthy may have won the fight that night but eventually lost the war. Pearson continued to pound at him, accusing him of evading taxes and demagogic red-baiting. McCarthy’s bombastic, unrestrained style had frightened every journalist in town, but he didn’t frighten the diminutive columnist.
In the history of 20th-century Washington journalism, Drew Pearson stands out as unique.
In fact, some might object to his being called a journalist at all. For much of the middle part of the century, Pearson reported and wrote a syndicated column that was by far the most widely-read item coming out of the nation’s capital. But Pearson was far more than just a columnist. He was really a power broker whom Washington insiders loved, hated, feared, and never ignored.
Pearson had friends whom he supported without question. He had enemies whom he hounded until they were out of office or even in their graves. Sometimes, his friends could also be his enemies. What McCarthy had done on that December night was what many people had been tempted to do during Pearson’s nearly 40 years astride the Washington scene.
Pearson was born in 1897 in Evanston, Illinois, to parents who were Quakers and academics. When he was six years old, the family moved to Pennsylvania where his father had taken a teaching job. Pearson graduated from Swarthmore College, where he had been editor of the student newspaper in 1919 and joined the American Friends Service Committee. He was sent to Serbia where he worked for two years, helping to rebuild an area devasted by the conflicts of World War I.
He then traveled around the world, persuading newspapers along the way to buy his travel articles. He spent the next few years writing and traveling before joining the Baltimore Sun in 1929 as a Washington correspondent. There, he teamed with Robert S. Allen, bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, to write Washington Merry-Go-Round and its sequel. The book was an exposé of the Hoover administration was published anonymously. Hoover found out about the authorship and made it public, and both men were fired.
Allen and Pearson teamed up to write a column, Washington Merry-Go-Round, that was distributed by United Features. After United Features dropped it, the Washington Post picked it up.
During these years, Pearson realized how journalism could become a weapon to advance the causes that he believed in, and he was not shy about developing ways to use it. Pearson had been an early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, but as America entered and fought World War II, he became increasingly critical of the way the government was conducting the war.
Pearson also saw radio and later television as a way of promoting himself and his idea. He had a show on the Mutual Broadcasting System in the 1930s and later with NBC that lasted for a dozen years. Along with Allen, he wrote a comic strip, Hal Hopper, Washington Correspondent, that continued for a number of years. He even appeared as himself in a number of movies, the most famous of which was The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Next: Pearson and his enemies
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