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The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick.

During may last year of college, I took a semester off to intern at the Chicago Tribune. Walking out of the Tribune Tower to lunch with some senior colleagues one arctic January afternoon, I asked why the publication's gothic edifice on Michigan Avenue didn't have a cafeteria like most good-sized newspapers. The Colonel didn't want one, was the reply. At the Trib, that settled things -- even almost a half century after Col. Robert McCormick's death in 1955.

No publisher was ever more synonymous with -- or his whims satisfied so thoroughly by -- a single paper. "The world's greatest newspaper" -- the Colonel's favorite boast -- was laughably parroted on the Tribune's masthead until 1977. In 1934 McCormick decided that English was too complicated and ordered his minions to turn the Tribune into an orthographic experiment, changing "island" to "iland" and "freight" to "frate" This silliness persisted until 1975. And the last time I looked, the Tribune still flew the American flag that the Colonel had first hoisted atop its front page.

But today the Trib is as colorless as it was once colorful and so insipidly mediocre that it is hard to imagine the influence it once wielded in the country. Only a few cosmetic relics remain of the paper's quirky past. For instance, the Tribune's otherwise staid metro section still goes by the name of Chicagoland. In the Colonel's day, this denoted more than a city and its suburbs; it was a vast inland empire that included parts of Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana and held 10 percent of the country's population prior to World War II.

Chicagoland was the heartland, a vast citadel of conservatism and nativism, a safe haven for American virtue and democracy under attack from the decadent denizens of both coasts, but particularly the effete elite and teeming masses of the East. "The very sight of the New York crowd antagonizes the visitor who has come into New York from his farm or small town on the Western plains," a Tribune correspondent reported in 1944 from Gotham -- which the Colonel referred to as a foreign bureau. "These frizzy heads, these broad, brutish cheekbones, these furtive, piggy eyes, these slacken mouths -- the whole `muffinfaced race' which he sees in the New York subway -- how different from the well-marked features of his neighbors back in Iowa or Kansas."

McCormick once proposed a sort of Maginot line running from Albany to Atlanta and along the Rockies that would have ceded, without much sacrifice, both coasts to attacking enemies. And enemies were something about which the Colonel knew plenty. Auto tycoons and politicians sued him for libel. But for pure vitriol no feud held a candle to the enmity between McCormick and his old Groton classmate Franklin Roosevelt. After the Trib slipped a scoop about the smashing U.S. victory at Midway past the military censors, FDR wanted to send in the Marines to occupy the Tower; the president was livid that McCormick's enterprising correspondent obliquely revealed one of the war's biggest secrets -- that the U.S. had broken the Japanese code. FDR even considered charging the Colonel with treason, a capital offense. Some publishers might be cowed by such threats, but McCormick used the occasion to run a series of articles attacking a decade of White House vindictiveness toward the Trib. "McCormick needed enemies," Richard Norton Smith writes, "the way most men need friends."

The Colonel has also long needed a biographer as skillful as Smith, who has done fine books on Republicans as different as Herbert Hoover and Tom Dewey, crafted speeches for Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole, and headed important collections of GOP documents at the Hoover Library and the Eisenhower Center. Currently Smith is the director of the Gerald Ford Library. (One can only hope that a 600-page biography of the man from Michigan is not in the offing.)

Given this background, Smith could have easily placed McCormick within the currents of American conservatism, showing how the Colonel's isolationism and enmity toward the emerging New Deal welfare state reflected a deeply divisive battle over the kind of nation that the United States was to become. But Smith, as is his right, chose to treat McCormick as sui generis, concentrating on his outsized character and outrageous antics. He has dug up some new material and does an entertaining job describing the McCormick-Roosevelt feud, but the book doesn't quite live up to its press kit's billing as "a sweeping revisionist account of the New Deal." Instead we get a sympathetic, anecdote-crammed biography of a newspaper titan from an age when newspapers actually reflected their communities and not some bean counter's monomania with rising quarterly profits. When a big department store owner wanted to water down a story, McCormick barked: "Keep the story and throw out the advertising." We also get a rather sad portrait of a man at war with much of the 20th century.

Robert R. McCormick was born in 1880, the second son of Robert S. McCormick, whose uncle invented the reaper and whose own career as a dilettante diplomat took a backseat to his more serious pursuit of alcohol; and Kate Medill, the insufferable daughter of a newspaper dynasty, a woman so sparing with her love that she had to bribe her son to visit her. Lovestarved McCormick later came to wed (twice) older divorcees without children who might compete with him for affection.

Young McCormick, called Bertie, went to a British boarding school, where he fell in love with English tweeds and cricket -- and, perversely, developed a lifelong Anglophobia. He was convinced, for example, that returning Rhodes scholars would serve as British spies. Later at Groton, McCormick was the only boy from west of the Hudson, a social stigma that fueled a strong antipathy toward the Eastern seaboard. Four years at Yale followed, but McCormick's real coming of age took place in World War I, where he earned the military honorific that preceded his name for the rest of his life. Paradoxically, the war was both the last exercise of U.S. force that McCormick approved of and the kind of formative experience that is rare for a man in his late thirties. The Colonel's martial obsession soon showed itself in everything from hand-grenade fishing to his bullet-proof, khaki-colored Rolls Royce.

McCormick was just as belligerent in running the family business, where his 24th-floor suite in the Tribune Tower could pass as a plush bunker, protected by armed guards and stocked with both an axe and a machine gun within easy reach. (During the Cold War, McCormick would transform the Tower into the world's largest fallout shelter.) McCormick's orders were never questioned. He once dispatched ace foreign correspondent William Shirer to fetch a pair of binoculars that he had left in a barn in France nine years earlier. Having paid what he thought was too much for rabbit, McCormick ordered the business section to start running quotes on hare prices, which the staff dutifully invented. The paper's extensive foreign staff was expected to loot great buildings around the world so chunks of the Parthenon and St. Peter's could be imbedded in the Tower wall.

For a newspaperman, McCormick was not particularly scrupulous about facts. He lied about his wife's age on her death certificate and shaved even more years off her tombstone. He claimed to have started the ROTC program, introduced machine guns to the army, and to have been the first officer to take to the air to observe artillery fire. He forgot to mention, carped one critic, that he also put salt into the oceans, and taught birds to fly and babies to say goo-goo.

The Colonel also had a self-appointed mission to save the free enterprise system from misguided liberals like Herbert Hoover. When FDR entered the White House, McCormick sent his reportorial troops into action to discredit the New Deal and massed his editorial artillery at the president. "Roosevelt is a Communist," he declared. During the weeks leading up to the 1936 election, Trib operators answered the phone with an announcement about the number of days left to save the country. On the morning after the president's landslide, FDR's supporters pelted the Trib Tower with bricks.

Even after the German invasion of Poland, a Trib cartoonist was still depicting FDR as the equal of Hitler and Stalin. Roosevelt returned the compliment, labeling the Chicago, New York, and Washington papers owned by the Colonel and his relatives the McCormick-Patterson Axis. When Roosevelt died, McCormick handed out $10 bills to elevator operators and pressmen. "There's no one I'd rather fly a flag at half-staff for," he said.

The Colonel's days, however, were numbered as well. The Tribune's daily circulation peaked at more than 1 million in 1946. But the world had changed and McCormick was left behind, sputtering venom at anything that moved. The burgeoning national security state, Smith notes, was no more congenial to him than the welfare state: Both were big-government solutions worse than the ills of either economic dislocation or world communism. Not even a few good years of McCarthyism, which the Tribune assisted as best it could, were able to change things. As Smith puts it:

Outlasting the era of personal journalism, he

lingered on to see television begin to homogenize

America and destroy the regional loyalties on which

the Tribune had built its power. Marooned in the

second half of the 20th century, he spent his final

years in a harrowing re-enactment of Citizen Kane,

in erstwhile urban reformer, thwarted in politics and

frustrated in love, irreconcilably alienated from the

political party that had been synonymous with

three generations of his family. With his newspaper

in decline and his personal life in a shambles, the

aging mogul stumbled from one disaster to the next.

McCormick died in 1955. He was buried in his World War I uniform in an over-sized coffin that he had purchased years earlier out of fear that his 6'47" frame wouldn't fit into an off-the-rack casket. It fit better than the century.
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Author:Ybarra, Michael J.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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