The Scorpion on the Potomac: Navigating Drew Pearson’s Washington

The Scorpion on the Potomac: Navigating Drew Pearson’s Washington

Donald A. Ritchie’s The Columnist: Leaks, Lies, and Libel in Drew Pearson’s Washington offers a probing look at one of the most controversial journalists to ever stalk the halls of power.

I first became aware of [Pearson’s] “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column when I attended graduate school at the University of Maryland in 1967 and began reading the Washington Post. None of the papers I grew up reading in New York City had carried it. I followed the column during Drew Pearson’s last two years, until I was drafted – unexpectedly into the Marine Corps – three months before he died. When I returned to graduate school in 1971, Jack Anderson had charge of the column, which I followed compulsively through Watergate…

In other words, Pearson entered Ritchie’s consciousness as an aging legend most of whose achievements—for better or worse—were behind him, and just before some admirers were beginning to hail him as founding father of the anonymously-sourced, rumor-driven, take-no-prisoners genre of investigative reporting that came into full flower with Watergate.

Although indelibly linked to Pearson in public memory, the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” was almost certainly the brainchild of another rising young journalist, Robert Allen. A short, ginger-haired Kentuckian, Bob Allen was everything that Drew Pearson was not, and vice versa. Born a year after Pearson in 1900, Allen had lied about his age to join the U.S. Cavalry, serving on the Mexican border and then in France in World War I after America joined the Allies. Unlike Pearson, Allen’s journalistic ethics were not selective. He despised liars, frauds, and charlatans of every stripe, foreign and domestic, Left or Right. He never played favorites. As Washington correspondent for the sedate Christian Science Monitor, Allen’s opportunities as a nonpartisan muckraker were severely constrained, so he began to write (anonymously) witty, caustic Washington profile pieces for H.L. Mencken’s sophisticated and thoroughly irreverent magazine, The American Mercury. Allen’s profiles were so well received that Mencken urged him to expand them into a book. One of the leading “cutting edge” publishers of the day, Horace Liveright and Company, bought the idea but suggested that Allen acquire a coauthor who could contribute some trivial gossip content to give the book more commercial appeal. Allen recruited Pearson, by then the State Department correspondent for the well-regarded Baltimore Sun, to handle the rumor mill material. Washington Merry-Go-Round sold so well and garnered such good reviews the two men used the same title to launch a new syndicated column.

It was a partnership, but there is no question that, at the outset, Allen was the senior partner. As Allen would tell an interviewer many years later, “I originated and conceived the idea of the Washington Merry-Go-Round book from which the column grew, and I conceived that idea, too … I wrote about 60–65 percent of the first book.” Throughout the 1930s, the column was a great success with little change to the pecking order.

All that changed after Pearl Harbor. According to his New York Times obituary, Allen “ended his partnership with Drew Pearson in 1942, when he rejoined the army.” He served with distinction, working in military intelligence and seeing combat with General George Patton’s Third Army. In some of the last heavy fighting in the European theater, Colonel (as he then was) Robert S. Allen lost his right arm during the Third Army’s push into Germany. Meanwhile, Pearson was strengthening his foothold as a columnist in Washington, sitting out World War II as he had World War I. By the time his erstwhile partner returned to town, “The Washington Merry-Go-Round” had irreversibly morphed into a vehicle by, of, and for Pearson.

Their friendship was never quite the same again, and would end in total estrangement. As a fellow member of the National Press Club, I had occasional contacts with “Colonel Allen,” as everyone then called him, in his later years. (Here I feel obliged to note that Ritchie, whose grasp of details is generally pretty firm, seems to have trouble distinguishing between the National Press Club and the National Press Building, referring to Colonel Allen as occupying an office in “the National Press Club.” While the old gentleman spent a fair amount of leisure time on the Press Club premises on the 13th floor of the National Press Building, his office was in the building, not in the club itself.)

The colonel could be brusque and brutally honest, but he never oozed the faux bonhomie of his erstwhile partner. And he was respected by all who knew him, which was certainly not the case with his more famous alter ego. After losing his devoted wife in 1979, he had to retire from journalism due to terminal cancer two years later. Allen spent his last hours in the Georgetown home that he and his wife had shared for so many years. After putting what remained of his affairs in order, he loaded his shotgun and ended what had been a long and honorable life. He outlived Pearson by more than a decade.

COLUMNS ASIDE, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, television was still in its infancy and the only truly national live medium was radio. Elmer Davis, Henry J. Taylor, Fulton Lewis Jr., Gabriel Heater, Lowell Thomas, and Walter Winchell all had their mass audiences for daily or weekly broadcasts. Each man had his distinctive delivery style, carefully honed since it was voice and voice alone that bonded these early electronic pundits with their audience of invisible ears.

Pearson’s radio voice was unforgettable—confident to the point of smugness, occasionally accompanied by a slightly smarmy chuckle as he laughed at one of his own jokes while dispensing his distinctive brand of exposés, innuendos, and “predictions of things to come” to his listeners. Most of the accurate “predictions” were of things that had already happened or already been decided on, passed on to Pearson by his vast network of informants. Vapid stuff for the most part, it still contributed to the columnist’s image as all-knowing and all-seeing in the minds of the folks back home. One Pearson “exclusive” informed the great American public that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin slept in his underwear, the ultimate in undercover journalism.

Perhaps the most theatrical moment in Pearson’s career took place out of print and off-mike. Involving two Quakers and one drunken Irishman, it just might have ended in Pearson’s death if the second Quaker hadn’t come to the rescue of the first one. 

It happened on the evening of December 12, 1950, at a fashionable dinner party in the Sulgrave Club, a Dupont Circle landmark and society mecca. The Irish lush was Senator Joe McCarthy, the first Quaker was Drew Pearson, and the second Quaker was a newly-minted U.S. senator (and former congressman) from California named Richard Milhous Nixon.

The mischievous hostess had decided to seat Joe McCarthy and his arch-nemesis, Drew Pearson, at the same table. The results were unedifying but predictable. Pearson and McCarthy exchanged escalating insults. Then, as recounted by Nixon biographer Roger Morris,

Joe McCarthy lunged across to grab and gouge Pearson at the back of the neck, yelling, “You come out, we’ll settle this.” Innocently sitting between them, Congressman Charles Bennett rose to stop the assault. But the Florida politician, partially crippled by childhood polio, was upended in the scuffle and fell helplessly and heavily to the ballroom floor. As McCarthy turned to pick up the crumpled Bennett, an obviously shaken Pearson quickly walked away. The incident seemed over.

But the real fun was just beginning. Dinner guests, including Nixon, “watched with fascination as McCarthy strode out after Pearson, catching [him] … in the cloakroom.”

“Well, Drew,” the senator said, clapping him roughly on the back, “a pleasant evening, wasn’t it?” The journalist nervously thrust into his jacket for the coat check. “Don’t you reach into your pocket like that,” McCarthy said dramatically, grabbing Pearson’s arms, kneeing him twice in the groin … Now, as the columnist bent over in pain, he gasped, “When are they going to put you into the booby hatch?” At that, McCarthy slapped him back and forth, “movie-villain fashion,” said one account.

The slapping continued and Pearson was knocked to the floor when the Angel of Mercy entered the cloakroom in the unlikely form of Nixon. “Let a Quaker stop this fight,” Nixon said in a loud voice and then, more softly, “Let’s go Joe.” But McCarthy was having none of it. “I won’t turn my back on the son of a bitch. He’s got to go first.”

After Pearson limped out of the room, Morris reports, Nixon walked McCarthy out of the club and the two of them spent the next half hour “trying to find the parking place Joe was seemingly too drunk or agitated to remember.” In subsequent accounts to friends, Nixon would say that he’d never seen anybody slapped so hard before and that, “If I hadn’t pulled McCarthy away, he might have killed Pearson.”

All of which suggests that in Washington, as elsewhere, good deeds seldom go unpunished.

RITCHIE POINTS to the fact that, over a span of forty years, Pearson succeeded in exposing the occasional Congressional grafter, grifter, and petty cheat. He prided himself on sinking the political careers of legislative ciphers like Ernest Bramblett, Parnell Thomas, Adam Clayton Powell, Andrew May, and Rob E. Jones—some of whom ended up in jail while others were simply driven from office and into even greater obscurity. Fine and dandy as far as it goes, but not much to write home about and scarcely a political game-changer one way or the other. Richie also makes much of Pearson’s opposition to McCarthy, which was genuine enough. After a brief political flirtation when Pearson used McCarthy as a source, he was, indeed, an outspoken foe of the Wisconsin demagogue. But this may have been a case of Pearson doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Although a fierce hawk in his opposition to European fascism, Pearson seems to have been blind to both the monumental evil of communism and the repressive threat it represented to a vulnerable postwar Europe.