"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

A window into journalism gone by

Book Review

God Gave Me a Mulligan: A Journalist’s Life in War and Peace, by A. Robert Smith (Punster Press, 2012)

Northwest political watchers who go back to the 70s, or further, will recall the name of A. Robert Smith, who covered the region for nearly three decades from the viewpoint of Washington, D.C. His is a story of a specific time and place; it would not be easy to replicate now.

Smith was a World War II vet (the book’s title derives mainly from a close call he had in the Pacific) unsure about what he wanted to do afterward, professionally. He became interested in journalism, drove to Washington D.C. to work for a while as a copyboy in one of that city’s now long-deceased papers, and then decided he wanted to become a Washington correspondent – cover Congress, attend White House briefings, break stories through the executive agencies. He didn’t go for it the usual way, which would have involved spending many years working his way up at one of the papers. His route, instead, was to go to one of the regions of the country where few of the newspapers had D.C. coverage other than the wire service (mostly, that is, Associated Press). That brought him to the Northwest, where he sold editors in the region – mainly Washington and Oregon (the Oregonian and the Eugene Register Guard among them) but a few in Idaho too, and also in Alaska, for which he covered the arrival of statehood – the idea of coverage tailored for their readers.

That meant Smith had essentially no preparation at all for taking on a major and highly complex journalistic assignment. Seemed not to matter. Through the 50s and 60s, his bureau grew in size. By the mid-seventies, as newspapers were swept into groups and the first of many rounds of cost-cutting began, the bureau began to struggle, and in 1978 Smith left for an editing job at a Virginia newspaper.

Before then, though, there were lots of stories, and Smithy tells quite a few in this memoir. Some of the best have to do with Senator Wayne Morse, the cantankerous Oregon liberal who was the subject of Smith’s first book (Tiger in the Senate), which resulted in getting Smith banned from his Senate office for several years. (For the second time.) He throws in descriptions of many of the other Northwest figures, and presidents, he ran into along the way. There is, in all, the sense of a fair-minded guy who knew how to cover a partisan community in a decent and civil manner. Today’s Washington press corps could do worse than to take heed.

Smith’s bureau was eventually sold to Steve Forrester, whose family owned (and still does) several Oregon newspapers, and it continued on for some years. At present, though, there’s no counterpart; probably the idea of making a living covering the Northwest for newspapers, once a viable business, is no longer practical. So much the worse for the Northwest.

But it was done once, and well. Large portions of Mulligan are simply personal (a well-told human story), but Northwesterners will find plenty of interest here.

(A small quibble: If he ever mentioned anywhere what the “A” stood for, I missed it.)

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