Journalist Dad to journalist son: Legacy of idealism and fun

Robert McCartney
Columnist June 18, 2011

This is my first Father’s Day without my dad, Jim McCartney. He passed away last month at age 85 after a blessedly brief contest with cancer.

Dad grew up in the Midwest and died in his home overlooking Tampa Bay, but he worked for most of his career as a Washington newspaper reporter and columnist.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Yes, I followed him into the business. When it comes to career choice, I claim no points for originality. (It wasn’t just him: My mother majored in journalism in college and worked as a reporter before becoming a librarian.)

So, as a Father’s Day tribute, I’m sharing memories of Dad as a role model for his journalist son. His legacy combined equal parts of high-minded purpose and mischievous fun.

As a foreign affairs and defense specialist for Knight Ridder, then the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, Dad excelled at needling Washington officials. He fired pointed questions during news conferences while radiating a toothy smile meant to suggest he meant no harm.

When I was growing up, my father always made a show of urging me to stay out of the family trade. With a rascally grin, he’d say: “Son, never go into journalism. Go into some honest profession instead.”

Of course he didn’t mean it. He loved journalism and believed it played an essential role in a democratic society. In fact, he believed in little else.

Dad certainly didn’t trust the government. As a mentor to younger reporters in the Knight Ridder bureau, he taught that the first rule of covering Washington was that the government often lies — and virtually always tries to hide the most important truths.

His mistrust of authority dated to his horrific time as a conscripted, 19-year-old infantryman in World War II in France and Germany. He found his superiors to be incompetent, recalling that they sent him out with only a single blanket. It proved inadequate in the frosty Vosges Mountains in the winter of 1944-45.

It also galled him that most officers led from safe spots in the rear. He dodged artillery fire virtually every day until a wound in his fanny landed him in a hospital bed in France.

When I asked Dad once how it felt to be part of “The Greatest Generation,” he chuckled, shook his head and said, “I don’t believe in any of that bull [manure].”

The experience also led to his longtime professional interest in diplomatic and military issues. His coverage often focused on the economic roots of war. Both his writings and our family dinner conversations featured extensive discussions of how the military-industrial complex encouraged warmongering and how America’s need for oil explained its policies in the Middle East.

The war eroded his religious faith and ended his high school thoughts of becoming a Protestant minister, but it didn’t extinguish his idealism. Like many journalists, Dad posed as a cynic but was deeply civic minded. He saw his job as telling the public what was really happening and holding authorities accountable.

In that spirit, Dad followed the example of his own father, a local insurance executive and a pillar of the community in East Lansing, Mich. My grandfather’s commitment to the public weal took the form of raising money for the Girl Scouts and the United Negro College Fund. My father’s took the form of relentlessly questioning spokesmen at the White House, State Department and Pentagon until they came clean about what the government was up to.

Dad’s mistrust of authority extended to his newsroom bosses. “Never put the truth in the lead [first paragraph]. It scares the editors, and they’ll change it,” he instructed, only half-joking.

For instance, if a politician was a lying, corrupt weasel, you couldn’t just say it outright at the top. Too provocative.

He claimed it was safe to put the truth in the second or third paragraph, because the editors never read that far.

Dad favored plain, concise prose. Expressing fatherly concern for my safety before I headed off to cover civil wars in Central America in the 1980s, he told me: “Son, you can’t file if you’re dead.”

My father’s example as a journalist impressed me in another important way: He showed it was possible to truly enjoy one’s occupation.

When I was in college, I remember talking with friends about our fathers’ careers. My friends said their dads — businessmen and engineers — mostly hated their jobs. I was surprised and said, “Really? Mine loves his work.”

My friends understood when I explained that he traveled the world on an expense account, was a witness to history and got to hang out with a pack of lively, well-informed, irreverent colleagues.

In his final days, he was comfortable and surrounded by loved ones. He was fully aware that he was about to pass away, and he accepted that with courage and equanimity. He was satisfied with the time he’d had. Just days before he died, I was at his bedside when Dad described his life by saying simply, “It’s been a great adventure.”

That was one truth he could put only at the end.

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