James H. McCartney, columnist on international affairs, dies at 85

May 7, 2011

James H. McCartney, a Washington correspondent and columnist who specialized in foreign affairs and defense policy for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, died May 6 at his home in Holmes Beach, Fla. He was 85 and had cancer.

In his 33 years of reporting from Washington, Mr. McCartney wrote extensively about nuclear weapons policy, the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Vietnam War. He also reported on national politics and covered every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.

In reporting from more than 30 countries, Mr. McCartney covered the Paris Peace Talks from 1968 to 1973, the historic 1977 speech by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat before the Israeli parliament and the 1986 Reykjavik summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mr. McCartney often said his interest in issues of war and peace derived in part from his experiences as a front-line infantryman in France and Germany during World War II. He was wounded in combat shortly before the end of the war.

Soon after he arrived in Washington in 1959 as a reporter for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, Mr. McCartney became one of the first journalists to focus on the rise of what Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex.”

After joining Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau in 1968, Mr. McCartney specialized in U.S. foreign policy, with an emphasis on the Defense Department, arms industry and arms control negotiations. His work appeared in 31 newspapers nationwide.

At news briefings, Mr. McCartney developed a reputation for relentless questioning.

“You knew, if you were a government spokesman, that you’d better have it straight and you’d better have the facts, because he’d keeping coming at you,” former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter said in an interview. “He was not there to enhance the government. He was there to inform the people. I didn’t know anyone I respected more than Jim.”

James Harold McCartney was born July 20, 1925, in St. Paul, Minn, and grew up in Detroit and East Lansing, Mich. After his Army service during World War II, he was editor of the college newspaper at Michigan State University, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1949.

He then worked for the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune and obtained a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He was a reporter and editor at the Chicago Daily News before working at the paper’s Washington bureau from 1959 to 1965. He returned to Chicago as city editor of the Daily News until 1968.

Mr. McCartney received a Neiman fellowship to Harvard University in the 1960s and in 1989 received the Edward Weintal Prize for Diplomatic Reporting from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He was a past president of the Gridiron Club, where he skewered the country’s political elite at annual dinners and was celebrated for his animated performances in satirical skits.

Mr. McCartney retired as a reporter in 1990 but continued writing his column for Knight Ridder until 1995. He lived in the District until 1998 and was an adjunct professor at Georgetown for 13 years. In recent years, he wrote a column for the Bradenton Herald in Florida.

He enjoyed golf, travel and baseball, and sometimes played chess on international reporting trips with former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

His marriage to Jule Graham McCartney ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 26 years, Molly Sinclair McCartney, a former Washington Post reporter, of Holmes Beach; two children from his first marriage, Washington Post Metro columnist Robert McCartney of Bethesda and Sharon Allexsaht of Minneapolis; a stepdaughter, Kathleen Muckleroy of Baytown, Tex.; a twin sister, Kathryn Boucher of East Lansing, Mich.; and four grandchildren.

— From staff reports

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