Charles R. McDowell, columnist and 'Washington Week in Review' panelist, dies at 84

"I think they were looking for a designated provincial," Charles R. McDowell often joked about his presence on the PBS program "Washington Week in Review." Mr. McDowell died Nov. 5 in Virginia Beach at age 84. (1996 photo by Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 9:50 PM

Charles R. McDowell, 84, a syndicated columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who became better known as a longtime panelist on the PBS current events program "Washington Week in Review," died Nov. 5 in Virginia Beach. The Times-Dispatch reported that he had dementia and died after a stroke.

Mr. McDowell was a mainstay of the Richmond newspaper for almost 50 years and became a columnist in 1954. He covered politics and everyday life with a folksy, humorous charm that won him many admirers.

Charlie McDowell, as he was often called, joined the panel of "Washington Week in Review" in 1978 and stood out with his rumpled appearance and warm Southern drawl.

"I think they were looking for a designated provincial," he often joked about his presence on the program, whose longtime host Paul Duke died in 2005.

His fellow panelists - all newspaper journalists - often included Peter Lisagor, Haynes Johnson and Jack Nelson. Mr. McDowell said that their high-minded discussions sometimes soared over his head and that he seemed to have wandered into a talk about "Whither Batavia?"

In fact, Mr. McDowell had covered high-level politics since coming to Washington in the 1960s and had written a well-received book about the 1964 presidential election, "Campaign Fever." He was a longtime confidant of congressmen and presidential aspirants, and he wore his insider knowledge of Washington's political scene lightly.

"What protects you and makes you able to be fairly natural is that you aren't a television person," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987, as "Week in Review" reached its 20th year on the air. "What you say to yourself is, 'I'm just a newspaper reporter.' "

Nonetheless, he became a steady presence on PBS, and in the 1980s, he wrote and narrated programs on the Watergate hearings and the history of Richmond.

His resonant voice was also heard in Ken Burns's monumental PBS series "The Civil War" in 1990 as he read the letters of a Confederate soldier. Mr. McDowell also did voice-overs for Burns's 1994 series on the history of baseball.

As a columnist, Mr. McDowell wrote primarily about national politics, but he also touched on sports, history, popular culture and nature. His often whimsical columns sometimes featured a series of characters, including Mr. McDowell's fictional Aunt Gertrude, a neighbor called Mr. Bumbleton and Alfred, the Capitol Squirrel.

He published two collections of columns over the years.

Mr. McDowell retired from "Washington Week" in 1996 and gave up his column two years later.

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