With a deep breath and a stirring delivery, James J. Kilpatrick poked at Martin Agronsky's legend: "At Gettysburg the cannons roared, he heard the bugle's call/And from a fearful vantage point, Agronsky saw it all."
Saw it all, reported it all, dissected it all and, for some 18 years, Agronsky chewed over it all once a week with a group of distinguished, and distinctive, journalists on the weekly forum "Agronsky & Company." Maybe he doesn't go back as far as the Crimean and Civil wars, as Kilpatrick's ode insisted, but Agronsky, a broadcast journalist for nearly 50 years, is certainly an institution. He signed up with NBC in Geneva in April 1940 and has worked for ABC, CBS and PBS, a rare accomplishment.
Last night the cast of what Agronsky has aptly called his "bull session" changed locale from the high-tech set of Channel 9 to the plush formality of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to say goodbye to their host, who will be leaving the show at the end of the year. The customary overhead studio lights were replaced by a lavish tapestry of cabbage roses and fringe, but the rigorous commentary didn't change. When "Company" regular Carl Rowan first met Agronsky, he recalled, the journalist was wearing suede shoes. "Now Lyndon Johnson had told me, 'Stay away from guys who wear shoes that grow hair.' " Rowan sought out a second opinion and was told it wasn't the hair but what was under it that counts. "I looked at Martin and thought he had to have the smartest two feet in Washington."
The guests, standing in a semicircle pattern in front of the stage, laughed and added their own Agronsky lore. "The first year I was here, the networks were after Mr. Rayburn to get him to do an interview," said House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.). "He didn't want to do it for a couple of reasons. The lights hurt his eyes and he considered interviewers rude. But he told them he would do the interview if it was Agronsky." Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) elicited a promise from Agronsky to send the senator a picture of them together at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Florida, where John Kennedy was nominated for president. "Everybody who is in public life watches Agronsky," said Kennedy.
Hugh Sidey, a panelist on the show since 1970, said, "I think he is one of the 10 best-known journalists in this town. He goes back decades, generations. He has added years to the lives of these old ladies who watch by giving them shock therapy every week." The party was a tribute, not only from the program regulars, who also include Elizabeth Drew and Strobe Talbott, but also from Agronsky's colleagues in the press corps. Among the guests were ABC's David Brinkley, columnist Art Buchwald, producer Nancy Dickerson, PBS'Paul Duke, PBS' Roger Mudd, Los Angeles Times bureau chief Jack Nelson, Washington Journalism Review's Bill Monroe, USA Today's Barbara Reynolds, commentator Eric Sevareid, the Washington Times' Morris Siegel and WUSA anchor Gordon Peterson, who will replace Agronsky on the show and inaugurate a new title: "Inside Washington."
Other guests included CIA Director William Webster, Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and John Warner (R-Va.), Reps. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.), Judge Barrington Parker, surgeon LaSalle Leffall Jr., former senator George McGovern, American University President Richard Berendzen, businessman John Hechinger, WETA President Ward Chamberlin and hairdresser Robin Weir. "There are only two people I go to -- Nancy Reagan and Martin. He gets a cut and because he doesn't have much hair, he wants a discount," said Weir.
After each of his colleagues had abandoned the customary seated position to jab and applaud him, Agronsky said he had thought of two ways to respond.
"One was from Adlai Stevenson, who said, 'Flattery is good for you if you don't inhale,' or Harry Truman, who said, 'If you want a friend in Washington, buy yourself a dog.' " Agronsky decided on a sentiment from T.S. Eliot. " 'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,' he began. "I have had times of desperation, but fortunately I have never had to be quiet." After saying he hoped the show under Peterson would get "even better," and accepting a jewelry box inscribed with the panelists' signatures, Agronsky said he wasn't going to miss the show.
"It is not a bad idea to leave at the top ... 'Agronsky & Company' has been a show I've been proud to do. It has occasionally provided more light than confusion ... If I would miss it I would keep on doing it. I don't want to be obligated to be here and there. No, I am not going to miss it."
On the stage the colleague who had the last word -- the signature sign-off of the show -- was Kilpatrick, who said: "For 18 years the show drew fans/ Why was it widely prized?/ Wiser than McLaughlin,/ and so much more civilized." Then he gave a slow military-style salute to Agronsky.