When Richard L. Strout visited the offices of the New Republic, which he did frequently during the years he wrote the weekly "TRB" column, his appearance always engendered a certain awe in the rest of us. In part this was a matter of pure physical presence. Mr. Strout was handsome, broad-shouldered and immensely tall -- closer to seven feet than six. His habit of stooping slightly, which owed more to politeness than to age, only added to the effect.
Mr. Strout, who died Sunday at 92, instructed us that being a journalist need not be incompatible with being a person of dignity. With his brush mustache and crisp, reedy voice, he seemed to have lost nothing of the jaunty spirit of the energetic reporter that he had set out to become in the 1920s -- and that he remained well into the '80s, which were his eighties as well.
But the real awe was prompted by his work. That was the main subject of the tribute reprinted below. It was written as an editorial for the April 18, 1983, issue of the New Republic, which also contained Mr. Strout's last "TRB" column.
Eventually the New Republic would recruit Michael Kinsley to take over "TRB." Mr. Strout approved of the choice. But as Mike Kinsley would be the first to agree, Mr. Strout could not be replaced. He could only be succeeded.
"Reporters write on water and the gaudy democratic show continues," Mr. Strout noted in that last "TRB" column. Until the end, he continued to delight in that gaudy show. But Dick Strout's colleagues didn't think he wrote on water. We thought he walked on it.
Richard L. Strout has been saying for years -- no, decades -- that one of these days he was going to up and quit writing TRB. It was kind of a seasonal thing. Every once in a while, usually in the wintertime, he would start talking about how there comes a time, and how it would be nice to be able to do some leisurely traveling, and how maybe we ought to start thinking about a successor. He always sounded a bit stiff and impatient when making these observations, and he always seemed relieved to change the subject, as he always quickly did, to some new depredation of the gun lobby, or the latest deadlock on Capitol Hill, or what the secretary of the treasury said at breakfast that day. The following Wednesday morning, the first person to enter our building would find, as usual, a fat Christian Science Monitor envelope on the lobby floor, with the New Republic scrawled on it in orange crayon. The envelope contained the week's column typed on a sturdy manual typewriter with corrections and deletions marked in thick black pencil. And by the time the cherry blossoms were in bloom the talk of retirement would have long been forgotten.
It took him six months to convince us that this time he meant it. Dick Strout likes his anniversaries, and last month two of his appeared, Zodiac-like, in fateful conjunction. March 8, 1983, was the 40th anniversary of his taking over the TRB column, and March 14, 1983, was his 85th birthday. He thought it would be nice to round things off here with the issue of March 15, but we prevailed on him to give us an extra month to get used to the idea that he wasn't kidding.
Mr. Strout's career spans most of the present century, and his memory, first- and second-hand, takes in the bulk of American history. His people are New England Yankees. "They were Protestants; they were homogeneous; they were farmers," he wrote in 1965. When he was a boy "the war" still meant the Civil War, and he came of age as a soldier in another war, the one that was supposed to end all wars. In 1919 he went to England, carrying a letter of introduction from one of his teachers at Harvard, Harold Laski, to the legendary editor of the Manchester Guardian, C.P. Scott. Scott helped him get his first job in journalism, on the Sheffield Independent. Two years later he was back in the United States, writing briefly for the Boston Post and then for the Monitor, whose Washington bureau he joined in 1925. He has been there ever since -- always as a reporter, never as an executive or a free-floating thinker. He was a veteran correspondent by 1943, when Bruce Bliven asked him to take over the New Republic's anonymous Washington column.
The column had been appearing since 1925, written by a succession of capable reporters, including Frank R. Kent, Jonathan Mitchell and Kenneth Crawford. Aimed at an audience that regarded serious politics as something that was unlikely to occur in Washington, it was basically a weekly compendium of opinionated inside dope. Strout quickly turned it into something broader, and finer. The first sentence of his first column -- "I wonder how well the country understands the pessimism that broods over Washington these days?" -- has been widely quoted, as word of his departure began to leak out. But the end of that column gives a better idea of the vision he would bring to the job. "What the country craves is a moral tonic," he wrote. "Announcement of specific, idealistic, postwar aims, or some approach to it, would help Mr. Roosevelt in Congress; it would help the men in the factories; it might give the boys in the trenches a lot of help, too. Laugh if you want. But when a man dies, he wants to die for something important." That's Strout as TRB -- always conscious of the tension between the country's ideals and its actual state, yet always firmly rooted in the news, in what's going on right now.
You don't get out of Strout's church without hearing the sermon, but the hymns are lovely. Part of the pleasure of reading him has always been aesthetic. He writes beautifully. He looks and listens, and tells you what he has seen and heard in vivid, simple words. His prose can hold its own with that of his friend E.B. White (with whom he once wrote a book, "Farewell to the Model T," published in 1936). In his 20th anniversary column he indulged in a bit of self-criticism, deploring his "staccato literary style" -- the result, he thought, of trying "to cram too many ideas into 800 words, like the coats bulging in a closet at a cocktail party." That nice simile refutes him: He can't help writing well. In nearly every column, people come to life. A few samples, randomly culled: J. Edgar Hoover, "with a round, florid, bulldog face, strong jaw, and rather pop eyes"; Joe McCarthy, "lumpish and slump-shouldered"; McCarthy's ally William Jenner, "angry from the nipple on"; "elegant, ruddy-faced" Dean Acheson at a hearing, "his upper-class voice heard above the strident cameras"; Sam J. Ervin, "the new Democratic hero, whose tic sends his eyebrows up and down like awnings" -- this one 20 years before Watergate.
Mr. Strout is a reporter who does his own legwork, but he has provided his readers with more than just coverage. Week by week he has written the moral history of his time. He has a faith in reason tempered by an awareness of human frailty, a keen nose for cant and an unerring, almost unconscious instinct for justice. Looking back over his work, it is astonishing how seldom he has been taken in by faddish enthusiasms, how right he has been about the moral choices of his time: right about the imperatives of racial and economic justice, about McCarthyism, about Stalinism, about the character of the men and events he has witnessed. He is a patriot without bluster, as devoted to the first 10 amendments of the Constitution as he is critical of its original articles -- a favorite hobbyhorse. (He would like to break the machinery of government loose from the separation of powers, a notion that looks less cranky all the time.) He has the wisdom of his years without any of the cynicism that long exposure to the folkways of his city is supposed to impart. Firm in his convictions, sharp in his judgments, he is yet generous and respectful to those who disagree with him. Most impressive of all is the undimmed fire of his conscience, which moves in him not only to anger at folly, indifference or cruelty, but also to delight at courage or kindness, both of which he possesses in full measure. He has earned a break.
Hendrik Hertzberg is editor of the New Republic.