We had a breakfast the other morning to honor one of our own, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor named Richard L. Strout. It was an ordinary working day for him, as for us, except for Dick Strout it was the start of his 61st year on beat.
He was hired by the Monitor on June 13, 1921, and two years later drove his Model T down to Washington and began covering the administration of Warren G. Harding, the first of 11 presidents he has seen. He is a tall Yankee with a neatly trimmed moustache, straighter and slimmer than most of us a generation or two younger. He stays fit, he says, by steady work: 60 years for the Monitor; 38 years doubling in brass as the weekly columinist for The New Republic, writing under the non-disguise of TRB, an acronym with no meaning.
He may well be the best print journalist working in Washington. His claim to that title was probably strengthened when a colleague and competitor named Marquis W. Childs retired at the beginning of June, after 55 years as a reporter and columinist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Childs quit so he could write some more books, a decision Strout probably thinks he will get around to -- in due time.
As we sat with Strout the other morning, hearing him do capsule profiles of the presidents he and known and discourses on his favorite topics -- the dangers of the arms race and the folly of our political sweepstakes -- all of us, I suspect, were thinking of what such career can mean. Journalism is, in many respects, in public disrepute these days; the polls and everyday conversation tell us most of our readers disbelieve what they find in our copy and have meager confidence in our ability to get the story right.
Yet Strout and Childs are regarded with affection and trust and confidence, not only by colleagues in the business but by people about whom and for whom they have written.
What lessons can they teach us? One is the importance of steadiness. They did not flit. Sixty years on one paper in Strout's case; 55, for Childs. Most of it on one beat, the nation's capital. They learned the ground they were covering, and they let both their subjects and their readers know what to expect from them.
Today, too many of us move from beat to beat, from paper to paper, from network to network -- seeking novelty or fame.We sacrifice the knowledge and credibility of a Strout or a Childs in the process.
The second characteristic the two men have in common is their liveliness and their love of the human follies they have seen. They are the youngest old men in journalism. Childs was a connoisseur of gossip, carrying tidbits both ways across the Atlantic on his frequent trips, reveling in a colleague's rendition of some particularly implausible anecdote.
Strout speaks of the roguish Harding with more affection than any of the late, greater presidents he knew, still marveling at his dalliances among the galoshes in a White House closet, while the Secret Service stood guard.
But, at heart, both men are dead serious about their work. They have witnessed a lot of history, but they have read widely, avidly, to encompass more. They have the scholar's fetish for accuracy, for getting the names and numbers right, for checking their recollections against the reference books.
They care deeply about the fate of this country and this world -- and they do not disguise their concern. Childs in his valedictory column and Strout in two of his most recent New Republic essays wrote about the dangers of nuclear arms in the hands of those "fanatics, the ideologues," as Childs called them, "who have brought on one catastrophe after another in this blood century."
But they are -- as journalists must be in order to rise and write another day -- optimists. "If occasionally I have despaired over earthlings who seem bound to destroy our small plant," Childs wrote, "I have fallen back on the tough stuff of human nature and the ingenuity of mankind, which has survived despite all the plaugues, natural and man-made."
Finally, they have immense pride in their craft. "For all the 'new journalism' and the public's skepticism over what sometimes seems to be invention, it is a splendid trade, and there are admirable practitioners who serve the cause of intelligence and order in a turbulent world," Childs told his readers as he left.
Strout offered this advice to fellow journalists at the National Press Club a couple years ago: "I hope they will stay committed. I hope they will retain their curiosity -- their interest; yes, and at their heart a touch of anger. When the Adrenalin runs low, when the little flame of anger flickers out, I think it is time for the reporter to think about going into some more remunerative form of work."
Fortunately, Dick Strout and Mark Childs have not found that other form of work -- in all these years when they could have been looking. For us in this troubled, and vulnerable line of work, their example is important.