Why Eugene Meyer was given the nickname "Butch" soon after he bought The Washington Post just 50 years ago is not on record nor easily explicable. Less than almost any man did he display what the appellation suggests: toughness, muscle-flexing, demonstrations of machismo.
To be sure, he was outgoing and easy in casual dealings with the staff; his demeanor invited friendly relationship. But there was also a line, invisible but nonetheless clear, against undue intimacy (even when he once briefly joined an after-hours crap game with the printers). He knew and was amused that he was known in the shop as Butch, but no one would have been so gauche as to use it to the face of a gentleman whose innate reserve was so evident.
It was that balance between good cheer and restraint and his careful judgment about what his own functions as publisher should be that impressed me most in my first years on The Post. When he appeared in the newsroom, usually at night and often in evening dress, and showed the liveliest interest in the events of the day, he never was so foolish as to try to direct the editors and writers in their work, decide on coverage or fiddle with the copy. In the 20 years I knew him, I cannot recall one occasion when by even so much as a hint did he attempt to put a slant on, or change the tone of, or tinker with the contents of a news story.
The restraint was not a matter of indifference but of policy. His procedure was to employ the person he concluded was the right one for every decision-making job on the paper, give him his head, fire him if he failed and keep replacing him until he got the right fellow. If, in that process, as he conceded, he "made every mistake in the book," it was nevertheless the one that brought to The Post such figures as Herbert Elliston as editor, Ferdinand Kuhn as diplomatic correspondent, Herblock and--one of the our century's most eloquent champions of civil liberties and civil rights--Alan Barth.
How did it happen that Butch Meyer, a tyro, who didn't know type lice from linotype, succeeded?
The answer, I am convinced, was that he never set a terminal point on the money he proposed to spend to achieve success. Other new publishers said to themselves, or publicly, "I'll put a million--or two million, ten million--into the venture; if it doesn't pan out, t'hell with it."
Not Eugene Meyer. He put in his money--an average, it is believed, of a million dollars a year from 1933, tapering off until the turnaround wth the purchase of the Times-Herald in 1954--because he had the courage of his own conviction: that there was a place for an outspoken, nonpartisan newspaper in this capital and that it could be viable.
And self-supporting it ultimately had to be. He certainly had no need for additional income flowing into his coffers, but he knew that being in the black was the outward and visible symbol of inward and spiritual tidiness. He lived long enough to see that guarantee of the future assured.
His judgments on trifles could be wrong, but never on big issues. An internationalist by instinct and experience, he understood what America's role must be in the Second World War (and fired an editor who did not). He pushed the paper in roaring support of the Marshall Plan almost before the proposal had left the lips of the secretary of state at Harvard.
On personalities or on small affairs he could be perverse. No one could ever talk him out of the delusion that Jean Monet had tried to subvert him with a Christmas gift of a case of Monet cognac, and he could never understand why Roosevelt had failed to keep him--a lifetime dedicated Republican--in high office in the New Deal.
He could wield a sharp tongue whether the person whom he sliced up deserved it or not. At a large luncheon gathering, I remember, he observed one of Washington's most prominent businessmen suddenly scurrying from the room. To his own table companion Butch observed, "The speed of his departure is matched only by the shadiness of the deal he has just been called on to tend to."
Like almost every other journalist in town--and a large proportion of top non-congressional officials--he knew that Bernard M. Baruch was a self-aggrandizing phony, but, also like those other journalists and officials, never said so too loudly. Butch had better reason than most to know the facts, for they had worked together so long, first in Wall Street, then on materials procurement in World War I.
Butch claimed that it was he who advised a jittery, indecisive Baruch the day before he was to face an interrogation on the evils of Wall Street from a hostile congressional committee, how to identify himself when asked the first question on what was his profession.
"Say you're a speculator," Butch advised. Baruch did so. The astonishing candor and sheer brassiness went down well, as Meyer knew they would, and helped make a national name for the incipient "Elder Statesman."
To a discreet audience, Butch Meyer was
fond of telling how in their early days of in vestment banking he and Baruch had under written a securities issue which, on the morn ing it was offered, looked like a disaster. By 11
a.m. Baruch was in Meyer's office shaking and
wringing his hands. Bidding for the shares was
well below the asking price.
"Have someone from your office or mine an nounce from the steps of the sub-Treasury in
Wall Street that the offering price will go up
by two points at 12 noon," he claims to have
told his frightened co-financier. The an nouncement was made and the issue was
promptly sold out.
Envy may have played a part in some of his
stories about Baruch and other prominent fig ures, but pomposity genuinely irritated him,
and he took pleasure in deflating it. The often
retold account of one such feat particularly de lighted Post staffers. When he was still head of
General Motors, Charles E. "Engine Charlie"
Wilson was dining with Meyer in Washington
and boasting of the vast technical accomplish ments of his great auto empire.
"Can you believe it, 'Gene," he said, "once a
year during one short period we change more
than 4,000 parts to make a new model car."
"Interesting," replied the publisher of The
Washington Post. "We do that every night."
Along with Baruch and Wilson, Nature had
not short-changed Butch Meyer either in
handing out generous quotas of vanity. But I,
never found his abundant supply offensive.
Rather I thought it pleasant and amusing. It
was so open, so uncomplicated and so joyous that one could not help sharing his pleasure when his worth was publicly recognized. He had done well with his life and works, not for his own glorification but to serve his country and community. The evidence, in this city alone, needs no recapitulation here.
I have one example of his constructive generosity, however, that has never been reported. In 1946 or 1947, I came to him to report that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was about to fold for lack of money and that the loss to society and scholarship would be enormous. He called for a bit more justification--not much--and then asked, "You are certain of its value?" I replied that I was.
He swiveled from his desk to a table behind him, fetched out a checkbook and wrote a draft for $5,000. The magazine survives today, a major and influential organ, much respected now as then. I am not sure that anyone now on its staff knows that Eugene Meyer saved it.
The clearest and most shining example of Butch's greatness of spirit, clarity of judgment, and courage in his decisions came, for me, at the end of 1946. Just six months before, President Truman named him as the first president of the new World Bank. As a consequence and, I suspect, some years before the transfer was scheduled to take place, Butch Meyer was obliged to put the paper in the hands of his son-in-law, Philip Graham.
But the World Bank job did not work out. There was a savage internal power fight, and at 71 Butch was too old to fight it to a finish, and resigned instead.
Another man, I believe, would have thanked his son-in- law for his caretaker role and reclaimed his position as publisher. Meyer did no such thing. He returned instead as chairman of the board, where his financial advice and prowess proved indispensable, but he left to Phil Graham all the decisions proper to a publisher, without kibitzing or second-guessing him. Meyer was no Indian-giver.
The role of his wife, Agnes, was a less visible, but signal one.
In all the years when Butch Meyer could see no real way out of his dilemma, she encouraged him to persevere. She stood behind what he was trying to do and understood its importance, even in the face of multiple setbacks and many discouraging moments.
In fact, when he and Graham tried to buy the Times Herald in 1952 and failed--Col. McCormick stepped in at the last moment and took over his cousin's property, which contained some Tribune stock--she called from Mt. Kisco and suggested they throw in Crescent Place, the address of the family home in Washington.
Agnes Meyer wrote long pieces for the paper about education and social problems in the area, and was contantly doing battle in Congress and elsewhere in behalf of social welfare here and throughout the country.
Butch regarded all this with a mixture of pride and bemusement. They were both very strong personalities who, on occasion, clashed. But on the substantive issues, she supported him.
I close with what I think was Butch's most endearing wisecrack. The day he took possession of The Post he went to its then-miserable cafeteria for a cup of tea, only to discover that he had left his wallet elsewhere and had no change whatsoever in his pocket. He explained to the cashier that he could not pay.
"I haven't a dime to my name," he said. "I just bought a newspaper."