Richard L. Strout, who died Aug. 19 at age 92, wrote the "TRB" column in The New Republic (from which this column derives) for 40 years: 1943 to 1983. By the end of that time, he had developed an undeserved reputation for a sort of harmless, twinkly eyed, grandfatherly saintliness. That is the fate of anyone who lasts long enough in journalism. Few lasted longer than Dick Strout, who started in Washington covering the Harding administration and lived to rue Ronald Reagan.
To tell the truth, he did succumb just a bit to the temptation to be cuddly and the pleasures of being an exhibit in the Museum of Lost Liberalism. Who wouldn't? What could be nicer than having Bill Moyers doe-eyed and respectful at your feet, lapping up your stories of FDR? And Dick Strout fit the part so well: tall and Lincolnesque in bearing, yet with a full white mustache and eyebrows for that nice, fuzzy mellowing effect.
(Not least among the assets this column lost when Strout retired was the gift of physical description. He was especially good on hair, or the lack thereof. Hubert Humphrey: "His black hair drawn like a wig over his bald, bulging forehead makes him look like an actor playing 'The Mikado.' " Willy Brandt's "scalp lock is still a peninsula but it is in more danger of encirclement than West Berlin." Everett Dirksen's "famous locks ... have been compared to the tangled kelp in the Sargasso Sea.")
I prefer to remember a crustier Dick Strout. When I took over "TRB" from him seven years ago, I asked whether he had any words of wisdom. He eyed me solemnly and pronounced: "Always follow Strout's Law." Strout's Law? I steeled myself for, "Never betray liberalism." Or perhaps, "Accuracy above all." With suitable reverence, I asked, "What is Strout's Law, Mr. Strout?" He said, "Strout's law: sell every piece three times. It's the only way to make a living in this business."
Strout generally slipped his manuscript under the front door of our office building late at night. Sometimes he would pop by for a visit, usually in the summer and on some fabricated mission. His real goal was a sit-down and some air conditioning on his way to the bus from his office at the Christian Science Monitor. (Fair enough for a man in his 80s.) One afternoon he knocked on my door and said, "Mind if I come in, young fella?" (I was never certain he knew my name.) He sat down, caught his breath, then said, "Tell me, young fella, how's your book coming along?"
"Gosh, Dick, I'm not writing a book."
"Oh really? Well, you know, anytime I need something to say to a young journalist, I always say, 'How's your book coming along?' This is the first time I've ever been caught out."
Strout was admirably free of the journalist's vain longing for hard covers. His only two books were a short memoir of the Model T, co-authored with E. B. White, and a collection of his columns published in 1979. His dominating obsession was on display in his first column in 1943, where he warned of the dangers of a "midterm deadlock" after the next election. He meant a situation in which the president's party would not control Congress. In the years since, that seems to have become our permanent condition. Strout never tired of proclaiming the superiority of a parliamentary system of government, immune to that sort of paralysis.
That would have been his sermon this summer, observing the budget fiasco. In these days of Republican presidents, it is tempting for a liberal to think that governmental paralysis is no bad thing. Strout preached the New Deal lesson that strong government requires a president who can act decisively -- and (the corollary) can be held responsible for the government's actions or lack thereof.
Strout's No. 2 obsession was gun control. "Americans love to grovel," he wrote after Bobby Kennedy was shot. "Think of all the fat little editorial writers sitting down at their typewriters and putting themselves in a properly melancholy mood and then dashing off an inspired article on 'the shame of America,' " rather than crusading for the one step that might have prevented that shame.
A third obsession of Strout's later years, which this column no longer promotes, was the perils of immigration. Strout believed that America's freedoms were nurtured and could only survive in a culture of shared language, middle-class prosperity and European values. He worried that a flood of foreign poor would distract from America's special burden of conscience, blacks. And he believed an increased population threatened the environment.
Strout's TRB column adopted an autumnal air early on. In 1946: "This morose reporter ... started out a gay and carefree lad 20 years ago but ... covering ... the Senate since then has dried his inner juices of geniality like the blight of those unfortunate Manhattan trees that are bathed continually in another kind of exhaust miasma." He was comparing Roosevelt to Coolidge long before he got around to comparing Kennedy to Roosevelt or Carter to Kennedy. The comparisons got less flattering as the decades passed. But for all his disappointments over the nation's failure to do as he advised, the juices of geniality flowed until the end.