James M. Perry, a political reporter who wrote engrossing books about the shortcomings of the press, costly episodes of bluster and blunder in the military, and the ways poll-driven marketing reshaped politics, died Nov. 23 at a hospital in Washington. He was 89.
The cause was complications from heart and vascular disease, said a daughter, Margaret “Greta” Perry.
Mr. Perry, a resident of Chevy Chase, Md., spent his formative years with now-defunct newspapers that included the Hartford Times in Connecticut, the Philadelphia Bulletin and the National Observer, a weekly published by Dow Jones for which he covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
After the Observer shuttered in 1977, he joined the Wall Street Journal and became its chief political correspondent. He retired in 1997 and, in recent years, contributed commentary, including a detailed first-person remembrance of the Kennedy slaying to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
One of Mr. Perry’s early books, “The New Politics: The Expanding Technology of Political Manipulation” (1968), examined how pollsters, data processors and a new crop of management professionals produced what a Kirkus Reviews critic described as “campaign pitches as personalized and dehumanized as a facsimile signature.”
Mr. Perry’s next volume, “Us & Them: How the Press Covered the 1972 Election” (1973), won plaudits for its dissection of media folly on the hustings.
“No group of reporters in the history of journalism has guessed so wrong so often,” he wrote of a media corps that assumed Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine would walk away with the Democratic Party’s nomination, then “indulged in an orgy of speculation” about the prospects of New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, all the while undervaluing the staying power of the party’s eventual nominee, Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota.
Mr. Perry excoriated journalists for being overly influenced by Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President” book series that, starting with the 1960 race, gave a backstage peek into a campaign’s machinery and personalities.
“We have become nitpickers,” Mr. Perry wrote, “peeking into dusty corners, looking for the squabbles, celebrating the trivia and leaping to those sweeping, cosmic, melodramatic conclusions and generalities that mark the Teddy White view of American politics.”
He faulted political reporters for an insufficient knowledge of economics, which he said led them to play down or ignore substantive stories involving policy in favor of coverage that played up minutiae.
The book was favorably reviewed but was overshadowed by another volume published that year — “The Boys on the Bus,” journalist Timothy Crouse’s seminal account of the motley band of political writers covering the 1972 presidential race, from the sober-minded David S. Broder of The Washington Post to the debauched Hunter S. Thompson.
Stephen Hess, a scholar of media and government at the Brookings Institution, said both books — intended for a popular readership — heralded a trend of books in the 1970s that dispelled the dated “stop the presses” caricature and showed how journalism is made, for better or worse.
James Moorhead Perry was born in Elmira, N.Y., on Aug. 21, 1927, and grew up in Philadelphia. He traced his interest in journalism to his stepbrother, William H. Whyte, a reporter for Fortune who later wrote “The Organization Man,” a best-selling analysis of corporate conformity in the 1950s.
Mr. Perry served in the Marines at the end of World War II and, in 1950, graduated from Trinity College in Hartford. He had been a stringer for the Hartford Courant but went to the rival Times for what he joked were mercenary reasons. “They offered me $45,” he later told C-SPAN, “and the Hartford Courant offered me $35, so I went for the big money at that time.”
In 1954, he married Margaret Pancoast. She died in 2011. Survivors include two daughters, Greta Perry and Katherine Lynch, both of Chevy Chase; a brother; and three grandchildren.
A Civil War buff and amateur historian, Mr. Perry returned to book-writing toward the end of his career with the Journal.
“Arrogant Armies: Great Military Disasters and the Generals Behind Them” (1996) highlighted the loss of life suffered through reckless indifference during military adventurism over the centuries. Mr. Perry found nearly every major power guilty of cocky assumptions about the enemy, faulty intelligence and political bumbling.
Noting the contemporaneous American military involvement in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, a critic for Kirkus Reviews called the book “required reading for military cadets, politicians, and the bureaucrats who typically direct wars from a safe distance.”
Mr. Perry saw the origins of modern journalism, for all its triumphs and faults, in coverage of the Civil War, a subject he addressed in his 2000 book, “A Bohemian Brigade.” The arrival of the telegraph made the conflict “the world’s original instant-news war,” he wrote, and journalists — a rowdy gang with few pretenses of objectivity — became major players in influencing public opinion.
His final book was “Touched With Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles That Made Them” (2003).
Mr. Perry, a recipient of the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award for a distinguished career in journalism, took an acerbic view of political reporters who yapped on television. Writing in “A Bohemian Brigade,” he called them “a new class of highly paid reporters who think of themselves as the peers of the people they interview and talk about.”
But he was not immune from arrogance, Mr. Perry confessed. “I have happily denied making mistakes that were there for all to see,” he wrote. “I have done my own fair share of pontificating. I belong to my own Bohemian Brigade, the national political press corps, and I may even have been rowdy once or twice.”
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