The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Martin Tolchin, veteran political journalist who co-founded the Hill, dies at 93

He started his career at the New York Times and came out of retirement to help launch Politico

Martin Tolchin in 1966, when he was a reporter at the New York Times. (Don Hogan Charles/New York Times)
7 min

Martin Tolchin, a veteran political journalist who covered Congress for the New York Times, served as the founding publisher and editor of the Hill and came out of retirement to advise an upstart publication called Politico, died Feb. 17 at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 93.

The cause was cancer, said his partner, Barbara Rosenfeld.

In a four-decade career at the Times, Mr. Tolchin worked his way up from a job as a copy boy — he made $41.50 a week in the 1950s, based out of a smoke-filled newsroom where many reporters kept liquor bottles at their desks — to become a city hall bureau chief and congressional correspondent, scrutinizing power plays and backroom machinations on Capitol Hill.

An adroit chronicler of political patronage, legislative horse-trading and the idiosyncratic personalities of U.S. senators, he covered major stories including the Iran-contra affair and the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas. He also profiled such figures as Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker for the New York Times Magazine, writing in a 1982 article that Baker was politically skillful but gave “the appearance of a man who has lost his way and wandered onto the Senate floor.”

At age 65, in 1994, Mr. Tolchin retired from the Times to launch the Hill, a weekly newspaper dedicated to covering political life in the nation’s capital. The publication was bankrolled by Jerry Finkelstein, the chairman of a community newspaper chain in the New York City area, and sought to compete with Roll Call, which has covered Congress since 1955.

Starting a newspaper from scratch had its difficulties, Mr. Tolchin told The Washington Post: “It’s like launching a battleship when all you’ve done is play with toy sailboats in your bathtub.” But the Hill published its first issue just a few weeks before the Republican Revolution, when the GOP won a majority in the House of Representatives after four decades of Democratic control, and soon emerged as a feisty source of political news, and as an incubator for ambitious young journalists.

“Marty really knew Washington inside and out. He wanted us to find the juicy story,” said Alexander Bolton, a senior staff writer hired by Mr. Tolchin. “He loved to expose the self-serving motivations of people in power, and to explain to readers how Washington really worked. So often it came down to patronage and money.”

Under Mr. Tolchin and Albert Eisele, another founding editor, the Hill broke major stories, including the details of an unsuccessful 1997 coup in the Republican Party, when some members tried to replace Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. The newspaper broke even financially after three years before starting to make a profit, according to Mr. Tolchin. It now reports a print circulation of over 24,000 and draws many more readers to its website.

Mr. Tolchin stepped down in 2003, as the newspaper moved to increase its frequency to several days a week, but came out of retirement for two years to help media executive Robert Allbritton launch a new political publication. Tentatively called the Capitol Leader, it evolved into the Washington news site Politico, which started in 2007 and was sold last year to the German conglomerate Axel Springer for about $1 billion.

In addition to his work in journalism, Mr. Tolchin was a senior scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington and wrote eight books about politics with his wife, political scientist Susan Tolchin. They dissected the enduring phenomenon of political patronage in “To the Victor …” (1971) and “Pinstripe Patronage” (2011), and also chronicled the challenges that women faced on the campaign trail in “Clout” (1974), which Times reviewer Richard R. Lingeman called “thoroughly researched and timely,” in addition to being “a useful how‐to manual for future forays into the males-only barroom of politics.”

Mr. Tolchin said that he and his wife developed a method of dividing each book’s research and writing, although editing one another’s work proved a little more difficult.

“She came from academia — she was writing tiny, marginal notes. I come out of a newsroom, so I had a big red pencil and just tore through it,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 2011. “When I looked up, she wasn’t pleased. I realized there was more than a book at stake here. Now when we give back chapters, we always start with a lot of praise: ‘This is really brilliant, but if I can make one tiny suggestion …’ ”

Martin Tolchin was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 20, 1928, to a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His mother was a homemaker, and he was 14 when his father, a furrier, died of a heart attack.

Mr. Tolchin graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, studied at the University of Utah and earned a law degree in 1951 from New York Law School. He served for two years in the Army and received what he described as a “less than honorable” discharge, after the Army learned he had been involved in so-called “subversive” activities, such as joining a Marxist study group while in high school and attending a Pete Seeger concert.

The charges ended his legal career before it started. Told that he would have to identify his left-wing “friends” if he wanted to join the New York bar, he declined. “Three years of law school went down the drain,” he wrote in a 2019 memoir, “Politics, Journalism and the Way Things Were.”

In search of a new profession, Mr. Tolchin turned to journalism and landed a job at the Times in 1954. He got his start as a reporter while writing about family life for what was then known as “the women’s page,” and covered Mayor John V. Lindsay before moving to the Washington bureau in 1973. A decade later, he received the National Press Foundation’s Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for congressional reporting.

A brief early marriage ended in divorce, and in 1965 he married Susan Goldsmith, who died in 2016. Their son, Charlie, an author and advertising executive, died of complications from cystic fibrosis in 2003 at age 34. In addition to his partner of five years, the widow of former Washington Post editor and columnist Stephen S. Rosenfeld, survivors include a daughter, Kay Rex Tolchin of Niwot, Colo., and a grandson.

By all accounts, Mr. Tolchin was recruited to the Hill following a recommendation from one of his childhood friends, Times columnist William Safire, who had worked with the publication’s owner.

When Safire published a 1995 espionage novel, “Sleeper Spy,” Mr. Tolchin arranged for the Hill to run a review written by Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer sentenced to life in prison for spying for the Soviets. Mr. Tolchin said he reveled in the controversy that followed, as some readers wrote angry letters and canceled their subscriptions, outraged that the Hill would offer publicity to a convicted traitor.

“We didn’t do it to be cute,” he told The Post at the time. “We thought it’d be interesting to get a superspy to review a book about a spy.”

Plus, he added, “The price was right”: Ames was barred by law from accepting payment for the piece, although Mr. Tolchin said he would not have paid him anyway.