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He Was the Predominant Magazine Political Journalist of the 20th Century

Richard Halworth Rovere was a slight, cigarette-smoking native of New Jersey. With his early balding, black rim eyeglasses, and his habit of crossing his arms across his chest and preponderance to cock his head to one side, he gave the impression of being a librarian about to scold a loud and obnoxious teenager. Yet this man had remarkable tenacity and toughness and these two characteristics helped to make him the predominant magazine political journalist of the last century. For 30 years, from 1948 to 1978, he wrote the Letter From Washington column for The New Yorker magazine, although he also wrote for numerous other publications.

The year 2015 is the centennial year of Rovere’s birth — he came into the world on May 5, 1915 in Jersey City, New Jersey — and such a notable marking is reason to remember this resolute writer who had a disproportionate amount of pain and suffering in his short life (he was only 64 when he died of emphysema, due mostly to cigarette smoking, on November 23, Thanksgiving Day, 1979).

Richard H. Rovere is proof positive that there is hope for school students who do not receive top-notch grades and frequently earn the Honor Roll but later become successful in life once they have finished matriculating. All through his early, middle, and boarding school years as a student, his grades were remarkable for not being remarkable. He had little or no interest in what his teachers in those three fundamental levels of American education tried to teach him and, according to Rovere, they reciprocated their feelings of his hopelessness to him. In the book Arrivals and Departures: A Journalist’s Memoirs (1976), he presents snippets of the many letters that he wrote from boarding school to his parents. Even in his early teenage years, he had charm and was a gifted writer. Here is one such short letter: “Darn it, I failed three subjects. Say, wouldn’t you folks be glad to see me next week. [Wrong punctuation — MW.] Just think I haven’t been home since Feb. I will be glad to see you.” We also get this letter: “Pretty low marks coming up in Chem. and Eng., folks. Also Bible and Fr. Ok with you if I bet this week’s allowance on athletics. [Again, wrong punctuation — MW.] I changed my underwear Wednesday.”

Shortly after Rovere was born, his father Louis moved the family to New York City. As an electrical engineer for the Western Union Telegraph Company, the family moved frequently, but Richard’s richest, most complete childhood memories were of growing up in houses in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

What saved this particular Poor Richard from a lifetime of menial labor was that he had an early love of reading; this began when he read quickly through a series of adventure books starring the fictional Tarzan character. By his early teens, he was reading 19th century British poetry; later, he became editor of his school newspaper. He was graduated from the Stony Brook School in 1933 and then matriculated at Bard College (which was then a branch of Columbia University).

In an autobiographical book that was incomplete at the time of his death entitled Final Reports: Personal Reflections on Politics and History in Our Time (published in 1984), Rovere writes that “My formative years were the 1930’s.” Indeed, this was during the time of the Great Depression and, simultaneously, a time when Communism, like swallowing live goldfish, became a type of fad for many American college students. Such a person was Richard Rovere. To tag Communism as a fad for Rovere is unfair; he was very well up to date with readings affiliated with Leninism and Marxism. Yet it is also abundantly quite clear that Communism never really became palatable to him. For example, he never officially joined the Communist Party. Well, sort of. In Final Reports, he noted that on June 15, 1936, he “joined Communist Party under assumed name of Dick Halworth.” Halworth, as noted, was his middle name and by this time, he was the Literary Editor of the magazine New Masses. Yet Rovere had a rapscallion streak in his nature and it is not inconceivable that the above was a bit of fun and fiction in his book.

Rovere attended some meetings of various New York City Communist cells, or chapters, and most of these meetings were positively dreadful. To begin, only four to 10 people would show up and half of these people attended to drink the free beverages and snack foods. Such meetings would begin with a reading of the previous meetings minutes, followed by a report of the Communist cell’s accountant (which usually didn’t take long as most of these Communist cells were either poor or flat broke). One does not have to be a super-patriot of the U.S. to imagine the boring-ness of such reports. The President of the local Communist chapter would then speak and if a featured guest was present, then he or she would speak. Afterwards, there would be a gathering around the beverage and snack food tables and then the meeting would conclude. That was the entire thing. From beginning to end — depending, of course, on the flow of conversation — such meetings would last (as per Rovere’s memories) no more than one hour or 90 minutes.

New Masses was a magazine that, in Rovere’s words, “consistently, indeed slavishly followed the Communist line.” Rovere joined the magazine in 1937 and, as noted in the reference book Current Biography 1977, “unable to support and defend the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, he resigned from the magazine in August, 1939, just before the start of World War II.”

He was at this time in his early 20’s, and men and women living in that time of life are very malleable to being influenced by those around them. There was, for example, Granville Hicks, a gifted literary critic, who was a Marxist. There was the A and P grocery store heir with the incredible WASP-y name of Huntington Hartford, “who did not give New Masses one penny of the forty million dollars he was then said to be worth,” wrote Rovere.

Even at this early stage of his writing career, in which he was occasionally writing and reporting political stories, his prose was clear and was the result of an unusually uncluttered mind. This may have come with his ever-growing un-interest in Communism after he left New Masses and subsequently became an Assistant Editor of The Nation, and especially after he became a staff writer for the magazine Common Sense. All of these publications’ editors emphasized clear writing from all of their contributors. He increasingly began writing about such important U.S. political and social phenomenon as the labor movement and American foreign policy and this revealed to readers that Rovere had both an interest in, and also knowledge of, many of these issues.

In a very courageous act by Rovere, he left the staff post at Common Sense, in 1944, and attempted to become a consistently published free-lance writer for The New Yorker. In the 90 years of the magazine’s existence, many writers — some of them very, very good writers — attempted the above-described and, for whatever reason(s), failed. Ironically, it was the Republican political power-house of New York, Thomas E. Dewey (the 1944 and 1948 national party’s presidential candidate) that gave Rovere a chance to obtain a permanent writing job at The New Yorker.

Thomas Edmund Dewey (1902-1971) was a major Republican political figure for many decades. On a smaller, state-wide scale, he was (from 1943 to 1955) the Governor of New York. For as nebulous a personality that this man had, much credit must be given to Dewey in that every political or government job or office that he held — with the obvious exceptions of losing the 1944 and 1948 presidential elections to Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. and Harry S. Truman, respectively — he had rousing success. By all accounts, young Tom was a diligent, hard-working student in the classroom and this helped him gain admission to the University of Michigan where he excelled at both singing (he had a naturally gifted baritone voice) and being a successful law student.

After graduation, he made his way to New York and in 1931, became the Chief Assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. For a few years he was a U.S. Attorney, but his political star really began to shine when, in 1935, he was appointed Special Prosecutor to investigate organized crime and corruption in New York County. The city was then riddled with numerous thugs, hoods, crime bosses, and other less respectable gents, and it was Dewey who became the U.S.’s most famous rackets buster.

The celebrity that this gave Dewey allowed him to be elected Governor of New York in 1942 (although he was not officially sworn into office until the following year). Then came the difficult decade of the 1940’s when, as noted, he twice lost the presidential election. Yet he was still popular enough to be elected governor of New York in 1950 and after his term was completed in 1955, he returned to law practice and also acted as a consultant to a number of nationally known Republican leaders (chief among them was Richard M. Nixon, who always acknowledged to reporters that he always listened to and respected Dewey’s opinions). When Dewey died in 1971, Nixon, then president, attended Dewey’s funeral in New York City.

Yet Dewey’s personality was frequently dry, brittle, cold. Sometimes, he was, quite simply, mean. Republicans as well as Democrats were often the victims of one of his favorite phrases — which he would usually say in a curt voice — “I don’t agree with you!” — which is hardly the type of diplomatic and mercurial conversation which national politicians use to get tangible things done. He was short; bleach-like pale even in summertime; had a short and trim black mustache which, unfortunately for him, gave him a startling resemblance to Germany’s Adolph Hitler; was repressive in many aspects of his personality; lived during a time period when many forms of political power were based in cities rather than — as was the case earlier in American history, agricultural areas (something that he never seemed to understand all of his life); hated New York City newspaper photographers (he thought, perhaps with some justification, that they were too rude; they, in turn, were not fond of Dewey), and finally and perhaps most regretfully, simply had both a persona and a personality that was not well suited for politics.

Impressed by a profile of Dewey that Rovere wrote for Harper’s, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s assistant editor, immediately offered Rovere a staff writer post which Rovere accepted. By this time he was almost 30 years old, and was growing tired of the instability of free-lance writing. After four years of writing local political stories and profiles for the magazine (one series of profiles — of the openly corrupt New York attorneys William F. Howe and Abraham H. Hummel was published as a book, in 1947, entitled Howe and Hummel: Their True and Scandalous History), Shawn and Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s editor, decided to create a published monthly column about American domestic and international politics and personalities. The column was to be titled, and still has the title of, Letter From Washington, and Shawn chose Rovere to write the column. He did so in anticipation of the upcoming 1948 Presidential election.

The column began — as such things seemed to do in the long history of the magazine — not fully developed. Rovere approached Shawn about with the idea of riding aboard President Harry Truman’s re-election campaign train to Los Angeles, then returning to New York via Governor Dewey’s election campaign train. First came the story subtitled “En Route with Truman,” in which, in writing about Truman’s popularity with Americans, Rovere wrote, “Traveling with him, you get the feeling that the American people who have seen him and heard him at his best would be willing to give him just about anything he wants except the Presidency.” That is hardly a hearty endorsement. Then came the next story, with the subtitle of “En Route With Dewey.”

The tone of this column can be detected by the first sentence of the second paragraph: “Everything I’ve seen of the Dewey campaign is slick and snappy.” He then describes Dewey and his way of coming onto a stage and addressing crowds: “The instant his name is spoken, he comes onstage, seemingly from nowhere, arms outstretched to embrace the crowd and gather in the applause that breaks the hush. It is an uncannily effective piece of business. Dewey doesn’t seem to walk; he coasts out like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind. However it is done, he rouses the crowd to a peak of excitement and enthusiasm, and he has to wait an agreeably long while for the racket to die down.” Rovere also writes of Dewey and his affinity for clichés: “Dewey has not borrowed his clichés from the masters but has minted them all by himself.” Then the writer provides two examples: “your future lies ahead of you” and a promise to his audiences that after he would be elected president, he would start “the greatest pruning and weeding operation in American history" (meaning that he would order all incompetent civil servants, at least the ones in his estimation, immediately fired).

Rovere was also the last major reporter to describe, via his eyewitness reporting, daily life on a presidential campaign train. He also predicted that in the 1952 presidential election, jet airplanes and television would change the fundamental dynamics of a presidential candidate’s life. Both did, and still do. Rovere goes on: “Dewey is no an orator in the classic sense, but he is a first-class elocutionist, and when he fixes his eyes on the crowd and says that the way to avoid having Communists in the government is to avoid appointing them in the first place, as he plans to do, he gets what he wants from the customers, which means, naturally, that they are getting what they want from him.”

In sum, regarding the Dewey installment of “Letter From A Campaign Train,” Rovere caught in print, many of the small but incisive defects of Dewey which may (or may not) have made him a bad (or worse, twitchy, in terms of daily leading the U.S.) president. Dewey lost the election to the incumbent, President Truman, and many reporters — including, for some time, Rovere — in pre-election polls among the reporters covering both candidates — thought that Dewey would be elected to the presidency.

Shortly after the publication of the two-part series of “Letter From A Campaign Train,” Shawn assigned the Letter From Washington column to Rovere. The column was so titled, because when Shawn and Rovere were discussing the genesis of the column, they both agreed that it should take the literary form of a friend writing to another friend about mutual interests. Rovere did not live in Washington during the 30 years that he wrote the column; rather, he would take trains south to Washington D.C., from his home in Rhinebeck, New York, to do research and interviews in preparation for writing the column.

Shawn also was generous to Rovere in the fact that he let him accept book review assignments, and general reporting assignments, from other magazine editors. In these, Rovere was able to display some of his humor. One such story appeared in the October, 1960 issue of Esquire. He was assigned to watch day-time television, from six am to noon, and give his assessments. This was his first paragraph: “To begin with, morning television is inherently a bad idea, like morning alcohol. It is simply carrying things too far. Good whiskey is a blessing to the race, and television is a miracle of communications, but bottles should be corked in the forenoon and television sets silenced and darkened. People — unless their employment forces them to turn night into day — ought to be doing other things in the morning. If they haven’t got other things to do, they ought to be sleeping. No one should have any television before lunch.”

Rovere could be, when he found something disagreeable to his tastes and opinions, be blunt and hard. Here is the first three sentences of his review of the book Across The River and Into The Trees, which appeared in the October, 1950 issue of Harper’s: “Ernest Hemingway’s Across The River and Into The Trees (Scribner, $3) is a disappointing novel. Though it has moments of strength and beauty, it also has moments of tawdriness. The work of most novelists is not irreparably damaged by an occasional lapse of taste and consistency, but along the hard, clear surface of Hemingway’s prose, a junky phrase is a road block.”

In looking back at his career, it is not that Rovere — a New Yorker through and through — did not do his best writing about that great metropolis for, naturally, The New Yorker. Rather, in a July, 1960 issue of Esquire, in a story by Rovere that discussed the fact that New York is THE American city but not the federal capital of the U.S., we get this from Rovere: “I tend to believe that the divorce of power from the great market place of ideas has been unfortunate for Washington, for New York, and for the country. It has heightened the anti-intellectualism in our political life and the sense of alienation in our intellectual life. Doubtless a certain hostility toward power and mind is to be expected in all places and at all times, but in the United States it takes an extreme form…”

Yet it is his work for the Letter From Washington column for which Rovere is best remembered. Previously it has been noted that Rovere thought that morning television was a bad idea. Well, in that same vein, reporters who spend many hours analyzing other reporters’ life writings is also a bad idea and habit, like mindlessly biting one’s fingernails. So rather than doing so, what follows are snippets of notable Rovere-written Letter From Washington columns:

January 22, 1949: “It is pretty well taken for granted here that the President and the Eighty-first Congress will get along fine for a hundred days, of which quite a few have already elapsed, and then they wouldn’t. Students of government say that it is now or never for Mr. Truman; either he jams his program through in the next three months or he disappoints those voters who expect him to redeem his campaign pledges.”

November 5, 1957: “Power is used by both sides to keep the Cold War essentially a political contest, and in such a contest the preponderance can be ours and the advantage theirs. Sputnik has dramatized to the world that the Russians are altogether capable of achieving the preponderance, and that it may be passing to them within a very short time.”

November 3, 1962: [Here Rovere is writing about the Cuban Missile Crisis.] “The world has been frightened as it had never been frightened before, and the Soviet leaders may have been the most frightened men of all. A chance may exist, as the President has said, for a genuine détente and for important steps toward general disarmament. The President found it easy to get the country behind him when he seemed close to an assault on Cuba; he will find it far less easy to get it behind him if he chooses now to engage in negotiations with the Soviet Union.”

August 9, 1969: [Rovere writes about President Nixon’s foreign policies not long after, coincidentally, the July, 1969 Apollo 11 first-man-on-the-moon mission.] “Conceivably, an irreligious historian of science could regard the successfully accomplished mission of Apollo 11 as having made the week (in Nixon’s words — MW) ‘the greatest in the history of the world since the Creation’ (though scientists tend not to think of the mysterious origins of the universe as ‘creation), but it was strange talk from a man who values the spiritual counsel of Dr. Billy Graham, and one, furthermore, who was shortly to do business with Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Muslims, and godless dialectical materialists.”

The mention of Nixon does give reason to note that Rovere, who loathed the man, did not do much notable work and reporting on the Watergate Affair, which led to Mr. Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in 1974. Two possible reasons are that Rovere’s health was beginning to fail (a life-long cigarette smoker, his emphysema was getting worse) and also that much of the polyglot political matter was being covered by Elizabeth Drew of The New Yorker.

Rovere was not a reporter immune to reporters’ charms and charismas. Most notably, he was — as were many of the national media and press corps reporters — one of those writers who was less than completely immune to the almost radiant personality of John F. Kennedy. This was not always the case. In a December 1, 1997 article in The New Yorker by writer Gore Vidal, he revealed that in the spring of 1959, then Senator Kennedy called and told Vidal that Rovere was going to write a story for Esquire stating that Kennedy had Addison’s Disease. He asked Vidal to talk to Rovere personally and convince him to drop the part of the article about Addison’s. Rovere was, at this time, lukewarm toward Kennedy’s political policies and views. Vidal and Rovere did have their chat, and the former asked the latter how he knew that Kennedy had Addison’s. Rovere told him that he spoke with some doctors, and had other pieces of evidence that he had accumulated.

Rovere wrote the story, Esquire published it, and for whatever reasons, the magazine’s editors included no mention of Kennedy having Addison’s. Vidal then jumps ahead in time, in that 1997 New Yorker story, to a 1962 conversation that he had with Rovere, and Vidal notes that Rovere was now a “Kennedy loyalist.” Traces of Rovere’s pro-Kennedy viewpoints can be found in his November 19, 1960 Letter From Washington column, when he wrote:

“Senator Kennedy’s lack of a personal mandate will make it more difficult for him to strike out for the new frontiers he has pledged himself to reach, but his gifts as an organizer are enormous, and one is hard put to think of a man in public life today who is better equipped by temperament and intellect to make the most of the little of the country has given him. He is quick to grasp political realities and quick to seize political opportunities.”

Rovere also wrote in a November 30, 1963 Letter From Washington column, in remembrance of the recently assassinated president: “He was the first modern President who gave one a sense of caring — and of believing that a President ought to care — about the whole quality and tone of American life… His interest far outran his mandate… His respect for excellence was, he knew, greater than his capacity for identifying and appreciating it.” Rovere, himself, realized that he was so pro-Kennedy that he waited almost 15 years before he completed a profile of Kennedy.

Yet time was running out for Richard H. Rovere. In addition to the afore-mentioned emphysema, he also had debilitating arthritis. In 1973, he went to a surgeon to have an operation to remove what his orthopedist called a “rodent ulcer.” “He got the rat, and I got a pain in the neck and a cervical collar that keeps my head from falling into my lap,” Rovere wrote. In other words, the surgeon, so claimed Rovere, accidentally cut into neck and shoulder muscles when doing the operation and this, again in Rovere’s estimation, changed his over-all health. Rovere and his wife Eleanor began to make trips to Key West, Florida for rest and relaxation, and with the hope that the area’s pleasant climate would make Rovere feel better and brighten his spirits. Only the latter came true, and years later, Rovere died at a hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.

(Information from past copies of the reference books series Current Biography; The New Yorker; Esquire; Harper’s, and as well as the books written by Rovere noted in this profile were used in this report.)

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Weisenmiller All Rights Reserved