Mary McGrory died last night. She was, of course, a "Washington columnist," but the phrase doesn't really catch the role she'd written for herself in half a century of capital journalism. She'd managed to become a part of the stories she covered through her fierce intellectual—and sometimes emotional—involvement with them. It's unusual to read a comprehensive account of the Army-McCarthy hearings, or the mourning for Kennedy, or Watergate, without running into something she wrote or said about them at the time, because what she wrote or said as things were happening was so often worth pausing over. Not bad for 50 years of deadline thinking.
I knew Mary for a long time, first merely as her reader (going back to her glory days at The Washington Star), then for a period as one of her editors (at the WaPo), and finally as her neighbor. The best of these relationships was, easily, as neighbor. I'd read her columns faithfully, yes, though more for her uncommon DC style (she wrote a wicked simile) than for the politics. As for "editing" her stuff, well, you wrote a hed you hoped would work, and that was really all you could get away with.
Neighborliness was a much more leisurely affair. We'd run into each other on the little bridge over Klingle Valley, where Mary was pleased to make a conversation out of whatever had been on her mind. It might be something like the Patriot Act, but it was just as likely to be the Red Sox, or a Sicilian novelist whose work she liked (Mary was a great lover of Italy). Whatever the subject was, she was always carefully weighing the validity of her own views. She was inviting you to help her get closer to things she cared about.
In later years, Mary needed more help in getting across that little Washington bridge. The last time I saw her, the crossing took all the strength she had. Her face that day was set hard in deep concentration, as if she was trying mightily to work out yet one more issue. Perhaps she was. She smiled briefly out of her unfailing courtesy, then once more set her face in determination.
The bridge is behind her now. She was 85. The Post's obit is here.