The Colonel, the Life and Legend of Robert R McCormick, Indomitable Editor of the Chicago Tribune
Morton, Richard Allen, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
The Colonel, The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, Indomitable Editor of the Chicago Tribune. By Richard Norton Smith. (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. Pp. xxiv, 580. $55.00 cloth)
In these times of Bill Gates, the billionaire with the bad haircut, it is difficult for most of us to relate to the image of the diamond-studded millionaire so pervasive in American popular culture in the first part of the twentieth century. Did such gilded men truly exist outside of the popular media, the ones who rode about in limousines, wore tuxedos and spats, built ostentatious mansions, gave champagne parties, and who met with presidents as equals while also being somehow above the law? Of course they did; Daddy Warbucks (of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip) and Lamont Cranston (from the radio show The Shadow) indeed had their real life parallels in such men as William Randolph Hearst and Howard Hughes. Another of this breed, though less well known today, was Robert R. McCormick, master of the Chicago Tribune for nearly forty years. The "Colonel," as he styled himself, was a major player in the life of his city and nation for decades. Seen both as a fool and as a great man, he was, as such men often are, an enigma. Seeking to reveal the true person behind the publicity and myths, as well as to measure the impact of his life upon his times, Richard Norton Smith has composed a definitive biography.
McCormick was born into a family of wealth and accomplishment. His maternal grandfather was Joseph Medill, founder of the Chicago Tribune and staunch Republican, and his great uncle was Cyrus McCormick, farm machinery magnate and determined Democrat. Despite such illustrious ancestry, however, young Rob McCormick's early life was neither propitious nor happy. He always suffered in comparison to his more attractive older brother, Medill McCormick (future United States Senator and suicide), especially in the eyes of his domineering mother, Katherine Von Etten Medill McCormick, who for years virtually wrote him off because of his scandalous first marriage in 1912 to Amy Adams, an "older woman" and friend's wife. Such was the low degree of esteem in which he was held that, unlike his brother, he was repeatedly denied a significant voice in the family newspaper.
Nonetheless, he began showing some promise on his own when in 1904, with the endorsement of Chicago's North Side Republican Boss (and future mayor) Fred Busse, he managed to get himself elected as alderman from the twenty-first ward. This was followed by a term as president of the Sanitary District, where he revealed considerable leadership skills in bringing to his office an unprecedented level of efficiency. Finally in 1908, in face of a managerial crisis at the Tribune, primarily founded in brother Medill's inability to deal with the pressure of running things, Robert became treasurer of the company and then in 1910, acting president. He and first cousin Robert Patterson remained thereafter effectively in control of the Tribune Company. Patterson would soon direct his primary attention to the company's east coast outlet, the New York Daily News, leaving McCormick to oversee the Chicago newspaper.
Even with these triumphs, according to Norton, McCormick only truly came into himself during World War I, where, taking advantage of his family's connections with General John J. Pershing and others, he first traveled in luxury as an observer to Russia before eventually obtaining a Colonelcy of artillery in the celebrated First Division. His service was honorable, and it was the source of the title "Colonel" that he would affect ever afterwards (to his lasting chagrin, the war ended too soon for him to arrange a generalship). It was also the origin of a notorious military pedantry that he would impose on the Tribune's editorial page on every possible occasion.
With the end of the war, the era of McCormick in Chicago truly began. In foreign affairs he reverted to the isolationism that had characterized his world-view and that of the Tribune before the war. Domestically, although originally an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and a "progressive" at least as far as governmental efficiency went, he began a personal rearguard action against further social and political change in the United States. An aristocrat by instinct and birth, he was convinced of the natural order of social class, and distrusted egalitarianism on principle. Consistent with his libertarian beliefs, he achieved a considerable reputation as a proponent of a free press, a reputation enhanced by a successful defense against a law suit Henry Ford brought against the Tribune in 1919, in which Ford was revealed to be, in the words of one juror, "a g-------d fool".
The Great Depression shook McCormick's confidence as it did most Americans, but for a man for whom Herbert Hoover was too radical, the advent of the New Deal was the source of outrage and despair. He even hooked up with his old adversary Ford in an ongoing effort to undermine and overthrow his former Groton classmate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom, like many of his background, he felt to be a traitor to his class. His passion to limit the intrusion of government into American society was matched only by his determination to keep "that man in the White House" from taking America into another European war. Though instantly and completely supportive of the war effort after Pearl Harbor, he and his paper continued to snipe at the Roosevelt administration. This resulted in the famous incident in which McCormick was nearly arrested after the Tribune's alleged revelation of secret information following the Battle of Midway, an episode that Norton skillfully explicates.
In his last years, Robert R. McCormick's life was a quiet tragedy. Hounded by a predatory second wife, the lack of any real familial warmth or even friends, and a growing alienation from a world that had changed for him beyond recognition or understanding, he stubbornly insisted upon retaining the reins at the Tribune despite ever more humiliating mental and physical disabilities. Finally, on 1 April 1955, he died. At his request, his emaciated frame was tucked into his army uniform for burial.
Such in summary was the life of McCormick as presented by Norton. With direct access to his papers, Norton is able to treat the reader to the most personal of details about McCormick's life including his love affairs, as well as his other personal relationships, mansions, and travels. Moreover, the author is convincing in his analysis of his subject's psychology and insecurities as central sources of his actions, with McCormick always seeking to overachieve to prove his mother and family wrong. We also learn about his business life, and most particularly, his ongoing commitment to the expansion and enhancement of his newspaper and company.
It is in the latter point that one might find fault. Norton portrays McCormick as an essentially ordinary man of limited intelligence whose position of power and wealth allowed him to first, achieve prominence otherwise beyond his means, and second, to indulge in selfish and often silly eccentricities. The problem here is that Norton also, without particularly emphasizing it, demonstrates that McCormick was an extraordinarily astute businessman, who must get much of the credit for making the Tribune's boast of being The World's Greatest Newspaper something like a reality. It was McCormick who built the Tribune Tower; it was McCormick who was largely responsible for the creation of the Mutual Broadcasting Network based upon the paper's radio station WGN; it was McCormick who bought up virgin timberland in Canada guaranteeing a supply of newsprint; it was McCormick who created the paper's heralded network of foreign correspondents; it was McCormick who oversaw the paper's famous cartoons including Dick Tracy, and so on. In short, this was a man who was no fool, and who worked for his success. One consequence of Norton's propensity towards underestimating the newspaperman is that he tends to sardonically dismiss his political beliefs as little more than odd. Opposition, for instance, to expanded government may have been out of sync with the times in which McCormick lived, but, as subsequent events have shown, it is an enduring political philosophy that is still the subject of national debate. Norton would better serve his readers and the record with a serious analysis of McCormick's Weltanschauung and its place in the history of American conservatism.
This aside, Norton's work is an unalloyed triumph. It is extremely well researched and written. If anything he exhausts the reader with his degree of detail. While emphasizing the role of individuals in history (as is the nature of biography), Norton is also careful to place his actors into the context of the changing political and social worlds in which they moved and lived. Finally and most importantly, Norton restores Robert R. McCormick to a rightfully central place in the history of Chicago, Illinois, and America during the first half of the twentieth century. A biography of a largely overlooked public man can aspire to nothing higher.
Richard Allen Morton, (M. A. Eastern Illinois University; Ph. D., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) is Associate Professor of History at Clark Atlanta University. He is the author of justice and Humanity: Edward F. Dunne, Illinois Progressive (SIU, 1997), and several articles and reviews on Chicago and Illinois history.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Colonel, the Life and Legend of Robert R McCormick, Indomitable Editor of the Chicago Tribune. Contributors: Morton, Richard Allen - Author. Journal title: Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Volume: 94. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2002. Page number: 449+. © Illinois State Historical Society Summer 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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