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Sunday, January 1, 1984

A Reviewers Notebook: A Journalists Journey

Vermont Royster, the long-time editor of the Wall Street Journal, calls his fascinating autobiography My Own, My Country’s Time: A Journalist’s Journey (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 351 pp., $18.50). He should have added that it is also the full and quite definitive story of the transformation of a rather parochial financial sheet into a great national newspaper.

Royster (who is Roy to his friends) keeps the personal note throughout his tale, giving it a flavor of “country boy makes good.” Roy came to Washington, D.C., in the middle Nineteen Thirties from a rather sleepy North Carolina. He was willing, at the outset, to take Franklin Roosevelt on trust. But the country boy learned quickly that welfare, though he still thinks it was necessary in the context of the Thirties, was not enough. Bill Grimes, who preceded Royster both as editor and conductor of the column “Thinking Things Over,” distrusted any “easy money” policy, and his worries were contagious. Roy was not one of those country boys who could be sold the Brooklyn Bridge, and he found himself in a shop generally run by canny country boys who had not grown up in parochial Wall Street.

Barney Gilgore, a few years older than Royster, was from De Pauw University in Indiana. It was Gilgore who, keeping track of modern electronics and the useful presence of deflecting satellites in the sky, thought the Journal could be published simultaneously in cities all across America. With its left side and right side “leader” stories of general import dominating a national page, and with a strong pro-free enterprise editorial page, a nationally distributed Wall Street Journal could do battle with the New York Times and the Washington Post and their ubiquitous news services. Gilgore could not immediately make his vision plain to his colleagues, but it eventually began to sink in. By the time the technological difficulties of printing identical copy for morning distribution in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and elsewhere were solved, the staff was ready.

Working with William H. Grimes

Royster tells the story of a team effort with objectivity. But there was the matter of office politics, too, which was harder to be objective about. The man behind the editor’s desk, William Henry Grimes, could be incalculable, sometimes in a most disconcerting way. As Roy puts it, for “twenty-two years” Grimes was his “patron, guide, irritant, teacher, obstacle, and friend.” Grimes would sometimes kill pieces for reasons that were hard to explain. Just before the 1948 election Roy wrote that “by all the polls and portents, Thomas E. Dewey will be the next President of the United States. But it’s hard to see why.” Grimes refused to print the piece because it was based on Royster’s “personal feelings.” If it had been printed, it would have stood out as a prophetic omen. Royster had actually based his piece on more than a personal subjective feeling. He had taken his mother to a Dewey rally in Madison Square Garden. “That man can’t win,” said his mother, “this was supposed to be a victory rally and there was almost no excitement when Dewey entered and spoke.”

Later, when Royster expanded a policy of printing theater, music, art and book pieces on the editorial pages, he had more trouble with Bill Grimes, who thought the arts reviews were a “waste of space.” He would not let the word “homosexual” be printed even in a review of a play about the problem.

Roy could forgive Grimes his curmudgeonly aspects, which could take amusing turns. (When I was working at the Journal I heard Grimes say that if anyone called him a senior citizen, he’d hit him with his crutch.) But Grimes really outraged Roy when, after bringing him up from Washington to run the editorial page, he inserted Buren McCormack over him as “senior associate editor.” This seemed to Roy to be a breach of faith. It was a long time before he got over it. Grimes, of course, did not mean to reflect on Royster’s work by his move. He was just trying to find a place for McCormack and thought Royster would understand.

More important for the long run was Grimes’ impact as a guide and teacher. Roy had come to the Journal with a fine classical background. He had gone to a school in Tennessee that drilled its students in the advanced Greek and Latin classics. Little attention was paid to “social studies” or anything of a “frill” nature. Once in college, at Chapel Hill, Royster coasted to a Phi Beta Kappa rank on the basis of what he already knew about Homer and Virgil. He had only one course in economics.

On the Journal he had to get this subject up for himself, by absorption from Grimes or his own reading. When he suspected that “easy money,” as Grimes had predicted, would loosen the moral fabric of society, Royster read Keynes’ General Theory for himself to find out what “government investment” was all about. He found Keynes hard going. To round out his understanding, Roy then turned to Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. He found Mises hard going, too, but he was convinced by the ultimate clarity of the Austrian school.

Politics and War

There is much more to this autobiography than the story of the Journal’s development and the account of one editor’s efforts to beat the competition for the job of running the editorial page show. Even in the middle of office work Royster insisted on going to the national conventions and covering the whole political scene. His book gives us canny ratings of all the presidents and near presidents since Hoover’s day.

Surprisingly, he gives Eisenhower the strongest of his accolades. In the Fifties, when he was forced to deal with the Eisenhower Administration on a day-to-day basis, Royster lamented that the placid Ike never gave him anything exciting to write about. But, looking back, Royster has decided that Eisenhower’s ability to get us out of one war and his record of keeping us from getting into any other are the marks of a master of foreign policy. He also gives Eisenhower full credit for letting us digest past inflations.

The five years of World War II forced Royster to go to sea (he had enlisted in the naval reserve, and, though he had a wife and child to support, he would have felt unpatriotic to ask for a deferment). At the war’s end he was captain of a destroyer hovering off the ruined Japanese port of Nagasaki. Along with most of his mates he was happy that Truman had used the atomic bomb to end the war. We had already made the decision to invade Japan, and the navy would have had to play a dangerous role in getting our troops ashore.

Royster came home to a wife and two children (one of whom had been born during the war) who hardly knew him. But he picked up the threads of domesticity quickly. One of the pleasurable things about this book is that it is the chronicle of a lifelong happy marriage.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.