Rick Smith, a longtime friend of James H. McCartney, NF ’64, delivered this eulogy at a memorial service in early June at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
When I think about Jim McCartney, the word that comes to mind is “passion.” McCartney lived life with passion. There was nothing halfway about McCartney, nothing half-baked. He lived with gusto—full throttle right to the very end.
McCartney was passionate about everything, including:
- his kids Bob, Sharon and Kathleen
- teaching at Georgetown
- the role we journalists play in a democracy
- the dangerous influence of the military industrial complex.
And, of course, he was passionate about The Really Important Things In Life—like cheap red wine and golf. Dick Ryan tells me—and he should know, he played golf with McCartney for three decades in a foursome with Sandy Grady and former reporter Jack Sinclair—you could never count McCartney out on the golf course. These guys played everywhere and anywhere—Needwood, Hogs Neck, you name it.
Accuracy requires me—and McCartney would insist on accuracy—to report that McCartney was not a low handicap golfer. He was more heart than talent, more talk than tiger. He had a wicked and seemingly incurable slice and if he broke 100, it was hallelujah. But that did not stop McCartney. He was a fierce competitor and he liked to play for money.
And when money was at stake, McCartney was a tough closer. He could have a miserable front nine and then come charging back in the final few holes—put a chip shot near the pin on the 17th or sink a 10-foot putt on the 18th and, as Ryan puts it, “nip you on the last shot.”
Truth is it was not about the money. It was all about bragging rights. Win or lose, McCartney would put on a big act—all in fun, of course.
McCartney—who was as serious as they come when it comes to reporting—did not take himself too seriously. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He could laugh at himself. He used to talk about arriving in the Washington bureau of the Chicago Daily News in the midst of the 1960 presidential campaign. Kennedy and Johnson were locked in a tough fight and Pete Lisagor, the legendary bureau chief, sent McCartney off to interview Clark Clifford.
In those slow, sonorous, caressing tones, Clifford, the wise old oracle, seduced young McCartney with the story that Johnson and Kennedy would deadlock the Democratic convention and his favorite, Stu Symington of Missouri, would emerge the compromise nominee. McCartney hustled back to file a story. It was Saturday. No one else was in the bureau. There was a knock at the door, and the top editor from Chicago, Ed Leahy, showed up. Leahy asked McCartney for the latest news, and so McCartney gave Leahy the inside skinny on Stu Symington. Leahy was amazed—and acted duly impressed by the new kid’s scoop—but for years McCartney was still laughing at himself for being suckered by Clark Clifford.
Of course, McCartney kept string on politicians, too. One great yarn landed in his lap when, as president of the Gridiron Club, he was sitting next to President Reagan. They fell to talking about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. According to Reagan, Chernobyl translates into English as “Wormwood” and Wormwood, you may or may not know, is mentioned in the Book of Revelations as one of the disasters that would happen at the end of the world. So, Reagan confided to McCartney, he knew in advance that the Chernobyl nuclear accident was going to happen, because the Book of Revelation had predicted it. McCartney stared at Reagan trying to hide his disbelief, looking for a sign that Reagan was kidding. But no, Reagan was serious. So McCartney put that delicious tale into one of his columns—and it wound up in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s memoirs.
McCartney was a people person—and one of his ways of showing friendship was the big tease. Anyone who came within his orbit was fair game. Sometimes he’d give you a little warning sign—a twinkle in the eye, a slight upward curl of the lip, then the verbal pop out of the corner of his eye, he’d watch for your reaction, his face wreathed in a wonderful toothy Irish smile.
I got my share of McCartney’s friendly teasing when Jim and I were going through our mid-life crises back in the early ’80’s. We would commiserate with each other over a regular weekly lunch of rib-eye steak sandwiches and draft beer at the Old Ebbitt Grill.
Now I don’t mean that fancy new brass and velvet establishment facing the Treasury Building. I mean the authentic Old Ebbitt, which was a long narrow sliver of an eatery on F Street, with a huge oak bar, high stools, and tiny little tables with rickety chairs that made a terrible scraping noise on the tile floor when you sat down.
We’d meet there and swap chatter about Cap Weinberger or Colin Powell—whom McCartney later profiled in a famous piece that tickled Powell—but mostly we talked about our own crazy-time.
Washington is not a place where people show their vulnerabilities. That’s why people so often leave with hundreds of acquaintances and very few real friends. But at the Old Ebbitt Grill, McCartney and I let our foibles show. It was pretty obvious stuff. We had each suffered a broken marriage and we were fumbling around in this strange new world of dating again at 50, and we felt awkward as hell. We comforted each other by admitting to each other how badly we were doing. Still, McCartney would tease me with “My sources tell me, Smith, that you have met a very attractive and promising woman, but that you have already messed it up.” And then we’d both laugh cause he’d blown it with somebody else.
I will never forget the lunch after his first date with Molly January 8,1983. It was as if the heavens had opened and manna, in the form of Molly Sinclair, whose byline I knew from the Washington Post, had fallen directly into his arms. McCartney was walking on air—like that Frank Sinatra song, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Molly was “it”—Jim knew it right away. (It took me nine more months to find my new wife, Susan).
In the Old Ebbitt, I learned that Sunny Jim knew how to have a good time. So I asked Molly what Jim did for their 25th wedding anniversary. The celebration, she said, lasted an entire year. He took her out to dinner, of course and then drove her to Washington to see family and friends, took her back to the place on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where he had proposed to her, took her to France for a vacation in a friend’s farmhouse.
Vintage McCartney. He did everything full-throttle. As Clark Hoyt said, he literally covered the world. From Saigon to Reykjavik. He was a relentless, tireless, persistent, tenacious, undaunted, unrelenting, never satisfied reporter. If other reporters had a question or two, McCartney had 37, mostly variations on the same question that the spokesman did not want to answer. He would gnaw on officials like Henry Kissinger, the way a dog gnaws on a bone. His philosophy was that these officials might get a paycheck from the government, but they worked for us. And they damn well better deliver. In fact, my notes say that’s a direct McCartney quote.
But his overriding passion was exposing the dangerous and overweening power of the U.S. military industrial complex. His sermon, of course, was President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell warning in 1961 about the ominous power of the Pentagon and its allies in industry and Congress. Ike inspired a McCartney series, which helped win him a Nieman fellowship in 1964.
But it was more than Ike that moved McCartney. His attitudes were shaped by his experience as a teenage infantryman in World War II. He was drafted into the Army right out of high school in 1943 and sent to southern France. He spent six months basically living in a foxhole in the Vosges Mountains—wearing a summer uniform because the military never got around to sending winter clothes. And he was wounded. But it wasn’t the wound or the physical conditions that got to him—it was the incompetence of the leadership. In high school, he had toyed with becoming a minister. The war changed all that. So when Eisenhower gave his warning, things all clicked for McCartney.
Now McCartney on his soapbox was a wonder to behold. He did not mince words. He not only wrote about the military industrial complex. He lectured at libraries around Florida, he taught courses at Georgetown University night school for adults. He was writing a book about it—nine chapters done before he died.
You can catch McCartney’s passion from his lecture titles:
- Topic A: “The American Empire—Can It Survive?”
- Topic B: “Wars Without End: Today’s America.”
Then he would hit them with blockbuster questions like:
- Why are we in Afghanistan 10 years after the original invasion with no firm commitment to get out?
- Why are we still in Iraq if the original purpose was to find weapons of mass destruction and they didn’t have any?
- Why is the defense budget larger today and still growing—even under President Obama—than it was during the Cold War, even though the Cold war has been over for 20 years?
- Has America developed powerful economic and political vested interests that drive us into unnecessary wars?
At Georgetown, his course on the foreign policy and the media was so popular, they asked him to do another one on politics and the media. Government officials and other mid-career professionals jammed his class. At his local library in Florida, McCartney was such a big draw that he had to give two lectures—one in the a.m. and one in the p.m.—to accommodate the crowd.
McCartney knew how to engage his audiences. He was provocative and they loved it. At Georgetown, he did case studies with an “I was there flavor”—this is what the government told us during the Cuban missile crisis, here’s what we wrote, and here’s what we learned a decade later. He loved puncturing myths, such as the Camelot claim that Kennedy faced down Khrushchev over the Soviet missiles in Cuba and the eager lapdog media gobbling up the line. But later, McCartney would reveal, it came out that Kennedy had struck a deal to appease the Russians, by agreeing to pull U.S. missiles out of Turkey.
McCartney was a smart, thoughtful caring guy in many other ways. He believed deeply in promoting democracy and in getting people to debate the issues. In Sarasota he helped found and run a major discussion group, the Forum. In the Gridiron Club he was a force for social change, a staunch supporter of women. Women were already members before Jim became club president, in the mid-’80’s, but male chauvinist attitudes lived on. Jim set out to change that—he made Cheryl Arvidson deputy music chairman and put Joan McKinney on the executive committee and urged the dudes to behave respectfully toward the gals. When the Maryland Club in Baltimore refused to serve the women on a visit to the costumer designers, McCartney personally took the women producers to lunch. He was that kind of gentleman.
But Gridiron, above all, is the show. To say Jim McCartney was a natural ham is a gross understatement. To say he loved center stage is putting it mildly. He was no Irish Tenor with a golden voice. But that did not stop McCartney. Every year, the producers found ways to cast McCartney for laughs—visuals, sight gags, make him an ostrich, a buffoon, a whirling dervish. It always worked because McCartney knew that the secret to laughs at Gridiron is to be ridiculous and have fun while you’re at it—the audience will eat it up.
His most memorable role—of many—was playing the witch doctor in the 1992 show. Bill Clinton, running for president, was talking about health care, and Cheryl Arvidson wrote great lyrics spoofing the Clinton plan but the big moment came when the Mighty Gridiron Chorus swung into the refrain:
Oooh, eee, oooh ah ah
That was McCartney’s moment in the sun—in his bogus African costume with a massive headdress and skulls and rabbits’ feet hanging all over his costume. She pranced, he danced, he whirled around the stage like a madman. He jingled and jangled and practically did cartwheels. The audience loved it, and McCartney loved it—and for many years after that, the mere mention of the witch doctor, would get McCartney on his feet again.
McCartney must have had his own witch doctor because he was always in such good shape. In fact, Ryan says that in mid-February the day before McCartney headed off to MD Anderson [Cancer Center] in Houston for radiation treatments, they played nine holes of golf. McCartney, 85 years old, diagnosed with cancer, but plucky as ever walked the course toting his clubs on a pull cart and the next morning, he was up at 6 o’clock for the 1,000-mile, two-day drive to Houston in his red convertible with Molly, and his golf clubs.
Vintage McCartney—full of energy, full of life—wisecracking his way through problems. Molly called him “the sunshine of my life”—said he never had a cloudy day. He was always up. Every day he walked the beach in Florida or swam in the Gulf of Mexico. No huffing and puffing, no wobbly knees when he bent down to pick up a shell, or tie a loose shoelace. Then back to the condo to watch the sun go down over Tampa Bay with Molly and a glass of cheap red wine.
Those are my McCartney images—giving hell to the military industrial complex and to government spokesmen, doing the whirling witch doctor—laughing his way through crazy-time lunches at the Old Ebbitt Grill. Sundown with that easy smile on his face and a passion for living at 110 percent.
That’s how I remember McCartney. He was that passionate kind of guy. Bon voyage, old buddy.