Earlier this month Charles McDowell, who was on the staff of the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 1949 until 1998, died at the age of 84. For most of his career McDowell was the paper’s Washington correspondent, and for 44 of those years he also produced a nationally syndicated column. He reached his widest audience, however, through public television – as a longtime panelist on Washington Week In Review, and, most famously, as one of the talking heads in Ken Burns’s mammoth miniseries The Civil War.
In contrast to the more urbane manner of the other Richmond-based journalist to gain national fame after 1950 (James J. Kilpatrick, who died earlier this year), McDowell’s aw-shucks demeanor and his slow-spoken way might have made some regard him as a country boy from the Shenandoah Valley who had somehow made his way up to the Beltway. In fact, he was raised in the quite intellectual and fairly sophisticated atmosphere of Lexington, Virginia, where his father was a professor of law at Washington and Lee University, and his columns showed him a quite perceptive observer of the ways of Washington and his native state.
On the day of his passing the Times-Dispatch’s site put up his column that appeared in newspapers around the country in August 1974, describing his drive from Lexington to Washington in the hours preceding President Nixon’s speech announcing his resignation. It evokes both the more laid-back Old Dominion of its time and the conflicted feelings many had as the moment of RN’s departure from office approached. Here’s a representative passage, which touches upon that all-but-vanished American institution, the evening daily, and concludes with what seems to be a humorous note, but might well be an allusion to that politician whose career RN studied, Benjamin Disraeli, who said, upon becoming British Prime Minister, “I have reached the top of the greasy pole.”
The first copies of the afternoon Waynesboro News-Virginian came off the press at 1:47, just two minutes late. A traveler bought a stickily fresh one at the front counter of the newspaper office.
The streamer headline said: Nixon to Quit. It was printed in red ink.
Pat Velenovsky, the managing editor, was sitting at a desk in the newsroom looking at the red headline. It was the first red one he had ever used. The type was the largest he could get, 72 point, and it had been doubled in size by a photographic process.
Velenovsky had written the headline early in the morning, and decided about noon to use it when a wire service reported that the Republican leader in the House, John J. Rhodes, had said the President definitely was resigning.
Edward P. Berlin Jr., the editor of The News-Virginian, walked in looking at the red headline and said he hoped Velenovsky would like it as much after the Presidents speech as he did right now.
Velenovsky said he was not coming to work Friday if the red headline was wrong.
Berlin went back to his office and resumed drafting an editorial for today. Gazing at the paper in the typewriter, he said, I have never known a man who wanted to be remembered by history as much as Richard Nixon. I have a sympathetic feeling for the man. Maybe Ford will have a chance to pull things back together.
There was sunshine on Afton mountain, puddles beside Interstate 64. The big No. 1 [a local radio station] had an announcement at 2:15: at the Greater Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Fair there would be a greased-pole-climbing at contest at 10 p.m.