Quaker Journalism

Mark Tooley on April 17, 2023

Drew Pearson was a notoriously controversial and popular investigative newspaper columnist and radio (later television) pundit who targeted government corruption across 40 years and who was sometimes simply known as the “son of a b-tch,” including by Presidents Truman and Nixon. He was also a Quaker whose egalitarian views about justice and equality informed his unrelenting crusading spirit. 

Historian Arthur Schlesinger said Pearson was “continuously and freshly outraged – no doubt because of his Quaker conscience – by each new case of malfeasance.”

No respecter of persons, Pearson’s pugilistic, irreverent journalism in 600 newspapers read by tens of millions reflected the Christian call to humble the mighty and exalt the lowly. 

Telling the story is a recent biography: The Columnist: Leaks, Lies, and Libel in Drew Pearson’s Washington by Donald Ritchie. Pearson’s “Washington-Merry-Go-Round” daily column, later shared on radio and television, was published 1932-1969 under his direction.  His successor, the nearly equally despised and feared Jack Anderson, a devout Mormon whom G. Gordon Liddy once considered assassinating on behalf of the Nixon Administration, perpetuated the column until 2004.  

Presidents from FDR to Nixon loathed and denounced Pearson when not trying to win his favor.  Winston Churchill called him “the most colossal liar in the United States” for questioning British policy in India.  Pearson specialized in exposing secrets that politicians preferred kept secret but that he thought Americans had a duty to know.  He professed to be a patriot who only revealed what would not endanger national security.  General George Marshall credited him as one of the U.S. Army’s best inspectors general for exposing military corruption.  For years he was a friend to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover until a falling out.  Despite his opposition to the Vietnam War, LBJ kept Pearson close, knowing his influence was wide. 

Pearson was routinely and proudly sued for defamation but prevailed in all of the over 120 lawsuits but one.  He refused libel insurance and declined legal protection from his syndicate of newspapers, accepting for himself the full cost of litigation so there would be no hindrance to his reporting.  Over his career he spent the equivalent of perhaps $5 million on litigation. “If something smells wrong, I go to work,” he explained of his investigative technique, which was partly intuitive and partly based on decades of experience in Washington, DC. 

Quakers profess modesty but historically are often ambitious and highly successful through their diligence, thrift, and ceaseless work, featuring as evidence in Max Weber’s thesis about the Protestant Work Ethic.  Pearson easily fit into this caricature, his ambition to both do good and advance himself almost without limits.  He married a young heiress, the daughter of Washington, DC newspaper publisher Cissy Patterson, which elevated him to the front social ranks in the nation’s capital.  In his successful marriage proposal, he promised his young bride an easy divorce if she was not happy within two years, a promise she gladly accepted two years later when divorcing him.  Lacking Quaker personal morality, he admitted in his diary to a later tryst with his formidable mother-in-law after his divorce.

The mother-in-law had easily discounted his divorce with her daughter and aggressively promoted his career.  An anti-war isolationist before World War II, just like her cousin and fellow newspaper mogul Colonel Robert McCormick of Chicago, Patterson would not forgive Pearson for his pro-interventionist perspective.  She publicly denounced him as cockroach and “phony Quaker who thee’d and thou’d his way out of World War I.”

Throughout his career, Pearson was an internationalist who championed America’s role in the world for security and democracy. He called peacemaking the highest goal of his Quaker faith.  But he backed World War II and the Korean War, telling his draft age stepson: “Despite all these faults, I feel very deeply that our country has just about reached the peak of idealism and unselfishness and power for good every before seen in the world.”   

One of Pearson’s biggest battles was with Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose unsubstantiated claims about mass communist subversion Pearson unceasingly challenged. McCarthy once physically choked and hit Pearson at a private Washington club, with Vice President Richard Nixon pulling them apart.  Pearson estimated that his anti-McCarthy campaign cost him $100,000 in annual income, or well over $1 million in today’s dollars, through lost radio and television sponsorships.  But he had no regrets.  Pearson rarely had regrets. 

At his dinner table, Pearson invited all guests to join hands and join him in a silent Quaker prayer. It would have been a rare moment of inactive silence for him. He was unceasing until he died, under Nixon, a Quaker president of whom he was not fond.  Nixon regretted having protected Pearson from being punched by Joe McCarthy.

In Pearson’s obituary, The Times of London observed that he had “brought a good deal of trouble on himself,” speculating that “perhaps because of his Quaker background, and his own private vision of what the United States should be, he expected too much of his fellow Americans.”

The restlessness and impatience with corruption and injustice were no doubt legacies of Pearson’s Quaker background.  At times he was lacking in Quaker mercy and personal moral discipline.  But his insistence on transparency and integrity in government, at least as he defined it, helped shape America across the Depression, World War II, the Cold War and Civil Rights era. 

A series of autobiographical articles he wrote for The Saturday Evening Post were titled by him “Confessions of an S.O.B.”  His unrelenting journalistic labors, obnoxious to many of his targets, sometimes went too far.  But more often they illustrated the glories of a free and Christian-influenced society in which government never goes unchallenged.

  1. Comment by Stan Jefferson on April 24, 2023 at 11:10 pm

    Some years ago I sat next to the daughter of Jack Anderson, Drew Pearson’s successor, on an airplane to Los Angeles. She had no use for then-current President Obama, to which I remarked so surprise, as I always took her father for a liberal. “He was a Kennedy liberal,” she said. “He would churn in his grave if he were alive to see what the country had become today.” How true.

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