Incomparably the First Political Journalist of Her Time
On June 9, 1954, the Senate-Army hearings produced a dramatic confrontation as Army counsel Joseph Welch blurted to Senator Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Doris Fleeson had been following the rise of McCarthyism for three years. Her voice had been among the most prominent in defining manifestations of the brief period in history now known as an era.
Her column had contained vivid denunciations, beginning in June 1951 following the attack on General George Marshall. “For one thing is perfectly certain,” she wrote. “If Joe McCarthy can undermine the reputation of Gen. George Marshall, Joe McCarthy can become the dictator of the United States of America.”
Rhetorically, Fleeson had prodded Eisenhower to denounce the Senator. Now, following the explosive session in the summer of 1954, she wrote: “That flower of evil which is McCarthyism bloomed in the Senate caucus room late Wednesday, rank and noxious, a fitting funeral blossom for the death of a republic.”
Fleeson was in the most productive time of her career, syndicated in seventy newspapers and cited by Time magazine as the “top news hen” in Washington. Although she was a well known liberal, her following bridged political lines. Typical was a letter in response to the June 10th column:
I invariably read your articles with eager appreciation for you are the most lucid, brief, crystal clear writer in my humble opion I know of. Today you surpassed even yourself. What you said was like a diamond writing on glass. I thank you for being so supremely articulate in so few words and for expressing what so many of us feel regarding this creature McCarthy’s latest and most revolting action.
The letter was signed Peggy Talbott, with a postscript: “Dont please answer this, just keep on writing!”
Helen Thomas, looking back over fifty years, focused on this essence of Fleeson’s writing. Thomas had come to Washington in the middle of World War II, and was ”a gofer, or copy boy” on the old Washington Daily News. It was at about this time that Doris began her column. “She was very careful when she wrote,” Thomas observed. “What struck me was that in conversations she was on her soapbox and could be very vehement. Her columns were straight, balanced, unbiased . . . they were so intelligent and they uplifted you. She was trying to find some sort of logic in things, which I think was wonderful.”
Liz Carpenter remembers Fleeson and her long-running campaign against discrimination of women journalists. “She was the top reporter in town when I went there,” Carpenter said. “She was short, attractive, thin and full of bustle. She had been president of the Women’s National Press Club and, you know, she was well established and you admired this woman who had carved her way into being significant at the President’s press conferences and had significant bylines.”
The late Mary McGrory, in a letter dated March 29, 1996, on her Washington Post letterhead, wrote, “She was my idol. . . ." McGrory, in her “appreciation” following Doris’ death in 1970, referred to her as “incomparably the first political journalist of her time.” Ben Bradlee, in A Good Life, remembers Fleeson as "one of the toughest and smartest political columnists ever."
She was, in fact, the first woman in the United States to become a nationally syndicated political columnist. She began with the Bell Syndicate in 1945, and became affiliated with United Features Syndicate in 1954. By 1958 her column was distributed to one hundred twenty newspapers reaching about eight million families.
She was said to differ from colleagues in that she was first a reporter, and certainly not a thumb-sucker. Readers looked to her for amazing behind-the-scenes contacts. To Eric Sevareid in 1958 she was “the finest woman reporter of the time.”
Born in 1901 in Sterling, Kansas, she was a graduate of the University of Kansas, and eager to leave Kansas for the East. She credited early police beat reporting on The New York Daily News, where she began in 1927. In 1933 the News sent Doris and her husband, John O’Donnell, to open a bureau in Washington at the beginning of the Roosevelt administration. They were young and liberal; Liz Carpenter said she can imagine the O’Donnells being welcome in “that fabulous era.”
When the O’Donnells divorced in 1942, the News recalled Doris to New York. She left the News a year later to become a war correspondent in Europe for Woman’s Home Companion magazine.
Her column, launched after the war, quickly gathered momentum. She had a talent, Time observed, for criticizing public figures without losing them as friends—or sources. Newsweek in 1957 suggested that there was almost no Washington figure, Republican or Democrat, “who has not felt the sharp edge of her typewriter."
Although Fleeson publicly characterized the pampering by the press of politicians as a crime so heinous it should be forbidden by law, she cultivated celebrities. Those who became personal friends were Eleanor Roosevelt, Bernard Baruch, Harry and Bess Truman, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and Adlai Stevenson.
Jacqueline Kennedy wrote in 1960, when Doris defended her from critics during the presidential campaign:
I cannot tell you how touched and grateful I am that you should write such a thing—you are so many altitudes above “women’s page” subjects—so for you to write about it means more than you can imagine.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a special aide in the Kennedy administration, also knew Doris at that time. The historian, considering what Doris was really like, spoke of “her wit, her capacity for affection, her joy in the absurdities of life.”
Today, her name is forgotten. That fact must puzzle historians. It would not have pleased Calder Pickett, who was professor of journalism at the University of Kansas.
Pickett in 1978 wrote an article for the alumni magazine relating “a distressing experience” in his history of journalism class. In the final exam he included the name of Doris Fleeson. The students bombed. Some had her confused with Dorothy Thompson, and the rest, he said, “might as well have had her confused with Horace Greeley.” Pickett wrote:
So I went back and looked at my notes, and convinced myself that I had given some attention to the great Doris, and concluded that I must have bombed. Because if there is any 20th Century journalist whose identity I want in the possession of my students it is Doris Fleeson.
For Doris Fleeson was—and is—my journalistic passion. Doris Fleeson was part of a great journalistic tradition. Her column ranked with any of them—not as ivory tower as that of Lippmann, maybe, but oh, how she could write, and how she could dig.