Washington When I was a young reporter here in the 1960s, this city was full of people who did their jobs not only with skill and energy but with unquestioned integrity. We didn’t think much about it then, so commonplace was it, but when three of them died almost simultaneously last month, I remembered how vital their example really was.
I’ll show my own biased nature by pointing out that a disproportionate share — two out of three — came right out of my own field of newspapering: J.F. “Jerry” terHorst and Liz Carpenter. The third was Stewart L. Udall, himself a key player in the House of Representatives and the big brother of his successor in the House, Morris “Mo” Udall, one of my all-time favorite politicians.
The three have little in common except character — and this: At crucial times in their lives, each of them abandoned what had been a comfortable life to take on a harder challenge and met it superbly.
Back then and for long years afterward, Jerry terHorst was one of my closest friends in Washington. Four of us who worked for afternoon dailies in Detroit, St. Louis, Newark and Washington with Sunday editions got together with a crazy scheme. We wanted to do joint interviews with important newsmakers that would run in our Sunday papers and scoop “Meet the Press” and the other Sunday morning TV shows.
It never worked, and eventually we gave up the idea. But not before I learned what dogged, devoted reporters my three colleagues, terHorst, George Kentera and Richard Dudman were.
Jerry had covered Gerald Ford as a young congressional candidate in Grand Rapids. When Ford became president after Richard Nixon’s resignation, he reached out to terHorst, naming him press secretary, as he told the White House reporters, in hopes of keeping “the kind of rapport and friendship which we had in the past.”
A month later, the hopes withered when terHorst resigned to protest Ford’s pardon of Nixon, one of the rare times anyone has quit a senior government post as a matter of principle.
Carpenter, a fifth generation Texan with a crown of white hair, covered Washington for Texas papers with her husband, Les, until 1960, when she joined Lyndon Johnson, just nominated for vice president. She went to the White House with him and Lady Bird, where her smarts and irrepressible sense of humor survived the tumultuous years of his presidency.
She fought chauvinism in the Washington press corps and the wider world and treated aging with the same scorn she showed male jerks. In the last Carpenter speech I heard, she said she had just come across an envelope from the Alzheimer’s Association and thought to herself, “I’m getting to the point I ought to send them something. So I opened the envelope and read, ‘Thank you for your contribution.’”
Udall, a precursor of today’s Blue Dogs, made his reputation in the House of Representatives by standing up to huge pressure from the Teamsters and other unions and fighting for passage of labor legislation in the late 1950s.
His biggest political gamble came in challenging the conservative Democratic establishment of Arizona to deliver the 1960 convention delegation to John F. Kennedy. Udall went on to become one of the best interior secretaries ever, whose achievements include national parks and public lands across the nation.
The last time I saw him, a couple years ago at a Bush administration tribute in the Interior Department building to the Udall legacy, he was nearly blind but still enthusiastically working on a movie script about the West. His son and his nephew continue his heritage by serving in the Senate.
TerHorst, Carpenter and Stewart Udall not only accepted but welcomed every challenge. They were examples for the rest of us.