James M. Perry, who died November 23 last year at 89, grew up on the Philadelphia Main Line. He served as a Marine at the end of World War II, cadging a good job in Washington as a writer for Leatherneck magazine. He earned a degree from Trinity College, where he played baseball against George Herbert Walker Bush’s Yale team (Yale won). In 1950 he joined the Hartford Times as a $45-a-week reporter and began a remarkable journalistic career of nearly 50 years, with particular distinction in political reporting. For nearly a decade he wrote a column—“Politics by Perry”—in the now-defunct Dow Jones weekly newspaper, the National Observer. When it folded in 1977, he became the chief political reporter for the Wall Street Journal, a job he held for some 20 years.
Jim Perry’s name and byline may not ring with instant recognition down to the current day, but he is worth remembering in this era of newspaper decay, internet hit jobs, television punditry, social media, and celebrity worship. He was a throwback to the journalism of yore—increasingly a distant memory—when reporters actually reported the news with depth and breadth and gave it to their readers straight up, like a good shot of bourbon. Jim Perry never pursued a sideline career as television commentator. He never hobnobbed with the people he wrote about. He never sought to exploit his proximity to power in pursuit of riches and fame.
TAC readers who remember Perry’s byline probably will note that he wasn’t a conservative. But he never showed signs of committed liberalism either. Through 12 years of working with him closely at both the Observer and the Journal, I never discerned any ideological fervor one way or another, though he did harbor the typical reporter’s instinctive regard for the underdog and the little guy. What mostly drove his judgments of people and institutions was an overriding aversion to sham. He despised phonies and could see them coming from several blocks away on a crowded sidewalk.
But his response to such people wasn’t outrage so much as amusement. The parade of human ambition, hypocrisy, and folly, so much a part of official Washington, filled him with delight, for it provided fodder for the endless stream of wry observations and gentle cynicism that leavened his always perceptive and probing reporting on major developments of the political scene. He loved politicians who didn’t take themselves seriously—Oregon’s Gov. Tom McCall, for example, or Arizona’s Rep. Morris Udall.
As a political reporter, Perry operated on two rules that a couple generations of Wall Street Journal reporters applied to the trade. The first was: don’t take seriously politicians who don’t know history. A history buff himself (and the author of six books on American politics and history), he knew that politicians without a sense of their nation’s past often lacked perspective, and the lack of perspective often led them astray. As something of a Perry protégé, I sought to apply the rule to my own political reporting—and discovered he was right about that perspective thing.
The other was for feature writing. A stylist of rare literary elegance, Perry always led his stories with his best stuff—the most amusing quote, the most dramatic anecdote, the most telling event. He acknowledged that sometimes the best stuff didn’t necessarily reflect the main point of the story, in which case the writing challenge was to build some kind of literary bridge between the lead and the point of the story. But however long or rickety that bridge, he always led with his best stuff—and quickly seized his readers’ attention.
He was also famous around the Observer newsroom and the Journal bureau as the fastest writer anyone had ever seen. At the 1980 Republican National Convention, Perry and his colleague Albert R. Hunt crafted a long WSJ piece exploring Reagan’s inexplicable decision to place former President Gerald Ford on his ticket as vice president. With press deadlines evaporating, Hunt, on the convention floor, got wind that that idea had exploded and the pick would be George H.W. Bush. He grabbed a phone and alerted the Journal’s work area. As Hunt recalls it, Perry was assigned to produce the dramatic new story—and batted out 1,700 beautifully crafted words in 29 minutes. Reading it now, you’d never know it was a deadline effort, let alone a 29-minute effort.
Perry never trusted so-called experts. They often got things wrong, he would say, and sometimes could be manipulated for partisan purposes. In his book on the press corps covering the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse relates that the Nixon campaign had a New York State Police official along to estimate crowds at various Nixon events and motorcades. This “expert’’ told reporters that some 700,000 people had turned out to welcome the president to Atlanta. The press corps bought it—except for Perry. He phoned the Atlanta Public Works Department and learned that each city block was about 400 feet long. He generously calculated that 400 people had lined each block, five rows deep, both sides of the street, for 15 blocks. That would be only 60,000 people. But he threw in another 15,000 to cover the side streets between the blocks. Thus was Perry the only reporter to question the official campaign estimate and present an accurate picture of the crowd.
Crouse described Perry’s coverage as “original, discursive, and amusing without being partisan.’’
He possessed a knack for getting himself to settings that others in the press corps didn’t consider important—but which could provide some amusing or telling anecdote that would set Washington tongues wagging in merriment or appreciation. The next time you hear the term “amiable dunce,’’ take a moment to note that that famous quote from Washington insider Clark Clifford never would have seen the light of print had not Perry decided to do a story on Pamela Harriman’s famous Georgetown salon—Pammy’s PAC, as it was known—where Clifford uttered the famous put-down of Ronald Reagan, a quote he would never live down. Reagan had the last laugh.
Perry’s contribution to American journalism was recognized in 1997, when he was awarded the prestigious Fourth Estate Award by the National Press Club, an honor he shared with such luminaries of the trade as Theodore H. White, Eric Sevareid, Mary McGrory, Robert Novak, and Jim Lehrer. Some years later he developed blood-circulation problems that required the loss of a leg. Though confined to a wheelchair, he got around fine, with his legions of friends picking him up for lunch or dinner outings. He nurtured his passion for writing by producing intermittent pieces of political observation and reminiscence for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, edited by onetime Perry colleague David Shribman. To the last he produced pieces that were “original, discursive and amusing, without being partisan,’’ though he didn’t much care for some of the people around Donald Trump.
Then he learned that ongoing circulation difficulties required the amputation of his last leg. His body rebelled. Feeling ill, he was taken to hospital, where his organs began shutting down, one by one. It seems he had decided to die with that last leg intact. And so he did. RIP.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive and author of books on American history, is the editor of The American Conservative.