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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
29 Aug 2015
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There Really WAS Something About Mary


Nothing is more treasured in newspaper work than the truly memorable lead — the opening lines in any story or piece that grabs the reader's attention and makes her read on.

The late Ed Lahey, a legendary reporter for the late Chicago Daily News, is credited with writing an unsurpassed lead in reporting the murder of Richard Loeb by a fellow prison inmate. Loeb and Nathan Leopold had been two young, spoiled and precocious Chicago college students who were convicted of the "thrill killing" of a youngster named Bobby Franks. The famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow helped them avoid execution. But in prison, Loeb was murdered by a fellow prisoner who argued, successfully, that he had inflicted 58 razor cuts in self-defense while resisting unwelcome sexual advances from Loeb.

Here was Ed Lahey's lead the next day: "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, ended his sentence with a proposition."

The late Mary McGrory of the late Washington Star and The Washington Post, the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, was the master of the great lead.

Here are just a few examples from a new book of her selected columns, "The Best of Mary McGrory," edited by her erstwhile colleague and devoted friend Phil Gailey, editorial page editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

On Sept. 28, 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis had, in a televised debate with his opponent, George H.W. Bush, given an emotionally bloodless and bureaucratic answer to the question of how he, an opponent of capital punishment, would react if his wife were raped and murdered. In that same debate, Bush continued to ungrammatically fracture the King's English.

Mary wrote: "The debate sharpened the choice. Americans know they can vote for a man who can't express his thoughts, or a man who can't express his feelings."

In those tear-stained days following Nov. 22, 1963, each piece she wrote — and she must have written a half dozen that long weekend — was even better than the next.

Her lead I treasure was: "Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's funeral, it can be said he would have liked it.

It had that decorum and dash that were in his special style. It was both splendid and spontaneous. It was full of children and princes, of gardeners and governors."

After the 1968 assassination and funeral of the American civil rights leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize, Mary wrote: "Between confrontations and marches, honors and imprisonments, Martin Luther King Jr. always went home to Ebenezer Baptist Church in a poor section of Atlanta.

"They brought him back for the last time yesterday, and his people bade him farewell in a way that explained his life and restored gentleness to his death."

Of course, it wasn't just her leads that made her such a joy and treat to read. She wrote lyrically to comfort the afflicted and, yes, to afflict the comfortable. Asked in an interview if she ever had trouble maintaining objectivity on a story, Mary spoke the unvarnished truth: "Yes, about 85 percent of the time. ... I was very much against the Vietnam War, and I don't like the way we treat children."

Nobody ever wrote better about presidents, war, impeachments and the human condition. She could capture in a sentence what her colleagues could not convey in paragraphs. House speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill "was a stranger to self-importance."

After the nation learned about President Bill Clinton having oral sex in the Oval Office on Easter Sunday after church, Mary, the honest liberal, wrote: "The American people don't want Clinton impeached. In a way, they think impeachment is too good for him. What he did, while reprehensible and disgusting, was not a blot on the Constitution. It never rises to that dignity."

If you treasure wonderful writing or if you just enjoy the company of rogues and rascals, or if you just want to savor the work of one of America's truly great journalists, buy this book. Read it, and give it to a child you love.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




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