“Picking the bones of Eleven Presidents and Others,”
by Jerry Moriarity
The subtitle of Jerry Moriarity’s self-published collection of notes and anecdotes identifies it as a work “By a Journalist with Presidential Credentials.”
That’s both the good news and the bad.
Working for and editing small-town newspapers like the Star-Courier in Kewanee, Ill., Moriarity was able to get press credentials to cover presidential events — including White House press conferences. Over a 40-year newspaper career, that gave him the ability to collect a double-handful of interesting stories about U.S. presidents from Truman through Bush II.
You got to hand it to the guy, a self-proclaimed Irish Catholic Democrat who lives half the year on Little Pine Lake near Perham, Minn.: He was there, he was paying attention, and he kept great notes. Along with those interesting anecdotes, Moriarity pulled together a fun and insightful bit which he called “creating an ideal president.” Naming each of the 11 presidents he interviewed, he offered his opinion about the characteristic of each that he valued.
- Truman — feisty decisiveness;
- Eisenhower — popularity;
- Reagan — intuition.
Too close to the newsmakers?
As good reading and as insightful as “Picking the Bones” is, I couldn’t help but get the sense that at some point Moriarity’s “covering” the presidents wasn’t more about his own being near the seat of power than about reporting. I’m not sure what the editor of the Kewanee, Ill., Star-Courier gets for his readers by being at a presidential press conference.
I have a hard time with all the posed photos of a newsman and the person he is supposed to be writing objectively about.
And some of the questions that Moriarity writes that he asked those presidents made the journalist in me squirm.
There’s a wonderful little story about the author being in the right place at the right time to show Sen. John F. Kennedy — campaigning for the presidency in Peoria, Ill., in 1959 — the way to the men’s room! Moriarity says he’ll direct him if Kennedy will answer a question for him. The future president comes out of the restroom and makes good on his promise to answer a question in return for the favor.
So what does Moriarity ask? “What is Peter Lawford really like?”
Balance, for the most part
Moriarity doesn’t pull punches for the most part, telling it like he saw it. He calls Lyndon Baines Johnson “a dangerous egotistical hypocrite,” but one who knew how to wield power and did some good by pushing civil rights legislation through Congress.
Moriarity himself became a bit of a celebrity by writing an editorial that called for reasonableness in judging a disgraced Richard M. Nixon. The piece was carried — by Moriarity’s count — in 573 newspapers across the country.
The chapter on Nixon is where a touch of hypocrisy blooms. Moriarity acknowledges that he “supported Nixon,” but them is critical of the folks at National Public Radio when, touring NPR studios, he sees a sign that reads “Impeach Nixon.” Pretty hard to charge others with being biased when you are, too.
On balance, though, by publishing this memoir Moriarity has preserved some great anecdotes and given a glimpse of a world of reporting that is no more, for better and for worse. I’m glad he did. — bz