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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Let's start from the beginning, Mary Ellen, which would be when you were born and where you were born and all the details about that.
Leary: I'll start with a year — which is the most ominous part — 1913, April 21st, in Salt Lake City. I had a twin brother who arrived first and I weighed only about four pounds, I've been told. There was a certain anxiety as to whether I would last but I lasted.
Biagi: I think so.
Leary: Dad [William Henry Leary] was a lawyer in Salt Lake. He had come from Massachusetts and had his law at the University of Chicago and had gotten into Salt Lake and found that he liked the West very much and settled there, in spite of the fact that with the dominant Mormon community it wasn't awfully promising for a Catholic to be coming here as a practicing lawyer but he found a base. And my mother [Alice Marie Lynch] met him when she was vacationing and then they were married and along came my brother Bill and me. And after that all together five children. And then unfortunately my mother died.
And Dad struggled along with a housekeeper taking care of us but the tragedy was that one of the four boys — they were all boys, I was the only girl — Jimmy got pneumonia — it was a period when there was a lot of pneumonia, and he died from it. And my mother's sister Josephine, Aunt Jo, her last name was Hotz, came from Omaha for Jimmy's funeral and volunteered to take the baby, Dan, back with her. He was the same age as her son. And she took him back and unfortunately the next year, he died of meningitis.
Biagi: So this left your father —
Leary: That left Dad with three children then, instead of five, two boys and one girl. And having had three funerals which left him — that was pretty hard on him. He was very active, of course, in Catholic things but also in Irish activities. And at that time the Irish Free State movement had won a great deal of sympathy in this country and people were active in both raising money and rallying spirits and trying to express what Ireland was saying against England's dominance.
And Dad helped set up a meeting in Salt Lake for Terrence McSweeney's sister — I think her name was Mary. McSweeney had been the mayor of Cork and had starved himself to death for Ireland. He was one of the very first people who ever used the refusing-to-eat demonstration for his cause. His sister was on a fundraising trip and with her was her secretary, Catherine Flanagan. And Dad met Catherine and they fell for each other and were married.
And she was a very interesting woman because she had been very active in the suffragette movement and one of those who had gone to jail after padlocking herself to the White House gates and that kind of thing. But I think she was pretty floored to find herself with three kids when she was trying this new experience at married life. And besides that, she had children, she had three. And ultimately, she died, too, and left Dad with a new family of three little kids.
Biagi: Plus you and your brother and —
Leary: My two brothers, Jack and Bill —
Biagi: There were six kids altogether.
Leary: And so there were six all together. Well, when Catherine died, my aunt, and my grandmother on my mother's side, my mother's mother, said, "You know, you've got these three younger children" — the youngest, Virginia, was then less than two — "why don't we help by taking the three older kids, Marie's children," my mother's children, "and see if they can be helped. We would, you know, ease it for you."
Well, I went back with my grandmother and my brother Bill went back to a boys' school in Dubuque, Iowa, which a relative was running, a Catholic school and he was a priest. And Bill was always kind of rambunctious and I'm not sure that tamed him as much as the family thought it might. But he would come over with my aunt on vacations. And I was with my grandmother and then with my aunt in Omaha. They were a wonderful family and very supportive and encouraging, that kind of thing.
Biagi: You could describe for me your father at this time, how would you describe him?
Leary: He had an awfully good, lively mind, he really did. And he was impatient with trivial talk and wanted you to talk about serious things, which was a little overwhelming as a child. But dinner, though, at home always had been a very interesting time of conversation about either world events or something serious. School was permitted, to talk about that, but not on a trivial basis. He was quite autocratic in his running of the household but I can understand that he was a little overwhelmed with trying to keep the income coming in and at the same time run the family.
About three years after he and my mother were married, he was invited to become dean of the University of Utah School of Law. For a while he combined that with practice but ultimately became full-time dean. And the school then had no faculty at all, it was simply relying on lawyers in town that they could call up for lectures. He built it into a very — one of the most respectable law schools in the West. And he not only built it, he did quite a bit of writing and was I think an outstanding teacher. He taught torts himself. He was dean for thirty-two years and today, if you say that in an academic circle, people kind of faint because the idea of being able to endure it that long would be overwhelming. Today they're supposed to be gathering money and doing all kinds of things, battling women demanding their rights and so forth.
Biagi: So you went to live with your grandparents then, your maternal grandparents.
Biagi: And went to school —
Leary: In Sioux City. And went to school there at the Catholic school. And my schooling — except the first three years were at an experimental school at the University of Utah. But after that I went to a Catholic school. And in Sioux City went to a Catholic school, Cathedral school. And was lucky enough to have a very good teacher in the seventh grade, I think got me interested, I mean, made me pay attention about learning. When I was a senior in high school, my grandmother died and I then moved down with my aunt.
And I went to Duchesne College which was run by the Society of the Sacred Heart which was an order that had been founded in France to teach the children of the nobility. And I'm afraid that they still had some of that approach at the time I was there. I used to resent it a good deal because I hadn't any sense of belonging to the layer of society that had a lot of money because we'd always had to scramble on Dad's university salary — which was very meager with that big a family. But there were a lot of daughters of pretty wealthy people —
it was a girls' school.* It was a part of Creighton University, which was a Jesuit school. Creighton had a medical school that was outstanding — it has now many schools that are outstanding. It's quite an important university in the Middle West.
Biagi: And this was an all-girls' school?
Leary: Creighton is — no, it wasn't. Creighton initally was all boys but about the time I was there they were beginning to have women come into the classes. Duchesne was all girls. It was a kind of finishing school type thing. And it was very hard for me to go in as a senior in high school because all the girls in the class had started in elementary school and gone to that same school all the way. They all knew each other so. And I was very much the stranger, outlander. However, college was in an adjacent building but in the same structure. And I went on there and had four years of college there.
Biagi: Who got you involved in the literary magazine? I know that you were involved in that.
Leary: Well, yes, what really saved my sanity in that kind of a school where there was not as much pressure, there was not as much focus and priority on really learning as in sort of being there and having fun. There were a few classes in which the girls were all playing bridge behind their books and that kind of thing. But there was one of the nuns, Mother MacAdam, who had the responsibility of getting out the literary monthly magazine that the school put out. And when I was just a sophomore, she asked me to be editor of it, which was kind of nice. That taught me an awful lot, just a great deal about the whole approach toward getting something published and deadlines and getting people who promised to write for you to be sure they get it in on time. And it was very interesting. And after that then I got into some journalism classes at Creighton and got onto Creighton's daily newspaper — it was a weekly — and onto their monthly literary magazine, too.
Biagi: Were there any other women in the journalism classes at Creighton?
Leary: Not at that time.
Biagi: And there were no journalism classes offered at —
Leary: No, not at Duchesne.
Biagi: Duchesne. So you walked —
Leary: I walked down to the campus, yes, which was about ten or twelve blocks.
Biagi: So after college and graduating from college, what happened then?
Leary: Well, what was happening all along was the Depression. And I had gotten a teacher's credential because that's what you were expected to do. And everybody in the family was expecting me to apply someplace for teaching. But my father wisely thought that I could stand a little bit more education. And he suggested I apply for, and I did, a scholarship at Stanford. So that's how I came West, came West again, having, of course, considered Utah pretty much West. I had this scholarship and that was a big help —
Biagi: How long had there been women on the Stanford campus at the time you applied, do you know?
* Mary Ellen Leary said later that she wished she had mentioned that "the Society of the Sacred Heart has drastically changed in current times — very devoted to the poor and such."
Leary: Well, a few years but not many. A couple of years before that — I did try to find out and get dates but nobody in the newsroom could tell me. I went there in '34, which is — fall of '34, I graduated in June. And that year for the first time Stanford had seven hundred women. I assume they started with five hundred and I think that that was about three years or four years before, something like that. But probably related to the Depression, too, I would think maybe.
At any rate, having come out there then, I got a room in a professor's house and some other students came out. And kind of by chance two sisters [were there] from Iowa who became very close friends and one of them, Mary Wood, now Mary Lawrence, has been one of my lifelong friends, very close to me. She married somebody at Stanford and went back to Williams where he was head of the philosophy department.
I just loved Stanford and it was very exciting for me to be in an atmosphere where there really was so much interest in learning.
Biagi: You were an English major, now.
Biagi: You were studying English. Was that easy for you? Had that been your undergraduate work?
Leary: It was difficult for me — my problem at Stanford was that I had specialized in writing classes and doing everything that I could about that aspect of English literature and I was way behind on my reading. So I had kind of a scramble and actually I had to have another semester just to kind of get myself there. And I'm still embarrassed about not having as good a classical background as I should have, not in the class at all with my friend Mary Lawrence who has taught English literature and overwhelms me [with] how much she knows.
Biagi: I wanted to go back to Sioux City a minute and talk about your grandfather. You told me that there had been a woman at the Sioux City paper that you'd been influenced by, you felt in a way.
Leary: Well, it was kind of my introduction, anyway, to the possibility of reporting. Living with my grandparents and loving them both but being particularly intrigued by my grandfather. And after school I would go down to his insurance office and be allowed to use a typewriter and so forth and stay there and then go home with him for dinner. And that intrigued me much more than the idea of going home and helping cook dinner or something. And my grandfather was a wonderful man and a great companion.
He told me about — when I began talking about wanting to do writing and so forth — about a woman on the Sioux City Tribune who was covering the courts and doing, as he put it, just as good a job as a man. And he introduced me to her. And she said, "Would you like to come along with me on Saturday? I'm going to be covering the county fair," or something like that. I thought that was the most exciting day I'd ever had in my life. And found her able to go and just question anybody that she wanted to about things and taking notes. And it did open my eyes to the possibility of a career. And I don't know that I consciously at that time said, "I'm going to be a reporter," but I remembered it as an experience. And then step by step things kind of led me. But while at Stanford, I didn't take journalism, wasn't interested in it. I felt very strongly that I needed to do much more reading and improve any aspirations about writing in that direction.
Then as I was about to get my master's degree and move on, I began looking for jobs in San Francisco. I went to a lot of publishing houses and got nowhere. It was still the Depression time. So then finally someone reminded me that the editorial writer of the San Francisco News had been in school with my mother in Sioux City. And that got me inside the door of the San Francisco News and I talked with him, George West. And he introduced me to the city editor who at that time was looking for a secretary. So he hired me on and then said, "Oh, by the way, do you type?" I said, "Well, I never studied it but I sort of peck around at it," which was about what I did.
And another time, he said to me, or somebody else on the staff said to me, "Would you take a letter?" And I started to write it down kind of longhand with my own short notes, shorthand, my own version of it. And they were a little scornful — "Don't you do shorthand?" So I then very seriously asked the city editor, "Should I study shorthand?" And he said, "If you want to be a secretary, yes. If you want to be a reporter, it's absolutely unessential." So of course that decided that.
Biagi: Are you still a two-finger typist?
Leary: Yes, pretty much — oh, no. I at least use four. The way that I began, though, unfortunately it took three years before I got off of that secretary job. But it was a wonderful way to break into the paper and learn how things operated. My desk formed part of what — the city editor sat on one side and the assistant city editor across from him and the suburban editor sat at my right. And so the four desks came together. I kept all the scheduling for them and all the press release things that were advances that they should know about in another week or another month. And handled an awful lot of the phone calls that came in. And all together learned how they were thinking about what was the story and what should be done. While I was still there I got my first breaks to do some stories.
Biagi: What was your responsibility for clipping and filing?
Leary: Oh, yes, indeed. I think that was a disaster because it made me think this was important and I've done it the rest of my life, keeping too many clippings. Sitting right behind me was a woman who was backed by, I suppose, ten filing cabinets. And this was the simple beginning of the morgue — the library for the paper. It hadn't been going very long. The paper had been going since 1904 and we're now, what, 1936, '37. But actually their whole approach to it, they didn't have a lot but I thought that it was important for the reporters to be able to come and get the clips on some story. So I had to do, any time I had free time, I had to help clip. And she did the filing but I could do the clipping. She didn't trust me to do the filing.
That taught me something about the resources that a reporter needs, that's one kind of resource, anyway. And then I got a chance to do — I think I have told you at one point about my doing housing stories. FDR had just — they had just begun public housing and everybody was talking about it, they were going to have public housing in the city. And I went around on weekends and went to different parts of the city. It was partly my way of learning more about San Francisco, too. And interviewed neighbors, "How would you feel about public housing coming in here?" Nobody knew what that meant. I know what they'd say today. But at that stage there was some curiosity about it and there was a feeling of people needing low-priced, low-rent housing. Anyway, I got to write that while I was still doing secretarial chores. And I had my first murder coverage while I was still doing secretarial chores.
Biagi: If you could describe that story because it's kind of a classic San Francisco murder, if there is such a thing.
Leary: Well, that was — they still had mounted police then. And there was one who came along our street a lot and I used to stick sugar cubes in my pocket and feed their horse sugar once in a while. And one noontime the city desk got a call from the police beat, of course, that there'd been a shooting at the Hotel Henry which was just a block down Sixth Street, two blocks. And the city editor stood up there as I had seen him do many times, looking around, "Who on earth do I have to send?" Everybody was out to lunch or out on assignment. So I said, "Send me. Send me." And he said, "All right. See what you can do."
So I went down — I can't remember whether I had a cameraman with me or not but the probability is that I did — and walked into this Hotel Henry. And lo and behold the policeman there was the mounted policeman from our street whom I knew. So he just beckoned me over and he just dictated everything I needed to know. The victim was lying on the floor, dead, and other police were holding the fellow who had done it. And it was an irate former employee who'd been fired from the hotel who'd come back and shot the manager.
And I had to step over him to get to the telephone. But here I had names and everything right off the bat. And the city desk couldn't believe it. That was marvelous! Well, of course, it was a lucky break.
But when I did finally get to be a full-time reporter, that was a big event, that was great.
Biagi: At that time, how many women were there in the newsroom?
Leary: Well, most of the time women were considered kind of tokens in city rooms. Now, they had strong women's departments and would have one or two. And then they had fashion editors and cooking editors and a rather full complement for the paper of "women's interests," unquote. But on the city side, most papers had one woman. And the News, in an unusual I considered handicap for me, had two. And one of them, Betty Ballantine, who was very, very good, primarily a labor reporter and very good on rewrite. And then Anna Sommers who was marvelous, sob-sister type and general reporter. And I had to wait my turn until — which was part of my having been three years on the city desk. Finally Betty left and then my recollection is that Anna did, too, I'm not quite sure. Maybe they allowed me to go on after Betty had. They had, oh, another woman, Helen Civelli, who had been on the woman's side and she was brought over and on the city side for a while and I thought, "Oh, dear, there goes my chance." Then one summer, arriving as a summer intern type, Katharine Graham, who was learning the ropes then — Graham wasn't her name then, wait a minute, what was it? Anyway, she worked for the summertime as a reporter and I thought, "Oh, I'll never get a chance now." Ultimately, she moved on and I kept waiting and got my chance.
Biagi: What kind of responsibility did you have when you started reporting for sob sister assignments? Did you have any?
Leary: Oh, yes, occasionally. I did quite a few stories about welfare people. And at one stage, the city desk telling me to come down looking bedraggled, I spent the day as though I were a single woman who had just arrived in town. Where did you go, how did you find out to get a meal, how did you find out to get a place to sleep and so forth. It was kind of funny, I wore my old uniform with the hem coming out of it from college.
Biagi: Your uniform because you'd done what kind of work in college?
Leary: No, that was my school uniform which was initially not so bad-looking, it was a kind of jumper type, but by now it was quite bedraggled. And I pinned some money in a handkerchief to my underpants thinking in an emergency I may need something. But the trouble was that I never — I looked so disreputable I couldn't go into any proper place to get at them. So the money didn't do me any good.
But I started out asking a policeman is there any place I can get some meals, something to eat in the morning. And he directed to — I guess it was a Salvation Army type thing or down at the Ferry Building. And I went from one person's recommendation to another all day looking for where I might get a place to stay and so forth. And I wrote that story.
Biagi: Ultimately did you find a place to stay or could you have found a place to stay?
Leary: Yes, I finally did although I was very upset when I went out to a Catholic hospital and asked if I could stay there and they said no. No, not at all. And I thought, "I'm going to hate having to write the story that the Catholics turned me down." So as I was walking away, I said, "Well, I guess I don't know where I'll sleep tonight." And so the nun said, "Come back here." And so questioning me further and said, "If you haven't got someplace by 6 o'clock tonight, come on out." So when I got back to the office, I called them and told them I had a place, of course. Then it seems to me, as I recall, that I did find someplace who said yes, we can give you a bunk. But there were not very many places where just a stray could find to live. And I spent several times, hours, in the waiting room with welfare people looking to ask for a handout for money. It was in the days of all of those government agency things, WPA, SRA, and so on and so forth, which I knew a little about
because when I was at Stanford I'd been on NYA, National Youth Administration, in which you got twenty dollars a month for I don't know how many hours work, typing for somebody on the campus.
After that, the News had quite a campaign going against the school board having secret meetings. And they'd been covering them and I was assigned to the school board for a while and that was interesting. I used to write stories about how long they met in secret and then they would come out in very brief meetings, public meetings, go whipping through the calendar, absolutely unintelligibly, just saying, voting on item number so-and-so, and of course you were not necessarily supposed to know what they were doing. I can say that secrecy in public government meetings has changed a good deal. There still is a lot but in those days there was a kind of a defiant attitude that reporters don't need to know this.
In fact, at one point, the Youth Administration, whatever it was, the name — Juvenile Committee, maybe Juvenile Justice, something — which was part of city government, met for lunch. And it was a time when the News was campaigning for some improvement in the way juveniles were handled. And they were in a dreadful building and put in cells and very little recreation space or time and it was really wretched. And I went to the restaurant where they were meeting in an upstairs kind of private room. And they said, you know, "What are you doing here?" And I said, "Well, I'm just going to cover your meeting." "You can't do that!" So effectively, threw me out. Today, you'd write that. In those days — and how much other reporters thought about it, I don't know — you wrote the essence of what the story was that you were trying to get. So all I did was try to phone various members afterwards and find out what they had done and just reported that instead of my own rejection.
I never wanted myself to be figuring in the story. And how much that was trying not to call attention to myself as a woman and how much it was feeling that the reporter was there to get what was going on and not to be an actor himself. I remember when Earl Warren was governor — when I was writing politics, Earl Warren had a health insurance proposal which was very far-advanced for that time, wanting the state to go in and issue — have a health insurance program for which everyone could be eligible. The first disclosure of the details of his program was to be at a meeting of a committee of the Commonwealth Club. And all the reporters, the political reporters, were there, knew about it, were eager to hear this. And I was there. And the secretary to the Commonwealth Club motioned to me outside of the room and said that, "I'm sorry but we can't allow women here." And that was one of the most outrageous kinds of things because here the other reporters were allowed to stay and I was evicted. And I said, "Then you bring my raincoat and my press notes and everything else out for me. I won't go back in."
Biagi: What reason did they give for you not being able to stay?
Leary: Simply they didn't allow women in their committee meetings. Period. No women were allowed.
Biagi: Did you write that?
Leary: No. I wish I had. I wish I had. No, I felt that it was my duty to find out what was in that bill — which I did by calling other members of the committee and wrote about it then and did not write about myself having been thrown out. I was not prepared to see myself as a pioneer doing something unusual. I was just prepared to be as good a reporter as I could and find out the news any way I had to and tell it and that was it. I certainly was not then and I think never have felt myself part of a new wave of women activists in the cause of women. And I am to some extent a little bit embarrassed almost about acknowledging that. I didn't realize quite what was happening. I didn't realize that my own insistence that I wanted a life different from just focused on the household was a new way, I thought it was just something unique about me. Maybe something wrong about me but I didn't like that role of the woman as housewife.
And I realized that now as I look back that actually I don't think it's so much a new thing that happened, as the woman's movement came. I think it built on what women had been doing before.
Women had been going to college and getting college-educated. And I discovered early when I was with my aunt that she and many of her friends formed study clubs so that they could take some one topic and study it for a year or several months. And they were insistent on keeping some education going.
Then I discovered how very much volunteer work women were doing that was extremely helpful to society in all ways. Women in San Francisco — I met Alice Griffith who was a marvelous leader of those who wanted better standards as houses were built after the earthquake and saw that they were being built too close to the property line and without enough light. And she went with her tape measure and notebook and getting her facts of what was going on, went to city hall and raised Cain about the city permitting housing construction which was going to be unhealthy and certainly not good living and managed to get get through some restraints on the first kinds of things that the city did pass, so much window space per square footage and that kind of thing. And I had a great deal of admiration for her and was pleased when she became a member of the first housing commission that the city established, where the public housing program did begin.
Biagi: Were there any people at this point in your life who were critical about the fact of a woman doing what it is you were doing, that you can remember?
Leary: Oh, my family was. Yes, generally speaking felt, you know, why don't you stop this nonsense and come home and meet some nice young man and get married and settle down. And generally, I know one time I made some remark to my aunt about my viewing my career as equally significant for society as her husband, my uncle, who was a lawyer. And she said, "Oh, Mary Ellen, don't be absurd. There's just absolutely no parallel." Maybe not in the academic training that we have as journalists but I still feel very much that the — my sense of serving a social purpose was a great deal of what was motivating me as I worked as a journalist, my feeling for people to know what was going on, not only about government but also about social conditions, about crime, about outstanding people — that all of this helped society grow. As a contribution to democracy, I felt very strongly about this. And where I got all that ideal motivation, probably from my father.
Biagi: Let's go back now to the 1940s and World War II?
Biagi: And how did the events of World War II affect you as a journalist in a newsroom?
Leary: Having been doing the kind of routine cover of crimes and fires and this kind of thing and city agencies, a number of the men began getting drafted. The staff was shrinking. And the political editor, Brooke Clyde, went off to join the information service for the government. And we went for a while without any political editor. There was a proliferation of government agencies as the war began — War Manpower and OPA, Office of Price Administration, and so forth — and I was assigned primarily to OPA. But I began building a beat with all of the different agencies. And discovered that there was always a story in what they were planning as a result of the war. Not just how much butter you were going to be allowed or how much gas, those were terribly critical domestic stories. But a good deal about manpower employment and so forth, all kinds of agencies being set up or volunteer bureaus to try to find somebody to work in jobs that were necessary, cold storage places and other places in the city because they didn't have manpower, they'd gone off.
I sort of built a beat out of the war agencies and was doing that at the time that the call came in from a meeting of editors of Scripps-Howard, the call came in to the city desk. I was out on a story and when I phoned in, (Dick Chase) said, "By the way, see me when you come in." So I came in wondering, "Now what have I done?" He said, "I just got a call from Frank Clarvoe, the editor, who's back at this editor's meeting, and you're to be assigned to cover politics." Wow! I wish I could remember exactly when that was but I can't. It was about probably '43.
Biagi: Why was that exciting to you?
Leary: Well, it culminated, it was a more exciting and dramatic kind of assignment than even the war agencies. And to write about who was running things seemed very important to me. Earl Warren had been the attorney-general and I had interviewed him two or three times. And Pat Brown was district attorney in San Francisco and I had done a number of stories about him. And the people that were in public service and what they were going to do seemed to me a place where the action was.
Biagi: Had you by this time done the Connie Mack story?
Leary: I'm not exactly sure when that was but it was fairly early when I was starting reporting. And one of those times when the city editor looked around and couldn't find anybody to send.
Biagi: What were the circumstances of that story?
Leary: He was coming into town and I'm not even sure why. But in those days people arrived by train and you went down to Third and Townsend railroad station to meet them. And they went down with a camera, the reporters — the city desk said, "Go on down and meet Connie Mack and find out what he has to say." He didn't give me any leads about what I was supposed to know.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Leary: So I went down and all the sports guys were there meeting him and they asked all the proper questions and I was trying to get what he was saying about how the Philadelphia team was going to do and his views on western teams and so forth. And it was a Friday and it turned out it was Good Friday. And as we were finishing — he had just stepped off the train and was having this impromptu press conference, and the fellows were shooting his picture and his wife was with him — and he said, "Does anybody know where there's some Good Friday services?" And I said, "I do," knowing that old St. Mary's had some at noon. And he said, "You come with me." And so — gee, this was great!
So I went with him in the cab. I think he stopped at the hotel and left his luggage off and then over to old St. Mary's. So, dropping him there, I came back. But on the way, I'm thinking, "What do I talk to him about?" I made some efforts but I knew nothing, really, about baseball. But I looked at his hands and all of the knuckles were broken and enlarged. And I said, "Your hands are just like my grandfather's hands. And he played baseball a lot as a young person." And Connie Mack said, "Yes, I played sandlot baseball and you didn't have a glove and your fingers got broken." And he began talking about those early days in his life when he first got into baseball.
And so when I dropped him, he said to the cab to take me back to the office. I left him at church and then I went in and sat down and I thought, "Well, I'll just write that, about his hands." And everybody in the office said, "Gee, this is great!" And that was my first byline on page one and I was really delighted with it. And you learn to build a story out of what you know and what you see that recalls something or connects up with something in your own life.
Biagi: That was a far piece from politics.
Leary: Yes, it was.
Biagi: It was amazing that your first page one story would be a sports story.
Leary: It really was.
Biagi: It was a profile.
Biagi: So, getting back to politics now. You had tried to interview Earl Warren and you had done some —
Leary: I had encountered normal stories about things, about issues that came along — part of it an assignment and part of it my own initiative about things. Well, I didn't know how to go about this. One of the things, my clipping service experience, I began very carefully clipping the stories of the other political reporters to see how they did it, keeping those, filed those. But there was a columnist on the paper, Art Caylor, who I came to share an office with. And he was quite an orderly, meticulous person and my desk was a scourge to his life, I think. He said, "Look, you're going up against people who are reporting in the legislature who have been doing it for years. The Chronicle reporter, Earl Behrens, had been covering since after World War I. The Examiner reporter had been there twelve years. The Sacramento Bee reporter had been there nine years. He said, "You can't meet their experience. So all that you can do, just take your own new fresh eye and write what you see, just write it as you see it and experience it," which was great advice. You know, I began writing what color the drapes were in the Senate room —
Biagi: In rooms in Sacramento?
Leary: I at that point had to go up and stay there for several months at a time. The legislature at first only met every two years and it wound up with you being up there about six months at a time. I had an apartment in San Francisco and kept that, of course, but would go up and then come home on weekends.
Biagi: Where did you stay in Sacramento?
Leary: At the Senator Hotel.
Biagi: Can you describe the atmosphere at the Senator — the capital at that time.
Leary: I would often go up on the train and San Francisco's official lobbyist, Al Skelley, I would sometimes go up and encounter him and we'd have maybe some breakfast on the train or something going up; that was a nice way to travel. And one of the legislators, Tommy Maloney, would always offer to drive me up or drive me back on Fridays. He'd been a strong labor advocate and had been a senator and now was a legislator — assemblyman. And he was a wonderful person because he would really try to help me understand the background and tell me a lot about what was going on, what had gone on in the past, what the place was like.
Earl Warren was governor. And when we had press conferences with him, he sat at a large desk and there were about twelve of us sitting around. And that was the whole media presence.
Biagi: How many women were in the group?
Leary: I was the only one. The only other woman when I started out was a reporter for the People's Daily World. And she was great! But she was pretty much ostracized, certainly by people in government. Mary Lindsey. She was a dedicated, earnest reporter and happened to feel very strongly about Communist party standards. I don't know what she'd be saying today. She rarely went to the governor's press conferences and I've never known whether that was their not inviting her or — never understood that.
Biagi: What was Earl Warren's attitude toward the press and the relationship with the press during that time?
Leary: Relatively open and I think — the press was pretty sympathetic with him. Of course, the Oakland Tribune and Joe Knowland, then editor, had given him this big push so he couldn't help but feel sympathetic. And the papers were so strongly Republican that I'm sure he felt they were allies — the L. A. Times and the Tribune and the Chronicle, kind of a triumvirate of Republican power.
And they were very — not only supportive but I think they played to each other's advantages. But the Republican party under him had to fend off the ultra-conservative wing which every once in a while would get expressed in the L. A. Times and somewhat in the Chronicle, too.
The legislative atmosphere was strange because that was a time when the legislators were paid a hundred dollars a month. And there were fellows up there from Los Angeles who I think really needed lobby money to live. And you would see them walk into a restaurant and kind of stand and look around and wait until somebody invited them to come over and sit down and have a meal. It was that blatant in those days, different proportions from today's influence but pretty raw.
But the dominant figure in the legislature, of course, was Artie Samish who represented the liquor lobby, who was very bright and canny who had built himself a real empire and had great control over a large number of legislators because he had funded them. And a network of informants all over the capital so that you always felt that if you stopped and talked with somebody, Samish was going to know who you talked to and might even found out what you talked about with that person. There were other lobbyists that were also powerful: the bank lobby and the phone company and the utilities and so forth. But they played their game together supporting each other and there was no doubt that Samish was the one who had the greatest control over the speaker of the assembly and (what) committee appointments were made.
Biagi: Any particular time when Samish's power became very obvious? Had there been any particular issue that he felt that he had to lobby?
Leary: I wish I could remember. I remember a number of times when he would sit in the back of the chamber with a straw hat on the back of his head. And when the vote was being registered on the panel of votes, the head of the assembly chamber. And his power was, I think, pretty strong in the senate but less conspicuous in the senate. But legislators would sometimes come back and speak to him and sometimes he'd get one of the sergeant-at-arms to go up and bring a legislator back to him. And frequently they would then change their vote. If that was something that I could see, I could at least report on such and such a bill four legislators, and then name them, spoke to Samish and then changed their votes. It wasn't always easy to know exactly what it was about.
I remember various efforts to create full police powers to people who were working in the Alcohol Beverage Control agency. And I suppose that was to get them on to a pension system or something like that, I don't know what. I remember that as a very hot bill.
Biagi: You've talked now about Artie Samish and Earl Warren just a little bit. Another important figure, I think, in California politics at that time was Jack Tenney. If you can talk to me about your recollection of Jack Tenney.
Leary: He was a very influential person. I think he was more influential than we realized as reporters at the time because he had lots of people on campuses who were effectively reporting to him people that they felt were Communist-tinted in their approaches to classes.* His Un-American Activities Committee was very far-reaching in attacking a combination of people whom Tenney felt were affecting the minds of the young and not merely disloyal to their country but actually alleging that they were purposely trying to infuse communism into the thinking, which I thought then was nonsense. They were generally liberal views of one kind or another that were considered to be part of a communist plot.
As an illustration, it wasn't exactly Tenney but the Sacramento senator at that time, at one time he said to me when I was covering and writing quite a bit about the first effort during the war to have
* Leary later explained that "he was gathering campus information about so-called liberal professors."
child care programs created in the state of California within the department of education because so many women had been called up to work in plants where they were doing vital defense work and were just frantic about how to take care of their children. That was the first evidence of the need for child care. And the senator very seriously said to me, "Don't you understand this is a Communist plot to destroy the American family. If you have children all put into one school, they can be taught one way of thinking, not their parents' way. And letting women go off to work and leave their children, this is exactly what the Communists want."* Tenney at one time circulated onto all of his fellow senators' desks an allegation that some of the members of the senate were fellow travelers, anyway, if not outright Communists, in advocating liberal measures. And I remember a terrific outcry about that. It was some who were quite modest in their approach toward liberal things but still they were — such as Senator (Gerald) O'Gara of San Francisco, a strong Democrat, but no way a Communist. But here was Tenney labeling them as fellow travelers because they were advocating social change and social measures to problems which maybe had not had to be met before.
Biagi: What was the News's attitude toward the hearings, toward the activity that was taken?
Leary: Not only very skeptical but we had been through on the paper quite a campaign defending Congressman (Frank) Havenner who by the federal Un-American Activities Committee had been charged with being a Communist or pro-Communist. And the Hearst papers picked that up and lambasted him. It was a much nastier kind of attack than any political campaign currently illustrates. And Havenner actually sued the Examiner and required in the settlement which he won that they have a page one retraction, which they did. And the News had been sufficiently sympathetic and championing him in his fight that he called us and I went down and met him one evening at Jack's upstairs, in one of the upstairs dining rooms, when he told me that the Examiner was settling, was paying — I can't remember the sum — and that it would be on page one, their retraction.
They had labeled him at a meeting in which only one member of the Un-American Activities Committee attended, so it wasn't even a vote of a number of people — one member. And that one member voted at that committee meeting that he was convinced Havenner was a fellow traveler, pro-Communist. Anyway, the News was a champion about this.* The News was a wonderful paper to have been on. It was a paper with a great social consciousness and it had crusades. I mentioned being interested in juvenile hall problems. There was a move at that time then for the first time to set up the youth authority which Karl Holton who had been the juvenile director in Los Angeles, championed this idea and the News came along and supported it very strongly, the idea of moving people under twenty-one out of state prisons and into separate youth institutions. The hope was — and I have never seen a real thorough analysis of how much good it did but I'm sure it did some good, setting them up where they would have more counseling and more job direction and that kind of thing.
Biagi: Well, some people would say that the job of a newspaper is not to crusade on issues, just to report on issues. How does that fit with your understanding of what you were doing?
Leary: When you discover what you had determined is a social need, not everybody might agree. I feel it's legitimate. And besides, I feel it makes much more interesting, lively papers. But the strong feeling about the good of the community and getting in there and fighting for it, I think it's good journalism.
* Leary later said that "the Sacramento state senator who considered child care a Communist plot was Earl Desmond."
*Leary later explained: "Havenner was a forthright liberal Democrat and pro-labor and the News, which was labor-sympathetic, always backed him in campaigns. At the time of his being smeared by the Hearst paper as a fellow-traveler or outright Communist (I can't remember just how specific their charge was), the News editorially challenged that and backed him."
The identification with causes. Not necessarily political, not necessarily always being pro-Republican or pro-Democratic. But things today, mental health is very much ignored in political circles and hurt in budget cuts. I would love to see a local paper make a real crusade restoring support for mental health, which locally — how to fund it, well, that's something to be worked out. But I mean, see it as a major issue and I think it relates to crusading journalism. Yes, I believe in crusading journalism.
Biagi: Do you feel you are a part of that in some way?
Leary: Yes, I think I was. We had the remarkable position of being against the death penalty on the News. And I think I definitely was a part of that position because at the time that Chessman's execution was imminent and the whole world — it's difficult to recall now, but the whole world was at that time very much aghast at the idea that the state was going to execute someone who had not killed. He had raped and the victim — and he had stolen from a lot of people but in his particular case, the red-light bandit, but he was also a rapist and one of the victims was so distraught over this that she was in a mental hospital as a result.
Well, his execution was going forward, with everybody begging for his life and making page one banner lines out of it, day after day. I discovered that the News was carrying little, tiny items about Joe Blow was executed today at San Quentin. And it struck me as odd that one man's life, Chessman's, was so valuable and the other man's life hardly worth more than about three lines in the paper. So I got interested in the death penalty and did quite a lot of — the paper encouraged me to go ahead and I spent quite a lot of time over at San Quentin going over records.
And I didn't have much research background but I sort of made my own sketch of what I was looking for about education background and state where they came from and so forth. I found that most of the people who were white who were on Death Row then — I think there were only thirty-seven — but a rather high proportion of them came from Texas or Oklahoma. And as I followed some of the cases that were on appeal, just at the last, it struck me that the whole thing was quite accidental, who got death and who got a life sentence. And sometimes two people involved in the same crime got different sentences. And I just wrote about it and wrote about different cases in politics as it came up.
And I think I mentioned to you the man who had shot his wife in the church basement. And he was an alcoholic — known as an alcoholic in his community and the family, and whatever the irritation of the moment was I don't know but he had followed her to church and she was doing something for a benefit and he shot her — and was ultimately executed. I wrote a good deal about the case because it was so clear that he had been intoxicated at the time and the question of his deliberation was challenged by his attorney. And I think I told you that his daughter called me that night and said the only respect that her father ever had in his life — because he'd been an alcoholic all of his life and just really not responsible — had been in his last days when I was writing about him. And it was a very emotional kind of thing for me.
But it was interesting in his own community, Ventura, another man killed his wife, also as deliberately, going to where she was and shooting her. And he didn't get the death penalty. It was as though the community had felt that they'd done that, they'd exorcised that devil and so they didn't have to take his life. But it was an example to me of how just chancy it is and uncertain. And I feel that it hurts our society rather than helps it.
Of course, I was talking about it not so long ago with somebody who shared my views and goes way into it. She said, "We certainly have gained a lot, haven't we? Public opinion has grown stronger and stronger in support of the death penalty." So that's not a fight that's going to be won very soon.
Biagi: Let's go back to the mid forties, you're in Sacramento, and I'm going to mention to you about a Nieman fellowship. It might be a good idea.
Leary: Well, one of the men on the News had had one, Bob Elliott, who had written a good deal about the industrial change in California which the war brought. And he was — he'd written a lot about Henry Kaiser and the shipbuilding. And when he was back there, he suggested my name and suggested that I apply. And I did and I didn't get it. And he urged me to apply again. And I did again the second time and that time I was lucky enough to be included. And later learned that the whole Harvard operation and administration was very much against the idea of women coming in with that class. Louis Lyons was the curator of the Nieman fellowship and apparently fought hard to get women in. And finally the president said, "Well, all right, if we have two of them at once. They can go around Harvard. I guess they would go around like nuns, two at a time." So, of course, that was an absurdity.
And Charlotte Fitzhenry came on — she was with AP in Chicago. And very interested in city planning. And she and I together were the first women that were admitted to the Nieman fellowship. And when they would have — we had a couple of weekly special sessions where people from different departments of Harvard would come and talk to us. Wonderful seminars. And the fellows would have beer and we would have tea, which was fine with me, I didn't like beer, anyway.
Biagi: After that was over and you came back to Sacramento, what were the circumstances under which you met your husband?
Leary: Well, it was the following year. I came back in '48. There were not very many women around the legislature but there were a few. And the district attorneys of California had sent as their representative — couldn't call her a lobbyist — a woman who was a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, Earl Warren's old office. Her name was Cecile Mossbacher and she ultimately became a judge. And she was a very fine woman. She and I, wary about the legislative watchfulness and the constant sense of conspiracy that (we experienced) were not anxious to let people know that we knew each other very well and we would be very formal with each other. She would say, "Good morning, Miss Leary," if we encountered each other in the hall.
Well, I did quite a lot of writing about what the district attorney's measures were because there a lot of interest in it. There was crime fighting and so forth and it was a time when the Eastern gambling syndicates were trying to break into California. And so we would meet for breakfast on Friday mornings and she would sort of tell me what — neither of us told everything but we would exchange news about what we knew was going on. And it was very helpful there. And it was a good friendship.
Her mother became ill and she couldn't be assigned to (Sacramento) any more and so they assigned Arthur Sherry also from the (same) office. He had been in the war and had come back, about four years before. And the district attorney and various people — Frank Coakley was district attorney — introduced me then. And Cecile invited me to come to her room to meet her successor. So I guess something just happened.
We saw each other occasionally and he began giving me rides down home at the end of the week. And we dated and were very careful not to be seen dating in Sacramento because I was still writing stories about the district attorney's fight against the gambling interest coming in, getting their own private wire, that's what they were trying to do. And the effort was to prevent the phone company from allowing them to do this, that sort of thing. Well, we knew that people would start saying, "Oh, that's why she's writing that story," if they thought that we had any interest in each other. And I was trying to protect the integrity of my news and he, I guess, was trying to protect the integrity of his job.
So we were very careful about being seen together. And he had an assistant up there who often was with us if we were having dinner. And ultimately we did become engaged, with him understanding that I would not be able to leave reporting, that my whole life was so accustomed to doing this that I would find it very hard. Even after I met his two daughters and knew some of the circumstances of his wife having died four years before,
I felt that I was not temperamentally equipped to move out of the reporting world and into the domestic world totally.
And I was lucky that he had seen my work and respected it enough to say that was fine with him. In our generation that was a little unusual, to start right out knowing that I would try to manage the home and run it and be helpful with the girls but I wasn't going to stay home and be mother all the time. So we got a housekeeper who, fortunately, taught me a lot about running a house. And then it worked out, it worked somehow.
Biagi: After your daughter was born, which would have been —
Leary: Three years later.
Biagi: And you eventually moved into this house.
Biagi: How did you manage the responsibilities of being a reporter and being a mother and being a wife?
Biagi: Well, fortunately, the guild contract at that time was, I think, fairly generous, as I look at it now. I had a six-month leave, with a guarantee of my job back. And we had had a housekeeper before, the wonderful woman who taught me so much, but she didn't want to deal with a baby, so I had to start finding someone new, and did. And wasn't always satisfied with the arrangement — we had a live-in housekeeper at the time, so that by the time my daughter was six months, I sort of tore myself away and managed hours enough so that I was able to be here a couple mornings up until ten or naptime or something, anyway, with her. Worked it out. It's a juggling job. I was thinking this morning, anticipating your coming, as I was cleaning up the kitchen from having party guests for dinner last night, I was thinking, "It seems to me I've always been in a scramble trying to get a story finished while something domestic was demanding me." And even now I'm recognizing that there's a story due tomorrow noon about the legislative term limitations and I've got most of my interviewing done but I haven't gotten it written yet. And I'll get that done.
But this juggling of when you can work and how much a domestic life you can have — I'm terribly conscious of the fact that I wasn't as good a wife as I should have been and didn't pay enough attention to a lot of the things that I see other women do, such as keep their photographs in nice, orderly form and know exactly where they are. But I did manage to keep the family with a sense of love among our members and managed enough so that when Arthur's mother had a stroke, she was here in the house with us for five years with first of all a companion-type help and then gradually professional nurses. And I've always been pleased we were able to do that.
Biagi: At what point did you leave the News then?
Leary: Less than a year after Gini,* I discovered I stopped doing political writing; I needed to because there were too many political meetings on weekends and nights. And I managed that before but with the baby I didn't want to. I shifted then and became — oh, kind of specialist in city-urban development and that kind of thing. And I had a lot of fun with those stories. I got very interested in — the redevelopment era was coming along in the fifties. Gini was born in '52 and this whole business of allowing tax benefits so that you could tear out a slum and put up some elegant office building or residence, as San Francisco did, I thought was just very exciting.
* Leary's daughter's name is Virginia, but her family called her Gini.
I guess I often got caught up by the idea of progress, whether it was good or not, I'm not sure now. But all of that Embarcadero development area — that Golden Gateway, it was called — was something I was writing about constantly. And also along about that time, interest was growing in the possibility of rapid transit and BART was born, at least as an idea among some business leaders in San Francisco who felt that San Francisco could not possibly endure if you had all the people coming in by automobile who wanted to come in. I guess they still feel this way. The way we live and the way our society is trying to cope with the congestion and the shaping of cities was very exciting to me. People used to tease me about why I got so interested in transportation, but I felt that the movement back and forth from home to office and how to make it reasonable was a real challenge in our time. So that's sort of what I was doing for quite a period there.
I had worked closely with the editorial writer Paul Edwards when I was doing politics. And I suppose one might question the propriety of what I did in that I would often urge an editorial stand.
Biagi: While you were still writing there?
Leary: While I was writing. But I would call with a sense of outrage about something that was going on. And I don't know, maybe it's better in a paper to have a real strict divorce between the person who's on the scene covering and those who are deciding policy and writing about it. But I was always kind of making a reach to that position. And Paul Edwards was someone I admired very much, he was for quite a while the head of the trustees at Stanford and he was a very brilliant and very kindly man, and responsive a lot to some of the things — not always, but some of the things that I was interested in.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Leary: And then he retired and we had an editor shakeup, meanwhile. Frank Clarvoe who had been editor through — the managing editor when I was first hired and then became editor and through the war. And after the war as the circulation began to decline from the great heights that it reached during the war when everybody was reaching for newspapers to read what was going on, Clarvoe was bounced out of there by Roy Howard. How justifiably I had no idea. My guess is not very. But Scripps-Howard people had not given him a strong, financial support. By that, I mean somebody to be on deck watching advertising revenue and so forth. And it was a time when shopping newses were coming out and siphoning away some of the advertising money which had been mainstay.
So it was a perilous time for a daily paper and you had the four papers in San Francisco fighting each other for advertising. And at that time the business manager was a fellow who was quite elderly and ill and he went down to Palm Springs to recover. And that didn't do the News very much help as business manager. Later they sent somebody else, a fellow named Baker, Earl Baker, who worked hard at it but by that time the problems were quite acute.
Biagi: Let me stop you at one point now.
So, talk to me a little bit about your editorial job at the News and when that started.
Leary: Well, this was when Paul Edwards had retired, Frank Ford, then editor, asked me to come on as associate editor, which meant really officially moving into the policy direction with ideas. Jack Castel, who was a much more facile speedy writer than I, was already doing some editorial writing and he remained doing that. So we worked as a team kind of. Now, I wrote some editorials, too, but I was not nearly as gifted a speedy writer as he. And for I guess two or three years there, I was associate editor with him. And that was interesting because with a new editor on the paper who didn't know much about the community, it was a case of also trying to educate him as to who was at City Hall and what was going on, that sort of thing. Actually, I think George Christopher was mayor through some of this period.
The papers had merged, the Call and the News, in this period I'm talking about prior to it. And that was the first move where Hearst and Scripps-Howard joined. And ultimately, of course, what happened is that Hearst bought out Scripps-Howard totally and made the arrangement by which the same business management would run both the Hearst paper and the Chronicle, eliminating the News. And some of the News people went to work for the Examiner, a Hearst paper. And some went off in other directions.
And at that time, Scripps-Howard said that I could be West Coast correspondent, which I then was for three years. It was hard to see the paper die because I felt that it was a very strong champion of city interests and didn't have much faith that the other papers were going to be. But you work for an institution and it's awfully hard when the institution collapses. However, I had to learn a new perspective, to try to write stories of national interest. Scripps-Howard has out of Washington a wire service which is a syndicate that they feed and I see many of their stories now carried locally.
I was writing at a time, though, when the Scripps-Howard papers were very parochial. They were terribly interested in their own community and not much in the West Coast. And I really think that California as a news item has grown in the last ten, fifteen years as it wasn't in the 1960s. But I had some fairly good assignments and good times with that three years that I had this and one of them was going up to Alaska, a year after statehood. And that was a great adventure, I enjoyed that very much, and did stories that were carried well. I remember Ruth Finney who was a Washington writer with Scripps-Howard for many, many years and many ways in a sense my mentor, saying to me, "Just write about earthquakes, newspapers love stories about earthquakes." I thought of her as I was writing the earthquake story this time.
However, I was not comfortable because I was finding it difficult to get in line with what Scripps-Howard thought were national stories. And they had the usual Washington focus; it's got to have a Washington angle or it isn't news. I had been approached sometime before by people from the Economist, would I write for them. And Scripps-Howard had a very strict rule against any regular correspondent or anybody on their staff writing for another publication. So I decided that it would be a nice move to make and I offered my resignation which I think they were glad to accept because I think they didn't know what to do with me much, either.
Biagi: This would have been what year, now?
Leary: About 1967. And I started trying to figure out how to write for an international readership. And I've been doing that ever since. For some remarkable reason, all of the succession of editors over there in London and in Washington, their Washington office, are people who see news the way I see news and it's wonderful to write for them, I enjoy it very much.
Biagi: How is it you convince people so far away that the West Coast is important?
Leary: They thought so. Economically they understood it. And even though one would feel that the Atlantic tie was very strong and that people with a London base would much prefer the East, they saw California as exciting and different and offering different kinds of stories. They see it as — well, maybe trend-setter and recognized it that way.
Biagi: So now you're working at home.
Biagi: You're based here. How is that different from working attached to a news organization where you go to work every day?
Leary: It was hard to get accustomed to it. You discover that you really miss the chance to bounce ideas off other reporters. It's much better working with a number of people together with the same objective, although city rooms today don't look at all like the city room that I was first in because everybody's sitting at his darkened desk watching the screen, typing onto his word processor, whereas I was accustomed to a big, airy, open room where there was a lot of back-and-forth conversation. But today I learned — I sometimes wish I did have somebody I can talk to about stories but I have learned to work it out by myself. And of course, an awful lot of others work by telephone, although I try hard to get out and see things for myself rather than just talking to people.
It's still challenging and exciting. I still feel the same — and I get an assignment which I'm not very interested in and I'm not sure that I want to do and then develop it and it grows into a real story. I get the same kind of thrill that I always did and enjoy it very much.
Biagi: Which is one of your favorites which you've done for the Economist, favorite story that you did?
Leary: Oh, I had fun writing about Dianne Feinstein, of course, the mayor's and the governor's race — I've written about her as mayor but I mean writing about her campaign. And my interest in the death penalty, the great surge of people boasting about their being pro-death penalty as one of the charms of the political presence which occurred in Texas and here and elsewhere, the Economist's major takeoff on the politics of death this year which I was glad to have a part of.
Oh, how many stories are just funny little flukes that come along, I've discovered — I didn't discover it, I saw a story about the fact that some of — in rebuilding the bridge after the earthquake — and of course I did an earthquake story for them — but in rebuilding the bridge that they had put a little — what's the name I want? Some steel workers had built this little figure in [a troll] as a good luck piece and, to my astonishment, the paper liked that very much, it was fun. Got a picture of it.
Biagi: So working at home allowed you to do some other social activity and an involvement in the Human Rights Commission study and the Ford Foundation study, you said were important to you, you felt?
Leary: Yes. The Human Rights Commission, while I was still in San Francisco working, there was an advisory group to advise on press and public relations and so forth which I was named to.* I think it was in the Christopher administration when they were first getting started in the Human Rights Commission. And I'd been sufficiently writing about things like this that I got recommended for it and had some doubts about the propriety but I was pleased to be on it. And after that then was active with a similar but not political, not governmental agency in the Alameda County, the Catholic diocesan commission on human rights which I was active in for many years. I tended, I guess, increasingly to do things related to the Catholic church and I'm on a board or committee with the Catholic Charities and have been for quite a long time.
But while I was working at home and working with the Economist, I did also begin some work with Pacific News Service. Someone who had been with them recommended that I talk to them and found that kind of fun to do because they like to do stories that are a little bit — quite socially aware and write about the minorities and so forth.
But the California Journal, I'd written some pieces for them and I'd written for the Atlantic and quite a few for the Nation and would just try to do some other outside writing. And Tom Hoeber and Ed Salzman told me
* The committee was all news-writing people asked to help the commission, very early in the civil rights era, to win public acceptance of equal employment opportunity.
that they had a Ford Foundation grant to do a study of the relationship between the media and the campaign process. This was at the time of Jerry Brown's first campaign in 1974. And they invited me to be the director of it. And that turned out to be a lot of fun, was very interesting to do and I got very aware of and tried to tell how strong the influence of television had become in the campaign process.
And some of the things also, a slight bit of skulduggery as far as the public was concerned when they would announce six different debates were going to be held but they were not all held very publicly. One was at a terribly early hour on a Sunday morning and one of them was at the state college and was prohibited from being broadcast out of the college. It was only campus-wide and was not quite what it set out to be, six open debates.
Biagi: Let me ask you this kind of reflective question, since you've been a political reporter for such a long time. What makes a good political reporter, in your view?
Leary: Trying to understand the forces which are bringing about events. By events, I mean the passage of laws or the election of people. They are not always the party, there are often other forces, some of them — well, the environmentalists is one, for instance. But to try to be aware of and perceive some of the influences that are in addition to party. But also to be — oh, what makes a good political reporter? To try to convey to the average citizen what's at stake in some of these steps in the legislature and so forth. I deplore very much the feeling that people have of it being remote and unrelated to their lives. And I think there's something very much amiss, part of it the reporting responsibility or failure-to-get-it-out responsibility, failure to make the public aware of what their stake is in what is going on in Sacramento or in the city hall, reporting which is too much mere statement of what went on today without some perspective on what it means to people. I think it's terribly important to try — maybe that's just being educational but I think that's a value of what political reporting can be. I think of it as a terribly important facet in the maintenance of democracy.
Leary: People have to know and care enough to have a say. And I don't think that happens unless the reporter is carrying the message through to them. I lament the shortage of reporting on television. I found it very interesting this year that the newspapers were writing about television ads but I think this is a wholly inadequate way of reporting our political system and keeping people involved.
Biagi: Let's stop now.
Leary: The more I think about it, I'm awfully lucky to be still writing, really lucky, at this stage because an awful lot of people can't, even if I get slightly harassed about trying to do bookkeeping and talk to the gardener and all the rest of it, still a chance to make your own judgment as to what's an important story, which I enjoy, which is fun when you start it. You know, making California known overseas, I mean as the United States knows it, that is a very contemporary thing to be doing.
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