The Colonel
The Life and Legend
of Robert R. McCormick
Richard Norton Smith
(Houghton Mifflin)
We picked this one up prepared to dislike McCormick but when we put it down we ended up being a bit fond of the old bastard. He was harsh, and money-grubbing, and used his newspapers to foment his own rabble-rousing agenda. And for a while there, he ran the Middle West, and not too nicely, either.

At the same time, he was a man who paid his employees some of the highest wages in the business. He was, apparently, happiest when he was hanging out in the printing plant with the press-men, or up in Canada with the workers at his paper plant (he was the first of American newspaper magnates to own all the "means of production.")

McCormick gained his title of Colonel from the May 1918 battle of Cantigny, during WWI, in which --- rumors to the contrary --- he proved himself to be a resourceful and brave commander. With all his love of military, uniforms, pageantry and the like, McCormick worked to create the singular isolationism of the middle west which helped to sink the League of Nations; later, he fought bitterly to keep us out of WWII: he disliked the politics of Roosevelt, even though he had been a classmate at Groton.

Incidentally, we've always heard that Citizen Kane was a thinly fictionalized account of the life of William Randolph Hearst --- but Charles Foster Kane, says Smith, is more a composite of Hearst, the utility magnate Samuel Insull, and Col. McCormick.

McCormick was constantly playing with new ideas, and long before they became common, he was "a pioneer in wireless news transmission, the use of color, and a primitive version of fax technology." He was also an inventor, and came up with the parking garage, and, if you'll believe it, the disposable milk carton --- as well as ideas for improving printing presses (he could take one apart single-handedly and put it back together without any pieces left over).

This is not to say he wasn't a bit quirky. During the First World War, he expected a U. S. invasion by the Germans, and in a book of his With the Russian Army, specified that massive fortifications should be built at Albany, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Vicksburg and Houston, "with additional installations guarding strategic mountain passes in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas."

You'd have to be some kind of a newspaper nut, or a Chicago nut, or a McCormick nut to get all the way through The Colonel. It tells you everything you might want to know about him, and then some. And it just ends: when McCormick finally calls it quits on April Fool's Day, 1955, so does the book. We never learn the resolution of some of his on-going battles, especially with members of his own family (he was a great believer in the enemy-from-within theory of family systems.)

I have a friend who has been working on a book on Herbert Hoover, on and off, for twenty years. "I can't finish it because I keep going to sleep --- he was so boring." One could never say the same about McCormick, a genuine eccentric who never let his eccentricity get in the way of a lust for power and money.

--- Ralph R. Doister

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