Arthur Krock, one-time bureau chief and columnist for The New York Times, is an abject lesson in the temporality of insider influence. Once upon a time, he bestrode Washington as a journalistic colossus. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under 60 who’s ever heard of him.
When Krock first arrived in Washington in 1919, he found what he called “a small group of pompous frauds” dominating its press corps, “identifiable not only by their disinclination to do legwork, which was great, but in most cases by their attire. They habitually wore frock coats and silk hats, dropped big names in profession, carried canes and largely made contacts with their single news source in the noble saloons of the period.”
Krock adapted quickly. He insisted that everyone who worked at the Times’s Washington bureau call him “Mister Krock.” When a senior reporter asked him how long he was expected to keep up this ridiculous formality, Krock replied, “as long as you care to stay here.” Times reporter (and later liberal pundit) Tom Wicker remembered his first sighting of the man: “He would stalk through the office, carrying a statesman’s girth with more aggressive dignity than anyone in Washington, his head cocked back to allow his gaze to play scornfully on the gods, a Churchillian cigar cocked toward his hat brim like a banner of war.” Since Wicker was writing the introduction to a collection of Krock’s columns, one can safely conclude that this was as generous as he could bring himself to be.
When Krock’s name comes up in the political histories of the period, it is most often as a conduit for the powerful to get their message across to Times readers. In my 1992 book, Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy—from which much of the above is drawn—I told the story of the manner in which Krock allowed himself to be used by his Princeton clubmate, James Forrestal, for the purposes of promoting Cold War administration initiatives, including most particularly the 1950 strategic magna carta, NSC-68 (which, ironically, remained a secret until it was published in full in Krock’s 1968 memoir, Sixty Years on the Firing Line).
Krock, who died in 1974, is also occasionally remembered for his tendency to seek favors from the wealthy, none more so than Joseph Kennedy. But the publication by David Nasaw of the first full-scale biography of Kennedy, The Patriarch, sheds new light on the impressive scale of the degree to which Kennedy was able to purchase the favors of the journalist and his newspaper via decades worth of bribery (and flattery) of the Times.
Krock first met Kennedy on the campaign trail in 1932 but he did not, as he would later record, “become really acquainted” with the politician until 1934, when Kennedy accepted the appointment as chairman of the SEC. Within a year, Krock was “an intimate of the family” by his own estimation.
As Nasaw explains, “For the next quarter century, while working as Washington bureau chief and as columnist, Arthur Krock would serve as Kennedy’s unofficial, clandestine press agent, speechwriter, political adviser, informant, and all-purpose consultant.” Whenever Kennedy had something he needed help saying, Krock helped him say it, often putting the news columns of the Times at his disposal as well.
And money did change hands, though it is probably a mistake to overemphasize this fact. Kennedy paid Krock handsomely to help ghostwrite the 1936 campaign book he published in support of FDR’s reelection; to assist his son, John F. Kennedy, in turning his college thesis into the book, Why England Slept; and to cover the cost of Krock’s Palm Beach and London vacations. No less important was Kennedy’s ability to offer Krock proximity to power, influence, and information.
And Krock more than returned these favors. They began with a couple of Times pieces by Krock and by one of his reporters, S. J. Woolf, that comprised an extended profile of the elder Kennedy in August of 1934. The man’s manner was “buoyant, his spirit exuberant and his clear blue eyes are merry,” they wrote. Of Kennedy’s nine children: “It is evident that he regards them as the best dividends he had ever received. One senses that he is solicitous of the future for their sakes; that the improvements for which he is striving are improvements which they will enjoy.” Following Krock’s work on Kennedy’s campaign booklet, he followed them up with columns in which he termed his patron to be “one of the outstanding figures in American life” and among the president’s “miracle-men.”