Robert Merry (’68): White House reporter turned National Interest editor sees opportunity for young journalists

By Amanda Ma -Robert Merry

Throughout Robert Merry’s (BA, ’68) career, his passion for political reporting has only become stronger as he climbed the ladder, earning positions at some of the most prestigious political newspapers in the country. Today, Merry serves as editor of National Interest, an online and print magazine focusing on American foreign policy. Getting to this point in his career was never an easy ascendance, but his discoveries of strengths in so many areas have made the hard-earned success worthwhile.

The inspiration of becoming a newsman came from his father, who worked as a reporter and managing editor for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Combined with his deep interest in history, Merry knew he was destined “to be a newsman covering events of historical dimension.”

He pursued this career path with rigor as an undergrad at the University of Washington. He became a campus stringer for Newsweek magazine, contributing stories in an era where “a lot was going on on campuses around the country,” with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement being the biggest newsmakers.

In the midst of that excitement, Merry was also working for The Daily, where he began as sports editor, then moved up to managing editor, and then editor. “I spent far more hours in that place than I probably should have.”

As a student, he also discovered his interest for conservative thinking when, as part of a research project, he came into contact with William Buckley Jr., a conservative American author and commentator. “That was sort of a pivotal moment in my intellectual consciousness. By the time I left here I was really passionate about what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a newsman in Washington or New York.”

Intelligence training during Vietnam

But his enthusiasm to get out in the real world to work as a journalist had to be restrained. America needed him to serve his country, and he could either go the easy way by volunteering, or the hard way, through the draft. “It was 1968, and the Vietnam War was raging. So it became necessary for most of us getting out of college to go into the reserves, as many of my friends did,” said Merry. “I was not comfortable with that option, so I kind of shopped around for something that would allow me to serve my country at a time of need, but also get something out of it.”

Merry enlisted for German language training which morphed into intelligence training. He found himself in Germany in a counter-espionage shop in Stuttgart, working against the worries of the Cold War. “There was always a concern about infiltration of U.S. forces by hostile East Bloc intelligence agencies. So I was an investigator on such matters.”

On his return to the States, Merry was 25, married and had just welcomed his first child. He earned his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, and was then recruited by The Denver Post. Just six months into his tenure as a reporter he found himself covering the Colorado senate. “I loved that – politics, legislation, government. But I never really gave up my ambition to move to Washington.”

After two years with the Post, Merry moved back to the East coast, having been recruited by the National Observer in the fall of 1974. “When I wasn’t covering politics I covered the culture of political America – the mood of the country, idea trends that could have impact on where the country was going,” he said.

Every week he would fly out to a different location in America, and come back a couple days later with notebooks full of information. “Sometimes I would be on an assignment that would take three weeks. So it was great freedom to come up with ideas and pursue them.”

But this freedom only lasted so long. Come summer of 1977, Warren Phillips, CEO of Dow Jones, landed his helicopter on the newspaper’s campus in Silver Spring, Md., and told all of the employees the doors of the National Observer were closing. “It was a lovely paper, beautifully written, but it never made a dime for the company,” said Merry. “But I was very fortunate to be invited into the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal.”

Nine glorious years at Wall Street Journal

The nine years that followed, in Merry’s mind, will always be one of the biggest highlights of his career. At the WSJ, Merry was deeply involved in covering the stories he had always dreamed about as a student. “I had nine glorious, wonderful fun-filled years covering Congress, politics, the White House, organized labor, economic policy, some foreign policy. It was a very heady time. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Merry covered organized labor on a beat system with a colleague. They divided it up with Merry taking the politics, and his coworker taking the economics end of it. Their work was combined into a weekly Tuesday column called the “Labor Letter.”

In 1980, he was asked to cover Congress in a specialized beat. “I covered four committees in Congress: the tax-writing committees, House Ways and Means in Senate finance, and budget committees of both houses,” he said, “So I covered fiscal matters, taxes and spending. Then there was social security, Medicare and trade; issues that also fell under that jurisdiction.”

It was a very intimidating assignment for Merry, having to understand such detailed information and explain it in a way that the layman can comprehend, but it was a challenge to which he rose.

“Covering Congress is the second-most fun you can have in Washington journalism,” said Merry. “That’s because there are so many power centers – 535 members of Congress and every one of those offices is a power center in itself.” But the absolute most fun a journalist can have in Washington, according to Merry, is covering a presidential campaign.

In 1984, Merry was assigned to cover the presidential campaign, during which he traveled with incumbent Ronald Reagan and challenger Walter Mondale. He feels a journalist’s experience in this area today is much different from what it was 30 years ago, with less access to the candidates, and more tension between reporters and the campaigns. “But in my day it was great fun because it was this huge moveable story, and you were in this bubble covering it, and most days it was the biggest story,” he said. “It didn’t get much better than that.”

From reporter to manager

Merry then became a White House reporter, but reaching his 12th year as a journalist he couldn’t shake the feeling of wanting to run a newsroom. When the opportunity to become the managing editor at Congressional Quarterly came along, he jumped at the chance.

“That’s when I basically took the painful step of leaving a newspaper and a company that I really adored to head off into the unknown wilderness of newsroom management.”

Suddenly, Merry was managing 55 people and in charge of putting out a weekly news magazine that focused on Congress, politics and public policy, as well as a number of other newsletter-type publications. “It was a big transition, but I think I took to it.”

Merry’s work took CQ from being a beleaguered publication with “not much journalistic impact” to one where talented young writers came to nurture and significantly expand their careers; a magazine with newfound power in journalism circles.

After 10 years at CQ, Merry was promoted to CEO, president and publisher, and later editor-in-chief. At the start of the Internet boom, Merry took on the creation of CQ.com, with the intent to give readers the information they were looking for in a faster, more detailed, more functional way. That’s when business exploded. “During my 12 years as CEO we tripled the revenue and turned it into a much more powerful company. It was great fun and I loved every minute of it.”

But as soon as his success with CQ was in the palm of his hand, it was taken away. “Largely it was because the newspaper business was becoming tougher and they needed the capital to keep moving the business forward,” Merry said. “They sold CQ.” First, it was the books division, then the rest of the business went one year later in 2009. “At the signing of the parchment that transferred ownership of CQ, my job terminated.”

Robert Merry the author

But his spirit was not. Amid all the reporting and managing, Merry was also working as an author, an accomplishment of which he is most proud. “I just found that I really love attempting to take big stories of very fascinating human beings and weave them into stories of American history.”

His first book, Taking on the World (Viking, 1996), is a biography of prominent postwar columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop. Research for this book goes back to 1989, when Merry was asked to write a chapter for a book on Senate leadership, more specifically, Robert A. Taft, the Senate Republican majority leader for a significant period of time in the 1940s and ‘50s. A fellow writer pointed Merry toward the Alsop papers in the Library of Congress to begin his research.

“All of a sudden it was clear to me that the Alsop papers were just this treasure trove of information about what was going on in America during their time,” Merry said. “I immediately thought of the idea of using those papers as a foundation for a book on their lives and using their lives as a window on America during those decades.”

In 2005, when Merry had his CQ job under control, he wrote Sands of Empire (Simon & Schuster), “a study of the underlying intellectual ideas that I thought were guiding American foreign policy-making in the post-Cold War era, and guiding policy-making often in questionable directions.”

Merry’s third book, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent, (Simon & Schuster America Collection, 2010) is a narrative history, completed during Merry’s transition out of CQ. And just this summer, Merry published his fourth book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.

His authorship keeps him busy to this day, as Merry is currently working on a book on the 1890s and the presidency of William McKinley and the Spanish American War.

A new challenge at The National Interest

Today, Merry works as the editor of The National Interest. A year ago, in a statement about his newest position, Merry said, “I have long admired The National Interest as a leader in thoughtful and provocative debates on American foreign policy. I am thrilled to take on this new challenge.”

Despite the struggles in his career, Merry has always come back with a renewed passion for journalism. There’s a lot to say for staying on top of the game, especially when the methods and technologies for disseminating news have completely changed since he began his career. Merry says this fact is only good news for the young journalists coming into the business.

“News is news — you have to have it. Just because the old business models of distributing news have found themselves beleaguered doesn’t mean that the news business is going to become somehow obliterated,” he said. “I believe that if you’re young and you’re interested in news and writing, then there’s going to be plenty of opportunity as new organizations bring about creativity and emerge. There will be some marvelous opportunities for young people in news.”