- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2006


By Maggie Kilgore

Palari Publishing, $22,

202 pages


Maggie Kilgore was one of a new breed of women reporters who were arriving in Washington in 1963, the year when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and a grimly eventful news decade of violence and scandal was beginning.

Ms. Kilgore came out of a family newspaper business in Ohio, and went on to become a state government reporter, a wire service correspondent in Washington, a foreign correspondent in Vietnam for United Press International and a financial reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

She was a departure from the female reporters who in earlier years covered the social beat, because there was nowhere else for most women to go in the newspaper world, and who unfortunately became linked to the journalistically superficial.

Ms. Kilgore walked in the footsteps of Helen Thomas, an indefatigable UPI reporter who over half a century fought her way to an iconic position as a White House reporter. Yet even Ms. Thomas spent years in which she was delegated to tracking the schedule of the First Lady.

It was Ms. Thomas’ boss, the redoubtable Merriman Smith, who was the dean of the White House press corps from the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt until the tenure of Richard Nixon, and whose stature and experience entitled him to begin and end presidential news conferences. It was only after his death that Ms. Thomas was given the chance to become the first woman running UPI’s White House bureau, and Ms. Kilgore was part of the group who used her as a role model as they fought their way to professional acceptance.

Ms. Kilgore was a member of what she remembers as the “family” of United Press, underpaid and overworked, yet like most reporters in those days, addicted to newspapers as not only hard work but fun. She worked the Washington beat from Capitol Hill to the White House, yet she was an adventurer who leapt at the idea of doing a story on flying with the Blue Angels or landing in a jet on an aircraft carrier off the Gulf of Tonkin.

Which is why, given the range of her experience, she has sold herself short by a lack of depth in her assessment of what she saw and what she did, especially in Asia. Too often her book is trivialized by irrelevant references to her social schedule. She underestimates who she was and what she was doing by failing to keep in mind that she was part of a new wave of journalism where women were only beginning to be permitted to participate in the coverage of stories previously reserved for men.

In Vietnam, where she was reporting on the country and its people rather than as a combat correspondent, it would have been fascinating to hear how she reacted to a sociologically different world. Sometimes she seems to try too hard to be entertaining, as in her account of breaking her tailbone leaping between a minefield and an armored personnel carrier.

“That was my war injury — and how does one bandage a tailbone?” she asks. She leaves the reader with the feeling that being flippant is her defense mechanism.

In her introduction, Ms. Kilgore tells her readers, “This book is not a treatise on world peace although I certainly support it. I want to interest and amuse you.”

And there is no question that she is amusing. Ms. Kilgore, who was nicknamed “Happy” as a baby, has written a short romp of a book about her adventures, from journalism to helping run a casino in Las Vegas.

Yet the feeling lingers that she had more to tell on a substantive level. Breaking into journalism in the Sixties was not easy for women, because they had to gain recognition and respect despite their gender, and they could do that only by hard work.

Such trail-blazing women also had help from male colleagues, whose objections to females on the city desk were demolished by the demonstration of professionalism. Men who were veterans in the newspaper business paid them the compliment — albeit sometimes grudgingly — of respecting what they proved they could do.

Ms. Kilgore was one of those women, and that was something to be proud of.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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