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Book Reviews : A Legend Brought Into Sharp Focus

Edward R. Murrow: An American Original by Joseph E. Persico (McGraw-Hill: $24.95, 602 pages)

Perhaps the most important book in my life, one that I have cherished over the years, is a wartime first edition of William Shirer’s “Berlin Diary.” The book was left behind in my family home when my father and mother separated in the early ‘50s, and it loomed large in my imagination as a link with my father, an introduction to the craft of journalism, and an intriguing glimpse of the heroism and the horrors of World War II.

It was also my introduction to Edward R. Murrow, who was even then a mythic figure in journalism:

“I met Edward R. Murrow . . . in the lobby of the Adlon at 7 o’clock,” Shirer wrote in “Berlin Diary” for Aug. 20, 1937. “As I walked up to him I was a little taken back by his handsome face. . . . We walked into the bar and there was something in his talk that began disarming me. Something in his eyes that was not Hollywood.”

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Humble Origins

As it turns out, Shirer and “Berlin Diary” figure prominently in Joseph E. Persico’s “Edward R. Murrow: An American Original.” Persico’s distinguished and compellingly readable biography does not slight the stuff of the Murrow legend--his humble origins as the son of a North Carolina dirt farmer, his work as a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest, his invention of himself as a dashing and dapper foreign correspondent, his pioneering broadcasts from London during the Blitz, his televised showdown with Joseph McCarthy. But, then, Persico goes far beyond the myth and shows us the real man--to his surprise, and perhaps to our own.

For example, it was a public battle between Shirer and Murrow in 1947 that Persico calls “the unhappiest chapter in the unhappy history of Murrow the executive"--an ugly incident that prefigured Murrow’s own decline and fall. Shirer, then a commentator for CBS, was the victim of falling ratings, an unhappy sponsor, and--Shirer insisted--unpopular political opinions. Murrow tried to fashion an honorable compromise that would keep Shirer on the air in another slot, but then yielded without a fight to the decree of his benefactor, CBS founder William Paley: “If you don’t like it, Bill, you’re the boss,” Murrow said.

Fought for Beliefs

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“He was willing to fly bombers into hell for what he believed,” Persico observes. “But the battles in the executive suite left him spiritually drained, limp with the fatigue that comes with fighting unfelt causes.”

The episode is typical of what is best about “Murrow"--the book is rich with intimate anecdotes, recounted by a sympathetic but unadoring biographer, drawing on first-person sources who were close enough to Murrow to detect the cracks in the plaster saint of journalism. Persico is candid but never leering--we are told of a college romance that ended with an out-of-town abortion, for example, and a wartime flirtation with Churchill’s daughter-in-law. But Persico allows us to understand that the most meaningful of Murrow’s affairs of the heart was a lifelong but wholly Platonic relationship with one of his college professors--a “dwarfish, crippled spinster” who, we are told, played a role in the coinage of Murrow’s signature lines: “This is London” as well as “Good night, and good luck.”

This is no kiss-and-tell celebrity profile. Persico brings to “Murrow” the intellectual discipline of the historian, the polished and memorable prose of the accomplished biographer. At more than 600 pages, it is a fast but substantial and satisfying read. Still, “Murrow” is a who’s who of politics, diplomacy, media and the arts in the mid-20th Century, if only because Murrow was himself a magnet for the most gifted, influential and powerful men and women of his times. We encounter Churchill and Roosevelt, Harold Laski and John Kenneth Galbraith, Felix Frankfurter and Lewis Powell, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, and a whole constellation of media stars: Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, Robert Trout, Eric Sevareid.

Gloomy Outlook

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At the end, Murrow--like Shirer--was discarded by the very institution that he helped establish. “Walter Cronkite was becoming phenomenally successful because . . . he was as comfortable as an old shoe,” Persico points out. “Ed Murrow . . . had made himself a nagging conscience, a public scold, an irritant to the corporation. Bodies try either to digest irritants or expel them.”

Even in the wilderness, Murrow remained a gloomy prophet whose message and example have an enduring importance unto our day: “I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what radio and television are doing to our society, our culture and our heritage,” Murrow proclaimed after his fall from grace at CBS. "(Unless) we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television is in the main being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”


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