The Chicago Tribune was once known as much for what it and owner Robert McCormick did not like as for what they preferred, especially when it came to the editorial page. McCormick, who built a titanic newspaper, knew how to hate, and what he despised were liberals, Communists, radicals, do-gooders, interventionists, Democrats, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Born into a wealthy Chicago family, McCormick took control of its paper in 1910. He served in World War I as an artillery officer, won promotion to colonel and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for prompt action in battle. In 1925, he completed the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, hailed as the most beautiful office building in the world (now it is being converted to luxury condominiums). When FDR came into office, in 1933, McCormick espied the advent of communism. He opposed U.S. involvement in World War II because he thought it was for no better reason than to save the British Empire, again. McCormick had his own empire by then: He coined the term “Chicagoland” to describe his primary circulation area, which reached into four other states. He dispatched “foreign correspondents” to the East Coast. He was provincial, a nativist and an unceasing blowhard, “with a bristling mustache and superlative ego,” the rival Chicago Daily News observed. A wag dubbed him “the greatest mind of the fourteenth century.”
FDR, in the White House, read the Tribune every day. His friends tried to talk him out of it, “but he evidently wanted to know the worst about himself,” one said. When FDR ran for a fourth term, in 1944, on a ticket with Missouri Sen. Harry Truman, his chief aide, Harry Hopkins, forecasting a win, cabled to a member of Winston Churchill’s cabinet that if Hopkins were wrong, “I will underwrite the British national debt and subscribe to the Chicago Tribune.” Hopkins also pleaded with Joseph Stalin not to judge the country by that newspaper or to assume it reflected American public opinion.
Truman was vice president for 82 days before FDR died. He did his best to carry on, but it was difficult measuring up to the great man, and no sooner was the war won than Truman had to negotiate the incipient Cold War while Republicans in Congress and Colonel McCormick sniped. Making matters worse, Truman had not particularly esteemed FDR, who monopolized conversations, incessantly digressed, connived and was a liar, Truman told Senate colleagues. But the day came in 1947 when Truman determined to run in his own right. That year, the Tribune celebrated its centennial. Life magazine, documenting the festivities in a five-page spread, said McCormick had made the paper into a global symbol “of reaction, isolation and prejudice.”
McCormick, viewing the 1948 match-up between Truman and Republican challenger Thomas Dewey, called Truman a nincompoop, on his editorial page. He anticipated a sound defeat and was hardly alone. Newsweek polled 50 political experts before the election who were unanimous: Dewey couldn’t lose.
On Nov. 2, 1948, Americans went to the polls. The Tribune, whose owner opposed organized labor at every turn, was in the middle of a printer’s strike, which forced the paper to go to press early. Its Washington bureau chief, Arthur Sears Henning, filed a story that led with a Dewey victory well before the voting was done, resulting in a first edition of 150,000 copies with the most famous headline in the paper’s history, “Dewey defeats Truman.” The gaffe got much wider exposure two days later when Truman stopped in St. Louis and posed with a copy of the early Tribune edition, beaming.
Nothing really changed in the Tribune’s views for a long time after that, but in 2016, rather than endorse Donald Trump, it picked ... Libertarian party candidate Gary Johnson. This year, it endorsed Joe Biden, saying there is value “in electing a president of the United States who does not engage with others with petulance.”