Remembering Charles McDowell
To call Charley McDowell, who died Friday, a retired columnist doesn’t begin to say who he was.
To call Charley McDowell, who died Friday, a retired columnist, doesn’t begin to say who he was.
Virginians probably remember him best for his Richmond Times-Dispatch columns from Washington, part humor, part inside politics, and large part skilled writing. For 44 years, readers enjoyed his imaginary cast of characters – everyman Mr. Bumbleton, his Aunt Gertrude who knew everyone in her rural community and Reliable Source, the composite anonymous source, who maybe really did meet Charley at the Trailways station when he had a hot tip. A favorite was his annual February column, which demolished the myth of that demonic month’s brevity.
He became known nationally when his fellow Virginian, Paul Duke, asked him to join the revolving panel of reporters on PBS’ Washington Week in Review. His folksy manner masked an astute analytical skill, and he remained a fixture on the program for 18 years.
Filmmaker Ken Burns thought Charley’s drawl would be just right for the voice of a southern soldier on his hugely-popular documentary public television series The Civil War, and Charley later appeared in other Burns films. One of the episodes on Burns’ series on baseball – which had the misfortune to air the year the World Series was canceled – ran short, and Charley was asked to fill some time by interviewing Buck O’Neil, the old-time Negro League player who charmed viewers of the Burns series. The result was delightful.
For a time, McDowell was host and interviewer on the WCVE-TV program For the Record.
Charley was a charter member of a group of State Capitol denizens who invented a version of gin rummy called Mullet. In those days, politicians sought out reporters rather than dodging them as today. Around a tiny, cigarette-scarred table in the cramped press room next to Chicken’s snack bar, some of Virginia’s senior political writers, often joined by assorted honorables and lobbyists, soaked up the latest political intelligence over a never-ending game. After moving to Washington, Charley still dropped in on the gang when in town, and a dispute in the rules would mean an appeal to the Soo-preme Court of Mulletry, Charley’s office in the National Press Club building.
Unlike many practitioners of the then-dominant print media, Charley McDowell wasn’t disdainful of broadcasting people who wanted to do serious journalism.
I first met him when I interviewed him about his book "Campaign Trail," one of the first of the genre of behind-the-scenes looks at presidential politics.
Journalist Charles McDowell was 84.