Vermont Royster, a Raleigh boy who became one of the most prominent voices in the country as editor of The Wall Street Journal, had great confidence in himself. But he wrote in a calm, reasoned style that acknowledged the other point of view. “When I was writing editorials, I was always a little bit conscious of the possibility that I might be wrong,” Royster once said.
Royster, who won two Pulitzer Prizes, is the subject of a new biography by Chris Roush, a business journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. The book is “Thinking Things Over: Vermont Royster’s Legacy at The Wall Street Journal.”
Royster, who was born, raised and died in Raleigh, would have been 100 last month. He graduated from the old Hugh Morson High School in 1929 at age 15 and later from UNC. After retiring as editor of The Wall Street Journal, he taught at the UNC School of Journalism. He died in 1996 and is buried near downtown Raleigh at Oakwood Cemetery.
Royster had two distinguishing personal characteristics. One was his name: Vermont Connecticut. He was named after a grandfather who had seven siblings, each named for two states: Iowa Michigan, Arkansas Delaware, Wisconsin Illinois, Oregon Minnesota, Louisiana Maryland, Virginia Carolina and Georgia Indiana.
Royster also was notable for standing 5-foot-6 (with shoes). President John F. Kennedy called on him first at a meeting of editors and publishers. “The little bastard was the only one whose name I knew,” Kennedy said later.
Lyrical and poetic
After graduating from UNC, Royster worked briefly for The News & Observer. Then he headed to New York, where he joined The Wall Street Journal in 1936 and rose quickly. He eventually became editor, which at the Journal meant that he was in charge of the editorial pages. (As executive editor, I supervise The N&O’s news coverage but not the editorial pages.)
“If The Journal had an opinion about an important topic or an issue from 1950 through 1970, Royster most likely wrote the editorial or column, or directed its writing,” Roush wrote. “In doing so, he became one of the most important commentary journalists in the second half of the 20th Century.”
Michael Gartner, a former newspaper editor and Pulitzer Prize winner, named Royster as one of the four greatest editorial writers in the history of the United States. Gartner wrote that Royster’s “intellectual rigor, coupled with his graceful writing, produced editorials that were forceful and scholarly in content and lyrical and poetic in style.”
Royster’s editorial voice was more moderate than today’s Wall Street Journal, which is emphatically conservative. Royster supported the Brown school desegregation decision in 1954 and wrote a pivotal editorial in 1968 questioning U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
“I was really surprised at how in front of all of the other media he was on these issues,” Roush told me this week. “People think of The Wall Street Journal as a very conservative editorial page and yet he was very progressive with his beliefs.”
Royster’s writing was even-handed, perceptive and accessible. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1953. The committee praised Royster’s work for its “clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion.” He won his second Pulitzer in 1984.
Today’s style often is in-your-face. “At a time when American political and economic discussion seems as divided as it has ever been,” Roush wrote, “Royster’s calm, reasoned way of arguing points is sorely missed.”
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @john_drescher