Reporters, including the Mercury's Kate Masters, center, listen to former Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver in 2020
He was a gregarious lad fresh out of Hampden-Sydney with a sunny smile, speaking a mile-a-minute and full of curiosity.
Jonathan would have blended into the diffuse background of the 2001 governor’s race as far as Virginia’s senior political correspondents at the time were concerned but for the fact that, at seemingly every stop, he sought us out. He hovered like a horsefly. He noticed everything. He engaged the gray-hairs of the press corps in conversation and asked us about the business.
He filled a variety of roles – driver, body man, tracker – for the campaign of Mark L. Earley, the state attorney general and Republican nominee for governor. I’d have written him off as just another partisan, except that he didn’t behave like one. He seemed to be methodically studying the system writ large, analyzing it from the inside out.
No memory is more vivid than Labor Day of that year – a sweltering, grotesquely humid late morning in the village of Buena Vista after its parade, once an obligatory event for statewide political nominees. Back then, campaigns were somewhat somnolent in the summers (“the Virginia way”) and the BV parade was among a handful of Labor Day weekend events including Sunday’s Acres of Democrats in Wytheville, a Monday parade in Covington and Rep. Bobby Scott’s annual picnic in Newport News. They kicked off the nine-week autumn sprint to Election Day.
The Buena Vista parade would step off after GOP and Democratic breakfasts in the city’s business district, course through streets lined with families perched on their porches or curbside lawn chairs amid a thicket of campaign yard signs, turn right on West 10th Street by the old Parry McCluer High football field, cross the bridge over the Maury River, then culminate at an open-air pavilion in Glen Maury Park where each candidate got the microphone for a few minutes to court the electorate.
Once finished, candidates were consumed in a media scrum that would envelop them from every direction.
Mark Warner, the Democrat and eventual winner of 2001’s gubernatorial election, had alighted from the stage and was swarmed by scribes who pushed recorders or microphones as close as possible to his mouth to clearly capture his words over the din of the nearby crowd. Among those craning forward with a recorder was Jonathan, acting as Earley’s tracker – a campaign staffer who records firsthand audio (now video) of an opponent in hopes of exploiting a gaffe. Someone jostled Jonathan’s arm and his recorder inadvertently brushed Warner’s lip.
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders was advising Warner’s campaign on its rural strategy that year. Among his ideas was entering a Warner-logo car in a NASCAR event in Martinsville and a bluegrass-themed campaign song set to the tune of the Dillards’ “Dooley.” Mudcat was on the periphery of the gaggle and saw red when Jonathan’s recorder nudged Warner’s face. He grabbed Jonathan and tried to yank him from the scrum. Nothing came of it more than a few angry glares and muttered oaths, which was probably fortunate for Mudcat considering Jonathan’s youth and size advantage. Most striking, however, was the speed with which Jonathan shook it off and regained his focus, just as any member of the press corps should have.
Mudcat, a colorful former newspaperman not known for self-censorship, was later remorseful and, when I recalled the incident years afterward, said in his mountain drawl: “Ah felt shi**y ’bout how ah treated that boy.”
That memory replayed itself last week as I sat in a group of people listening to Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, both New York Times national political correspondents, discuss their new bestseller, “This Will Not Pass.” Their national book-promotion tour brought them to Richmond where they did a Q&A about their work documenting former President Donald Trump’s aberrant behavior in the 2020 campaign and his alarming efforts to stay in power by any means after losing to President Joe Biden.
Nobody in 2001 could have pegged JMart to surmount the ziggurat of American journalism as he has. He found his way into the profession at Hotline, the political newsletter of the National Journal, then got in on the ground floor of POLITICO in 2007 before joining the Times.
But he is hardly unique among journalists who’ve risen to national prominence from inauspicious Virginia roots. The late Roger Mudd started a career at the Richmond News Leader that would make him a primary CBS News political correspondent and, for two years, co-moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Mudd’s Washington & Lee classmate, the late Tom Wolfe, was a Richmond native who worked at the Washington Post before becoming an early pioneer of the “New Journalism” which employs a novelist’s storytelling style in nonfiction books. Vivid examples are Wolfe’s classics, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “The Right Stuff.”
Carl Bernstein, who co-bylined the Post’s legendary coverage of Watergate and the Nixon White House and co-authored “All the President’s Men” with Bob Woodward, was the Post’s Richmond-based Virginia government correspondent in the early 1970s.
There are more recent stories involving my contemporaries. You can’t watch CNN’s coverage of Congress or the White House without seeing correspondent Ryan Nobles, an alumnus of Richmond’s WWBT-TV who covered Virginia government. A fellow alum of Ryan’s at WWBT, Aaron Gilchrist, is now a network anchor at NBC News. Peter Baker, Mike Shear and Anita Kumar were once the Post’s chief Capitol Square correspondents: Baker and Shear are now top Washington correspondents for the Times, and Kumar is POLITICO’s chief White House correspondent and associate editor. Jo Becker, who covered state government with Shear, is a three-time Pulitzer winner at the Times. Maria Sanminiatelli, who worked at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville before joining me on the Associated Press staff in Richmond, now directs AP’s Top Stories Hub in New York. Joe St. George, formerly of WTVR-TV in Richmond, is now the Washington-based national political editor for Scripps Television. Michael Paul Williams won a Pulitzer last year for columns he wrote at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
I’m sure I’ve missed many, and for that oversight I apologize.
The point being: you never know where talent, hard work and a bright, inquiring young mind can take people in this business. Which brings me to the present.
You may have read recently of staff transitions at the Virginia Mercury. That’s relevant because in 44 years in the journalism and communications business, working with many amazingly gifted colleagues, I’ve never been associated with an organization as strong wall to wall, ceiling to floor as this one. (Full disclosure: I am not on the Mercury staff.)
Past Mercury staffers Mechelle Hankerson, now the news director at WHRO, and Katie O’Connor, senior staff writer at Psychiatric News, have gone on to big things. Ned Oliver, a news virtuoso who was named Virginia’s outstanding journalist in 2021 for his work with the Mercury, decamped to join a new Richmond-based publication of Axios. Kate Masters, who joined the Mercury at the start of the pandemic and differentiated and distinguished it with her state-specific health care and education coverage in a time of unprecedented tumult, is moving to New York. She was named Virginia’s outstanding young journalist for her work last year. And Robert Zullo, a masterful journalist and the maestro who assembled this remarkable team as the Mercury’s founding editor, is moving to Illinois where he will write about national energy policy for States Newsroom, the Mercury’s owner.
A parting testament to Zullo’s stewardship is the fact that he turns the keys over to Sarah Vogelsong, an excellent journalist whom he hired and who has become Virginia’s authoritative voice on environmental and energy policy coverage. Sarah, who got her start at a Virginia weekly, will be editor-in-chief of the Mercury.
The Mercury is doing what few news organizations can these days: it’s hiring, replacing talent that’s moving up the ladder. Staying at Sarah’s side will be Graham Moomaw, who holds the Mercury’s cornerstone beat as its legislative/governmental/political writer. Graham’s reporting and storytelling skills are equal to or better than any of my aforementioned colleagues who’ve shot on to national stardom.
In a career that has spanned parts of six decades, I’ve sadly lifted many a glass toasting those who’ve advanced, retired or moved on. Years removed from the frenzied competition and deadlines of daily reporting, seeing colleagues excel and ascend brings a deep satisfaction as time passes.
Twenty-one years passed between the time my orbit intersected with Jonathan’s and the evening last week when I told him publicly how proud I am of what he’s accomplished.
If I am this side of the sod and of sufficiently sound mind and body in another 21 years, I hope to say the same to the rising young stars I’ve been blessed to know as a Mercury contributor.
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