Millions of American read Vermont Royster's words each year at Christmas and Thanksgiving when the Wall Street Journal reprints his editorials, "In Hoc Anno Domini," "The Desolate Wilderness," and, "And the Fair Land."
As for the person behind those editorials, he's more of a cipher. Chris Roush's new biography, Thinking Things Over: Vermont Royster's Legacy at The Wall Street Journal, pulls back the curtain and, at its best, gives a glimpse of what it was like to be a powerful editor or a star columnist when the Journal was flush with money and influence.
Mr. Roush reports that The Journal "sent a limousine to the hotel to pick up the Roysters and the granddaughters and take them to the dock, where they boarded the Queen Elizabeth II for a five-day trip in first-class cabins." When Royster, who served as a naval officer in World War II, wasn't traveling first class aboard the QE II, he enjoyed cruising the Atlantic Coast in a 50-foot Grand Banks yacht.
Mr. Roush's book is useful for more than just the status details. We get a sense of the journalistic craft that made Royster what he was. There was the "give-it-to-'em-and-take it-away" technique, which Mr. Roush describes as beginning with all the arguments of the side Royster opposed, then breaking down those arguments and explaining why they are wrong. There was his ability to turn his own life experiences into column fodder, as when he had his wallet stolen on the New York City subway and used it to write an editorial mocking Keynesian economics. In a later column he compared the theft to inflation: "The government has been quietly picking my pocket, and yours, by creating more and more dollars. The more it's created, the less each one is worth."
Fans of today's Wall Street Journal editorial page will be exasperated by Mr. Roush's attempt to contrast, unfavorably, the style and accuracy of today's page with the way it was under Royster: "It is in your face, forcing its opinion on readers instead of attempting to sway their minds with reasoned explanations a la Royster." In fact the opinion pieces by Royster that Mr. Roush selects and quotes in this biography don't all age particularly well. One blames "something lacking in Vietnam itself" for problems during the Vietnam War. Another, published in 1963 as President Kennedy pushed for pro-growth, supply-side tax cuts, criticizes "big deficits…arising from tax cuts."
What about the private or interior religious life of the journalist who wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial about "the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free"? Aside from reporting that Royster was married at the Christ Episcopal Church, this book-length biography sheds little to no light on the question of whether Royster was a regular church-goer or a man of private faith.
One can understand why Mr. Roush, who teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina, where Royster taught from 1971 to 1983, would choose to write about Royster, a North Carolina native who won two Pulitzer prizes and whose papers are at Chapel Hill. This book will probably stand as the authoritative Royster biography. But I came away from it with the sense that the Wall Street Journal editor whose biography deserves to be read by an audience as large as the Journal's is not Royster but his successor, Robert L. Bartley. That is a book yet to be written.