Martin Tolchin, acclaimed DC journalist and founder of The Hill, dies at 93
Martin Tolchin, the founding publisher of The Hill and a 40-year veteran of The New York Times who covered New York’s City Hall and Congress and wrote several books on the power of patronage in politics, died Thursday at the age of 93.
His partner, Barbara Rosenfeld, told the Times that he died of cancer.
Tolchin — known by all as Marty — was a gifted storyteller with a sense of humor and mischief who relished revealing the behind-the-scenes machinations, self-serving motives and personal quirks of the people in power he covered.
He had an illustrious career at the Times, where he received the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress in 1982 and covered the Iran-Contra affair and the Anita Hill hearings.
Tolchin retired from the Times in 1994 to found The Hill later that same year, timing that turned out to be fortuitous as the new publication would begin printing its first weekly editions shortly before then-House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his allies took control of the lower chamber away from Democrats for the first time in 40 years.
He was 65 when Jerry Finkelstein, a New York powerbroker and the chairman of News Communications Inc., a company with more than 20 papers around New York City, including at one time Dan’s Papers in the Hamptons, hired him to launch The Hill in Washington.
He set up The Hill’s first newsroom in The Woodward Building, located on 15th Street in Northwest Washington across the street from the Treasury Department, and tapped his friend Al Eisele, who previously worked as a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch and then as a spokesman for Vice President Walter Mondale, as editor.
The leading newspaper devoted to covering Capitol Hill at the time was Roll Call, which was founded in 1955, prompting some skeptics to wonder if The Hill could compete.
Tolchin, however, brushed off the doubters with his usual aplomb mixed with a touch of New York brashness.
“We’ll try to be wittier, more audacious, and we’ll try to have a soul, which I don’t think Roll Call does,” he told The Washington Post.
Under Tolchin’s leadership, The Hill scored one of its biggest scoops in 1997 when Sandy Hume, a 27-year-old reporter and the son of veteran journalist Brit Hume, broke the story of a bungled attempted coup against then-Speaker Gingrich.
The blockbuster story put The Hill on the map in a major way for the first time.
Tolchin retired from The Hill in 2003 and went on to help found Politico with media entrepreneur Robert Allbritton. The publication was initially called the Capitol Leader before changing its name to Politico before its launch in 2007.
Jimmy Finkelstein, who took over ownership of The Hill from his father and last year sold it to Nexstar Media Group for $130 million, described Tolchin as a reporter who “knew Washington from top to bottom.”
“Before I had anything to do with The Hill, Marty would call me up and ask just dozens of questions, how do you improve things, how to make it better. He truly loved his work,” Finkelstein said. “He appreciated completely all sides of Washington and anybody he touched felt better for knowing him.”
Tolchin urged the young reporters in his newsroom to make full use of their expense accounts to develop sources and to dig behind the scenes to find out who was really pulling the levers of power and why. His frequent exhortation to reporters was to “follow the money.”
He put this reporter on to a story about how 13 senators, including members of the Banking Committee, scuttled a proposed rule by former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt to ban accounting firms from performing both auditing and consulting work for the same client, a practice known as double-dipping that was blamed in part for the 2001 collapse of the Enron Corporation, a major energy company.
When the aggrieved senators called Tolchin to complain about the article putting them in an unfavorable light, he stood firmly by the report and later recommended it for a Pulitzer Price.
Tolchin liked to tell his young charges that he brought the mentality of covering New York’s City Hall, which he did as the Times’s City Hall bureau chief, to writing about Congress and Washington.
He often contrasted New York’s political reporters, whom he saw as more willing to confront and write critically about political figures, to the D.C. press corps, which he saw as much cozier with the people in power.
On the door of The Hill’s production room, where the next day’s paper would be laid out on the print pages, there hung a sign that jokingly proclaimed its mission to be an “equal opportunity basher,” treating both Republicans and Democrats with tough but fair coverage.
Political patronage was one of his favorite subjects, and he wrote several books on the topic with his late wife, Susan Tolchin: “To the Victor: Political Patronage From the Clubhouse to the White House,” published in 1971; “Dismantling America: The Rush to Deregulate,” published in 1983; and “Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom,” published in 2001.
Sheila Casey, The Hill’s chief operating officer, whom Tolchin hired as the business manager in 1997, described him as a generous and empathetic boss who was glad to see his young reporters advance their careers.
“He was probably one of the kindest, most accepting human beings I ever met,” she said.
When Casey had doubts about taking the job, Tolchin convinced her “you won’t be bored — newsrooms are exciting.”
Casey recalled how he steered the staff through the most chaotic deadline days of its earliest years with his trademark phrase: “It’s never too early to panic.”
Tolchin liked to give The Hill’s newsroom the same kind of feel of the Times’s old City Room, which longtime Times reporter Arthur Gelb romanticized in his 2003 memoir by the same name.
His favorite lunch spot for years was Loeb’s NY Deli, located a couple blocks away from his office.
Tolchin was born in New York City on Sept. 20, 1928, and kept a touch of his old Brooklyn accent all through his life. He later admitted that he graduated Bronx Science “by the skin of my teeth,” which pretty much closed off his chances of attending a prestigious East Coast university.
He wound up getting his college degree from the University of Utah, joking in his memoir that his adviser on the college search process told him: “We’ll start in Colorado and work our way west.”
He got a law degree at New York Law School and joined the Army where, according to his memoir, he was barred from practicing law unless he revealed the names of the classmates who were with him in a high school Marxist study group.
His political activities before joining the Army resulted in him being given a general discharge instead of an honorable one.
That ended his dreams of a legal career, so he took a course at the Veterans Administration on “How to Get a Job” and wound up writing more than 100 letters to prospective employers in hopes of catching a break.
One of the responses came from the Times, where he started working as a copyboy at the age of 25.
He eventually worked his way up to writing features for the women’s page, including one about boys who gained confidence through boxing. It featured Stu Rothenberg as an underconfident young man who learned an important life lesson after donning gloves — something that Rothenberg, after becoming one of Washington’s top political analysts, reminded Tolchin of years later by mailing him a clip of the article signed with a personal note.
Tolchin then moved on to the metropolitan desk, where he exposed problems in New York’s hospital system and covered Mayor John Lindsay more closely than any other reporter at the Times.
He joined the paper’s Washington bureau in 1973 and covered the Carter administration, where he met Eisele, who would join him in founding The Hill more than 20 years later.
He is survived by his daughter Karen; a grandson, Charlie; and his partner, Rosenfeld.
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