Home Book publication Martin Tolchin, political journalist who co-founded The Hill, dies at 93

Martin Tolchin, political journalist who co-founded The Hill, dies at 93


During a four-decade career at the Times, Mr. Tolchin worked his way up a job as a copycat – he earned $41.50 a week in the 1950s, based in a smoky newsroom where many reporters kept bottles of alcohol at their disposal. offices – to become chief of the town hall office and congressional correspondent, peering into power plays and behind-the-scenes machinations on Capitol Hill.

An adroit chronicler of political patronage, legislative horse-trading and the idiosyncratic personalities of US senators, he has covered major topics including the Iran-Contra affair and the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas. He also profiled such figures as Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker for The New York Times Magazine, writing in a 1982 article that Baker was politically shrewd but gave “the appearance of a man who is lost and has wandered on the floor of the Senate”.

At age 65, in 1994, Mr. Tolchin retired from The Times to start The Hill, a weekly devoted to coverage of political life in the nation’s capital. The publication was funded by Jerry Finkelstein, the president of a community newspaper chain in the New York area, and sought to compete with Roll Call, which has covered Congress since 1955.

Launching a newspaper from scratch has had its difficulties, Mr. Tolchin told the Washington Post: “It’s like launching a battleship when all you’ve done is play with toy sailboats in your bathtub.” But The Hill published its first issue just weeks before the Republican Revolution, when the GOP won a majority in the House of Representatives after four decades of Democratic control, and quickly emerged as a fiery source of political information and a incubator for ambitious young journalists.

“Marty really knew Washington inside and out. He wanted us to find the story juicy,” said Alexander Bolton, a senior writer hired by Mr. Tolchin. how Washington really worked Very often it was about patronage and money.

Under Mr. Tolchin and Albert Eisele, another founding editor, The Hill uncovered major stories, including details of an unsuccessful 1997 Republican Party coup, when some members attempted to replace Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. The newspaper broke even after three years before it started making a profit, according to Tolchin. It now reports a print circulation of over 24,000 copies and attracts many more readers to its website.

Mr Tolchin quit in 2003 as the paper tried to increase its frequency to several days a week, but came out of retirement for two years to help media director Robert Allbritton launch a new political publication. Tentatively called Capitol Leader, it became the news site for Washington Politico, which started in 2007 and was sold last year to German conglomerate Axel Springer for around $1 billion.

In addition to his work in journalism, Mr. Tolchin was a senior fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and wrote eight books on politics with his wife, political scientist Susan Tolchin. They dissected the enduring phenomenon of political patronage in “To the Victor…” (1971) and “Pinstripe Patronage” (2011), and also chronicled the challenges women faced during the election campaign in “Clout” (1974 ), which Times reviewer Richard R. Lingeman called “thorough and timely research”, as well as being “a useful practical manual for future forays into the men’s bar of politics”.

Mr. Tolchin said he and his wife had developed a method of dividing up the research and writing of each book, although editing each other’s work proved a bit more difficult.

“She came from an academic background – she wrote tiny marginalia. I come out of a newsroom, so I had a big red pencil and I just tore it up,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 2011. “When I looked up, she didn’t was not happy. I realized there was more than one book at stake here. Now, when we turn in chapters, we always start with a lot of praise: ‘That’s really great, but if I can make a little suggestion…’”

Martin Tolchin was born in Brooklyn on September 20, 1928 to a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His mother was a housewife and he was 14 when his father, a furrier, died of a heart attack.

Mr. Tolchin graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, attended the University of Utah, and earned a law degree in 1951 from New York Law School. He served two years in the army and received what he described as a “less than honorable” discharge, after the army learned that he had been involved in so-called “subversive” activities. like joining a Marxist study group while in high school. and attend a Pete Seeger concert.

The charges ended his legal career before it started. Told that he would have to identify his leftist “friends” if he wanted to join the New York bar, he declined. “Three years of law school fell apart,” he wrote in a 2019 memoir, “Politics, Journalism, and the Way Things Used to Be.”

Looking for a new profession, Mr. Tolchin turned to journalism and landed a job with the Times in 1954. He got his start as a journalist while writing about family life for what was then known as “the Women’s Page”, and covered for Mayor John V. Lindsay before joining the Washington office in 1973. A decade later, he received the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award from the National Press Foundation for his reporting to Congress.

A brief early marriage ended in divorce, and in 1965 he married Susan Goldsmith, who died in 2016. Their son, Charlie, an author and advertising executive, died of complications from cystic fibrosis in 2003 at the age of 34. In addition to her partner of five years, the widow of former Washington Post editor and columnist Stephen S. Rosenfeld, survivors include a daughter, Kay Rex Tolchin of Niwot, Colorado, and a grandson.

By all accounts, Mr. Tolchin was brought to the Hill on the recommendation of a childhood friend of his, Times columnist William Safire, who had worked with the publication’s owner.

When Safire published a 1995 spy novel, “Sleeper Spy”, Mr. Tolchin arranged for The Hill to publish a review written by Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer sentenced to life in prison for spied for the Soviets. Mr Tolchin said he reveled in the controversy that followed, as some readers wrote angry letters and canceled their subscriptions outraged that the Hill was offering publicity to a convicted traitor.

“We didn’t do it to be cute,” he told the Post at the time. “We thought it would be interesting to have a super spy review a book about a spy.”

Moreover, he added: “The price was right”: the law prohibited Ames from accepting payment for the piece, although Mr Tolchin said he would not have paid it anyway.