Through nearly 45 years in Washington, Robert Merry has distinguished himself as a political and governmental reporter for national newspapers, as a newsroom manager, as a publishing CEO, as a political commentator, and as an author of books on American history and foreign policy. A Washington State native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Washington, where he edited the campus daily and won two noted journalism awards. After three years in the Army, including two in West Germany as a language-qualified counterintelligence agent, he earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Merry’s reporting career included stints at the Denver Post, where he covered the Colorado legislature and other beats; at the Dow Jones weekly newspaper, The National Observer, where he covered national politics; and at The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, where he wrote about Congress, the White House, national politics, and economic policy. As a Washington correspondent, Merry appeared numerous times on public-policy television shows, including NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation, ABC’s Good Morning America, and CNN.
In 1987 Merry became managing editor of Congressional Quarterly, the Washington-based publishing company specializing in news and information on Congress, politics, and public policy. In 1997 he became CQ’s president and editor-in-chief and led it into the digital age with a state-of-the-art legislative-tracking service called CQ.com. In a dozen years as CQ’s CEO, Merry tripled revenues and won recognition as an electronic publishing pioneer. B2B Media Business magazine named him a ``Media Business Innovator of the Year’’ in 2009. That same year Merry left CQ when it was sold to The Economist of London. He later served as editor of The National Interest, the magazine and website that specializes in international relations, and as editor of The American Conservative.
Merry is the author of five books, including Taking On the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop – Guardians of the American Century (Viking, 1996), which Stanford’s David Kennedy, writing in the New York Times, called ``a sensitive portrait, executed with respect and affection but also with critical acumen.’’ The book won an Ambassador Award from the New York-based English-Speaking Union and was a Times ``Notable Book.’’ His Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition (Simon & Schuster, 2005) was widely reviewed and generated controversy. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent (Simon & Schuster, 2009) was a Times bestseller and ``Notable Book.’’ Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, writing in the Times, called it ``one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Washington politics, during the decisive 1840s.’’ Merry’s Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (Simon & Schuster, 2012), is a discussion of the American presidency and how presidents succeed and fail. Now comes President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, which garnered advance praise from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Review. Merry has discussed his literary work on such broadcast programs as the PBS NewsHour, CBS’s Face the Nation, Chris Matthew’s Hardball, NPR’s All Things Considered, the Diane Rehm Show, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Fox’s Fox & Friends, and Brian Lamb’s BookNotes on C-SPAN.
Merry served on the Board of Advisers of Bloomberg Government and was a director of Acorn Media, distributor of high-end British drama. He has served twice as a Pulitzer Prize juror and is a member of Washington’s prestigious Cosmos Club. During his CQ days, he served as board chairman of the Software and Information Industry Association, a trade group for digital business.
Merry, the father of three children, lives with his wife, Susan P. Merry, a former association executive, in Washington, D.C.; Langley, Washington; and Big Sky, Montana.
Robert W. Merry
The outlines of my career came into a dim focus as early as my third-grade year, when I developed a passion for history. I grew up in Gig Harbor, Washington, on the shores of Puget Sound. But my third year of school was spent in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my dad began pursuing a PhD in literature at the University of Virginia. There I was surrounded by history—Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the stunning University grounds with its display room where Edgar A. Poe lived as a student, nearby Civil War battlefields, numerous statues of men from that endlessly compelling era and from the earlier time of the nation’s founding.
As it turned out, my dad abandoned the PhD pursuit, and we returned to Washington State, where he began a journalistic career at the Tacoma News Tribune, eventually rising to managing editor. Even in grade school I developed a love for that newsroom, which struck me as the nerve center of the city, with its police radio revealing dramatic crimes and police chases and reporters stationed at City Hall, the Federal Building, the port, anywhere there might be action. I decided that journalism was my calling.
But early on I nurtured an ambition to ply the journalistic trade at the highest levels of history in the making. I wanted to pursue national politicians and cover events of national and even international scope, to be there when history was unfolding in real time. That’s what led me, eventually, to Washington, D.C.
I never wavered in this ambition. I was editor of my junior high school paper, my high school paper, and the University of Washington Daily. After a stint in the army, serving as a language-qualified counterintelligence agent in West Germany, I pursued a master’s degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Then it was on to the Denver Post and my first reporting job. Within six months I was assigned to cover the Colorado legislature.
But Washington beckoned, and after two years in Denver I arrived there as a political reporter for the old National Observer, a Dow Jones weekly newspaper that distinguished itself with its sprightly writing and compelling storytelling but never made a dime for the parent company. When it was shuttered, after 15 years of existence and some two years after my arrival, I was invited into the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal. I spent ten glorious years at that splendid paper, which covered the world with verve and discipline for its targeted audience of businessmen and financiers. But I discovered, when I was assigned to cover organized labor, that even the labor bigwigs read it assiduously because they knew no other source of news could convey as much insight on the opposition as the Journal did.
After the labor beat, I was assigned to the congressional beat to cover tax and budget legislation. This was the early Reagan years, when those subjects preoccupied the nation, and it was a daunting challenge. But national politics always beckoned, and I covered the 1984 presidential campaign fulltime, as I had covered the 1976 campaign for the Observer. After that I was sent to the White House to cover Ronald Reagan’s second term.
Though I loved the Journal I found myself chafing a bit at the reporter’s trade as I approached middle age. It might be more dignified, it occurred to me, to move into newsroom or corporate management rather than chasing politicians all over the country, being herded onto airplanes and buses and into hotel lobbies, with 5 a.m. baggage calls.
That’s when I left the Journal to become managing editor of Congressional Quarterly Inc., the Washington, D.C., publishing company that specialized in news and information on Congress, politics, and public policy. It was a small company when I arrived, with fewer than 200 employees—a far cry from the global reach and instant recognizability of the Journal. But it had potential, and it presented managerial opportunities while allowing me to remain in Washington. After ten years in editorial roles, I was asked to become the company’s CEO, with a title of president and editor-in-chief.
That was the beginning of the Internet age, which posed a powerful threat and a powerful opportunity. I knew the web would kill the business model of various publishing companies that couldn’t harness that profound tool of communications—as it eventually killed the newspaper business model, the book publishing model, the print magazine model, and much more. But if we could grab hold of that new technology and leverage it for the benefit of our customers—and perhaps many more customers—we could perhaps ride it to new heights.
That’s what we did, exploiting XML software to create a web-based legislative-tracking service of the highest functionality, timeliness, and breadth and depth of coverage. During my 12 years as CEO, we managed to triple corporate revenues and move the enterprise into the new tech era. Digital revenue, about 17 percent of corporate revenue when I took the reins in 1997, had become more than 70 percent by 2008, when officials at my parent company, The St. Petersburg Times (now The Tampa Bay Times) decided to sell CQ assets in order to fund operations at their struggling newspaper. The core of the business, the publications division, was sold to The Economist of London in 2009.
I was unhorsed in the process, but it had been a tremendous run, and I moved on to other things. In the meantime, I had become an author of books on American history and foreign policy, and so I secured a two-book contact with my publisher, Simon & Schuster. Under that contract I produced my fourth and fifth books, an exploration of the American presidency and a biography of our 25th president, William McKinley. I became editor of a fine magazine called The National Interest, a largely foreign policy journal that viewed the world through a prism of traditional conservatism, my own political outlook. Later, after retiring and returning to Puget Sound, I was importuned to return to Washington intermittently and take the editorial reins of another opinion magazine, The American Conservative.
It’s been a scintillating run full of challenges in multiple areas—national reporting, newsroom management, corporate leadership, the writing of history, managing the crucible of new technology—all the while observing unfolding events of national dimension from the front row of history. Thinking back to the first stirrings of historical consciousness developed around Mr. Jefferson’s University, I have no regrets.