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Pioneering Political Journalist Marianne Means Has Died at Age 83

The first woman assigned to cover a president’s activities on a full-time basis, Means wrote a widely syndicated column about the goings-on in Washington

Marianne Means during a 1983 interview with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb. (screenshot from C-SPAN)
smithsonian.com

Marianne Means, the barrier-breaking political journalist who was the first woman assigned to cover a president's activities on a full-time basis, has died at the age of 83. Her son-in-law, Peter Dunning, named complications from colon cancer as the cause of death, reports Harrison Smith of the Washington Post.

For more than four decades, Means covered the goings-on of Washington in a widely syndicated column for Hearst Newspapers. She is said to have been a favorite of John F. Kennedy, who observed Means working hard to report stories that would rival those of her male counterparts. “Give her some stories,” JFK told an aide, according to Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of The Kennedy White House. “Give her all the help you can.”

Means was born Marianne Hansen in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1934. She graduated from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1956, the same year that she married Cecil Paul Means—the first of her five husbands. As an undergraduate student, Means served as the managing editor of the Daily Nebraskan, the University of Nebraska’s student paper. In her last-ever column for Hearst Newspapers, Means wrote that she first met Kennedy during her Nebraska years, “while working on a crusade to get him to visit the campus.” When Kennedy finally arrived at Nebraska University, Means was tasked with driving him around. They hit it off—a fruitful encounter that would one day help Means score her big break.

After graduation, Means worked for two years as a copy editor at the Lincoln Journal-Star, a Nebraska publication. But when she tried to transition to Washington newspapers, Means was barred from the copy desk; editors, she was told, were supposed to be men. So she decided to work as a reporter, joining Hearst Newspapers in 1959. When Kennedy won the presidential election of 1960, Hearst decided to take a chance on the young journalist who had a personal rapport with the new president, assigning Means to work as a White House correspondent.

Though trailblazing reporter Helen Thomas received her first assignment to report on the president-elect in 1960, White House press events were overwhelmingly dominated by men at the time. "It is taken for granted nowadays that women reporters are as competent as men to cover the White House. But I was the first woman assigned to cover a president's activities on a full-time basis — Helen Thomas covered the First Lady then — and I therefore was the object of some controversy,Means told Kendall K. Hoyt and Frances Spatz Leighton for the 1979 tell-all, Drunk Before Noon: The Behind-The-Scenes Story of the Washington Press Corps.

Undaunted, Means was on hand to cover major political events of the 1960s, including the assassination of John F. Kennedy. She was in the first press car when the president was shot, and the image of JFK’s blood-soaked convertible would haunt her for decades.

“Every detail of the day will be imprinted on my mind forever,” she once told University of Nebraska journalism student Melissa Dunne.

In 1963, Means published The Woman in the White House, a book about first ladies that included interviews with JFK, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. She began writing her twice-weekly column for Hearst in 1965. Means kept up the column going until 2008, and told Dunne that she rarely struggled to find content for her articles. “The Lord always provides,” she said. “Some politician always screws up.”

Though Means broke new ground for women journalists, she had to contend with her fair share of sexism in the White House. Harry S. Truman, she wrote in her 2008 farewell column, once told her that he would “spank” her if she did not write favorably about his wife. “At my first presidential press conference, in December 1956,” she added, “President Dwight D. Eisenhower failed to recognize my wildly flaying arm and call on me, although I was the only woman in the press contingent (or maybe because I was). If I had worn a red dress, it probably wouldn’t have helped. I tried out fruitlessly for radio jobs and was repeatedly told: ‘Nobody will take a woman’s voice seriously.’”

The climate has improved for women journalists, Means said in her interview with the University of Nebraska’s Dunne. But in her final, 2008 column, Means opined that the world of political reporting had changed for the worse. “Candidates are happy to trot out their own versions of events but when they are questioned, they blame the media,” Means wrote. “This has become a rotten system.”

“It’s a new world, for someone else to figure out,” she concluded before signing off. “So I bid you fond farewell, and I will miss you all terribly.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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