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Congress / PEOPLE

A Washington Observer for Nine Decades

Mary Gray, a 93-year-old writer who worked for three presidential administrations, sits in her apartment in Silver Spring, Md.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Naureen Khan
April 27, 2012

Nowadays it’s an inconspicuous building on the corner of the 3rd and East Capitol streets on Capitol Hill, the last building in a line of row houses on a quiet, tree-lined street.

But peel back the years, decade by decade, and 301 East Capitol was the center of the universe for Mary Zurhorst Gray—the place where her family made their home in the 1920s and 1930s in an apartment above the funeral parlor they owned and operated.

What better stomping ground for the precocious only daughter in a family of undertakers than this? A little to the right, the steps of the Supreme Court beckoned. Straight ahead, the looming Library of Congress peered over her house. And a little further ahead was the crown jewel, the East Front of the Capitol, rising above all else.

 

Mary and her nanny Oscie spent many a lazy afternoon exploring the nooks and crannies of this, her personal playground, scaling what seemed to her child’s eyes to be immense stone benches that dotted the walkway, lounging on the lush green lawns of the West Front, and puzzling over the meaning of the statues.

She and Oscie couldn’t go into Sherrill’s Bakery on Pennsylvania Ave. to split a piece of peach pie—as Gray discovered to her chagrin one day—but on the Capitol’s grounds, they were free to roam.

Five generations of her family had lived on a few blocks on Capitol Hill since the 1840s, and from the perch of their third-floor apartment they were afforded an unobstructed view of the Capitol. When the leaves fell away every autumn, it became a winter family ritual to watch the floodlights light up the dome at dusk.

Before she was quite tall enough to reach it, Gray had her own customs: peeking out of that window twice a day--once in the morning, once at night before bed. Every time she was reassured--the building still stood, the country had survived another day.

***

She’s 93 now, residing in an assisted-living facility in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., a voracious consumer of the news and with biting opinions on just about everything, but in particular, the state of the nation’s affairs.

She was born the year before women won the right to vote, but over the last eight decades, Gray has had a remarkably rich professional life in and around Washington, bouncing from one gig to another as serendipity and circumstances have warranted.

She’s been an advertising copy writer, a journalist, an author, an editor, a speechwriter for the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, a single mother, and an unabashed political hack.

Recently, she pecked out the recollections of her childhood on her typewriter—a 263-page labor of love two years in the making that resulted in 301 East Capitol: Tales from the Heart of the Hill, full of charming, wry stories about her family and growing up in the heart of old Washington. The book was published earlier this year by Overbeck History Press, a project of the Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.

The memoir doesn’t wade into overtly partisan waters, but Gray makes no apologies for the fact that she’s a proud Democrat in the New Deal tradition, a firm believer that the forces of government should be marshaled for the betterment of society. “I’m such a damn partisan,” she sighs, when she finds herself wading into political debate with fervor and gusto—which is often.

This is a woman, after all, who sports a rather sizable sticker in support of her congressman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., on her walker.

Gray’s not so much a rarity in Washington—the seeming epicenter of cynicism and anger these days—because she’s an avid spectator of the sport of politicking. More uncommon: She’s an optimist.

The institutions Gray grew up surrounded by, after all, have been able to weather the immense tides of change that she has witnessed in her lifetime. Even when the headlines of the day suggest things at their worst, Gray’s faith persists.

“Maybe it was growing up looking at the dome of the Capitol,” she says. “It means this country to me.”

***

Gray landed a cushy political job at age 3—announcing to the family, “They’re in session!”  She knew even then to look for the light at the very top of the dome, right underneath the Statue of Freedom, to discern whether lawmakers were working into the night.

She spent her formative years listening to Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio. She remembers fondly that certain way the president had of taking fire in stride and disarming his enemies, even when the attacks got personal—such horrible, awful things, Gray remembers, like making fun of his dog, Fala, or taking aim at his wife Eleanor’s teeth.

But Roosevelt himself was the master of ridicule, adept at letting his audiences in on the joke. Gray still cracks up thinking of Roosevelt’s calling out a trio of lawmakers he considered obstructionist, taking such relish in pronouncing “Congressmen Martin, Barton, and Fish” with a certain clip-clop cadence that eventually had his supporters roaring the names along with him.

But when she was young, Gray didn’t think politics was her calling, not by a long shot. After graduating from the University of Maryland, she went on to write advertising copy for the department store Woodward & Lothrop’s, freelance for The Washington Post, and become an editor at Broadcasting magazine.

Over the next decade she got married, settled in a house in Montgomery County, Md., had two kids. In the midst of it all, the fever of McCarthyism cast its pall over the city. They were uneasy times, Gray recalls, to the point of being comical.

Like the day a friend of her husband’s was fired from his job for having an “inordinate fondness of prune jam.”

“It was ludicrous. It was like a joke,” Gray says. “They had come in and searched his house and his mother had sent him some and that was in the report they gave him. It was apparently unusual to have that much prune jam!”

It was around the same time that Gray fell head over heels for another man.

The gentleman’s name was Adlai Stevenson, and he was the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956. Not since the days of Roosevelt—whom Gray grown to adore over his 12 years in the White House—had Gray felt so enamored by a politician: his intellect, his ideals, his eloquence.

“He was the one real spark that lit the fire,” Gray remembers. “Politics became something noble in a way that I had never thought of it as before.”

Always inclined to defend the honor of the underdog, Gray took him up as her cause, becoming an active campaign volunteer. But she was horrified at the mudslinging that went on in the campaign—from the neighborhood children who threw Stevenson fliers and brochures down the sewers to those who branded him an “egghead”—a nickname that stuck with the aristocratic Stevenson.

“How do you fight it? How do you combat that?” Gray says, still sore half a century later and convinced that Stevenson would have made, in her words, “a marvelous president.”

“That’s not politics, that’s dirt.”

Gray was heartsick the first time he lost and called up a journalist friend to ask if there was any way she could contact her idol. She dialed the number he gave her and was astonished to hear Stevenson’s voice on the other end of the line.

“He said he felt like he was a little boy who had been told to stand in the corner,” Gray says.

Despite his twin losses, Stevenson’s lofty idealism stayed with Gray. Whenever she catches wind of those who deign to categorize all Washington-types as ignoramuses and all of Capitol Hill as a loony bin, she’s inclined to revert to Adlai-isms.

Politics, Gray reminds people, comes from the Greek word politikos—"of the citizens." What happens in the body politic is simply a mirror reflection of ourselves, she says.

When Gray gets on one of these kicks, her words take on a Stevenson-esque lilt: “poe-lit-ical,” she says.

“Well, it’s just loads of fun, unless you lose.” 

***

Campaigns were a hobby for Gray, but she never wanted her two kids to come home to an empty house because “Mama was out playing politics,” she says.

When her marriage ended in the early 1960s, she was in desperate need of a job that allowed her to work from home. With a little luck, she ended up as a speechwriter for the National Institutes of Health, and then, despite the odds for a professional mother wanting to work at home, as a speechwriter for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) during the Kennedy administration in 1963.

Gray confided to her boss, Stafford L. Warren, special assistant to the president on mental retardation, that the job had been just a pipe dream and she felt utterly out of her league.

Warren had an admission of his own. “I want you to know, too, that I’m an atheist and the president is, as you know, a strong Catholic and I don’t know if that’s the way it should be--that I’m working for him,” he told her.

“Even worse,” he confessed, “I’m a Republican!”

“They did not play politics, as the saying goes,” Gray remembers. “Dr. Warren was supposed to be the best educator.”

Perhaps it was the same sense of duty and level-headedness (and a need to pay the bills) that kept bleeding-heart liberal Gray working as a speechwriter for the next 14 years, across party lines and three presidential administrations, for Cabinet members and various members of Congress. Each stint was colored by the personality of the occupant of the White House—from “sexy-as-hell” Kennedy to Nixon’s palpable paranoia.

The former was assassinated a few shorts months after she began working for his administration; the latter resigned in disgrace. The morning the Supreme Court was scheduled to hand down its decision in United States v. Nixon, Mary remembers walking past to see the streets packed with people.

“It was an incredibly thrilling moment to think that this is the way government is designed to work and it’s working no matter how uncontrolled and uncivilized the dirty business with Nixon was,” she says. “No matter how nasty the situation, the system comes through.”

Gray was reminded of that again as the Vietnam War was grinding to its bloody halt and she had begun to take boarders into her home to make a little extra money. Many of them had fled from communist countries with authoritarian dictators, but they were as disdainful of the United States--its coarse culture and strange mores.

“Well, why’d you come here, then?” Mary would ask in her direct, no-nonsense way.

“The answer is invariably, after their own countries had collapsed, that everybody wants to come here,” she says. “No matter how much we complain.”

***

In the early '90s a young man running for the Maryland General Assembly came knocking on her door in Silver Spring, Md.

Gray immediately put him through the ringer, peppering him with questions about his policies, testing to see if he was up to snuff. Gray would like to tell you that it was his answers that won her over. It wasn’t.

“His looks! They were gorgeous!” she chuckles.

She still thinks so.

“It just goes to show you when you’re 93, you don’t lose all passion,” she says. “I’m fond of his wife, too.”

To this day, Gray shows the kind of adulation for Rep. Van Hollen that the mothers of most legislators in the 112th Congress might have difficulty mustering. She’s been one of his most loyal supporters, the kind of tireless volunteer who keeps campaigns humming, who can put any young-whippersnapper staffer to shame.

“It is comforting to know that someone who has been a close observer of the Congress for such a long period of time recognizes that it has its ups and downs, but that she sees this as an institution that is essential to our democracy,” Van Hollen says of his most loyal constituent. “And that the best of Congress can triumph.”

“You think of sort of exactly what you would want a citizen or democracy to be and that would be Mary Gray,” he adds. “She’s a hidden national treasure.”

Van Hollen, meanwhile, gives Gray hope that there’s still “good ones” out there, one of a handful she ticks off when she makes her case that noble people still run for public office and the country continues to groom leaders who will show the path forward. These are the people Gray thinks of when she springs to the defense of democracy, as lofty as that may sound. She’s had to do it on more than one occasion.

***

Still, Gray isn’t a blind idealist who ignores the poisonous nature of today's politics.

She’ll concede you would have to look back further than her 93 years to come to a time when things in Washington looked as bleak (“Now, I don’t go back quite as far as Thomas Jefferson,” she reminds)--back to the days of the Civil War.

“This is mean, small-minded stuff,” Gray says. “At least it’s been worth fighting over before.”

But after so many years of being an astute political observer and a lover of Capitol Hill, she’s learned a few things:

In the political process, you give a little, you take a little, you disagree but you respect the other side. If you stick with just hand-wringing and criticism, you’ll never move the country in any direction at all.  And a little perspective goes a long way.

“One of the great blessings of being over 90 is that you have lived through tragedies or other surprising things that have happened and you come out of it and when people say ‘Why, this has never happened before,’ you’re old enough to think, ‘Why yes, it happens all the time,’” Gray says. “If this country was as bad as people have bad-mouthed it to be, the United States of America wouldn’t be in the position it is today.

“It’s still the great hope of the world.”

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