Robert W. Merry

Robert W. Merry

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I grew up in the little fishing town of Gig Harbor, Washington, but my passion for history emerged during my third grade year in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my father pursued a Ph.D. at Mr. Jefferson's University. There I encountered history in abundance, not least the university itself, so much of it designed by Jefferson. Also there was Jefferson's Monticello, nearby Civil War battlefields, numerous statues of famous Americans going back 200 years. I knew from that time that history would be an important part of my life. My dad eventually became a newspaperman in Tacoma, Washington, and I followed him into that trade. I was editor of my junior high school newspaper, my high school paper, and the University of Washington Daily. Following a stint in the army, most of it as a counterespionage agent in West Germany, I got a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. But it was always my dream to cover big events of historical sweep. Thus, after two years at the Denver Post, I arrived in Washington, D.C., to become a national political correspondent for a Dow Jones weekly newspaper called The National Observer. It was a wonderful editorial product but a business failure, and in 1977 the parent company killed it off. I was pleased to be invited to join the Washington bureau of Dow Jones' other newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, where I spent nearly 10 years covering Congress, the White House, economic policy, and national political campaigns. It was a great experience. But around 1987 I concluded I was finished with the political chase and wished to become a publishing executive. Thus I became managing editor at Congressional Quarterly Inc., the Washington-based publishing enterprise specializing in news and information on Congress, politics, and public policy. Later I became executive editor and then CEO, a position I held for a dozen years. So I had two wonderful career segments -- covering Washington for one of the country's leading newspapers; and leading a fine news organization with the hallowed mission of lubricating the wheels of American democracy with ongoing flows of highly valuable civic information. Along the way I produced three books. First came TAKING ON THE WORLD (Viking, 1996), a biography of prominent postwar columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop. I sought to use these two journalistic giants -- blood relatives of the Roosevelts; close friends of the Kennedys -- as a kind of window on 40 years of American political, diplomatic, and social history. Next came SANDS OF EMPIRE (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a polemical work that explored the philsophical underpinnings of the ideas driving American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era -- and driving policy, as I believed, in the wrong direction. And now comes A COUNTRY OF VAST DESIGNS, a biography of President James K. Polk and an exploration of the powerful wave of expansionist sentiment that washed over America in the 1840s. In just four years America expanded its territory by a third and accumulated the vast expanse of Texas (annexed at the risk of war with Mexico), the American Southwest (acquired as a result of that war with Mexico), and the Pacific Northwest (brought into the union after a harrowing round of negotiations that almost caused a war with Great Britain). I portray James Polk, the mastermind and driving force behind this expansionist wave, as a smaller-than-life figure with larger-than-life ambitions. He achieved all his goals, but the efforts of this relentless politician sapped his strength and health, and within four months of his leaving office he died in his sleep at age 53.
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