George Lardner: A personal remembrance

By Charles Lewis

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George Lardner
George Lardner. (IRW)

George Lardner Jr., one of the most respected journalists in the United States, died Saturday, Sept. 21, at a hospice center in Aldie, Virginia.

He had lived for decades with his family in Northwest Washington, D.C., and was a modest, gentlemanly descendant of many iconic writers – great-uncle and renown humorist Ring Lardner and Ring’s son, Ring Lardner Jr., an Oscar-winning screenwriter.

I first met George nearly 40 years ago, in the early 1980s during the first years of the Reagan administration. I was an “off-air” investigative reporter for ABC News in Washington and he was already the journalistic equivalent of Yoda, the de facto “dean” of the gaggle of reporters covering the scandals that eventually brought down Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan. But unlike some of the other national reporters, George was a kind, generous, gentle soul who had a great sense of humor — and far more humility than arrogance.

Roughly two decades later, I had the privilege of serving with George on the Fund for Investigative Journalism’s Board of Directors and we would occasionally meet and commiserate over lunch.

His remarkable life and career is well described in an obituary by Emily Langer in The Washington Post. George was an outstanding, tenaciously thorough reporter there for 40 years, from 1963 to 2004, covering the most significant political events in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which gnawed at him for decades.

At one point, Lardner and another journalist requested and received access from the National Archives to see and analyze — microscopically examining the president’s bloody shirt — the precise direction of the fibers surrounding the bullet hole. Why? They wanted to try to factually clarify and determine whether Kennedy had been shot from behind, from the sixth floor of the Texas book depository, which was the conclusion of the Warren Commission, or from the somewhat mysterious grassy knoll in front of the moving limousine.

To find out exactly what they found, here’s what George told me in an interview for Investigating Power, an oral history project that began in 2007 and thus far has included interviews with 27 respected journalists in the United States who have done historically important reporting since 1950. 

The worst story he ever had to investigate was the horrific 1992 murder of his own daughter, Kristin, a 21-year-old art student living in Boston. She had been shot and killed by a “troubled and abusive former boyfriend.” George’s reporting in a 9,000-word Washington Post Outlook article, entitled “The Stalking of Kristin,” (which later also became a book), won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. He was cited for his “unflinching examination of his daughter’s murder by a violent man who had slipped through the criminal justice system.”

Two decades later, George recounted that tragic, horrific episode in my 2012 oral history Investigating Power interview with him. I had invited George to become a Scholar-in-Residence at the Investigative Reporting Workshop that I founded at American University and have led since 2008. He was working on an opus, the definitive history of presidential pardons in the United States, the grand work of his life. That gave him the opportunity to use the library and other substantial technological assets at AU. He also occasionally worked with a graduate student on the project.

He wrote in November 2012: “I’m happy to see that the enthusiasm I found at the Post for outstanding journalism is replicated here every day. I’m proud to be a part of it as I work on a book of my own, a history of presidential pardoning power, and share whatever I’ve learned with the others here. I’m sure I’ll learn much more from them.”

That love of reporting and writing and, more broadly, genuine humility and human kindness, epitomized George Lardner.

Our friendship continued in recent years. I would occasionally go to his home in Northwest Washington and drive us to a restaurant. The last time we got together for our commiserating lunch was last March. I will never forget George and the magnificent example he set for our profession and for humanity itself.