Robert R. McCormick
Robert Rutherford McCormick (July 30, 1880 – April 1, 1955) was a Chicago newspaper baron and owner of the Chicago Tribune. A leading isolationist, opponent of United States entry into World War II and of the increase in Federal power brought about by the New Deal, he continued to champion a traditionalist course long after his positions had been eclipsed in the mainstream.
McCormick, born in Chicago to a distinguished family, was the grandson of Tribune founder and former Chicago mayor Joseph Medill, and his great-uncle was the inventor and businessman Cyrus McCormick. His elder brother Medill was slated to take over the family newspaper business but died early. From 1889 through 1893, he lived a lonely childhood with his parents in London where his father Robert Sanderson McCormick was a staff secretary to Robert Todd Lincoln, and attended Ludgrove School. On his return to the United States, he was sent to Groton School. In 1899, McCormick went to Yale College, graduating in 1903. He received a law degree from Northwestern University and served as a clerk in a Chicago law firm, being admitted to the bar in 1907. The following year, he co-founded the law firm that became Kirkland & Ellis, where he worked until 1920, representing the Tribune Company, of which he was president. In 1910, he took control of the Chicago Tribune, becoming editor and publisher with his cousin, Capt. Joseph Medill Patterson, in 1914, a position he held jointly until 1926 and by himself afterwards. A leading progressive during the Progressive Era, he opposed the New Deal.
In 1904 a Republican ward leader persuaded him to run for Alderman, and he was elected, serving on the Chicago City Council for two years. In 1905, at the age of 25, he was elected to a five-year term as president of the board of trustees of the Chicago Sanitary District, operating the city's vast drainage and sewage disposal system. In 1907 he was appointed to the Chicago Charter Commission and the Chicago Plan Commission. However, his political career ended abruptly when he took control of the Tribune.
McCormick went to Europe as a war correspondent for the Tribune in 1915, early in World War I, interviewing Tsar Nicholas, Prime Minister Asquith, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. He visited the Eastern and Western Fronts and was under fire on both. On this trip, McCormick began collecting pieces of historically significant buildings which would eventually find their way into the structure of the Tribune Tower.
Returning to the United States in 1915, he joined the Illinois National Guard on 21 June 1916, and, being an expert horseman, became a major in its 1st Cavalry Regiment. Two days earlier, the Illinois National Guard had been called into Federal Service along with those of several other states by President Woodrow Wilson to patrol the Mexican border during General John J. Pershing's Punitive Expedition. McCormick accompanied his regiment to the Mexican border.
Soon after the United States entered the war, McCormick became part of the U.S. Army on 13 June 1917 again when the entire Illinois National Guard was mobilized for Federal service in Europe. He was sent to France as an intelligence officer on the staff of General Pershing. Seeking more active service, he was assigned to an artillery school. By 17 June 1918, McCormick became a lieutenant colonel, and by 5 September 1918 had become a full colonel in the field artillery, in which capacities he saw action. He took part in the capture of Cantigny, after which he named his farm estate in Wheaton, Illinois, and in the battles of Soissons, Saint-Mihiel, and the second phase of the Argonne. He served in the 1st Battery, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, with the 1st Infantry Division. His service ended on 31 December 1918, though he remained a part of the Officer Reserve Corps from 8 October 1919 to 30 September 1929. Cited for prompt action in battle, he received the Distinguished Service Medal. Thereafter, he was always referred to as "Colonel McCormick."
A conservative Republican, McCormick was an opponent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and compared the New Deal to Communism. For a period in 1935, he protested Rhode Island's Democratic judiciary by displaying a 47 star flag outside the Tribune building, with the 13th star (representing Rhode Island) removed... relenting after he was advised that alteration of the American flag was a legal offense. . He was also an America First isolationist who strongly opposed entering World War II to rescue the British Empire. As a publisher he was very innovative. McCormick was a 25 percent owner of the Tribune's 50,000 watt radio station, which was purchased in 1924; he named it WGN, the initials of the Tribune's modest motto, the "World's Greatest Newspaper". Decades after McCormick's death, WGN's television broadcasting operations were one of several national "superstations" that were on cable systems across America. WGN was the first to broadcast the Indianapolis 500, the World Series, and the Kentucky Derby, while the Tribune was the founder and sponsor of the Chicago College All-Star Game, which pitted the NFL champion against an all-star college team for more than 40 years. He also established the town of Baie-Comeau, Quebec in 1936 and constructed a paper mill there. In failing health since an attack of pneumonia in April 1953, McCormick nevertheless remained active in his work until the month before he died. He was buried on his farm in his war uniform.
During his long and stormy career, McCormick carried on crusades against gangsters and racketeers, prohibition and prohibitionists, local, state, and national politicians, Wall Street, the East and Easterners, Democrats, the New Deal and the Fair Deal, liberal Republicans, the League of Nations, the World Court, the United Nations, British imperialism, socialism, and communism. Besides Roosevelt, his chief targets included Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson and Illinois Governor Len Small. Some of McCormick's personal crusades were seen as quixotic (such as his attempts to reform spelling of the English language) and were parodied in political cartoons in rival Frank Knox's Chicago Daily News. Knox's political cartoonists derided McCormick as "Colonel McCosmic".
In 1915, McCormick married Amy Irwin Adams, who died in 1939, leading to several years of his being a near social recluse. In 1944 he married Mrs. Maryland Mathison Hooper. He had no children.
A larger-than-life character whose staunch isolationism grew more anachronistic as time passed, those who knew him little or only as a public figure thought of Colonel McCormick as a "remote, coldly aloof, ruthless aristocrat, living in lonely magnificence, disdaining the common people...an exceptional man, a lone wolf whose strength and courage could be looked up to, but at the same time had to be feared; an eccentric, misanthropic genius whose haughty bearing, cold eye and steely reserve made it impossible to like or trust him." McCormick was described by one opponent as "the greatest mind of the fourteenth century" .
He did consider himself an aristocrat, and his imposing stature–6'4" tall, with a muscular body weighing over 200 lbs, his erect soldierly bearing, his reserved manner and his distinguished appearance–made it easy for him to play that role. But if he was one, he was an aristocrat, according to his friends, in the best sense of the word, despising the idle rich and having no use for "parasites, dilettantes or mere pleasure-seekers", whose company, clubs and amusements he avoided. With an extraordinary capacity for hard work, he often put in seven long days a week at his job even when elderly, keeping fit through polo and later horseback riding. In his seventies, he could still get into the war uniform of his thirties.
The giant convention center McCormick Place on the near South Side of Chicago is named after him.
Today, the Engineering School at his alma mater, Northwestern University is named in his honor.
McCormick was also used as the inspiration for one of Ayn Rand's characters in The Fountainhead
- With the Russian Army (1915)
- Richard Norton Smith. The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, 1880-1955 (2003)
- "Colonel Was Man of Many Careers", The New York Times, April 1, 1955, p. 17.