Charlie McDowell

Sam Smith – Charlie McDowell, long time panelist on PBS’ Washington Week in Review – where he described himself as the “resident provincial” – and reporter and columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch for nearly 50 yeas has died at the age of 84.

McDowell was also an early part of the Progressive Review – back when it was called The Idler. I had run across his work while attending Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, Virginia, in the early sixties. There wasn’t much spare time there and not much to do in it, but a small cult developed around Charlie’s columns, which brought smiles to a place where they were pretty much outlawed. At lunch break we would head for a news box and see what Charlie had to say.

Charlie was first assigned to cover the capital for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1965 after publisher D. Tennant Bryan reluctantly agreed to the idea, which was being pushed by managing editor John Leard. Bryan allegedly noted that the paper had withdrawn its Washington correspondent at the time of the Civil War and that probably enough time had passed to send one back.

When I started the Idler after leaving the Coast Guard, I asked Charlie if I could use his columns and he not only agreed, over the years he was a repeated source of encouragement and joy.

His perspective was gentle and perceptive. For example, he liked to gaze out of his National Press Building office window, and once recalled; “I perceived John Connally of Texas, Jacob Javits of New York, Sonny Jurgenson of Washington, David Brinkley of NBC, and a red-bearded man from somewhere wearing a sandwich board that said, ‘The man with the plan: Jesus in ’72,’ all within the space of a couple of hours, each alone, each on some mission of his own among ordinary mortals in the street.”

Here’s one his columns we ran forty five years ago:

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Charles McDowell Jr – Washington Howard Worth Smith, who measures progress by the inch met the metric system the other day. Both were stunned by the collision. When the confusion cleared, Rep. Smith of Virginia, chairman of the House Rules Committee, had recovered sufficiently to light a fresh cigar and smile briefly at the outcome of the encounter. The metric system had not recovered, and would be confined in a cool, dark corner of the committee room for an indefinite period.

The man who introduced the venerable Judge Smith to the metric system was Rep. Miller of California, the genial, grandfatherly chairman of the Science and Astronautics Committee. His committee had approved a bill authorizing a $2.5 million, three-year study by the Department of Commerce to determine the practicability of adopting metric weights and measures in the United States. Miller, a frank advocate of the metric way of life, wanted Judge Smith’s committee to send the bill on to the House for action. As Miller talked about the grand simplicity of meters, liters and kilograms, Smith watched his old friend with affection and great skepticism.

The Judge interrupted to say: “I got my early education in a one-room red schoolhouse in the country. We took our degrees in the three R’s. Just to make an honest confession, I don’t know what the metric system is . . . Would we have to go back to school? Couldn’t we go in a store anymore and buy 10 yards of cheesecloth?”

Miller said you could go in the store and ask for about 9.2 meters of cheesecloth. “Why, we’d have to change our education in this country!” said the Judge. Yes, said Miller, and it was about time. Eighty nations, 90 per cent of the world’s population, are on the metric system, or going to it, and the United States will soon stand alone with a system that is difficult to learn and use because it has “no rhyme or reason,” Miller said.

For some reason – perhaps because he saw that Smith was being foxy and having a good time – Miller invoked the measurements of Gina Lollobrigida to show that the world would still be the same under the metric system. “Her vital statistics are 36-28-34,” he said, “and they would become 93-71-89, which is the same.”

“You talking about her meters or her inches?” the Judge asked. “Her centimeters,” Miller said. “Well, I’m still concerned about when she goes in to buy 10 yards of cheesecloth,” the Judge said. The other members of the Rules Committee joined in with similar concerns – road signs in kilometers, football fields in meters, all sorts of things. Rep. Fulton of Tennessee, who had come along to support Miller, protested that nothing could be more bewildering than the present American system of weights and measures. To make his point dramatically, Fulton said, “Has anyone in this committee ever heard of a pole? Can any of you tell me how long a pole is?” “Sixteen and two-thirds feet!” the Judge replied promptly, and the committee cheered him.

“Never underestimate the Judge,” said Rep. Delaney of New York. The World Almanac says it’s 16 and one half feet – same as a rod or a perch – but the committee was not going to quibble. anyway. The metric system’s advocates were now in some disarray, and the committee was delightedly united behind Judge Smith.

Fulton and Miller said with resignation that the country was going to come to the metric system sooner or later.

The Judge listened, leaned over toward the member seated nearest him at the long table, removed the cigar from his mouth, grinned, and said in a rumbling aside, “I ain’t gonna do it.”

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