BOB GARFIELD: Meet Raymond Cromley. We read about this singular journalist on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in a story that looked quizzically and affectionately at the oldest member of the Defense Department press corps. Cromley is 91, vigorous and diligent, albeit somewhat on the unprolific side. He hasn't written a column since 1996. Recently I stopped by the Pentagon cubicle of Cromley News Features to chat with him, a conversation that began with him describing a typical work day.
RAYMOND CROMLEY:You get up in the morning, you get-- come down here and park your car and then I read all the available newspapers to see what, what is the type of news today. Depending on what's happening and the type of thing, I go off on. Now I've tried to build up a big enough background in all types of fields so that I can shift from being a guerilla in World War II to doing whatever else I've done during my life. I, I think that's what gives you the feeling that you can know what people want to hear about.
BOB GARFIELD:The similarities between journalism and intelligence-gathering are a recurring theme with Ray Cromley, and no wonder -- the man has been around. He began his journalism career with the Wall Street Journal as a Far East correspondent in the early days of the Second World War, the beginning of a long career quickly interrupted by adventurous and historic service as an operative for Army Intelligence. For example, toward the end of the war with the future of China still uncertain, Cromley hunkered down in the caves of Yenan with Mao Tse-Tung on whose behalf Cromley dispatched a cable to President Franklin Roosevelt seeking a path toward Sino-American cooperation.
RAYMOND CROMLEY:What he wanted to do was to talk to Roosevelt and have his right hand man, Chou En-lai go with him to talk to American trade, American investments in China, American sales in China and Chinese sales in America, and that's what he wanted! He talked of everything--
BOB GARFIELD: A trade mission.
RAYMOND CROMLEY: -- he, that's what he wanted! It was a brilliant idea!
BOB GARFIELD:That cable, however, was intercepted and quashed by then-U.S. Ambassador to China Patrick J. Hurley, a missed diplomatic opportunity thought by some historians to have changed the face of the Twentieth Century. After the Japanese surrender, Cromley went back to journalism to cover the Cold War armed with skills and a mentality informed by his Army experience.
RAYMOND CROMLEY:One of my big problems was locating their spies in the United States. For instance, I slept a few nights sleeping under the bed of one of the biggest enemies of the United States. I actually slept under his bed!
BOB GARFIELD: As a newsman?
RAYMOND CROMLEY: Don't worry. He was asleep.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Did you get anything?
RAYMOND CROMLEY: Yes! I got lots -- who his allies were and who his enemies were!
BOB GARFIELD: Did a story come out of this?
RAYMOND CROMLEY: Sure. But the-- I was very careful about my attribution.
BOB GARFIELD: How did you get under the bed?
RAYMOND CROMLEY: Crawled under it!
BOB GARFIELD: How did you get into the house?
RAYMOND CROMLEY:Look, in the type of work I was doing, you could climb into the Emperor's Palace if you wanted to. And I did, as a matter of fact.
BOB GARFIELD:Mr. Cromley is coy with the specifics. He says he's not at liberty to disclose them. Although there is also the fact that at his age the mind does play tricks.
BOB GARFIELD: What other stories did you cover? Were you in this office during the Vietnam War filing stories for Cromley News Features?
RAYMOND CROMLEY: Yes, I guess I was. It was here w-- but I have to get myself adjusted to it - I, I can't think - well, oh, yes - the Viet--
BOB GARFIELD: Memory problem.
RAYMOND CROMLEY:Yeah, memory problem. I-- I'm sure I can remember what happened. I can always bring it back to memory if you leave me a little time and a few things to do.
BOB GARFIELD:Eventually it did come back to him. In 1975 he founded Cromley News Features which in its heyday numbered 300 subscriber newspapers for his twice weekly columns on military affairs. Now that number is down to zero, and though he reports to the Pentagon every day, it has been a decade since he reported to anyone else. Still, as the Journal indelibly recorded in its story, Cromley dutifully attends Defense briefings and jots notes on 3 by 5 cards for a big story to be written when but not until the time is right.
BOB GARFIELD: You haven't been filing stories for Cromley News Features have you? When was the last time you actually wrote a story?
RAYMOND CROMLEY: I, I have not been very active recently; is that what you're saying?
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah.
RAYMOND CROMLEY:Well, but I have been very active in gathering information. So when I get ready to write, I will know what I will write about. I'll write a book or write, begin writing columns. I've got this base of knowledge. I'm watching very closely this war we're fighting in Asia at the moment, and because I am seeing in my mind -ah-ha! This is good for something. This is good for something. This is good for something. I've got stories sitting here which I'm not going to mention now because I don't want somebody to beat me at my own thing of what I'm going to write about.
BOB GARFIELD: So you're keeping your powder dry.
RAYMOND CROMLEY: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: And some day kaboom.
RAYMOND CROMLEY: At the right time.
BOB GARFIELD:If you never convert those note cards, those 3 by 5 cards and all of what is inside your head into a book or a series of stories or a revived Cromley News Features, will you be disappointed?
RAYMOND CROMLEY:I'd feel I've missed the boat. The thing is, you think tomorrow is always coming. One of these days, whether it's tomorrow 150 which is what I'm aiming at now-- you never know the future. And my mistake is sometimes saying well I'll go after this because I can hold this till tomorrow. If I died tomorrow, a lot of this I collected would be -- wasted. But, I don't intend to die tomorrow!
BOB GARFIELD: Raymond Cromley, the oldest living Defense Department correspondent on a summer's day at the Pentagon. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Sean Landis; engineered by George Edwards and Dylan Keefe, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Dan Bobkoff. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.