156 MacNeil, Neil, Collection, ca. 1940-2008

38.5 linear shelf feet

Neil MacNeil (1923-2008)

The Bronx-born MacNeil arrived in Washington in 1949 to report on Congress for the United Press. He worked for Time from 1958 until his retirement in 1987. In 1964, MacNeil became one of the first congressional correspondents on television. He began delivering weekly news and commentary about Congress on WETA, a public television station in Washington. His program, "Neil MacNeil Reports," continued until 1967, when the station originated "Washington Week in Review," on which Mr. MacNeil frequently appeared as a commentator. The program was broad cast nationally by the Public Broadcasting Service. He wrote three books: Forge of Democracy: The House of Representatives, 1963; Dirksen: Portrait of a Public Man, 1970; and The President’s Medal 1789-1977, 1977, a study of presidential inaugural medals. At the time of his death, MacNeil was completing a fourth book, tentatively titled Call The Roll: A Candid History of the United States Senate. For many years he served on the executive committee of the Congressional Periodical Press Galleries. In 1980 he won the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting on Congress.

On August 24, 1961, in response to a request from his editors, Neil MacNeil filed the following report on himself [MacNeil to Clurman for pub letter]:

As you requested, here’s a self-serving report on me.

Schools: Phillips Exeter, Harvard, Columbia School of Graduate Faculties. Major: American political history.

Father: Neil MacNeil, former assistant managing editor, New York Time. Mother, Elizabeth Quin, originally from County Galway, Ireland. Wife: Laureen, and daughters: Dierdre and Catherine Elizabeth, both under 16 months.

It’s true I kept a falcon for almost a year—actually had it flying around the house, and I claim I taught it to fly—but I’m not a qualified falconer, just a long-time observer of the great falcon migration down the Long Island shore each fall. Southampton is home away from home, but I’m pretty well rooted in Washington now, having been here [the] last 12 years.

I have a small reputation as a chef—filet of sole, bonne femme, coq au vin, and the best hollandaise in town—and a somewhat exaggerated reputation as a wine connoisseur. The only secret is to know how to read the bottle’s label, to own taste buds adequate to tell a chateau bottling from rotgut, and to have on tap the patios of the wine-lover. I keep a modest cellar in the Victorian house we restored on Capitol Hill, a half dozen blocks from the big dome, and, like any man who likes the good things in life—i.e., old books, Rembrandt etching—I prefer claret.

I broke in as a reporter for the New York Times, covering Brooklyn police headquarters, got the rudiments there and on New York’s east side with the usual collection of fires, murders, suicides. I punched cattle briefly in Cotulla, Texas, a state which didn’t appreciate me. I left after I had been charged by a loco white-faced cow, been endangered by tarantulas, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and been shot at by the foreman. My first job was selling librettos at the Metropolitan Opera. I’m a trout fisherman who doesn’t tie his own dry flies, but I keep and don’t use enough a handsome collection of custom-made fly rods, including two very early (1870) split bamboo rods. I had an abortive music career with the bagpipe, being forced to give that up because of the neighbors.

I came to Washington in late 1949 with the UP [United Press International], and for them covered the U.S. Senate first for a few years, then the night rewrite for a few more, then a brief stint at the White House, before the House of Representatives. I joined Time in April 1958. I’ve been covering the Capitol ever since for Time. Covers include: Rayburn, House leaders, Halleck, and Lodge.

Professionally, my main interest on the Hill is not so much what happened as how it happened, for the true drama of a legislative fight normally takes place before the formal vote, in the private offices, the closed committee rooms, the cloakrooms, and the lobbies. These are the places where the decision is made, where the blood is shed.

I first met Larry O’Brien [President John Kennedy’s congressional liaison chief about whom MacNeil was preparing a Time cover story in August 1961] in the early days of the West Virginia primary, saw his operation in Los Angeles, ran into him a few times during the fall campaign. I began to bump into him this year around the Senate and House, but didn’t really get interested in his operations until a dramatic change took place around April. My count of the House told me that the Kennedy program couldn’t get through, and this count was confirmed by friends on both sides in the House and lobbyist friends as well, but the Kennedy bills were moving through the House. The Senate had some rough spots for the Kennedy program, but not the challenge of the House. The obvious question came up: how was this being done? And an examination of the power centers quickly turned up O’Brien’s footprints and those of his aides and allies. Thus the cover.

For the past several years, I have been making an intensive study of Congress, particularly the House, a chamber normally neglected by Washington correspondents largely because of its complexity. This study has included in depth examination of the power centers, the lobbies, and so one, and a near exhaustion of the published sources on Congress. I’m proudest of one private remarks by Speaker Rayburn to a friend about me. He said: “He knows the House.”


Neil MacNeil’s Collection

The Dirksen Congressional Center, Pekin, Illinois, houses the MacNeil Collection. The reporter’s daughter, Deirdre, donated the collection in August 2012 following its use by Richard A. Baker, Historian Emeritus of the U.S. Senate, who consulted the collection in order to complete a manuscript on the history of the Senate begun by MacNeil.

The collection is divided into the following series: Clippings, Notes, Reports, Subjects, and Miscellaneous. This publication draws on the Reports series.

MacNeil’s reports, filed with his senior editors, comprise the heart of his collection. They are typed and detailed and cover a vast array of topics. These reports document the interplay between MacNeil, the reporter, and his editors. Further, they include off-the-record information as context for published stories. Together the reports portray the time period in a personal, colorful, and informed way.

Although the first report authored by MacNeil was dated April 3, 1958, his collection includes earlier reports from other Time reporters, likely retrieved from the magazine’s archives as background research for MacNeil’s own reports.

“Neil MacNeil Reporting on Everett McKinley Dirksen” transcribes every report in his collection that mentioned Everett Dirksen by name.

Explanatory Notes

MacNeil’s reports took two forms. Many were prepared in draft form using a typewriter often with handwritten corrections and annotations. Others appeared in final form with the text in ALL CAPS. In relatively few cases, both versions exist for a single report.

To improve readability, and yet preserve MacNeil’s style, the editor adopted the following conventions:

  1. Although MacNeil’s final reports were filed in ALL CAPs, this transcript employs standard rules of capitalization.
  2. Minor errors of spelling and punctuation have been corrected. Major errors are noted by [sic].
  3. The reporter varied his spelling of certain terms. For example, he spelled Vietnam as both a single and as two words, i.e., Viet Nam. The transcript adopted a consistent approach—in this case converting all references to “Vietnam.”

As rich and thorough as the Reports series is, there are gaps, indicating that MacNeil did not save all his filings. There are relatively few documents between 1962 and 1964, and there are no reports on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Neil MacNeil Reporting on Everett McKinley Dirksen” is organized chronologically. The header for each entry lists the date, the author’s name (usually MacNeil), the person to whom the report was sent, and the title notation. In the vast majority of cases, several reports or drafts on a single topic apparently were prepared—a Roman numeral designated the version. There are many omissions in those cases where MacNeil prepared multiple drafts.

The Neil MacNeil collection is divided into the following series which are described in more detail in the accompanying guide: (1) Clippings, (2) Notes, (3) Reports, (4) Subjects, and (5) Miscellaneous.