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Martin, John Bartlow

MARTIN, John Bartlow

(b. 4 August 1915 in Hamilton, Ohio; d. 3 January 1987 in Highland Park, Illinois), journalist, diplomat, and, throughout the 1960s, a political adviser and speechwriter to Democratic presidential candidates

Martin, the oldest of three sons, was born in Hamilton, Ohio, to John Williamson Martin, a building contractor, and Laura (Bartlow) Martin. The family moved to Indiana, and Martin graduated with a degree in political science from DePauw University in 1937. He then worked as a reporter for the Indianapolis Times, covering city hall and the police beat. On 23 January 1937 Martin married Barbara Bruce, a wealthy Chicago socialite. Martin moved to the city in 1937 and attempted to earn a living as a freelance writer. The marriage failed, but Martin discovered that he could earn an income by writing articles for such magazines as Official Detective and Actual Detective. Martin began to write for magazines with greater circulation, such as Harper's and Esquire, on such subjects as the frame of mind during World War II in Muncie, Indiana, a city that had gained fame as "Middletown" in a 1920s sociological study. He married Frances Smethurst on 17 August 1940 and enjoyed a happy marriage until his death in 1987. They had one daughter and two sons.

The first of Martin's sixteen books, Call It North Country: The Story of Upper Michigan, was published in 1944. Following a short stint in the army, Martin traveled the Midwest in 1946 researching a Life article on the postwar mood. He also wrote another regional book on Indiana history. His coverage of the 1947 Centralia, Illinois, mine accident that caused 111 deaths brought Martin to the attention of Adlai Stevenson, a Democratic candidate for the Illinois governorship. When Stevenson sought the presidency in 1952, he recruited Martin to edit a collection of speeches for publication. Martin joined Stevenson's campaign as part of a group of speechwriters dubbed the "Elks Club," so called because the Stevenson campaign rented the Elks Club building in Springfield, Illinois. Other prominent members of this prestigious group included Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian; John Kenneth Galbraith, the famed economist; and Archibald MacLeish, a future poet laureate of the United States. In both Stevenson's 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, Martin served as an editorial advance man and speechwriter.

Throughout the 1960s Martin served as a behind-the-scenes adviser and speechwriter to Democratic presidential candidates, beginning with John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. Following Kennedy's victory, Martin was appointed ambassador to the Dominican Republic but waited almost a year to assume his office because of political unrest within the country. In the interim, Martin served as a speechwriter for members of the Kennedy administration, including Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Martin penned Minow's May 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. Engaged in writing a Saturday Evening Post article on television, Martin had watched twenty straight hours of programming, and in the speech he invited television viewers to watch their televisions from the time a station goes on the air until it signs off. He declared, "I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland of junk." Minow edited out "of junk," and the phrase "vast wasteland" entered the lexicon and continues to be used today to describe television programming. Ironically, Martin attempted to use television as an educational tool to combat the high illiteracy rate in the Dominican Republic, only to see his efforts thwarted by a military coup.

As the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Martin worked ceaselessly to support that country's first democratically elected government. He traveled to the United States to consult with Kennedy in late 1963, but when Kennedy was assassinated in November, he was heartbroken and resigned from government service. Martin returned to journalism with a new appreciation for the rigors of politics, "less zealous about attacking the failings of our public officials and arrogating all virtue to the vigilant press. I found out just how hard it [governing] really is."

Martin reentered politics in 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Martin became Kennedy's main adviser in Indiana, a key primary battleground. He also advised the candidate on the nature of his native state, stating, "Indiana is a state suspicious of foreign entanglements, conservative in fiscal matters, and with a strong overlay of Southern segregationist sentiment. Hoosiers are phlegmatic, skeptical, hard to move, with a 'show me' attitude." Kennedy, following Martin's advice to talk conservatively while campaigning in the Hoosier state, won the Democratic primary, giving his campaign momentum heading into the crucial California primary. Martin accompanied to Kennedy to California, where Martin's worst fears of another Kennedy assassination came true when Robert Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan in June 1968. Afterward, Martin campaigned for the Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey more out of a desire to defeat Republican Richard Nixon than from any faith in the liberalism of Humphrey. After Humphrey's defeat, Martin left politics behind, becoming a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago, a position he held for ten years.

After Martin left politics for academia, he attempted to dissuade his students from the "new journalism" practiced by Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Hunter Thompson, decrying what he perceived as the growing inability to write simple, proper sentences and these writers' invention of characters and situations in the name of dramatic license. Despite his seemingly old-fashioned views, the Medill School created the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism to honor his work. Martin's admiration for Stevenson led him in the 1970s to write a two-volume biography of the Illinois statesman. Martin also wrote a record of his service in the Dominican Republic and a memoir, It Seems Like Only Yesterday. He died of throat cancer and is buried in his beloved Upper Michigan.

Martin's papers are in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. A special collection relating to Adlai Stevenson is in the Seeley G. Mudd Library at Princeton University. Martin's memoir is It Seems Like Only Yesterday: Memoirs of Writing, Presidential Politics, and the Diplomatic Life (1986). Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times (both 5 Jan. 1987).

Stephen McCullough

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