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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Mollenhoff, Clark R.
(April 16, 1921–March 2, 1991)

– Des Moines Register investigative reporter—was born in Burnside, Iowa. He attended schools in Lohrville and Algona before graduating from Webster City High School and Junior College. He entered law school at Drake University in 1941 and the following year started working part-time as a reporter for the Des Moines Register. Typically for a new reporter, he was assigned to cover police news and the municipal court. He received his law degree in 1944 and left for two years' duty with the U.S. Navy.

    In 1946 Mollenhoff returned to the Register staff to cover the courts. The newspaper in 1950 assigned him to the Cowles Washington Bureau directed by Richard Wilson. Early on, Wilson recognized the new man's wide interest in law, his high energy, and his zeal for rooting out what he considered corruption and malfeasance by public officials and other prominent public figures.

    Anyone meeting Clark Mollenhoff for the first time never forgot him. He was a large man, especially for his generation, standing six feet four and weighing 250 pounds. He also had a loud voice and aggressive manner, which helped a correspondent for a middle-size newspaper in the Midwest get attention in Washington, D.C., where the bigger-named reporters and larger, national newspapers commanded the stage. In making a name for himself, writing many investigative articles and winning a Pulitzer Prize, Mollenhoff also raised the profile of the Des Moines Register and the other publications owned by the Cowles family.

    The 1950s marked an important point in the history of the public media. While newspapers were clearly the dominant force in news distribution, television was becoming a major factor in educating the public. Newspapers were challenged to improve their role as the public's watchdog in those years when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy dominated headlines with his charges of a widespread Communist conspiracy in Washington. Editors thought they had to do more independent reporting to compete with television and to dispense information that illuminated, and sometimes contradicted, official comments and statements.

    Mollenhoff directed his attention to the nefarious activities and influence of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and its president, James R. Hoffa. Mollenhoff traveled across the country for five years collecting information and writing articles about corruption in the Teamsters union. His work contributed to an investigation and hearings by a Senate committee, and he was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1958. One of Mollenhoff's key sources was Robert F. Kennedy, then a young attorney and chief investigator for the Senate committee.

    Mollenhoff continued to dog Hoffa's trail for years, but he also investigated what he considered to be corrupt contracting procedures in the Defense Department. Among the many books he wrote, the best known are Tentacles of Power: The Story of Jimmy Hoffa, Washington Cover-Up, The Pentagon, and Atanasoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer.

    In the mid 1960s Mollenhoff, as chair of the Freedom of Information Committee of Sigma Delta Chi (now the Society of Professional Journalists), directed some of his abundant energy to a media industry campaign that led to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act requiring the federal government to make more of its records public. The legislation was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966.

    Mollenhoff turned more conservative and frustrated with what he considered the lack of fervor and catering to the government by his press colleagues. His reputation was irretrievably damaged by his attacks on colleagues and by his startling decision in 1969 to accept an invitation to enter the White House as counsel to President Richard M. Nixon. He was flattered to be asked to be ombudsman, warning the administration of ethical failures within the government. To his chagrin, however, Mollenhoff was soon lending his credibility to the White House by defending some of its actions in public. He lost his temper on national television debating the merits of one of Nixon's controversial nominees for the Supreme Court, Clement F. Haynsworth, who was rejected by the Senate, as was Harrold Carswell.

    Mollenhoff left the White House after only one year and returned to the Register, replacing Richard Wilson as bureau chief. But he found that the journalism world had changed. His reputation could not be restored even as he became a notable critic of Nixon's actions. He was stunned when the president issued a pardon to get Jimmy Hoffa out of jail.

    At a relatively young age, 56 in 1977, Mollenhoff left Washington to become a professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. The next year he initiated a weekly column, "Watch on Washington," which was distributed nationwide by the Register-Tribune Syndicate.

    Mollenhoff was an inspirational teacher who brought attention and credit to what had been a modest academic journalism program. He lectured widely, including a European tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department, on the essential need for investigative journalism in democratic societies. In 1991, the year he died of liver cancer at 69, he published a book of 46 poems, nostalgic of his Iowa origins, Ballad to an Iowa farmer and Other Reflections. He was buried in Lohrville.

    His widow, Jane S. Mollenhoff, established an award in his name that is given each year to a Washington and Lee junior in journalism. Since 1996 the Institute on Political Journalism in Washington, D.C., has issued an annual Clark Mollenhoff Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting. In addition, the Project for Excellence in Journalism uses his "Seven Basic Rules" for investigative journalism in its midcareer training programs.
Sources A front-page obituary appeared in the Des Moines Register, 3/3/1991. See also Donald A. Ritchie, Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps (2005); and Matthew Cecil, "Seductions of Spin: Public Relations and the FBI Myth" (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 2000).
Contributor: Murray Seeger

Cite as: Seeger, Murray. "Mollenhoff, Clark R." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017