National Press Club

Remembering President Cosgrove, NPC's elder statesman

October 18, 2016 | By Gil Klein and Matt Schudel | gilbert.klein@me.com

John Cosgrove was president of the National Press Club in 1961.

John Cosgrove was president of the National Press Club in 1961.

John Patrick Cosgrove, the grand old man of the National Press Club, died Oct. 14 at the age of 98, just 10 days after he recounted some of his favorite stories during a ceremony when the Club named the new members’ lounge after him.

A great raconteur and friend to hundreds – if not thousands -- of members since he joined in 1948, Cosgrove was an adviser to generations of Club presidents who sought his expertise and deep knowledge of Club history.

“John was one of the best ambassadors we’ve ever had for the Press Club,” Club President Thomas Burr said. “I personally loved sitting down and having a chat and talking about the good old days.”

Former President Mark Hamrick wrote: “Many things will inevitably change over time, but Mr. Cosgrove often reminded us about the importance of keeping the ‘clubhouse spirit’ intact. The idea that the congenial attitude shared by Press Club members must continue, as if to differentiate it from other public spaces, such as bars, restaurants and hotels.”

President in 1961, Cosgrove never tired of telling of the story of President Kennedy’s appearance at his inaugural party.

“I went to Kennedy’s inaugural, it is only right that he returned the favor,” he quipped.

“Mr. Kennedy’s surprise visit electrified the East Lounge,” Cosgrove recounted, referring to the room where the Inaugural party was held.

Cosgrove did not know that Kennedy would appear until late in the afternoon before the ceremony. Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, stopped by in the afternoon to pay the president’s $90 initiation fee as an associate member and revealed to Cosgrove that Kennedy intended to make an appearance. He asked Cosgrove to keep the presidential visit under wraps.

“We had a pre-arranged signal — a loud ring on the East Lounge phone when the president left the White House,” Cosgrove said. “That meant Pierre and I would have time to leave the East Lounge and arrive at the 14th St. entrance in time to greet Kennedy.

“Unfortunately, the presidential limousine made better time than anticipated, and when we reached the street lobby, the president was there pacing in front of the elevators. Smilingly he inquired, ‘where have you been?’”

After Cosgrove presented the president with him membership card, No. 2973, Kennedy praised the club for sticking to its rules and having “the decency to charge me the initiation fee and dues.”

“The president’s appearance in the East Lounge was brief,” Cosgrove said. “but he did manage to greet the head table guests that included House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Chief Justice Earl Warren. He had to leave before the swearing in ceremony and in departing looked at me directly and said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t stay longer, but be sure to keep your hand on the Bible.”

That comment was in reference to critics saying Kennedy had taken his hand off the Bible while being sworn in.

Cosgrove was born Sept. 25, 1918 in Pittston, Pa. After working for a newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he came to Washington in 1937 to work as a dictation specialist for the Associated Press. In 1940, he became a speechwriter for the National Republican Congressional Committee and later worked on Capitol Hill as an assistant to Sen. Hiram Johnson, R-Ca. During World War II, he served in the Navy for four years, first in Washington and later on a destroyer escort in the Pacific.

Returning to Washington after the war, Cosgrove was director of publications of Broadcasting Publications, which published Broadcasting Magazine, a weekly trade journal of the radio and television industry. He later had a PR business, with clients including railroads, health industry groups and J. Willard Marriott, founder of the Marriott hotel chain.

In 1948, he joined the Club at a time when some of the early members, such as Bascom Timmons, who joined the Club in 1912 and was president in 1932, and Homer Dodge, the Club’s first historian who knew every president, were still active. Cosgrove became so steeped in the Club’s history that when the 50th anniversary arrived in 1958, he was the editor of the Club’s history, “shrudlu: an affectionate chronicle.”

“The birth and growth of the National Press Club is a once-in-a-lifetime tale,” he wrote in that book. “It had its beginnings half-a-century ago with a band of pioneering men of boundless spirit and imagination. It continues today by their successors, all from the same cloth, but so individually cut.”

Fifty years later, Cosgrove was a significant consultant when the centennial history, “Reliable Sources: 100 Years at the National Press Club,” was written. Those who worked with him on that book were amazed by his encyclopedic memory of Press Club history. He could look at a picture from a half century ago and identify everyone in it. He remembered details of decades-old events and could pick out factual errors in copy that no one else could.

A great piece of the Club’s institutional memory has gone with him.

Well into his 90s, Cosgrove was a regular fixture at the Club, the professional Irishman attending all of the presidential inaugurals, frequenting the bar and dining rooms, ready with a hail-fellow-well-met greeting with his legendary twinkling eyes. He always was greeted as “Mr. President.”

As the “Head Hoot,” he was instrumental in developing the Club’s Silver Owls, aimed at keeping those with more than 25 years’ membership connected to the Club. From his vast network, he organized the entertainment. And he was active in the Fellowship Committee that helps members in distress.

“John was a terrific raconteur,” said 1979 Club President Frank Aukofer. “If you got him to tell stories, he could talk for a week.”

Confined to a wheelchair as Club members, friends and relatives gathered around him in his last visit at the newly christened John Cosgrove Lounge, the grand old man began telling stories, one after another, in a weak but insistent voice that seemed to be saying, if I stop talking, they will wheel me out of my beloved Club, and that will be the end.

And so it was.

Read a transcript of Cosgrove’s oral history.