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Grace Bassett, who started at S-R and went on to work ‘on the edge of great power’ in D.C., dies at 93

UPDATED: Mon., June 15, 2020

Grace Bassett in a photo taken by her Washington Post colleague Richard Lyons, on Key Bridge in Washington, DC. On the back of the photo, Grace wrote "The difficult and meaningful years, 1955-1960."  (Courtesy of the estate of Mary Grace Bassett)
Grace Bassett in a photo taken by her Washington Post colleague Richard Lyons, on Key Bridge in Washington, DC. On the back of the photo, Grace wrote "The difficult and meaningful years, 1955-1960." (Courtesy of the estate of Mary Grace Bassett)

“I write this not because I am extraordinary, but because my times are.”

That’s how Grace Bassett began an unpublished, undated reflection looking back on her life in the 20th century. But those who knew the Spokane-born Bassett, who died Monday in Annandale, Virginia, at age 93, would respectfully disagree with that first point.

They describe a fearless, independent woman who nevertheless forged strong friendships throughout a life that took her from Eastern Washington to the halls of power in Washington, D.C., first as an award-winning journalist and later in the administration of President Gerald Ford.

“I lived on the edge of great power,” Bassett wrote, “and occasionally at its center.”

Bassett died from complications of dementia, according to longtime friend Robin Renner, whom she gave power of attorney. She never married and had no children.

Born Mary Grace Bassett in Spokane in 1926 – she was known professionally as Grace or M.G. – she grew up in Okanogan, studied at Whitman College and in 1948 began a news career at The Spokesman-Review that would lead her to cover Congress and the nation’s capital for the Washington Post and the now-defunct Washington Star.

In that same undated document, provided by Renner, Bassett wrote of her childhood in Okanogan, describing her mother as a “pianist who played Bach and Beethoven when she was not selflessly accompanying her musically hopeless daughter on the violin.”

In similarly self-deprecating terms, she wrote that every summer, at her family’s cabin on Osoyoos Lake, her father would bring a horse, “bridled in father’s unfulfilled hope that my brother and I would share his love for the animal.”

But while she may not have had a natural affinity for music or horses, she excelled in other areas. At Whitman, she recalled in a 2011 book given to alumni, she would sneak away to the basement to study after realizing she “could not learn enough by the time lights-out was enforced.”

“I learned if a grade was all you wanted,” she wrote, “you could, with very hard work, have it. There was so much more to learn.”

She served as the editor of the college newspaper, and after graduating in 1947, went on to complete a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York City. It was from there that she filed her first story for The Spokesman-Review, about a former Whitman classmate who was invited to visit Eleanor Roosevelt.

After a year at Columbia, she returned to Spokane and became a reporter for The Spokesman-Review, writing about European immigrants learning English, a Ukrainian refugee who settled in Spokane and a Spokane man who had crafted wooden legs for a famous amputee.

The archives of The Spokesman-Review also offer a glimpse of the life she chose not to lead. Her name appears in an October 1950 story about a Whitman alumni function, below the headline news of Spokane-area “misses” getting engaged. But Bassett wasn’t interested in married life, and Renner said she spoke highly of her Spokesman-Review editor, who encouraged her to pursue her interests in politics and didn’t relegate her to writing for the “women’s pages.”

In January 1951, her name appeared in a slightly different Spokesman-Review byline: “By Grace Bassett, Who Is Now in Paris,” atop a story about a Walla Walla woman who worked at the U.S. embassy in France.

After pursuing post-graduate studies in France and Germany, Bassett moved to the nation’s capital and took a job at the Washington Post, where she reported from 1953 to 1957 on the city’s response to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that banned racial segregation in public schools.

From the Post, she went on to report for the Washington Star, winning an award from the American Political Science Association for her reporting on the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, which gave D.C. residents the right to vote for president.

Carl Bernstein, who famously went on to expose the Watergate scandal at the Washington Post, began his career at age 16 at The Star, where he would take dictation from Bassett over the phone. He said he remembers her as a consummate professional who could humanize her subjects.

“She got immense respect from the people she covered,” Bernstein said. “She was meticulous, fair, and she was a really good writer. Covering government doesn’t lend itself to writing, but she, at the appropriate moment, would make it sing.

“She had a great sense of humor and she was forceful. I think she loved the company of people she worked with. She was a wonderful human being in full.”

After about a decade at the Star, she worked in 1968 on the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy.

In 1970, she became a columnist for the Hearst company’s King Features Syndicate. After six years, she left journalism to take a job as assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Ford, taking night classes to complete a law degree at Georgetown University.

“She was not a bragger,” said her attorney and former law school classmate Paul Dean Jr. “I learned somewhere, and I don’t think it was her, that she had been quite a journalist. I don’t really know what her motivation was for moving away from that. I think it was just, ‘Been there, done that.’ ”

“I’m fundamentally a newspaper person, so I plan to do this only for a year,” she told the Seattle Times in 1976. “I don’t know what happens next year. I don’t even know what happens next week.”

“She was just a free spirit and she didn’t accept the social norms that most women her age were bound by,” said her cousin, Elizabeth Harris-Matschukat, of Walla Walla.

Bassett completed her law degree in 1979, but she began to lose her vision to macular degeneration. Still, another cousin, Constance Bassett, of New Jersey, remembers her driving up the East Coast to visit relatives.

She was an avid skier, sailor and tennis player who was reluctant to slow down.

“She was a bigger-than-life character,” Constance Bassett said. “Every family should have a Mary Grace.”

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