Mike Causey, ‘Federal Diary’ columnist for three decades, dies at 82

Mike Causey, who wrote The Washington Post’s federal-workforce column six days a week for more than 30 years, popularized the term “Inside the Beltway” and saw himself as a watchdog against ill-considered judgments of political appointees, died Sept. 26 at 82.

He had retired from The Post in 2000 and had spent most of the last two decades as a host and columnist for the news outlet Federal News Network, in whose Chevy Chase, Md., offices he was found unresponsive soon after filing his latest column. His son Michael Causey confirmed the death but said the cause was not yet known.

After early stints working in a Kentucky tobacco warehouse and a New York print shop — and almost getting a tryout with the Cleveland Indians — Mr. Causey drifted into journalism. It was, he recalled, a bygone era, when those with a measure of street smarts but few formal credentials could still land a job at a metropolitan newspaper. Throughout his career, he delighted in being a newsroom scamp.

Contrary to rumors he spread of being the “copy boy who took the telegraph report of the Custer massacre,” he eventually admitted to a less glorified start at The Post in 1957 as a “buck-an-hour” messenger for the advertising department, he once wrote in an internal newspaper bio. He soon moved to the newsroom, writing stories about police, the Postal Service and a slew of what he called “the sky-isn’t-falling” features that plugged in empty space on the page.

A strapping 6-footer with a trim Clark Gable-style mustache, Mr. Causey was enlisted in 1964 to help protect “a more experienced and (fragile) reporter” assigned to write about the first Beatles concert in Washington, he wrote. With a staff photographer, Mr. Causey also was among the first to drive the entire 64-mile length of the not-yet-officially opened Beltway encircling Washington.

Quick and dependable, he became an apprentice to Federal Diary columnist Jerry Kluttz. The column, launched in 1932, was devoted to federal-workforce issues such as pay raises, changes to benefits and telecommuting policy, and other rules and regulations affecting millions of employees. After six years assisting Kluttz and briefly another more-senior writer, Mr. Causey carried the mantle himself in 1969.

By Mr. Causey’s own account, the task carried little visible prestige inside the newspaper, where national and international coverage made reputations, but the Federal Diary became a vital part of the The Post’s daily report and a must-read for generations of federal workers. (The column, running Sunday through Friday, bounced around many sections over the decades including the comics page, leading Mr. Causey to crow at his good fortune, “Heck, I’d rather be there than on Page 1.”)

Broadly and deeply sourced, as much as any seasoned political reporter, Mr. Causey chronicled how public money is spent or misspent on various initiatives. One story in 1981 about former president Ronald Reagan’s proposal to increase top federal pay by 4.8 percent led Mr. Causey to write: “That will be considered too little inside the Beltway and too much by taxpayers outside of Washington.”

Although there has reportedly been at least one earlier known use of the expression, Mr. Causey was credited with placing it more broadly in use. The term became shorthand language often applied to self-absorbed journalists and politicians who have lost touch with Americans in the “Heartland” far beyond the symbolic Beltway that forms a ring around the center of government power.

As a reporter, he saw himself as an advocate for often underappreciated multitudes who constituted his core readership and bore the workaday consequences of imperfect laws approved on Capitol Hill and carried out by political appointees named by the president.

“People, no matter who they are, have to pay the rent,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “They have to get the kids’ teeth fixed. A husband or mother worries about health insurance. CIA agents, in the Sinai or Northern Ireland, doing life-threatening things, have called about their insurance.”

A key mission of the column, he added, was to inform “the grunts what’s being done to them — not just their pay, but everything” and to act as a trusted source of information for high-level supervisors far removed from the front line trenches. If morale seemed curiously low a few floors down, he suggested in the Tribune interview, maybe it was because of “an underling firing everybody while the boss thought they were just all leaving to write novels.”

He scorned the trope of the lazy bureaucrat and saw, instead of faceless hordes, men and women, mothers and fathers, even grandparents who were dedicated to their jobs and might lead fascinating interior lives. At the Office of Personnel Management, “which sounds like the dullest thing going,” Mr. Causey told the Tribune, he befriended a man — the “brilliant manager was president of the Lone Ranger Club of America and an authority on old-time radio.”

He distrusted politicians of both parties who trumpeted their efforts to eliminate thousands of federal jobs by trying to persuade voters it would make government better and more efficient. Such talk, he said, was misleading as the contracting industry boomed and carried with it many fresh problems and concerns.

The CIA, he told Washingtonian magazine in 2000, has no “counterpart in the private sector. Folks in Langley tell me the number of contractors out there has skyrocketed. It seems half the people there now are contractors. I’m not sure that’s a good idea, because contractors don’t take the oath. They don’t make the same commitments of devotion and patriotism as CIA employees must.”

In one of Mr. Causey’s final columns for The Post, he directed his sarcasm at politicians who invoked imagery of Nazi stormtroopers by describing federal employees carrying out their jobs as “jackbooted thugs.”

“I had lunch the other day with a ‘jackbooted thug,’ a.k.a. a retired federal law enforcement officer,” Mr. Causey wrote. “He now works as a volunteer with disabled children. He could have made more in corporate security but said he decided to spend his retirement — ‘giving something back.’

“He’s a disgrace to thugs everywhere.”

A distinctive personality

Norman Michael Causey was born on Feb. 12, 1940, in Indianapolis to parents, he often joked, who fled the Depression in Kentucky for the Depression in Indiana. He described his father to Washingtonian magazine as a meat cutter who mostly was “kind of a drifter.” After his parents divorced, he grew up with his mother, who worked as a secretary. He also was raised partly by his aunt and uncle.

His marriage to Betty Lou Adams Dunn, who later went by Elizabeth Adams, ended in divorce. His son Steven Causey died in January. In addition to his son Michael, of Washington, survivors include two daughters, Libby Causey-Hicks of Mechanicsville, Va., and Jocelyn Causey of Silver Spring, Md.; a half sister; three half-brothers; and eight grandchildren.

For Mr. Causey, the attraction to journalism was that it was justification for never having to grow up and for exploring “how things work, or are supposed to, or don’t.”

He cut a distinctive personality in a newsroom filled with eager strivers seeking front-page stories that would get them on Sunday talk shows. Mr. Causey, by all accounts, cared little for sleek appearances that would move him up a predictable career ladder. He was an idiosyncratic combination of unprintable humor and unexpected interests, including hot British dance bands of the 1930s.

His office grew to immense levels of hoarding and hazards. Executive editor Benjamin Bradlee made annual threats to call the fire marshal on him if he did not throw away some of the manuals, newspapers and press releases that created near-impassible clutter.

Regardless, Mr. Causey churned out articles at a pace unmatched by most. Amid the junk, he kept a T-shirt with a front reading “Anyone can be a daily columnist.” On the back was printed: “For two weeks.” (The column, since renamed Federal Insider, runs in print once a week and is handled by Joe Davidson.)

Former Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao, now an editorial writer, noted after Mr. Causey’s death: “He clearly had the reporting and writing chops to do other things, but Mike knew just how important the federal government workforce is. Tens of thousands of government employees hung on his words, they knew they could trust him and no amount of page-one bylines could substitute for that.”

Despite his loyal following, Mr. Causey was less earnest about his own standing with peers and the public.

“I never claimed to have six good ideas a week, just to write six columns a week,” he told Washingtonian. “Many of my columns had breaking news — the type The Post news section wouldn’t have for two weeks. That became an inside joke. I’d write some news, and the paper would feature it on the front page a week later. I wouldn’t nominate all of my columns for a Pulitzer Prize, but most did contain sound information. People think that my type of information is dull — until it applies to their agency. Then it becomes riveting.”

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