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Mary Jordan (C'83)

Co-Chief, Washington Post's London Bureau

By Lauren Freeman

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As the co-chief of the Washington Post's London bureau, Mary Jordan (C'83) has recently interviewed luminaries like Paul McCartney, Vice President Al Gore and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; reported from Cambodia and Nigeria; and dog sledded through the Arctic Circle. She co-authored a book, Prison Angel, with her husband and co-bureau chief, Kevin Sullivan. And in 2003, while reporting for the Post from Mexico City, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the chaos of the Mexican criminal justice system.

But Jordan is so down-to-earth that when she’s talking about her journalism career, she manages to sound utterly – and charmingly – unassuming.

For instance, on the subject of that Pulitzer, which she shared with Sullivan: "Winning it was a fantastic feeling – especially winning it jointly with my husband," she says. "But I honestly think it hasn't affected my career substantially. Many people at the Post have won Pulitzers, so there's no special treatment there, for sure. And it's never gotten me a good table at a restaurant."

"But," she adds, "It does make me smile every now and then."

Work Both Serious and Fun

Armed with a Georgetown degree in government and a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism, Jordan began her career as an intern in the Style section of the Washington Post two decades ago. From there, she moved on to the Metro section, and then became the national education reporter. She also spent a year as a Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard University.

Jordan returned to Georgetown in 1994 to study Japanese in preparation for her first foreign post.

"It was a weird experience to be a pregnant 34-year-old in a class of whip-smart Georgetown freshman who were learning how to say things like 'hajimemashite!' a whole lot faster than I was," she says.

Despite the tricky business of learning foreign languages, Jordan has worked in foreign countries ever since, moving from Tokyo to Mexico City and then on to London.

"My arrival here in the summer of 2005 coincided with the terrible bombings in the Tube (subway system) that killed 52 people and injured 700 others, so I've spent a lot of time working on stories about Britain's homegrown terrorism," she says. "After last summer's failed bombings in London and Glasgow, I spent days interviewing people in the neighborhoods where the bombers came from."

"But for all the deadly serious work," she adds, "there is plenty of fun, too. I've interviewed Kevin Spacey and Andrew Lloyd Webber, met Queen Elizabeth and hung out in the Buckingham Palace basement interviewing the chefs and the people who vacuum the carpets."

Discovering Cultures

Spending her career in major cities around the world has given Jordan a unique perspective not only on global events, but also on America – and Americans.

 

"The biggest change since I started out in Tokyo in 1995 is the status of the American abroad," she says. "A decade ago it was far easier. I found that most people automatically liked you – or were at least interested – when they heard an American accent. I was on a train in the Japanese countryside one day when an old man approached me with tears in his eyes. He told me about how American soldiers handed him candy bars and food during the occupation after World War II.

"The world genuinely does like American optimism, culture, and people, but there is a lot of disappointment and anger these days," she says. "And American expats often feel like clerks at the complaints desk."

Pathways to Lifelong Learning

Nevertheless, expatriate life has proved enormously worthwhile. "When we moved to Mexico City from Tokyo, we always joked that we did it because we wanted to live in a smaller town. Tokyo and Mexico City are the two biggest cities in the world, both of them huge and sprawling and at times overwhelming – but two places could not be more different. Tokyo is maybe the world's most orderly city. The taxi drivers wear white gloves, people bow in thanks to ATMs. Mexican taxi drivers drive lime green VW Beetles held together with wire and prayer, and your neighborhood police officer is very likely to be part of a kidnapping gang. But we adored living in both places."

As for London, "We could do without the flesh-eating prices for everything and the 3:45 p.m. winter sunsets, but the theater, museums, interesting people and ability to be just about anywhere else in Europe by noon are heavenly."

The expatriate experience, she says, has been especially valuable to her kids. "They are both fluent Spanish speakers, they mix easily with people from all kinds of religious and cultural backgrounds. They are good global citizens, and we are very proud of that."

Jordan embraces lifelong learning, a trait shared by many Georgetown alumni. "Being a journalist is like being permanently in graduate school: you are constantly learning," she says. "Either you are reading up on a topic, interviewing experts about it or traveling to see something as an eyewitness."

Her advice to future journalists is simple: "Study languages, economics, government, history – whatever is your passion. The best journalists are those with a broad academic backgrounds and a bottomless supply of curiosity."

And, of course, "Write, write, write."

You can find Mary Jordan's posts from around the world at www.washingtonpost.com.

March 3, 2008 | Lauren Freeman is a frequent contributor to Georgetown Alumni Online.