Washington reporter and columnist James McCartney dies in Florida

James H. McCartney, an award-winning Washington correspondent and columnist who specialized in foreign affairs and defense policy for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, died Friday at his home in Holmes Beach, Fla., at age 85.

The cause of death was cancer, his family said.

In a 33-year career as a Washington journalist, McCartney wrote about nuclear weapons policy, the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Vietnam War, among other issues. He was a senior national security reporter for Knight Ridder newspapers.

McCartney's frequent travels included trips to cover the Paris Peace Talks (1968-1973), the historic 1977 speech by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat before the Israeli parliament and the1986 Reykjavik summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. His stories were datelined from more than 30 countries.

He also wrote regularly about national politics and presidential campaigns and covered every president from Eisenhower to Clinton.

In 1989, McCartney received the Edward Weintal Prize for diplomatic reporting from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He was a longtime member and past president of the Gridiron Club, where he was celebrated for his gyrating "witch doctor" dance in a humorous skit at one of the club's annual dinners.

McCartney often said his interest in issues of war and peace was driven in part by his horrific experiences as front-line infantryman in France and Germany as a teenager during World War II. He was wounded in combat shortly before the end of the war.

Soon after he arrived in Washington as a reporter for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, McCartney became one of the first journalists to focus on the rise of the military-industrial complex. He did so after covering President Dwight Eisenhower's famous farewell address on the subject in 1961, an assignment he got because the bureau's senior reporters preferred to cover president-elect John F. Kennedy.

McCartney remained active in journalism in his retirement, giving speeches to local groups and writing a monthly column for the Bradenton (Fla.) Herald. His final column was published on March 27.

McCartney was known for his relentless, skeptical questioning at White House, State Department and Pentagon press conferences. One of the officials with whom he tangled, former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter, said of McCartney, "You knew, if you were a government spokesman, that you'd better have it straight and you'd better have the facts, because he'd keeping coming at you. He could be the belligerent antagonist when he knew he was being lied to."

Robert Boyd, former Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, who hired McCartney and was his boss for many years, said: "Jim's curiosity, skepticism and persistence made our small news bureau into one of the best in Washington. He relished digging up fresh angles on big stories and puncturing official gasbags."

He added: "The word I most associate with Jim is zest — zest for the news, for his job, for people and for life."

James Harold McCartney was born July 20, 1925, in St. Paul, Minn., and grew up in Detroit and East Lansing, Mich. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Army with rank of corporal, he attended Michigan State University on the GI bill. He graduated in 1949 with a degree in political science after spending most of his time working on the college newspaper, where he was the editor.

After graduation, he worked for the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, obtained a master's degree in Journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University and then joined the Chicago Daily News as a reporter and later assistant city editor.

He moved to Washington as a correspondent in 1959 and worked in the newspaper's bureau there until returning to Chicago as city editor in 1965.

In 1968, McCartney joined Knight Ridder and returned to Washington. From then until his retirement, he devoted his work to probing underlying issues affecting American foreign policy. He was particularly interested in the roles of the Defense Department and the armaments industry and liked to say that the Pentagon had more influence on American diplomacy than the State Department.

Another theme was the failure of arms control negotiations, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, to actually shrink U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals..

McCartney retired as a reporter in 1990, but continued to write his column. Knight Ridder distributed it until 1995. Knight Ridder was bought by McClatchy Newspapers in 2006.

McCartney was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University for 13 years, where he taught courses in the media and foreign policy, and the media and politics. He enjoyed golf and travel and was an avid baseball fan.

McCartney's 31-year marriage to Jule Graham McCartney of Bethesda, Md., ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife of 26 years, Molly Sinclair McCartney of Holmes Beach, Fla.; his twin sister, Kathryn Boucher of East Lansing, Mich.; a son, Robert McCartney of Bethesda; a daughter, Sharon Allexsaht of Minneapolis; a stepdaughter, Kathleen Muckleroy of Baytown, Texas; and four grandchildren.