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Washington in Human Terms

Wednesday, August 1, 2001

As the long-time editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page, Mary Ellen “Meg” Greenfield was a member in good standing of the permanent Washington establishment. The bureaucrats and politicians who dominate Washington are intensely, even obsessively, concerned about what is written in the Post. It is much more central to the daily life of the place than are the newspapers in other cities. Accordingly Meg Greenfield, purely by virtue of her position, was a much bigger cheese in Washington than the editorial page editor of, say, the Los Angeles Times is in L.A. And through her columns and the op-ed writers that she developed for the Post, she reached a national audience.

Even the best editorial writers and regular columnists tend sooner or later to run out of fresh things to say. They settle into a comfortable spot on the ideological spectrum, talk to the same like-minded sources and friends, and eventually become predictable and stale. Meg Greenfield managed to avoid this fate. She was always worth reading. It was not that she was contrarian, or iconoclastic, or a maverick. What made Greenfield consistently interesting, even if you didn’t share her politics, was that she tried to dig beneath the conventional presentation of the issues of the day and to understand them in human terms. Greenfield also successfully resisted the occupational hazards of pomposity and an inflated sense of self-importance. She was an insider who was able to retain the perspective of an outsider.

Washington belongs in the familiar genre of the Washington memoir. But it is not about great events, or political battles won and lost, or policy debates. Except to a very limited extent it does not contain portraits of the many famous people that she knew, and there is none of the score-settling that is so common in other Washington memoirs. She tells us very little about running the editorial and op-ed pages of the Post, or about her political philosophy and how she thinks the country should be run. What Meg Greenfield has produced, particularly in the first few chapters of the book, is a sort of anecdotal meditation upon the people and folkways of political Washington during the nearly 40 years she lived there. It is akin to cultural anthropology, but filtered through a literary sensibility, and free of social science jargon and theory. It also reveals a lot about who Meg Greenfield was and the values that shaped her approach to life.


Greenfield was born in 1930 in Seattle, the second of two children. In one of life’s little ironies, she grew up in an area of Seattle known as Capitol Hill. Her father was an antiques dealer, auctioneer, and amateur entertainer. Her mother died when Meg was 12. Both parents were the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. She did well in school and at Smith College, graduating summa cum laude in English in 1952. After a year at Cambridge studying poetry on a Fulbright, and spending some time in Rome working on a never-completed novel, she moved to Greenwich Village. In the 1956 presidential election, she was director of research for the New York committee of the Adlai Stevenson campaign. She drifted into journalism, beginning as a part-time news-clip filer with the Reporter, a magazine of political commentary. Her first two articles in the Reporter were review essays on The Complete Writings of William Blake and an Evelyn Waugh anthology. Subsequently she wrote satirical and analytical pieces, particularly “The Prose of Richard M. Nixon,” that attracted favorable notice. In September 1961 she was assigned to the magazine’s Washington bureau, succeeding Douglass Cater, who was later to become a principal White House aide to Lyndon Johnson.

In 1968, when the Reporter ceased publication, Greenfield was offered a job on the staff of the editorial page of the Washington Post by then-editor Philip Geyelin. She became Geyelin’s deputy, and in 1979 editor of the editorial page, a job she held until her death from lung cancer. Beginning in 1974, she wrote a fortnightly column for Newsweek, which was regularly reprinted on the op-ed page of the Post. She never married. She read ancient Greek and Roman authors for pleasure, including the Roman historian Livy and the comic writer Plautus, and left the bulk of her estate, worth almost $3 million, to the University of Washington department of classics.

When she arrived in Washington, D.C., Greenfield was immediately impressed by “the fact that living, breathing, willful people — not ‘issues’ — were at the center of what was involved in the capital.”

Honest-to-God people — as distinct from positions, policies, statutes, rulings, and other unfleshly particulars we were meant to ponder — didn’t make their first major appearance as a political factor until my Washington time. The effect was as close to electric shock as anything that befell me in my job.

. . . Some of the politicians to whom I had been sympathetic and who I had thought were doing serious work were not, and they were jerks into the bargain, utterly ineffective and either unaware of it or, worse, aware and not caring that their posturing hurt their cause so long as it pleased the folks back home.

. . . [O]thers of them, alas, had many more redeeming features than I was prepared for, let alone prepared to be intellectually comfortable with. . . . Without the dimmest idea of what was coming

. . . I was dropped overnight into existential Washington.

In this unexpected world of Washington politics, she came to realize that “the basic linguistic unit of speech . . . is a statement that is already somewhere between one-eighth and one-fourth of the way to being a lie.” And “such deception appears to be built into the process, a function of what they feel is required to stay alive and get anything whatever to happen.”

This initial reaction to political Washington is not uncommon. But in Meg Greenfield’s case she never completely assimilated and internalized the two-track language and way of thinking that characterizes Washington culture. Throughout her career, in her editorials and especially in her columns, a recurrent theme was the difference between what was purported to be taking place in Washington and the underlying, more complex, and larger human reality.

She began to work intermittently on this book in the early 1990s, and it was unfinished when she died. The foreword by Katharine Graham, former publisher of the Post and longtime friend of Greenfield, is essentially an extended eulogy, and a very good one. Her literary executor, the historian Michael Beschloss, selected the title of the book and the draft of each section that was used. She had intended to write a final chapter entitled “Friends and Family” but was unable to do so because of her illness. She talked about what she had intended to write with Beschloss, who has summarized his notes of those conversations in an afterword.


The begins by likening political Washington to high school, a “preeminently nervous place,” “psychologically fenced off from the larger community within which it makes its home,” an adult community largely made up of “people who, as children, were good at being children.” It is an apt analogy, and she uses it to analyze many of the familiar personality types that one encounters in Washington — the Good Child (the category in which she places herself), the Head Kid, the Prodigy, the Protégé, and the trajectory of the careers they pursue.

She then turns to a change in the political culture that many other old Washington hands have lamented:

Since about the mid-1960’s, Washington has gradually become more and more a colony of political independent contractors, loners, and freelancers. It is still true that the lone-wolf practitioner cannot get much done in a policy or programmatic sense. But in an era when getting things to happen may have less political value than merely seeming to be on the right side, this doesn’t bother nearly as many people in the capital as it should. People market themselves; policy and program become stage props.

What really distresses her is the tendency of the image that is being marketed to take over the actual self:

There’s not a one of us who has lived for a long stretch of time in the capital, I believe, who has not experienced that awful moment of realization that a friend or acquaintance with some public responsibility is losing the gift of normal discourse. He will have begun to address us over a casual drink or at the supermarket as if he were orating at the United Nations.

With her acute sensitivity to pretence and fakery, she draws a sharp distinction between the “dilettantes and dabblers and self-deluders” who temporarily possess the indicia of power, and the tiny number who have the commitment and know-how to make things happen. She is particularly disdainful of the swaggering, the playing with the “tinkertoys of power,” that is frequently displayed by newly installed White House aides.

I also recall the young woman who over dinner with some of us one night boasted how she had “punished” a Pennsylvania Republican congressman. In the name of the White House, she had seen to it that this marine veteran, who had no family in Washington, had his tickets revoked to the Friday night marine drill, which was his single off-hours diversion.

And when she writes of “the kid in the Clinton administration who told reporters that it didn’t matter what the Democratic chairman of the crucial Senate Finance committee, Pat Moynihan, thought on the eve of the health care debate because they were going to work around him and whip his butt” and how Lyndon Johnson would have dismembered the aide “in the presence of plenty of witnesses on whom no part of the message would have been lost,” it is clear that Greenfield thinks that such a dismembering would have been entirely appropriate.

In keeping with her fascination with the personal dynamics of Washington, Greenfield devotes a long chapter to “Women and Children.” She explores the ways in which parents and spouses and children have the “capacity to penetrate the shell, brush aside the image-impostor standing in their way, and reach the real person.” She also writes of the changing role of the political wife and her own deeply ambivalent and changing attitude towards the feminist movement. She was temperamentally alien to the movement — her office famously included a sign reading “If liberated I will not serve” — but at the same time, like other professional women, was supportive of many of the changes in the status of women to which it contributed.

The final, longest, and closest-to-the-bone chapter, which seems to me a minor masterpiece in itself, is about the “news business.” Journalism for her was about “getting it right.”

[T]he model for proper conduct of our business is George Orwell, the incomparable journalist of our century, who followed his inquiries into all the unanticipated, uncomfortable, and illuminating places they led him.

. . . [I] don’t think I am talking about any particular rectitude here or public service mission or constitutional burden we have uncomplainingly assumed. I am merely enunciating the abiding, core function of the newsman and newswoman — what they will do right if they are any good and the standard by which they should be judged. When instead of performing this function we abandon both our curiosity and our drive to satisfy it and either start trying to get the story to justify our assumptions or conclude that we don’t need to ask or look or even wonder, because we’re so smart we already know, we have walked off the job.

A consistent theme is the danger for journalists of being ignorant of and indifferent to “the reality and particularity of the people they are writing about.” A further concern is “the invariable difference between what we knew, in all its maddening refusal to come out morally or ideologically neat, and what we publicly said or printed.” She was acutely aware of the impact that something in print could have on people’s lives: “A paper like the Post is a two-ton truck, and we run over a lot of people without even knowing it, and then we just roll on without even the most casual glance in the rearview mirror.”

Meg Greenfield was anything but soft and nonjudgmental towards public figures. But she saw them as real people and she believed that “[a] little common decency, of the kind one would show to friends, family, and, for that matter, strangers in comparable circumstances, is hardly a threat to the independence of the press.”

She has many more illuminating things to say in this chapter about both her colleagues in the press and her own experiences. Suffice it to say that it is Meg Greenfield at her best: penetrating, unflinching, and empathetic without making excuses. It could and should be used in journalism schools as the text for the course in ethics.


When Meg Greenfield came to Washington she was a 1950s liberal. She lost her zeal for that particular political faith but never converted to another. She was certainly never a conservative as that term is used in American politics. But her perspective on life had a conservative cast, in the sense that the sentiment expressed in Samuel Johnson’s famous couplet — “How small of all that human hearts endure, That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” — is conservative. In her belief in personal responsibility, her intellectual honesty and fairness, and her personal style and instincts she was — like her hero Orwell — someone who attracted admirers whose politics she did not share. Although the Post was undeniably left of center on most issues, it deviated from liberal orthodoxy surprisingly often (unlike, for example, the editorial page of the New York Times). It was and still is not uncommon for an issue to be presented in a more balanced, nontendentious way on the editorial page than in the news columns of the Post. And she ran a meritocratic op-ed page. Greenfield sought out not a token conservative columnist or two for “Crossfire”-style “balance,” but independent, thoughtful, and provocative writers such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Kelly, James K. Glassman, Robert Samuelson, and Jodie Allen — to varying degrees and by various definitions “conservative,” but never orthodox. She also routinely printed strong free-lance op-ed pieces by many of the most eloquent and persuasive conservative and neoconservative intellectuals and politicians. Given the Post’s dominance, a lesser editor might have used her power to crowd out dissenting voices. Greenfield used hers to encourage those voices. (Incidentally, she had no jurisdiction over, and so was not to blame for, the simplistic old-left cartoons of longtime Post editorial cartoonist Herblock.)


Towards the end of her life, Greenfield’s thoughts turned to how she had come to be the person that she was. She talked with Beschloss of her lifelong desire for solitude, and of her failure to marry and have children — a choice that she regretted. The afterword concludes with a story of her childhood to which she attached great significance. One Easter in the late 1930s, her father took the family to a prison where he was to entertain the inmates.

As Meg’s father [Lewis Greenfield] performed onstage, she and her mother and brother watched as the “guys in gray prison issue” sat “slouched, hostile, with ankles crossed.” Suddenly, one of the inmates cried, “Lew! Lewie!” Her father called out, “Hey Blackie!”

As Meg recalled, she was unnerved by “shame and social embarrassment” that her father should know a criminal. But at the same time, she felt that “the place had been tamed, made familiar.”

Beschloss reports that Greenfield felt that this experience at the prison had led to her career in journalism, her self-control, and her perspective on politics. This seems a bit of a stretch. But the incident, concerning as it does the recognition of a fellow human being where a moment before there had been a stereotype, does seem to capture that impulse to understand politics in terms of “Honest-to-God people” which lies at the heart of Meg Greenfield’s journalism.