Meg Greenfield's retrospect: A very human 'Washington'

On Books

April 29, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

It was near the end of the 1950s in New York that I first met Meg Greenfield, who for the last 20 years of her life was editorial page editor of the Washington Post. She was a clerk on the mail desk of the Reporter, Max Ascoli's importantly intelligent weekly magazine -- or she may already have graduated to the library. She was very smart and funny and earnest. I liked her a lot, though we never became close friends.

I remember then seeing her byline on serious political pieces in that magazine. In 1963, I was assigned to the Washington bureau of the Chicago Tribune and I was pleased that she already -- since 1961 -- was working there for the Reporter, writing articles that were edgy, extraordinarily well reported and gracefully expressed. We lunched occasionally in those days. She joined the Post in 1968, by which time I had gone to the New York Herald-Tribune and then the Philadelphia Inquirer. We often met professionally and continued to do so from time to time, until not very long before she died in the spring of 1999.

All that establishes that I have absolutely no reliable critical detachment with which to approach the only book Meg Greenfield ever wrote, her posthumous memoir and culture guide to government, "Washington" (Public Affairs, 242 pages, $26).

In Meg's memory, if I had found fault in the book, I would have been inescapably obliged to spread my quibbles out on this page. She had professional and personal integrity and toughness I have never seen matched.

As Katharine Graham, long the proprietor of the Post, writes in a Foreword to this book, at Meg's core "was this innate sense of what was right and what was wrong, and she took her bearings on what was right." Graham goes on to write, "It is important to say that she had rock solid moral and ethical standards."

In his Afterword to the book, Meg's editor, the historian Michael Beschloss, observes that "A central theme of this book -- how to live at the center of political and journalistic influence in Washington without losing your principles, detachment, or individual human qualities."

All true.

And all amply demonstrated, once again, in this remarkable, concise volume.

If a better field guide to American political animals has been written, I can't think what it is. Meg Greenfield's clarity of vision and capacity to define and track these people with genuine affection -- never marred by sentimentality -- is extraordinary.

She never married. She was an adamantine campaigner against cant and cliche. She was a deep-dyed skeptic. Even as she rose to be one of the most influential women in Washington, she maintained reservations about the feminist movement. A sign in her office declared: "If liberated I will not serve." She insisted on being Miss -- not Ms.

For anybody with an ounce of political junkyism in their veins, this is a book of delight, of charm -- of joy. It also has deep importance.

She begins with an examination of the sense of self -- her own and others, and the conclusion that Washington tends to make people "dehumanize themselves" by constructing public selves that damage the genuine person.

She uses high school as a metaphor for Washington as a whole. In her view, the capital gets more than its fair share of the self-righteous and the self-seeking -- "hall monitors," she writes, "more than any one city should have to tolerate." And "You may take it as a rule of thumb that the children who came to Washington are not the ones who put the cat in the dryer, but the ones who tattled."

The book is replete with this kind of delightful, demandingly thought-out, precise observation about the structure of the capital city and government itself. But she tells it with great personal modesty. She writes of her own childhood and of her relationships with authority with the same scrutiny as she applies to those of politicians. This perhaps is why she elected to keep the book secret until after her death. Or, maybe, it was sensitivity to Washington and the role of the Post.

There is a lot here that could be thought of as gossip, wonderful anecdotal stories from almost 40 years of Washington service -- in interesting times. But it's not done in the manner of gossip -- it's marvelously dignified and analytic. Stories illustrate principles. These tales fit together to build a rich, profoundly revealing mosaic.

She considers the course of 40 years and their implications for change in public attitude and the distribution of power in the Congress and elsewhere in the nation.

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