Washington by Meg Greenfield

by Valerie MacEwan


“She said it was not the kind of place that people would come here whose childhoods were the kind where you put the cat in the dryer.”
—Michael Beschloss, referring to Meg Greenfield’s description of
Washington (from NewsHour with Jim Lehrer)

cover art


Meg Greenfield

(PublicAffairs Books)

I hesitated before emailing John Nettles to request a copy of Washington for review. This, after all, would be Meg Greenfield. I’ve spent my life reading her extraordinary coverage of all things Washington. While I was in college in 1974, my father would mail me Xeroxed copies of her Newsweek column. I vividly recall when she won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1978. During the next twenty years she would oversee the editorial and opinion pages of the Washington Post and create a legacy of journalistic integrity and excellence. To review her work might prove intimidating. But this was not the case as I slammed through the book with such pleasure, I knew I could write about it, recommending it to anyone.

Katherine Graham’s powerful foreword sets up Greenfield’s character. In describing her friend and co-worker, she writes,

Meg may have been small in stature, but she was a giant in impact and intellect. In fact, anyone who knew Meg or read her work was impressed by the strength of her mind. Although honorary degrees formally recognized the sharpness of her unique mind, Post executive editor Ben Bradlee cut to the quick when he exclaimed over “her goddam brain power.” She was gifted, logical, reflective, fresh and independent I her thinking. Sometimes you could almost see her thinking things through from the ground up.

Graham then comments on the “rock solid moral and ethical standards” she had and her “innate sense of what was right and what was wrong, and she took her bearings on what was right.”

Greenfield’s Washington, published posthumously and edited by her friend and colleague Michael Beschloss, does not disappoint. The book’s central theme, “how to live at the center of political and journalistic influence in Washington without losing your principles, detachment, or individual human qualities,” is presented in exactly the style in which one would expect from Greenfield. Pithy, concise, acerbic, and witty, a book filled with insightful observations of the effects of creating a life/career inside the Beltway.

Taking a rather tongue-in-cheek anthropological approach to Washington subculture, she identifies the principal species. Labeling them as “the good child, the head kid, the prodigy, the protégé, the maverick, and the image maker.” Her writing being already a standard in his political dictionary, these terms will surely become part of William Safire’s lexicon of all things political.

Greenfield dismisses the unflattering analogies that liken Washington to an “elitist men’s club; a recklessly run business; and a den of every know public and private vice, including lechery, larceny, pride, sloth, dissembling, and, above all, the lust for acquiring power and wielding it cruelly and carelessly” and chooses instead to compare Washington to high school. Nobody, Greenfield claims, ever gets over high school, a “preeminently nervous place.” The basic social codes, those which define the imperatives for acceptance and popularity, consists of strict confines created to assure one’s capacity to please and to “be associated with the right people” as well as to “impress and be admired by the vast, undifferentiated rest.”

Greenfield justifies her comparison:

Now consider this settlement’s profoundly high school nature. It is psychologically fenced off from the larger community within which it makes its home, free—like irresponsible youth—of all but the minimal obligations of citizenship to that community, and absorbed to the exclusion of all else in its own eccentric aims and competitions. And the high-school-like feel political/governmental Washington takes on by virtue of all of this is intensified by certain givens of its existence… One is the only-passing-through nature of so much time spent here…

She goes on, describing the terms “underscoring the fixed period of time for which people in both the legislative and executive branches have been sent to do their jobs,” comparing the vacation schedules of Washington to a high-school academic year, and finishes her justification with the ultimate comparison—freshmen and senior status.

Washington dissects the media, the politician, “the policy dingdongs on the seventh floor” and the social elite. No weasel words here. Greenfield never dulls her scalpel while dissecting the town and its inhabitants. In the aftermath of Lewinsky and this week’s daily Levy updates, I am particularly fond of her description of journalistic life in Washington. Referring to the “high-pitched whistles that no one can hear but other Washington dogs” she explains the “fairly flexible, vague rules and professional understandings” of reporting:

If the politicians and officials of Washington have an infinite number of chances to cheat every day (and an equal number of chances to decide not to), they have nothing on us in the press, who are their neighbors, just one precarious house down the slope. This inescapable circumstance of journalistic life in Washington was what I began to be educated into, in a no-frills crash course, more or less the day I arrived…

Consider the accepted practices: We don’t say everything we know, even when it is highly relevant and also pretty hot. We decide which part to make public. We—yes—knowingly suppress information on a regular basis and essentially lie or at least paint a picture that we know in some important respects is misleading in its incompleteness.

Greenfield’s Washington also gives us what she considers rare individuals, those people who, despite all odds, maintain their integrity and manage to “do some good.” She contends that Washington creates in its characters a fabricated identity which masks and transposes the true person. The end result is a “walking, talking, person-shaped but otherwise not very human amalgam of `positions’... These are people who don’t seem to live in the world so much as to inhabit some point on graph paper, whose coordinates are (sideways) the political spectrum, and (up and down) the latest overnight poll figures.”

Beschloss, in his Afterword, speculates about Greenfield’s motives for keeping this manuscript a secret. He believes she may not have felt entirely sure of herself and wanted “to keep the option of aborting the project, if necessary.” He knew her personally—I didn’t. But I know that, had she been alive upon publication, this book would have created a terrific public reception and caused quite a stir—one that would have impacted her daily life. And, from what I learned of her character by her revelations in this book, I suspect she wouldn’t have liked the spotlight.

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//Mixed media