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Few people in D.C. had more juice than Meg Greenfield. As Washington Post editorial page editor, she had a sack of lightning bolts that she could hurl at any target she deemed worthy. And, according to eulogies at the Washington Hebrew Congregation last Tuesday morning, she launched them without respect for status or convention. That message must have created some cognitive dissonance for a few close readers of the Post—her page historically favored those in favor, tweaking conventional wisdom without challenging it in any fundamental way.
Greenfield came up both privileged—she was the daughter of a successful antiques dealer—and challenged—her mother died when she was 12. Greenfield went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College before spending a year studying the poetry of William Blake on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge. She caught on with the now-defunct Reporter magazine, arrived at the Post in 1968, and quickly became the deputy editorial page editor in 1969. She was appointed editor in 1979.
Although I never knew Greenfield, 68, I always liked her voice. As an essayist—she wrote a column for Newsweek—she parsed history and culture in unselfconscious ways, and, when that didn’t do the trick, she displayed a deft touch with the linguistic towel snap. She once described Dick Morris as the Clintons’ “hymnist” on family values.
But the page she ruled so vigorously—”despotically” is a word others use—never seemed to reflect the kind of feistiness her eulogists recalled. What evil dragons or great campaigns did the Post edit page really, truly take on? You can’t point to any local battles. Greenfield & Co. may have had some brilliant theories about postwar Sino-Soviet relations, but they’ve picked nothing but losers at home since electoral politics began in the District. Marion Barry squeezed an endorsement out of the paper three times—including 1986, long after it became clear that he was not capable of looking after anything except his own self-interest. In 1990, the page changed horses—or dogs, actually—more or less inventing Sharon Pratt Dixon with a baker’s dozen of laudatory editorials. Dixon’s inept administration paved the way for Barry’s return. At least this time around, the page mitigated its endorsement of Anthony A. Williams—a conflicted stance borne out by Williams’ many subsequent missteps. Its meager defense of home rule was manifest in the headlines just a few pages away. In the main, the paper that supposedly owned the ears of Great Men of Federal Washington never stopped that same bunch from ravaging the Post’s host city.
On national affairs—the wheelhouse of Greenfield’s institution—consensus was generally ground out in predictable and unedifying ways. It all started nicely enough. The front end of any Post editorial usually reflected Greenfield’s wit and capacity for precise framing: rendering issues in a way that explained the stakes, the players, and the architecture of power. But the back end failed to satisfy. Most editorials concluded with a hopefully worded suggestion along the lines of “These are terrible problems that someone should do something about sometime.” There was no fiery call to account, no heralding of trumpets, no plan of action. And that was the way she liked it—Greenfield took enormous pride in the temperance of her fiefdom.
But forbearance rarely begets change. Where is the Post Beltway doppelganger for Maureen Dowd? What surprising intellect, pot-stirrer, or shit-starter has the paper harnessed to get and maintain people’s attention? Greenfield couldn’t have cared less about sizzle, seeing Dowd and her ilk as nothing more than fan dancers who owned thesauri. The proudly sensible execution of Greenfield’s edit page was congruent with her roots as a ’50s liberal who believed that the “process,” good and true as it is, would eventually iron out even the knottiest problem.
Even post-Watergate and post-Clinton, Greenfield’s page was a lumpy amalgam that proceeded on the assumption that we should trust smart people to do the right thing—even if they weren’t very smart and they rarely did the right thing. Innovations in format or style—the Wall Street Journal edit page may be an insane asylum, but it’s a pretty lively one—never reached the Post’s Op-Ed page, an anachronism that lived on like a bug trapped in the amber of the early ’60s.
Michael Kelly, editor of the National Journal and opiner on Greenfield’s page, thinks reliance on solid thinking and sound arguments should never be considered anachronistic:
“It is a real disservice to her and her work to suggest that she was in the business of consensus manufacturing. She looked for writers with whom she shared values, but within that framework, there was an unusual amount—for Washington—of respect for differences of opinion.”
Greenfield was the last link to the Reston-Alsop generation of journo-pols who worked out the conventional wisdom between the third and fourth course of a fancy meal. The moment of arrival for any policy wannabe was a dinner invite from Greenfield. This Tuesday, people seemed to be mourning the disappearance of that rite of passage as much as the person who hosted it.
Unfortunately, in the surge of obitry following Greenfield’s death from lung cancer, it sounded as if people were still lobbying for a place at her next party. David Broder took three full weeks to decide that “[h]er position at the Post made her a force. It was her character that made her a moral force. Never have this city and nation needed it more.” George Will suggested that “Meg’s 1961 move from Manhattan to Washington markedly increased the thoughtfulness of the nation’s capital.” Even in the purple-prose-ridden genre of homage-for-the-recently-deceased, those overstatements would have gotten the red pen from someone like Greenfield in a hot second.
Or maybe not. She gave both of those gasbags permission to perpetrate hoary, torpid work for what felt like centuries.
Fortunately for those who stepped out into a sweltering morning for her memorial, the service hosted none of that nonsense. Longtime friends including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan painted a vivid tableau of a person who sounded like someone everyone would want to know. Colbert King of the Post’s editorial staff left no doubt that Greenfield will be missed in abiding ways on both the institutional and personal levels. Katharine Graham, publisher emerita and longtime friend, was quietly spectacular, calling Greenfield “one of the last of the truly great, large-scale people” Washington will know. It was a dry-eyed and clear-eyed assessment of a colleague and buddy who loved to sneak out to crappy movies in between setting powerful men to trembling. “Do you want to see the French president?” asked Graham in a quick midday phone call about a visiting head of state. “I don’t know,” Greenfield answered. “Where is it playing?”
The service was a perfectly lovely 90 minutes inside the dowdy human supercomputer that runs Washington. Greenfield never was a star-fucker or one to play the access game, but the synagogue looked like a giant talk-show green room, with a host of luminaries waiting their turn. Alan Greenspan, Colin Powell, Ted Kennedy, and David Gergen all quietly took their places at the service.
The resulting tributes to Greenfield’s iconoclasm have to be viewed within the narrow bandwidth of debate in establishment Washington. As one of her colleagues puts it, “There was and is this preposterous belief that she ran a liberal operation. You can’t point to much of anything on the editorial page or the Op-Ed page that goes beyond the vaguely gray conservatism of the Washington dinner-party sort. There is no voice on the Op-Ed page that is more than one baby step away from the dotted yellow line down the center of the road.”
Whether through fear or friendship, living or dead, Greenfield inspired tremendous loyalties. Jack Shafer of Slate says she played a Washington game that was her own invention.
“Everybody wanted to be in Meg Greenfield’s inner circle. That was enduring status. She was feared in a way that people didn’t even fear the owners of the paper. She had this kind of head game that trumped everybody around her. She was the absolute queen of the psyche.”
In a city where people frequently brandish tough rhetoric and have nothing to back it up, Greenfield served as a corrective. Plucky and profane in person, mannered and measured in print, she was an artifact of journalism’s better instincts.
Nay to Coverage Thousands took to the streets of Washington last Saturday in opposition to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. They stopped traffic, chanted slogans, and served as a forceful reminder that not everyone in America is impressed by the remote-control effort to stop violence with violence. Hope they had some mighty fine megaphones, because the protest—attended by some 3,000 people, according to the Associated Press—received not a single column inch of play in the Post. The Washington Times published a Page One photo, but little written coverage.
Late for TV Dinner Back when The Sopranos launched on HBO, Post TV columnist Tom Shales did a nice little blurb about the show buried under a deconstruction of Eddie Murphy’s The PJs. The Sopranos went on to become the biggest thing on TV all year, but Shales busied himself chewing through countless execrable miniseries and probably as many bags of Doritos. (The hefty Shales is fond of fat jokes, so my mentioning that he is as big as a C-130 should be viewed as homage and not a personal attack.) Shales missed the only story of the year on television, and now that HBO is doing reruns, he’s finally weighing in. Thanks, Tom, but we have already read that story in every conceivable publishing outlet in the country. Now, you want some salsa with that?
Costly Cut Post National Editor Jackson Diehl is moving with robotic efficiency to improve the bottom line in his department. Weeks after he took over, he unilaterally canceled subscriptions to competitors like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times. He told staffers to hit the Web if they wanted to see what the other guys were doing. And when a few of the publications lingered after they had been defunded, Diehl had them removed on a daily basis, in a Skinnerian effort to help his troops adjust to a bold new reality. “People were going around auctioning off various parts of the paper. I think the business section of the Times was going for $2,” recalls one Nationalista. —David Carr
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