Words to Live By

By Linda Kulman,
a Washington-based freelance writer and contributor to U.S. News & World Report
Thursday, November 17, 2005

THE WOMAN AT THE WASHINGTON ZOO

Writings on Politics,

Family, and Fate

By Marjorie Williams

Edited by Timothy Noah

Public Affairs. 365 pp. $26.95

When Washington journalist Marjorie Williams died of liver cancer last January, three days after her 47th birthday, her young family was left the inexpressibly difficult task of figuring out how to move forward. "Amid the many injustices of her loss," writes her husband, Timothy Noah, "one could be righted: She left behind no anthology of her writings." Happily, this collection, edited by Noah, a senior writer at Slate, is the result.

Washington was not only Williams's home but her metier, and she made her reputation through piercing profiles of the town's political fixtures that ran primarily in The Washington Post and Vanity Fair. These pieces, which make up the book's first section, were written chiefly during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and provide something akin to an institutional memory of a bygone time. Her specialty, in Williams's words, was working the "seam between the accepted narrative . . . and the grubby human nature stuff that is nearly always as plain as the nose on your face." In "The Wife," about Barbara Bush, Williams looks behind the former first lady's persona as "America's grandmother . . . a woman so modest that she writes in the voice of a dog," to expose an astutely political spouse, a profile that begins: "Even Barbara Bush's stepmother is afraid of her."

Williams's journalistic gifts include her delicious use of detail, wicked humor and a psychological insight so telling it raises the question of why anyone ever agreed to submit to her scrutiny. In "The Pragmatist," on Richard Darman, she turns the elder Bush's budget director's efforts to stymie the interview process inside out to reveal his character:

"Darman's cooperation for this article will finally end over the question of control. After the house tour . . . Darman is pressed over dinner to proceed with the formal interview he has promised -- sitting down, with the tape recorder running. No, he says, he will only talk 'on background.' . . . We are at an impasse, neither willing to abide by the other's ground rules. For now, a tour of his house is as close as we may get to a tour of his mind.

"The enduring image of the evening will have to be this one: of Darman, unprompted, flinging open the door of a closet to illustrate something he is saying about his marriage -- then quickly instructing me that the closet's contents are off the record, not to be written about.

"Look at me, he says. But do not see."

Yet as fine as Williams's political writing is, it is the least durable of her work for the simple reason that the political tableau is defined by change. Even the footnotes that Noah provides to update the material cannot, in the end, keep it current.

What gives the book its staying power are its second and third sections, "Essays" and "Time and Chance," where Williams turns her dispassionate eye on more personal subjects -- parenting, gender politics and the cancer that killed her. Any woman who has feared drowning in the flotsam of her children's lives can relate to the calculus Williams uses to clean her house, described in "Real Complicated," her critique of the magazine Real Simple: " Real Simple doesn't warn a woman that she is going to have to develop a ruthless system by which to discard nine-tenths of the artwork her children bring home from school. Guerrillas of the Shining Path can't hold a candle to the cold-eyed efficiency of a mom clearing the dining-room table, according to a judicious system that rapidly tabulates beauty, effort, and the likelihood that the artist might ask after it a month from now."

It is the heart-rending "Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir" that best displays Williams's to-the-core candor as she answers the macabre question everyone has probably indulged in: What would you do if you learned you had a short time to live? Though Williams hits on the many levels at which she had to deal -- her doctors' condescension, her treatment, her hope and despair -- what sticks is this: "What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal a life as possible, only with more pancakes."

"The Woman at the Washington Zoo" takes its title from Randall Jarrell's poem by the same name in which a dull bureaucrat contrasts herself with the embassy wives from India in their bright saris and the equally colorful caged animals. But Williams's life was hardly dull, and neither are her observations. In the final essay, "The Halloween of My Dreams," written two months before she died, she describes helping her almost 9-year-old daughter, Alice, dress up as a rock star. Watching Alice leave the house, she writes:

"As her momentum carried her to the top of the stairs, Alice looked back and tossed me a radiant smile. . . . She looked like a teenager. She looked absolutely stunning. . . . As the front door slammed behind her, it came to me -- what fantasy I had finally, easily entered this Halloween.

"I'd just seen Alice leave for her prom, or her first real date. I'd cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I'd played was the fifty-two-year-old mother I will probably never be." If only she had lived to capture the future for the rest of us.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company