Post Editor, Newsweek Columnist Meg Greenfield Dies
By J.Y. Smith
An astute and principled observer, Greenfield spent her professional life writing about the events that shaped the second half of the 20th century. She brought to the task a rigorous intellect, a broad insight into the human condition and a conviction that life is not as simple as one would like. She distrusted shortcuts and the idea that it is always possible to reconcile differing points of view. In her world, there were losers as well as winners.
Most of all, Greenfield loved irony -- the disjunction between reality and appearance in this or that bit of the day's news. Nothing pleased her more than pointing out the difference between what actually happened or was proposed in a given situation and the spin with which one interested party or another might describe it. She conveyed her findings to readers with gusto and a fine eye for detail and character.
For more than 30 years, Greenfield helped shape The Post's views on issues ranging from war and peace to home rule for the District of Columbia and the proclivity of some drivers to run red lights. Katharine Graham, a former chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co. and one of Greenfield's closest friends, described her as "independent and uninfluenced by trends or molds. Her judgment is very dispassionate."
Topics that particularly interested Greenfield included nuclear strategy, military preparedness, politics and civil rights.
In a statement issued at the White House, President Clinton said, "Hillary and I were deeply saddened to learn of" her death. "In her work for The Washington Post and Newsweek," the president said, "Meg perfected the art of the newspaper column. Her essays were invariably tightly reasoned, forcefully stated and deeply felt. She called on those who work in government to pursue far-sighted public policy and bipartisan solutions. Her voice of eloquence and reason will be sorely missed."
Although she played one of the defining roles in the Washington drama in which the protagonists are the government and the media, Greenfield was an intensely private person. She avoided the television appearances and interviews by which many of her colleagues were known and limited herself to perhaps three appearances a year, usually in university settings. She disliked talking about herself and believed her job was to understand and record the news, not make it.
A Perfectionist Editor
Greenfield joined The Post as an editorial writer in 1968 and was named deputy editor of the editorial page in 1969. In 1978, she won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for pieces about international affairs, civil rights and the press. She became editor of the editorial page in 1979.
In 1974, she began a biweekly column in Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post Co. It dealt primarily with Washington life, a subject that, "contrary to widespread belief," she explained, "does not exclude everything human."
Her work was full of the context and underlying texture of events. She was interested in precedent as well as where an issue would go next. She had a knack for finding the nub of complicated situations. She loved argument and continued a tradition under which Post editorials avoided hortatory calls to action in favor of making points by marshaling facts.
The Post's editorial board represents the publisher, Donald E. Graham, in matters of opinion. It is entirely separate from the news department, whose function is reporting on events rather than commenting on them. In practice, the distinction is sometimes blurred, but The Post's view is that readers should be able to tell at a glance whether they are reading fact or opinion. To this end, the news and editorial staffs at the newspaper are organized into entirely separate hierarchies. Greenfield dominated the editorial function in the same way that Leonard Downie Jr., the executive editor, or Benjamin C. Bradlee, his predecessor, have dominated the news side.
She described the editorial board as a collective tending to middle age and having "the sensibility of 1950s liberals." By that, she meant it was generally conservative on foreign policy and national defense and generally liberal on social issues. She noted that liberals frequently said the paper was too conservative while conservatives at one time called it an arm of the Communist Party.
One of Greenfield's most important tasks took place entirely out of public view. This was presiding over the daily meeting at which the next day's editorials are thrashed out. A small but commanding figure (she was 5-foot-1) at the head of a long table, she was gracious, witty, skeptical and given to the Socratic model of analysis by question. Although she said the process was give-and-take among "intelligent and forgiving friends," it was not really democratic.
She always had the final word.
"People ask questions that tell me they presume something much more exotic, and often sinister, than it is," she told an interviewer. "I don't think it's sinister at all. We try to keep -- without much success -- a certain amount of discretion, because . . . I don't know, Washington being Washington . . . you hear, 'Well, they said this, but the only reason they said this was that she hates that one and the other hates this, and this one lost the argument and the other one wept,' and so on. And all this stuff is almost invariably completely wrong."
The board's decisions were confidential and sometimes, as in the case of endorsing presidential or other political candidates, were guarded with great care until they were published.
Besides editorials, Greenfield was responsible for the letters to the editor; the op-ed page; the "Free for All" page on Saturdays, which carries letters from readers; and the "Close to Home" page on Sundays, which carries longer local pieces by readers.
As her staff could attest, she was a perfectionist and a ferociously hard worker. Nothing got on her pages without her approval. When she traveled, she would have material faxed or read to her over the telephone. She once called in changes from Saudi Arabia. The only exception to her sway was Herblock, the cartoonist, who is regarded at The Post as a kind of force of nature. He reports to no one.
Greenfield was always on the lookout for interesting new writers. Among those she brought to the op-ed page were the columnists George Will, whom she encouraged to abandon academia for a career in journalism, and Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist turned commentator.
Will recalled in a column how he had once telephoned Greenfield to say he couldn't get to the matters of state he usually wrote about because he had to baby-sit. She told him to write about what it was like to stay home from work and care for a child. The resulting piece drew a wide response from readers.
The Power of the Pen
Although the influence of Post editorials is hard to gauge at any given time, it has been a factor in some local elections. Local politics also illustrate the editorial board's willingness to change its mind about candidates and issues.
In 1978, for example, The Post backed Marion Barry, a council member and former civil rights leader, for mayor over the incumbent, Walter E. Washington, who had previously had the paper's support. The endorsement followed meetings between the editorial board and each candidate and a review of records, positions, qualifications and other material. Barry won handily.
The Post also endorsed Barry in 1982 and 1986 with decreasing levels of enthusiasm. By 1988, the editorial page was deploring his "propensity for scandal" and "huge capacity for self-indulgence," characteristics which it said tarnished "the accomplishments of those serious government workers and political appointees who have labored to make the city work."
In 1990, Barry was convicted of a misdemeanor drug violation and sentenced to six months in federal prison. In that year, The Post gave its mayoral endorsement to Sharon Pratt Dixon (she later became Sharon Pratt Kelly), a power company executive who was a newcomer to politics, and she won. Four years later, the paper backed Carol Schwartz, a Republican, in the mayor's race. She lost to Barry, who returned to the mayor's office that year. Barry had been elected to the D.C. Council in 1992.
Greenfield described the extent of The Post's influence in these terms:
"What we tend to notice here is the great number of wise suggestions we make that are rejected at the polls, and in the agencies, and in the U.S. Congress, and in the District school board, and if there's someplace I've left out, remind me -- so that we don't feel the Republic or the environs are in any terrific danger of being [controlled] by the Washington Post editorial page. Much as we try."
On the other hand, she said, "this is a town where people like to say to you, 'I never read editorials,' and then complain in minute detail about one that was in yesterday. This is a town where opinions are in conflict, at war in various ways."
The hazard of editorial writing, she once wrote, is complacency.
"There is a little Mussolini in every editorial writer," she said. "Pompous, meddlesome, pretentious, a figure of fun to everyone but himself . . . issuing grandiose orders that have no effect on anything at all . . . to which an ungrateful nation will reply, 'Oh, knock it off.' "
Greenfield was born in Seattle on Dec. 27, 1930. Her parents were Lewis James Greenfield and Lorraine Nathan Greenfield. Her father ran an antique furniture business. Her mother died when she was 12. She majored in English at Smith College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude in 1952. She then spent a year at Cambridge University studying the poetry of William Blake on a Fulbright Scholarship.
In the 1956 presidential election, she was director of research for the New York committee of Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic candidate. The following year, she joined the Reporter, a magazine of political commentary. She was assigned to its Washington bureau in 1961, and in 1965 she was named Washington editor. She stayed in that job until the Reporter ceased publication in 1968 and The Post hired her.
Making her way in a male-dominated industry was largely a matter of "accidents and non-decisions," she said. She described herself as a wobbly spear-carrier in the feminist march. "I was an English major who couldn't decide what to do," she told an interviewer. "I wasn't trying to strike a blow for sisterhood." Although she supported "what's serious about the [feminist] movement," she resisted suggestions that there is a woman's perspective on general issues.
"For example," she told Shop Talk, the Post employees' publication, "the women in the House of Representatives reflect the whole political spectrum, and my own opinion is often at variance with the female politicians."
Greenfield was equally wary of political correctness. She detested the term "Ms." and preferred to be called Miss Greenfield. She once gave an address in Seattle decrying speech codes and calling on her audience to "fight like tigers against government attempts to substitute its judgment for ours." She added, however, that she regretted opposing efforts in Maryland to outlaw the word "fatso." (She worried about her weight.)
Nothing disturbed her more than suggestions that The Post was open to the blandishments of Washington's vast and well-heeled public relations industry. In 1982, she sent a memo, which was later widely quoted outside The Post, to Bradlee, the executive editor, complaining that PR firms "seem to be promising, among other promises, that they can get The Post to 'help' " their clients.
"The reason for saying no to these wolves is plain and very strong," she continued. "Why should we be in their goddam memo traffic as exploitable or exploited 'resources'? Why should we be in their campaign plans as something 'deliverable' by their various agents who can 'reach' us?"
Her solution was to proclaim what she called "the irrational Greenfield rule." This stated that the editorial staff would not accept any manuscript or interview request that came from a "flack firm." It proved unworkable and soon lapsed.
Ethics and Responsibility
Over the years, Greenfield frequently made working trips with Katharine Graham, and in the course of their travels, they had meetings with a number of world leaders. In 1988, with other Post and Newsweek staff members, Greenfield and Graham interviewed former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.
In 1986, Greenfield published a piece describing her observation that humdrum, ordinary life goes on even under extremely repressive regimes. "You don't encounter absolute rule," she wrote, "and it is the fault of a kind of Achtung delusion that you even expect it. For nobody and no group, not even the driven, arrogant Chinese government, can entirely control a nation's life."
Some of Greenfield's most powerful writing concerned ethics and how people respond to life's various imperatives. This was the subject of her first Newsweek column, which dealt with the disgrace of Spiro T. Agnew. The Maryland governor, he became vice president under Richard M. Nixon and a leading administration spokesman against all forms of wrongdoing. He resigned from office after an extensive federal investigation into allegations of bribery and extortion.
The question Greenfield raised was whether he and his like ever were aware of their own duplicity and hypocrisy. "Was it like being a double agent?" she asked. "Do you offer yourself a great crooked wink in the mirror every morning?
"I think not. My speculation is that Mr. Agnew and the other lapsed preachers of our public life didn't make the connection -- didn't make the connection between their own crimes and those committed by other, 'lesser' people."
In a column in 1989, she wondered whether the decline of civility and the growing number of false and unproved accusations in politics weren't dulling the nation's ability to react to real scandal.
"All day long around here, we . . . go around implying that the other fellow is lying, trimming, gouging, feathering his nest, murdering the innocent and otherwise violating everything that upright people hold dear. The effect of this constant play is that we lose the ability to recognize a genuine moral dereliction when we see one."
In a 1998 column, she wrote about public and private behavior and President Clinton's sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica S. Lewinsky.
"What is real," she said, "and what we have been trying so hard to avoid all these months, is the one overarching question that we keep raising in our arguments and then fleeing because it is so complex and hard: What is the proper relationship of a public figure's personal behavior and private life to his conduct of public business?
"It is a very large part of politics to try to get these relationships right, to rationalize them in a human and practical way to the extent we can -- to know where the lines should be drawn and to draw them. People say we should do this for our children. We should do this for ourselves, for our own self-respect."
At the very least, she said, Clinton should be forthright in taking responsibility for his actions.
In private life, Greenfield had a wide acquaintance in Washington and elsewhere. She loved parties. She was responsible for introducing Warren E. Buffett, the noted investor, to Bill Gates, the founder and head of Microsoft Corp. Buffett was a guest at the house she built on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, and she took him to a party given by Gates's mother, an old friend.
Greenfield described herself as a "passionate, failed gardener." She was a former volunteer at St. Ann's Infant Home in Hyattsville. She swam at Georgetown University and studied Latin for fun. Sometimes she and Katharine Graham would sneak out of the office and go to a movie.
"I read, I fall asleep," she told the Washington Journalism Review. "I realize as I read the newspaper that I lead a really dull life. I gotta tell you I just read in The Washingtonian about a book that's coming out that says Mamie Eisenhower and Buster Keaton were having an affair. These things always make me think, God, you know, I just thought everybody went home and read magazines."
Greenfield was a past co-chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, and she was a member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. She held honorary degrees from Smith College, Williams College, Georgetown University, Wesleyan University and Princeton University.
She leaves no immediate survivors.
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