When a powerful person dies, the memorial tributes generally are dominated by a listing of accomplishments, a recollection of good deeds and fine sayings. At Meg Greenfield's memorial service, there was talk of ninja movies and a bourbon-drinking contest, po'boy pigouts and a 9-year-old girl's neighborhood newsletter, the El-Jo Deluxe.
The opportunity to remember Mary Ellen Greenfield, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post and columnist for Newsweek magazine who died last month, drew more than 500 people to Washington Hebrew Congregation in Northwest yesterday.
Of Greenfield's accomplishments, her childhood friend Joe Greengard said only this: "She always knew what was right."
An editor dies, and people say only what's essential.
"Behind Meg's humor and shimmering intellect was a point where she retreated into herself," Katharine Graham, Greenfield's ultimate boss and one of her closest friends, told the assembled. "There was some sort of lone fortress there into which one didn't intrude."
When Greenfield prepared to write, Graham said, "She seemed to disappear in the flesh and retreat into her mind. At the core, Meg had a rigid sense of what was right and wrong."
Those who knew neither Greenfield nor the editorial pages she ran could and did caricature them both as liberals of a certain period. By virtue of who they are, those who gathered to remember her displayed the more complicated truth: They were Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, academics and celebrities, journalists and their prey.
It was a gathering of the Washington establishment (Howard Baker, Robert Strauss, Lloyd Cutler, Alan Greenspan), the punditocracy (George Will, David Gergen, William Kristol), the Hill (Bill Bradley, Ted Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan), Washington's business and cultural elite (Abe Pollin, James Johnson, James Wolfensohn), celebrities of television (Ted Koppel, Cokie Roberts, Jim Lehrer) and the New York media world (two of the last three editors of the New Yorker, screenwriter Nora Ephron, and Greenfield's direct competitor, New York Times editorial page editor Howell Raines).
There were Cabinet members and White House aides and hundreds of reporters. And some loyal readers, too. They came to remember a woman who was the careful voice of an institution, but who also spoke her mind and spoke it plainly: Just last year, she wrote, "You look around political Washington for a public figure in an important position of power who also has moral authority, and you find none."
As Graham noted, Greenfield "had an acute eye for the pretentious, the phony and the absurd."
The daughter of an antiques dealer whose entertaining auctioneering was carried live on a Seattle radio station, Greenfield traded in serious, measured analysis of the issues of the day, but she also loved to prick the powerful and the pompous.
Colbert King, a Post editorial writer who shared with his boss a passion for bologna sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise, compared Greenfield to football coach Vince Lombardi because she was "sovereign, the warlord, the grand duchess all rolled into one," and to Lucy Ricardo because she could be a bit daffy when it came to daily tasks such as driving or managing a budget.
In matters of technology, for example, Greenfield was "best suited for pre-World War II America." King recalled that while Greenfield's work required her to have computer terminals at the office, at home and at her vacation place, her inability to remember how to log onto the machines led The Post's systems technicians "to reduce her access instructions to simplicity itself--Meg's final password was 'password.' "
Sometimes you learn the good stuff only after someone has gone.
"It was Meg who suggested we cut out of the office in the afternoon every now and then, and go to a movie," said Graham, a woman not generally associated with playing hooky. " 'Just leave,' she advised, 'and no one will know.' "
Graham continued: "It was about this time, too, that we began to see many foreign leaders, both here in Washington and abroad. One day I called Meg and asked her if she wanted to see the French president. There was a pause and then she said: " 'Where's it playing?' "
Behind all that play, there were dreams. Moynihan, a friend for 40 years, portrayed Greenfield singing a hymn she learned at Smith College: "God of Purpose, help us dare/ To make the world more true, more fair."
Even in elementary school, Greenfield "was proper and reserved," Greengard recalled. "Her mother referred to her as a little lady. She was already reflective." She was so serious of purpose that she worked on the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson.
She wasn't one for short sentences or heavy-handed argument or simple solutions. In that way she was old-fashioned, conservative. She believed in character and direction and in making a contribution. But she had enough awareness of herself and the essential silliness of life to write, as Moynihan quoted her, about her post-college urge to " 'contribute,' although what we were going to contribute and to whom was unknown."
Those who wanted to be near her yesterday knew.
King ended his eulogy by recalling a friend's comment that "with this memorial service, you can finally have closure."
"Closure?" King said. "I don't want closure. I want Meg back."
CAPTION: Katharine Graham hugs Ted Koppel after yesterday's service for Meg Greenfield at Washington Hebrew Congregation.