When my friend of almost 40 years, Meg Greenfield, the editor of the editorial page of The Washington Post, died of cancer in mid-May, I did not trust myself to write what I was feeling. Meg despised sentimentality, and my emotions were not sufficiently under control.
The tributes to her from other journalists she had worked with and nurtured and loved -- Mary McGrory, George F. Will, Jim Hoagland, Charles Krauthammer among them -- were, as I knew they would be, touching testimony to the loss so many others of us felt.
I was content with their salutes. But as I read the excerpts from Meg's writing that will be part of the program booklet at her memorial service on Tuesday and other pieces I had remembered with particular pleasure and pulled up from The Post's electronic files, it occurred to me there was one additional point to be made.
Meg was a craftsman with words -- and woe betide any fool who had suggested that political correctness dictated "craftsperson." On my last visit, I found her reading a volume of Wordsworth's poems -- a volume annotated with the marginal notes she had written as a student at Smith College and Cambridge University. She chose her words with a poet's care.
But it was the content of her writing -- and her thought -- that needs emphasis. Meg was born in 1930, which meant she had a young person's memories of the Great Depression, of Hitler and World War II, and an adult understanding of the "long twilight struggle" against expansionist communism. She was, in sum, a Cold War liberal, one of the last of her breed in Washington.
That meant she was absolutely clear-eyed about the existence of evil in the world -- and the necessity to combat it. Equally, it inspired her passion for justice. And it made her a strong advocate for the value of government and a defender of those who treated politics as the honorable profession she knew it to be.
Her political hero when I met her was Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, and not just because he represented her home state of Washington. Jackson was a protector of the land and its people, an environmentalist (before we knew the word) and a battler for civil rights at a time when he had almost no minorities among his constituents. But he also was a strong defense advocate and an implacable anti-communist. Most of all, he was a thoroughly decent, upright public servant who trained a long string of others of similar bent, including former house speaker Thomas S. Foley, another of Meg's favorites.
Meg had an eye for talent -- not just in journalists but in politicians as well. She recognized it in people as flamboyant as Pat Moynihan and as reticent as the late Jack Veneman, a conscientious official in the Nixon administration's Department of Health, Education and Welfare. No feminist, she still took special pride in women like Alice Rivlin and Donna Shalala for their integrity.
That quality was her ultimate touchstone. As she wrote in a 1994 Newsweek column included in the memorial program, "character is everything." She despised Richard Nixon and came to distrust Bill Clinton because neither man had character. Nixon, she wrote, is "unwilling . . . to accept the moral responsibility for his actions."
As for Clinton, she declared, a month before the House began impeachment proceedings, "the contest -- the big one -- is over. . . . On the big test, the test of presidential credibility, he's lost."
Equally, she was willing to defy Washington's conventional wisdom to salute integrity when she found it. In an editorial written just before a defeated President Ford left office, she first acknowledged that The Post had underestimated his qualities, then added: "The president who will leave office this week brought precisely the needed temperament, character and virtues to the high office he has temporarily held.
"These qualities are regularly subsumed under the familiar general heading of decency," she wrote, and then she went on to reproach those who treat that quality condescendingly as "something roughly comparable to good posture or punctuality." It is perilous "that decency in the White House can be regarded as a luxury or a bonus or a fringe benefit. . . . It is central."
Meg kept a whole generation of Washington journalists and politicians focused on what was central. Her friends will miss her rollicking humor, her shrewd eye, her talent for being a pal. But there was much more to her than that.
Her 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.