Fred Hiatt, a Washington Post editorial writer whose reporting career has ranged from Fairfax and the Pentagon to Tokyo and Moscow, was named the newspaper's next editorial page editor yesterday.

Publisher Donald E. Graham said that Hiatt, 44, will assume the coveted job in several months upon the retirement of Stephen S. Rosenfeld, the current editorial page editor. Rosenfeld was tapped as an interim successor after the death in May of Meg Greenfield, who ran the editorial and op-ed pages for two decades.

"I'm thrilled," said Hiatt, who will serve as deputy editorial page editor until the transition. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the best job in journalism, a page with a great tradition. I feel very fortunate to have had a few years working with Meg and Steve."

He added: "We want to be a page that everyone in the Washington area turns to in the morning and feels they can find some conversation going on that speaks to them. We could do more writing about Maryland, D.C. and Virginia and the connections in the issues that different jurisdictions are facing--growth and development and tax base and schools. . . . It's not a question of saying, 'Here's Meg's page, how are we going to change it,' because she was always changing it herself."

The appointment passes the baton to a younger generation and marks a major opportunity for Graham, as publisher, to put his long-term stamp on the editorial page, which is independent of the newsroom. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Hiatt has never been prominent on the Georgetown dinner-party circuit, choosing instead a social life that revolved more around his family.

He is far less well known than Greenfield, who wrote a regular Newsweek column and entertained frequently, and some colleagues had been worried that the post might go to a big-name outsider.

"Fred's journalistic values and standards are of the same type as Meg Greenfield's, and that's the best type there is," Graham said in an interview. "Meg hired him onto the editorial page three years ago. Post editorial policy is not going to change."

Asked about the selection process, Graham said that "we looked inside the paper and outside at some length."

A graduate of Harvard University, Hiatt began his reporting career on the Atlanta Journal in 1979. He joined the Washington Star eight months before the newspaper folded in 1981, and was hired by The Post to cover Prince William and Loudoun counties.

After a three-year stint covering military affairs on the paper's national staff, Hiatt in 1987 went to Japan, where he shared bureau chief duties with his wife, Margaret Shapiro, now an editor at the Post Magazine. In 1991, the couple began a similar four-year tour in Russia.

Hiatt was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize this year. He also is the author of three books, a novel called "The Secret Sun" and two children's books, the most recent of which, "Baby Talk," was published in May. He grew up in Brookline, Mass.

While Hiatt has specialized in foreign affairs, which is often the subject of his Sunday column, "he hits to all fields," Rosenfeld said. "He's been a valuable participant in our morning meetings where we try to get a grip on things. . . . He goes after the facts and he frames the issues vigorously. He's got great peripheral vision. In a short period of time, he's grabbed hold of the issues we deal with and written about them forthrightly, stylishly and elegantly."

Just as The Post's editorial page is not as liberal as its reputation, Hiatt's politics are not easily pigeonholed. During President Clinton's impeachment, he assailed "the squalid nature of Clinton's crimes" and criticized him for "perjury" and "lying to the country." But he also chided leading Republicans for "running for cover" in failing to initially support U.S. military action in Kosovo. Hiatt has also weighed in on gun control, saying: "There are too many guns in America, too easily accessible to children."

Hiatt said that the values he feels strongly about include "a commitment to civil liberties; a concern for people on the lowest rung; an interest in race relations; a belief that the United States has a strong role to play overseas, especially in promoting democracy and human rights; a belief in capitalism and the virtues a market economy brings, and the fiscal and regulatory restraint that goes with that." He says he is interested in ideas "whether they are being pushed by Tom DeLay or Tom Harkin," two lawmakers from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Hiatt was considered the favorite of the editorial staff he will now oversee.

"On a personal level, he's wonderfully easy to work with," said Benjamin Wittes, an editorial writer. "He must read very quickly, because he comes in every day with a very comprehensive sense of what's going on at the international, national and local levels."

CAPTION: A native of Massachusetts, Fred Hiatt has been with The Washington Post nearly two decades.