The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I’ve never known a better editor than Fred Hiatt — or a better person

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, center, chats with Donald Graham, left, and Fred Hiatt, right, during a visit to The Post in September 2012. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

Donald Graham was publisher of The Post from 1979 to 2000 and served as chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Co. until 2013.

If you are reading this in the Opinion section of the online Washington Post or, in an old-fashioned way, in a printed newspaper, you are reading in a place crucially shaped for the last 22 years by one great editor, Fred Hiatt, who died on Monday.

He was no ordinary editor and no ordinary man. In the printed Post, three words have appeared on the masthead of the editorial page at least for the last 75 years: “AN INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER.” Fred personified that independence.

He learned early in his time on the editorial board that to be independent is to be unpopular. Folks in D.C. — not only today but years ago — don’t want independence. They want unwavering support. Fred’s editorial page had very strong values, but I couldn’t predict where they would lead him.

Most readers knew little of Fred. But he thought often about you. One simple example: I never saw him on television. He thought television was a difficult place to express a nuanced view, and most of his views were nuanced. He also thought that giving you the best opinion pages he could was a full-time job. Old-fashioned in some ways, Fred did not build his personal brand.

I haven’t worked at The Post for the past eight years, but worked with Fred for the previous 32. He joined The Post when his previous employer, The Washington Star, went out of business. He’d been a reporter at the Star; his fiancee, the glorious Margaret (Pooh) Shapiro, was a Metro reporter at The Post. There’s some thought that they deferred getting married until Fred too could be hired by The Post; we had a firm rule against hiring relatives. If The Post was manipulated, in this rare case I bless the manipulators.

After the death of Meg Greenfield and the retirement of Stephen Rosenfeld, I chose Fred for his job in 2000. As Katharine Graham had told me, appointments often bring surprises, sometimes unpleasant. I knew Fred would be good; I was amazed by the result.

His two great virtues as editorial page editor were somewhat opposed to each other. When a new issue arose, he wanted to learn about it, read about it, hear from people on all sides. When the paper took a stand, he was generous in acknowledging the arguments against that position.

But when he concluded there really wasn’t another side — when, for example, it was a matter of dictators and autocrats acting viciously toward journalists and dissidents — Fred knew what was right and said so, loudly and unequivocally. He and his great colleague, Jackson Diehl, were the scourges of every such evil ruler. It mattered.

It may seem that even the strongest words said on behalf of those dissidents could make no difference. Sometimes this was so. But I fielded many telephone calls and requests for meetings from desperate ambassadors, who knew the damage Fred was doing to their ruler’s reputation in D.C.

In 2018, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia tried to explain (absurdly) that Jamal Khashoggi had been killed during a scuffle with a security team, a kidnapping gone awry in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey. Fred’s column began and ended with similar words: “Why bring a bonesaw to a kidnapping, Your Highness?” One member of that “security team” had brought along such an implement, and used it to dismember their victim.

Fred was an early, unsparing critic of the government of China, recognizing what its rulers had done for their people economically, but also recognizing the cost in dissidents, journalists and minorities treated dreadfully.

He hired a great staff. I asked some of them on Monday what made him so special: “Absolute commitment to a set of ideals.” “The best judgment of anyone I ever knew.” “There are a lot of people who are smart; there are fewer who can talk to anyone. Fred was as smart as anyone I know, and kinder.”

I should add that Fred’s editorial page endorsed — vigorously endorsed — the war in Iraq in 2003. As publisher, I was 100 percent behind him. Fred wrote at length about that decision years later. The war worked out very, very badly for our country and Iraq. I would paraphrase the Economist (which took the same side) and say: “If we had known more, we might have done better.” And I think Fred’s views — our views — deserve the ringing condemnation of everyone who has never been wrong on an important occasion.

I said that Fred was sometimes old-fashioned. He believed in the oldest rules of journalism: accuracy, fairness, respect for what the other person has to say. When he started as editor, The Post printed columns by two great conservatives, George Will and Charles Krauthammer. When both of them were appalled by Donald Trump’s nomination and turned against him, Fred quickly enlisted three columnists who wrote (in my view) intelligently in support of Trump (all three then felt he disgraced himself by refusing to concede).

Today, in this space, you can read opinions from everyone from Marc Thiessen to Katrina vanden Heuvel. In this space, and where else?

It was my incredible good fortune to work with some of the best editors in American newspapers, starting with the aforementioned Greenfield, Ben Bradlee and Leonard Downie Jr. I knew most of their great contemporaries on other papers. I never knew a better editor than Fred Hiatt, nor a better person.

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