The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fred Hiatt led with wisdom, wit and a transfixing whisper

Fred Hiatt, who died on Monday, led The Washington Post's editorial page for 22 years. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Among his many gifts, Fred Hiatt had a keen eye for young writers. Because they are young, his many discoveries must be forgiven for thinking that Fred was the greatest mumbler in Washington Post history.

That title retired along with Walter Pincus, an invaluable national security reporter who would have had twice as many scoops in his illustrious career if his editors had known what he was saying. Pincus asked me to lunch years ago when I was writing about the suicide of an important White House figure, and only as the check came did I realize he was telling me that he was the man’s close acquaintance and played tennis with him shortly before his death.

But runner-up is an achievement. Fred — who died on Dec. 6 at the height of his powers as the best opinion section editor in American journalism — was a master of the strategic mumble. The more important the information he had to impart, the fainter his voice became. With something really big, he would whisper two or three words, then flinch as if saying so much had been painful, then complete his thought after a pause without moving his lips or tongue, which is not as easy as I make it sound.

The effect was magical. What chocolate is to Hershey, Pa., words are to Washington, D.C. Yet Fred’s whispery mumble made his words individually precious, like the feathery footprint of a Pleistocene huntsman on a windswept piece of stone. “Lean in” has become a cliche, but in Fred’s company it was Position A. He literally had you half out of your chair, hanging not on his words, but on breaths that might be words.

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They never disappointed. In breadth of knowledge, Fred was an encyclopedia. In laser insight, he was a philosopher. His wit was sharp and dry as James Bond’s martini. As to his judgment, I have no figure of speech. I’ve never met anyone with better judgment than Fred.

His critics say he misjudged the Iraq War. He came to agree. Actually, what he might have misjudged was the team that authored the war, whose failure to plan for a post-invasion government remains shocking nearly 20 years later.

Apart from that, where do his critics depart from his judgments, exactly? They don’t say that Saddam Hussein wasn’t a tyrant. They don’t say Saddam Hussein wasn’t routinely shooting at the allied planes assigned to keep a safe space between him and his threatened neighbors. They don’t say that Saddam Hussein wasn’t playing chicken with the West, pretending to have weapons he did not actually have. Hussein was better positioned to prevent that war than Fred was.

Fred’s prominent critics on this judgment are a stopped-clock caucus. Their dial was frozen in opposition — to the administration, to American power, to military force — and like all stopped clocks, a moment arrived when they were right.

Which brings me to something else about my friend and boss.

Many readers assume that the job of an editor is to dictate outcomes. Help one team. Hurt the other. The rise of cable television and online platforms that embrace this model has fortified the image.

As editor of The Post’s opinion journalism for 22 years, Fred was the opposite of the stopped-clock caucus. He questioned everything, starting with himself, and valued all candid voices. He understood that the roomiest space in journalism today is the frontier of fair play. Intelligent people grow tired of having their own ideas recirculated to them like airplane air, steadily depleted of oxygen. Fred had faith that a marketplace of ideas will fill with customers.

He died while building that marketplace. The cloister of a dozen monkish editorial staffers he inherited from his brilliant predecessor, Meg Greenfield, grew to more than 80 multimedia thinkers by the time of his death. He did not seek like minds — which was good because his was a unique mixture of firepower and humility. He sought honest minds. Because I live in the middle of the United States, a region where Donald Trump voters are, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln, “as plenty as blackberries,” Fred’s whispery urgings to me usually involved his constant search for voices open to the former president’s appeal.

Even as Trump smashed the dishes in America’s conservative kitchen, alienating one writer after another, Fred doggedly persisted in looking for interpreters and explainers who were neither paranoid nor grifting. Trump, with his knack for spawning odious imitators, made that a tough job. But the monotony of Trump critics made Fred uncomfortable.

Fred Hiatt was a man of high standards that he applied foremost to himself. He was a champion of the oppressed, a clarion of freedom. I will miss his winsome mumble, which somehow echoes in my mind. Even more, I will miss the bell-like clarity of his example.