The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fred Hiatt was a bulwark against the culture of contempt

Fred Hiatt in 2011. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

When someone dies suddenly and far too soon, one of the tragedies is never having the chance to tell them what they meant to you. So, I’ll never get to tell Fred Hiatt how deeply I respected him or how he changed my life.

I first met Fred in 1996, when I was a young staffer for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Fred had just joined The Post’s editorial page, and we bonded over our shared love for the freedom movements in Central and Eastern Europe. I was the son of a Polish freedom fighter, and he had just returned from a stint as The Post’s Moscow co-bureau chief, in which he had covered the collapse of Soviet Communism and its aftermath.

He was always genuinely interested in points of view he did not share — and in sharing those points of view with Post readers. At his urging, The Post published op-eds from Helms opposing the creation of the International Criminal Court and the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and supporting the tightening of the Cuban embargo, among many others. These were not reluctantly published pieces; Fred asked Helms to write for The Post. The North Carolina senator was the bête noir of the foreign policy establishment, but Fred felt it was important for readers to hear from him and understand his thinking. In my nearly seven years at the committee, we never once got a similar request from the New York Times.

We kept in touch when I joined the George W. Bush administration. After I left the White House, I published a book defending the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program and penned an op-ed laying out evidence that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had been fully briefed on the techniques but had not objected. I sent it to Fred and his deputy, Jackson Diehl, and asked whether they would consider it for publication. Not only did they agree to run the piece, but Fred also asked me to write a weekly column.

That was Fred’s commitment to diversity of opinion. He didn’t hire me despite my holding heterodox opinions, but because of it. He didn’t agree with me — quite the opposite, he authored passionate editorials condemning the CIA program. But he wanted The Post to publish well-argued opinions from all sides, even opinions with which he vehemently disagreed.

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That commitment took on added importance during the Trump era. Fred authored a searing editorial declaring Donald Trump unfit for the presidency. Yet when Trump was elected, he made sure that The Post’s opinion pages contained columns defending and explaining the president’s policies. I called balls and strikes on Trump — supporting him when he was right, criticizing him when he was wrong. Fred wanted more of that. He soon asked me to write twice a week and brought other conservative columnists on board who were “open” to Trump.

That did not sit well with some of The Post’s left-leaning readership — and boy, did they let him know it. I know my columns kept his inbox full, and it broke my heart that he had to sift through all that bile. But he never flinched — not once. “I do take grief for publishing you!” he told me this year. “But it is grief I’m happy to take.”

It was his unwavering commitment to diversity of opinion that has made The Post’s opinion pages what they are today — an island of reasoned discussion and debate in a sea of ideological conformity. There are few places left in our political discourse where right and left meet anymore. Too many of us live in ideological silos, never exposed to opinions with which we disagree. Fred made sure Post readers were exposed to such opinions. And by publishing a wide range of views, he brought right-leaning readers to The Post’s pages, where they would be exposed to liberal opinions they might not otherwise see.

We are all the better for it. Because if you don’t understand what the other side really believes, you end up tearing down a lot of straw men. And living in ideological cul-de-sacs feeds the polarization and contempt that are tearing apart our political life. Fred was a bulwark against the culture of contempt. He insisted that we talk to one another — and do so with civility.

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Before the pandemic, when we were still able to sit down in person for lunch, I’d always ask him: What could I be doing better? In a decade at The Post, he never once asked me to tone it down, avoid a topic or pull my punches. He always said: Just keep doing what you are doing — advancing important arguments in a forceful but respectful way. I was so looking forward to resuming those lunches in a post-pandemic world. Now I never will.

If I could sit down with Fred just one more time, here’s what I’d tell him: Thank you for trusting me with precious column inches in your incredible opinion pages. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my point of view with those who don’t agree with me. Thank you for all the flak you took on my behalf. Thank you for your unflinching courage. And thank you, most of all, for making this conservative feel so welcome and at home in the Post Opinions family.

R.I.P.

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