The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fred Hiatt deserves to be remembered long after he is gone

Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, with Deputy Editor Jackson Diehl, speaks at Freedom House's 70th anniversary in 2011, after accepting the organization's Raising Awareness Award. (Freedom House)
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Fred Hiatt has passed away after 66 years, the last third of which he served as our uncommonly wise and humane editor at the Post editorial page. To mourn Fred is to reflect, not just on his magnificent personal qualities, but also on the relationship between his career and the historical moments that shaped it.

Born in 1955, at the height of a seemingly permanent Cold War, Fred would later bear witness to that conflict’s astonishing conclusion, as a Post foreign correspondent covering the Soviet Union’s collapse.

That was 30 years ago this month. The new possibilities for liberty and democracy, which Fred saw as the product of countless and courageous individual efforts, not just of impersonal social forces, inspired his subsequent sense of journalistic mission.

Fred recognized, too, that conscientious political struggle, while necessary for freedom, is not sufficient. It must give way to consolidation; democracy’s victories are short-lived unless embodied in legitimate institutions.

In a well-functioning democracy, trusted gatekeepers — nongovernmental organizations, independent courts, a free press — stand watch at the portals of authority.

As the editor of The Post’s editorial and op-ed pages, Fred became one of those stewards. He controlled the platform on which, it sometimes seemed, every journalist in the world coveted space, and every politician and lobbyist sought influence.

What he did with this power was: not abuse it. He adhered to rules, beginning with those governing the journalistic craft, as he had learned it in the old school, before social media: deliberation, factual accuracy, clear expression.

Anyone willing to abide by those rules was eligible for participation in Fred’s forum. He fervently, unequivocally opposed Donald Trump as a candidate and as president; his editorials in that vein earned him honors as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017. Yet he went out of his way to recruit columnists and contributors who, in his judgment, could express pro-Trump views in good faith. That is how deep his commitment to the cardinal rule of democracy — free discussion — ran.

Only 36 percent of Americans express trust in the media, according to Gallup. If more people really knew how Fred conducted himself, that number would be higher; if more journalists conducted themselves as Fred did, it would be higher still.

At a time when democratic institutions — gatekeepers — of all kinds are losing legitimacy, Fred considered it his duty to uphold The Post’s.

There was only one privileged category among those clamoring for Fred’s time and attention: politically persecuted individuals and groups from every corner of the world.

Under Fred’s leadership, editorials championed human rights in China, Saudi Arabia and other hotspots. Yet they also devoted space to what might otherwise be more obscure cases: Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses; Azeri journalists; Nicaraguan opposition politicians.

Fred insisted on that. “It means something to them when the outside world notices,” he would say. And: “Unless we do it, no one will.” If those pieces didn’t get many clicks, so be it.

He made a point of welcoming little-known human rights campaigners to The Post, especially journalists, not just because he was interested in their stories — often Fred would be the only member of the editorial board to make time for them — but also because he knew that The Post’s attention bolstered their morale.

Inevitably, if infrequently, Fred made misjudgments. When he did, it was no less consequential than the times he got things right — and he took heat for it. That was part of the job.

The important thing about his errors, though, is not whether he made them but how: honestly, having decided an issue on its merits, never on the basis of self-interest, personal or corporate.

If Fred was guilty of anything, overconfidence in democracy might have been it. By the time of his passing, however, he, like so many others, had grown concerned for democracy’s future — not only abroad but also in the United States.

Having perhaps previously taken his own country’s stability for granted, he saw it threatened by authoritarian tendencies — dangerously epitomized, in his view, by Trump — not unlike those faced by his colleagues in other nations.

He was fighting those threats, with every fiber of his being, wielding the noblest instruments of his profession — ideas, truth, fairness, eloquence — when death suddenly came.

“The sea and the earth are unfaithful to their children,” Joseph Conrad wrote, bleakly but all too realistically. “A truth, a faith, a generation of men goes — and is forgotten, and it does not matter! Except, perhaps, to the few of those who believed the truth, confessed the faith — or loved the men.”

Amid the overwhelming flow of historical events, Fred Hiatt lived a life that mattered. He deserves to be remembered, long, long after he is gone.

And he will be, not by a few, but by the many who upheld the same truths, kept the same faith — and loved the man.