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WASHINGTON.

"Washington IS THE FIRST PIECE of Meg Greenfield's writing that I have ever read from start to finish. Or rather, the first bylined piece of writing; as the longtime editorial page editor of The Washington Post, she must have penned many unsigned editorials that I got through, and probably quite a lot that I admired. Before her untimely death from cancer in 1999, Greenfield was among the most respected figures in Washington journalism, much-praised for her sharp intelligence and much-feared for her ability to shape opinion. Among her many assets was a close friendship with Katharine Graham, the publisher who elevated the Post to the top ranks of American journalism. But the high esteem in which Washington held Greenfield was more than just Machiavellian; as an editor, Greenfield really was capable of shucking respectability and embracing truly creative ideas, the best example being her decision to sign up Village Voice cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty to write "Washingtoon," a seemingly naive but in fact quite canny and subversive sendup of Washington politics that made an enormous hit in the 1980s.

Why, then, was I never able to hurtle my eyeballs through the bylined columns Greenfield wrote for Newsweek and The Washington Post? For several years, I blamed myself. Over time, though, it dawned on me that almost nobody else I knew seemed to be reading her, either, even though I traveled in journalism circles where people tended to read the op-ed pages and talk about what they found there with deep interest. It was one of those great unmentionable facts of Washington life: Meg Greenfield, writer, was a bore.

I'd like to be able to report that the authorial light Greenfield kept decorously hidden under a bushel in life blazes forth in this posthumous volume. But Washington, I'm afraid, is a bore, too. The book sums up Greenfield's views about Washington, and traces her own mental development from a smug Adlai Stevenson liberal to a more mature and inquisitive person capable of empathizing with politicians of various political stripes. That's just the sort of evolution this magazine is always urging on Washington journalists so that they might better understand how and why policymaking goes poorly or well. For Greenfield, though, empathy seems to have been an end in itself. Although as editorial page editor and writer she was no doubt called upon to apply her subtle understanding of Washington anthropology in deciding where the Post should stand on various issues, as a writer--and henceforth, when I refer to "Greenfield," you can assume I mean Greenfield the columnist and author--she seemed content to ruminate about human frailty and folly. To paraphrase Clover Adams' famous (and not entirely fair) put-down of Henry James, Greenfield had a tendency to chew more than she bit off.

Thus, in Washington, the conceit that life amid the political establishment resembles high school, which would seem a serviceable jumping-off place for some more trenchant point, is the point, made at such excruciating length that the reader is finally tempted to disagree with it, if only to achieve traction. Similarly, Greenfield observes that reporters who ceaselessly attack politicians for projecting a phony image become party to the phoniness by taking it too seriously. Her insight could serve as an interesting and mildly provocative way to embark on a lengthy case study of some particular politician whose good works were obscured amid coverage of some minor scandal. Instead, she sticks to the generic, tucking in a few brief, reassuringly familiar Washington anecdotes here and there. Even people long dead--as the "raving drunk" she recalls observing on the Senate floor nearly 40 years ago, in the course of writing about how journalists used to ignore such indiscretions, must be--go unmentioned by name if the incidents remain unknown to the general public.

It's a mystery why a woman who mastered many intricacies of government policy--among other things, she reports, she made herself an expert on nuclear strategy--would shy away from expressing views on them in her own voice. Perhaps her exalted social position in Washington, which was so dependent on her status as the Post's editorial chief, made her fret about asserting an identity of her own. Perhaps her bylined writing was where she channeled whatever insecurity she may have felt as a woman who came up in a man's world. Whatever the reason, Greenfield, who, along with Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, found a voice for The Washington Post, seems, sadly, never to have found one for herself.

TIMOTHY NOAH, a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly, writes the "Chatterbox" column for Slate.com.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Noah, Timothy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:763
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