Meg's Potent Measuredness

Meg Greenfield said that one thing she especially liked about her friend Daniel Bell, the distinguished sociologist, was that he was so smart he made her feel like a dumb blonde. Well, Bell is very intelligent, but not that intelligent. Nobody is, ever was or could be.

Meg, who died at 68 last Thursday of cancer, was not a blonde. She was very intelligent and, what is different and more important, she was wise. In a Washington chock full of clever ninnies from tony schools, Meg was the real article--a public intellectual. Time was, New York was the magnet that drew such people. Meg's 1961 move from Manhattan to Washington markedly increased the thoughtfulness of the nation's capital.

Indeed, discerning cultural historians will one day recognize that Meg's move was a significant episode in the making of modern Washington, and in the diminution of New York City as the center of the nation's political gravity. It was not so long ago, as eras in the lives of nations are reckoned, that Washington was physically, and in its mental makeup, a small town. As John Kennedy famously said, it was a place of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.

Some say that Kennedy's glitter was decisive in the transformation of Washington into a great world capital. Some of us think the crucial ingredient in the transformation was the Greenfield Effect. It was the result of her potent measuredness, which by its gentle tug affected everyone in her orbit by making them more judicious.

I first read Meg when I was a high school student in Champaign, Ill., and a reader of The Reporter magazine, for which Meg wrote. The magazine was edited by Max Ascoli, a European emigre who infused his publication with his liberalism and his anti-communism. That was a mixture that made Truman-Acheson liberalism heroic in the years when the United States put in place the policy of containment of communism. However, that mixture doomed The Reporter when the Vietnam War caused many liberals to embrace anti-anti-communism and become ex-subscribers.

Anyway, I remember reading Meg's report on some controversial welfare policies adopted by the town of Newburgh, N.Y. I have not the foggiest memory of the details--I vaguely recall that conservatives were enthralled and liberals were appalled by what Newburgh was doing. Meg was neither, and her essay caused, for me, an epiphany: this is what it looks like when judicious intelligence is brought to bear on complex questions of policy.

I first met Meg in May 1972 when she was deputy editor of The Washington Post's editorial page--she would become editor of that page in 1979--and I was a 30-year-old staffer for a U.S. senator. We both were invited to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to participate in yet another conference on the uneasy relationship between politicians and the press. (How long ago was 1972, measured in political time? Among the conference participants was Robert Novak, who was then considered, not without reason, a liberal.) During the course of the conference Meg turned to the person seated next to her and inquired, "Who is that smart aleck at the end of the table?"

She was told that I was soon to leave the senator's staff to become Washington editor of William F. Buckley's National Review. Before we all returned to Washington, she suggested that I submit some columns to the Post. Back then, liberalism was ascendant, not to say hegemonic, in Washington, and the Post's editorial page was considered, especially by conservatives, as liberalism's gold standard. It is a measure of Meg's personal generosity and intellectual self-confidence that she often went out of her way to help people, such as me, with whom her political disagreements were many and occasionally robust.

For years Meg and I and columnist Charles Krauthammer regularly met on Saturdays for lunch and conversation with a guest, usually someone newsworthy. We met at a greasy spoon on upper Connecticut Avenue in Washington. The name, Chevy Chase Lounge, was decidedly more upscale than the place. Meg's favorite moment--how she savored such scenes from Washington's version of the human comedy--was when a guest, a senator once considered a presidential prospect, asked the waitress if the tuna was fresh. The waitress said, sure it was. She meant the can had just been opened.

Our little group, which Meg called The Tong, would chow down on tuna melts, french fries and other things not recommended by the American Heart Association. One guest, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, the nation's doctor, washed down a cheeseburger and fries with two martinis, bless his heart.

In such informal settings, the caliber of Meg's mind was revealed in her sparkling conversation. Her witty, mordant and splendidly vinegary observations were informed by broad and eclectic reading. She never allowed her spirit to become, as, say, Henry Adams did, curdled by long exposure to Washington's tawdry and pompous aspects. Washington often illustrates the cyclical theory of history--the theory that life is not one damn thing after another but the same damn thing over and over. Meg read a lot of history, and saw a lot made. She knew that much of what Washington, in its incorrigible self-importance, thinks is important isn't. She also knew what was important, and why.

She never succumbed to the temptation of cynicism, which is Washington's foremost form of self-indulgence. Over the years she gathered around her table many cheerful, public-spirited friends in politics--Hubert Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, Mo Udall, Howard Baker, Pat Moynihan and many, many more. In 1979 she asked a friend whom he favored for the 1980 Republican nomination. Howard Baker, he said. "Yes," Meg said, "he's funny." By funny she meant amusing, not peculiar, and her emphasis on humor was profound.

A truly humorous person has a lively sense of irony, which involves discerning, and not being disconcerted by, life's inevitable incongruities. That is why a sense of humor is crucial to keeping political people, and a political community, on an even keel. Democratic politics involves the businesslike, and usually amicable, splitting of differences that many ardent people consider unsplittable. This process works best when lubricated by humor.

Meg's flavorful irony was first served up to NEWSWEEK readers in the issue dated June 24, 1974, which announced that Meg--a summa cum laude graduate of Smith College, a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge in England--was that week starting a column for the magazine. The notice quoted Meg: "I'll be writing about Washington life, which, contrary to widespread belief, does not exclude everything human." The "everything," with its delicate hint of drollery, was a Greenfieldian touch that readers would come to savor.

In June 1974 two years had passed since the Watergate break-in, two years of stonewalling which one of Nixon's people called the "limited-hangout route." By June 1974 the transcripts of the Nixon tapes had been published. His presidency had about seven weeks remaining as Meg's first column, entitled "The Unlimited-Sanctimony Route," began:

"It's not as if nobody told us. Shakespeare told us and Dickens told us and Mark Twain and Will Rogers and Sinclair Lewis told us." They told us to beware of people who are both self-righteous and unforgiving of others--"The brief and gruesome career of Mr. Agnew in national politics tells the story." Nixonians have filled the air with "moral bugle music" while making no connection between their own bad behavior and their condemnation of other, "lesser" people.

Meg, marveling at "the moral turnaround time" of Washington miscreants, imagined this bulletin: " 'St. Augustine will be autographing copies of his new book, "The Confessions," at the Shoreham Hotel between 3 and 5 tomorrow; he also will be a guest on the "Today" show'." The Nixon and Clinton administrations were the bookends of Meg's NEWSWEEK years. She deserved better subjects, but NEWSWEEK readers deserved her as a guide through the wreckage.

It is not easy anywhere, and least of all in Washington, to be, as Meg was, likable and logical. Intellectual rigor annoys people because it interferes with the pleasure they derive from allowing their wishes to be the fathers of their thoughts. That failing is common to humankind but is especially prevalent in a company town where the company's business is politics. In places where people make physical things--shoes, steel, bridges--the reality principle exerts some discipline: get things wrong, the shoes pinch, the steel buckles, the bridge falls down. There is rarely such swift, unambiguous refutation of political errors--foolish policies, dumb laws.

Which is why Meg should have been given Secret Service protection simply as testimony to her importance as Washington's one-woman early-warning system for detecting nonsense. Would that there were adequate protection against the disease that took Meg's life.

Longtime readers of NEWSWEEK's back page know the toll that cancer has taken on journalism. Meg came to this page to replace her friend Stuart Alsop, after he lost his long fight with cancer. She, like him, wrote right through the torments of the disease, which include treatments for it. Never, not once, was there evidence of diminished energy or flagging spirit.

For those of us who had, for too short a span, the pleasure--no, the delight--of her company, Washington will never again be quite as fun. NEWSWEEK readers will feel that they have lost a friend who regularly dropped in for a deceptively casual chat that dispersed the fog that often envelops events. And all across the broad Republic there are people who never read Meg but who nevertheless are beneficiaries of the wisdom she patiently, wryly and on rare occasions indignantly injected into the nation's conversation.

Henry Adams said that fine teachers attain a kind of immortality because it is impossible to know when, or if, their influence stops. By her example, Meg taught the craft of political writing to many journalists, and she reassured millions of readers that tough-mindedness and civility are not incompatible in the nation's capital. Her influence radiates.

Join the Discussion