From Meg Greenfield, The Last Word On Washington

When Meg Greenfield died of cancer two years ago, she was keeping a secret. The secret was that since the early 1990s, she had been working on a book--the only one she would ever write. In the last year of her illness, she grew more fiercely determined that the book be finished and published--if necessary, after her death.

Meg wanted her book to convey what she had learned about Washington, D.C., over four decades--as correspondent for the old Reporter magazine, as Washington Post editorial-page editor and as back-page columnist for NEWSWEEK. As Meg's literary executor, I knew about the book, but few others did.

Why did she keep the book so secret? I believe that, having never written a book before, even this outwardly self-assured woman wanted to be able to abort the project, if necessary. More important, from the moment she arrived in Washington in 1961, I think she was determined to preserve an inner chamber of her life that could not be disturbed by the human carnival going on around her.

That is a central theme of "Washington"--how to live at the center of the capital without losing your principles, detachment or individual human qualities. Meg passed that test with flying colors, but her book shows that she always kept the problem at the front of her mind.

One of the book's biggest surprises is Meg's conclusion that, in many ways, Americans are right to hate Washington. She writes that new arrivals in Washington don't intend to become "phonies," but "high politics in the city" rewards them for turning themselves into cartoons of the people they once were: "None of these disguises, with the slipping masks and the unconvincing accents, seems to be doing us in Washington much good with a public whose confidence we crave."

Meg laments that "in my own professional lifetime here, something has happened, causing many Americans to look at Washington and see, as William Blake wrote of other governing figures two centuries ago, 'something Else besides Human Life'." In her imperishable voice, Meg's book now tells us what that something is.


The best way to understand political Washington is to think of high school. In the Senate and House we have "freshmen." They survive initiation rites and put-downs by the big kids. They show deference to the "seniors" while learning the city's protocols and taboos.

Seniors in Congress, the executive branch or the press fight hard to keep their clout. When they lose their jobs, they often hang around Washington, poshly headquartered in an office where they show off their autographed power pictures and work their bursting Rolodexes for more money than they ever earned before--until those Rolodexes become pitifully out of date.

Once within Washington, most people here come to accept its standards and start referring to the rest of America as "out there." This is like the schoolkid's term "the real world." It means where we have to go someday when this is all over, taking "out there" kinds of jobs, becoming just like all the rest.

When my friend Michael Kinsley, now editor of Slate magazine, said he was leaving town to take a job in Seattle, I was startled when people asked him not if he would miss his friends but if he would miss "the buzz." Just as in high school, Washington creatures get wrapped up in the peculiar life of the place and can no longer imagine caring so much about any other. This is often especially true of those pols who spend hours on cable television bleating against the intolerable city.

From time to time, someone who has moved--voluntarily or not--away from the capital will return for a visit and proclaim the unthinkable proposition that "there is life after Washington." People will chuckle and nod. But few can imagine that this could actually be true.

This is just like the high schooler who spent four years wishing to get older and more senior, but who really is secretly afraid to leave. He just wants to go on being a high schooler forever. The difference is that in Washington, many people get that wish.

Political Washington is made up largely of people who had been extremely successful children. I'm not talking about the fabled "inner child" here, but about the "outer child"--the pushy, precocious, overachieving-kid personas of a Newt Gingrich or Jack Kemp.

We don't get many unsuccessful children here. On the contrary, what we tend to get are the hall monitors, teacher's pets, 4-H Club award winners, the Most Likely to Succeed, the most good-looking (but in the way of an old clothing ad). Nevertheless, when these people arrive in Washington, they are shocked to find that some other prize-winning mama's darling is about to overtake them. Washington figures always believe they are on professional probation. They feel driven to establish, every day of their working lives, their basic claim to be where they are. They do this by press leaks, endless self-promotion, grandstanding gestures and subtle, pre-emptive strikes at enemies real, potential and wholly imagined.

This is not the prescription for a grounded, serene life, let alone an ethical one. Professional athletes can at least protect their positions by doing what they get paid to do on the field. But in Washington, people must pretend that the grand and petty struggles for position, which consume so much of their energy, never even happened. A guide to Washington's high-school types:

Once a student-government leader or a high-school sports hero like ex-Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, Head Kids are now organizers of the caucus, chairmen of the committees, folks who know how to mobilize a bunch of peers, play people against each other and get things to happen so that everyone is at least a little happy and they themselves remain in place. This can be done, of course, only with a healthy dose of trimming, dealing and not quite leveling with everybody--think Bill Clinton. But that is accepted, so long as it stays within bounds, since Head Kids are very useful to others. That is their strength.

In government, Head Kids may be wonderfully entertaining rascals who alternately stun and revolt onlookers. Or they may be stupefyingly earnest Boy Scouts, often chosen as leaders in reaction to too long a period of domination by one of the governing rascals who has exceeded the accepted limits of subterfuge and deal-cutting and forgotten how much his authority rests on the tacit consent of the gang. His earnest supplanter will have won support by promising open meetings, first-come, first-served consideration and favors by lot, instead of the autocratic manipulations of which people have grown tired.

Both kinds of leader will generally have been rising to the top of their particular heap in this fashion since youth. You know them. In Washington, they personify the cyclical swings back and forth from reform to restoration, from disgust with the system to disappointment with the results of an idealistic effort to purify it. But whether rascally or self-righteous, these will be people familiar in every community: born to mobilize the group and lead it, successful at this (and aware of it) since the age of 6.

You may take it as a rule of thumb that the children who came to Washington are usually not the ones who put the cat in the dryer, but the ones who--like Richard Nixon--tattled. They are the ones in whom the parents reposed special pride and who gave them many a beaming hour in the school auditorium. Sometimes this is the almost insufferably rectitudinous child, like an Al Gore or Janet Reno, the kind that parents hold up before their errant offspring with sentences that begin, "Why can't you be more like..."

Others established their childhood reputations for special moral worthiness against the backdrop of that entirely different sibling who slept in the next bed--the defiant player- around, breaker of rules and flunker-out, who, though often the more charming of the two, was always either in trouble or just about to be.

Consider the astonishing number of exhibitionists, rogues and ne'er-do-wells who have turned up in the exalted role of First Brother, for instance--Sam Houston Johnson, Donald Nixon, Billy Carter and Roger Clinton. Right along with their willingness to exploit their presidential brother's status, many have betrayed a smirking disdain for Mr. Goody Two-Shoes and a self-centered indifference to whether or not they caused him embarrassment with their kited checks and turbulent nights spent drying out in the local jail.

I recognize the type because I grew up the classic example of the Good Child--a second-born sibling who got her rewards for being good at what parents want you to be good at, a little wiser and bookier than the rest of the crowd in the sandbox, nothing if not reliable, sometimes seeming to have been 50 years old at birth.

The Good Child, like an obedient dog, gets her kicks from the appreciative pat on the head or the marveling glance exchanged between adult admirers, which seems to say, "Isn't she something!" For years, I saw myself as the special young one, well beyond the time when "young" was a realistic description. This was my inner understanding of my role--even into the days when new White House aides (incomprehensibly, to me) began addressing me as "ma'am." Although they were half my age, I still somehow thought of them as older people who needed to be impressed by my diligence and precocity.

Proteges come to Washington with reputations as awesome homework-doers who, at least until very recent times, did not mind accepting a long period of apprenticeship. Like Walter Mondale when he was Protege to Hubert Humphrey, they soon acquire the same kind of limited but special responsibility from their political seniors that once was conferred on them by parents and teachers.

Many Proteges remain big-hitters-in-waiting for most of their careers. Although it doesn't sound that way, this can be enviable. The very juniorness and sense of only "becoming," as distinct from already being a formally installed leader, leaves such select people gloriously free of blame for the things that go wrong, while at the same time investing them with much borrowed authority as people known to be agents of those really running the show. A few Proteges in Washington kept the role into advancing age not just because their patrons perversely refused to die or retire, but because they actually liked it.

The Protege must be able to offer his benefactor two assurances. First, he must be able to show that he has a mind of his own, and that he will thus be perceived as a legitimate representative of his generation, not just some stooge of his elders. Then, too, he must show that he has no intention of going out and blowing up the power station tomorrow morning, since he aspires to inherit the thing intact. This is how Tom Foley climbed the ladder to become speaker of the House.

Though some Proteges--Ted Kennedy, for example--become respected leaders, elevation to high office is often the death knell for them, an anticlimax and disappointment, a kind of long, slow hissing of the air out of the tires. For years, their M.O. has been to protect the boss and appease contemporaries by saying how much can be extracted from the boss. With that prop gone, the newly elevated figure is expected to act boldly, direct, deliver, have the brass to himself utter the decisive words "yes" or "no"--not to negotiate, Moses-like, with God for limited concessions.

This is Washington's equivalent of those 13-year-olds you read about who graduate from MIT or the freaky toddler violinist who stands right up there in short pants or puffed sleeves and knocks them dead in Carnegie Hall--or, in Bill Bradley's case, on the basketball court. The Prodigy is a special type of Protege, known for being the "real brains" behind the boss, the one you "really ought to talk to."

The archetype is David Stockman, the boyish-looking man whom an awestruck Ronald Reagan put in charge of the Office of Management and Budget in 1981. Later, when Stockman talked too much to reporter William Greider, enhancing himself at Reagan's expense, the president spoke of taking Stockman "to the woodshed." The woodshed! You can't imagine Reagan's using those words to describe his anger at other cabinet members. The whack-on-the-bottom, naughty-kid language is as oddly forgiving as it is patronizing.

While everyone else in town is saying it's a damn shame that a Prodigy isn't running the show instead of Madame or Mr. Secretary, the Prodigy will be protesting that this is grossly unfair, telling you (voice rising slightly) how underappreciated the boss really is, swearing his devotion to the revered person whom he can't quite seem to help showing up on a regular basis with his discreet, not-for-attribution policy musings.

Some Prodigies are obviously into low-grade treachery, inflating their own reputations at the boss's expense, all the while assuming the choirboy pose of humility. Others are genuine straight arrows.

Prodigies, no matter how old they grow in office or out, almost never cease to be their youthful, intellectually bratty selves in the Washington imagination. Many are destined to be forever marked as grown-up child stars, political Norma Desmonds--known to the public and their colleagues mainly for their stints as legendarily gifted junior advisers. They suffer the fate of the late Robert Maynard Hutchins, who, as a preternaturally young man, made over the University of Chicago and was tagged ever after with the dreadful epithet of "aging boy wonder."

When used as a compliment, this term refers to those in Washington who habitually think for themselves. The late Oregon senator Wayne Morse --Republican, then Democrat, then, as Democrat, early absolute nemesis of Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam--was the nearest thing to a pure Maverick in my time.

But there aren't many real ones. The term Maverick is more often applied to people who defy their party on a single, hobbyhorse issue, while going along with tomfoolery on almost everything else. For some it's an impersonation, a Washington affec-tation of cranky, down-home candor by people who are really something else. "I'm just an ole cracker-barrel county judge," their manner says, or maybe a "plainspoken cowboy" from the West, "and I just tell the truth as I see it. Cain't help it, I s'pose." Odds are that, like Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, in his coonskin cap, they have a degree from Yale Law School.

Not all that long ago, the word "image," when used to describe a politician's effort to impress, was regularly imprisoned in a cage of disparaging quotation marks. What we were implying was that there was something discreditable about such concern and that there was, in reality, no such thing as image anyway. It was a falsity, a will-'o-the-wisp, a no-good concoction, intended to deceive.

But many contemporary Washington public figures often begin to forget who they were when they came to the capital. The new self overtakes the actual one, speaking in stultifying prose on occasions that used to be personal and for kidding around. The Image-Maker behaves in informal gatherings as if he is on camera in an open hearing. He addresses us at the grocery store as if he were orating at the United Nations. One of the most frequently uttered prescriptions one hears for a politically happy life in Washington is, "I never say anything I wouldn't want to see in the papers tomorrow morning." Think of it: self-installed monitors continually at work in the brain. What a way to live!

This is the class act in Washington. I don't mean the lone wolf or the person who strikes holier-than-thou poses. I mean the presidential appointees, legislators and civil servants who manage to be effective at what they do here while retaining the natural identities they brought to town. The Defier is not innocent of maneuvering. This is, after all, politics. I mean simply people of unusual temperament and decency who know where the lines have to be drawn and who remain untempted by the eternally beckoning trapdoors of Washington life.

Nancy Landon Kassebaum, former Republican senator from Kansas, is a straightforward woman of catholic interests, humor and no pretension. Here is my test for identifying such people: take some shameless, demagogic political speech you have heard, and see if you can imagine a particular public figure giving it. You will be surprised how many of those you really admire could plausibly deliver the awful thing (and afterward explain why they had to do it and how it will really help the right case in the end because it will let them be more effective in future fights).

There have been plenty of often unsung Defiers in Washington. But the intensified pressures of public life probably mean that, sadly, there will be fewer and fewer with the passage of time.

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