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Meg Greenfield’s Washington

April 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The author is Meg Greenfield, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial page winner of the “Washington Post” and a “Newsweek” columnist. The book is “Washington,” a city she began covering as a reporter in 1961. She became one of its most influential women before dying of lung cancer in 1999. Greenfield began writing this book in secrecy in the early 1990′s. Shortly before her death, she asked Presidential historian and NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss to be her literary executor, and to make sure that the book would be published. Michael Beschloss joins me now. Welcome.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us, Meg Greenfield, though she was a “Newsweek” columnist wasn’t exactly a household name nationwide. Tell us a little bit more about her.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, she was this enormously bright, funny, determined, curious woman — came out of Seattle, went to Smith, studied English literature at Cambridge in England, and then she felt sort of a bohemian. She lived in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and decided to go into journalism — came down to Washington in 1961, and probably more surprising to her than almost anything else, wound up one of the most powerful women in Washington and one of the most powerful women in American journalism.

MARGARET WARNER: She also said it surprised her she became so fascinated by Washington. I mean, because she originally came not thinking… She said something about, “well, I just drifted about into journalism while I waited to decide what I really wanted to do.”

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s it. You know, she wanted to write novels. That’s what she thought she would do in life. And when she came to Washington in ’61, it was sort of a detour. She was filming. She had sort of a New York attitude toward the petty doings in Washington, and what happened was the city took her over and she became captivated by it.

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s what really comes through in the book, don’t you think? I mean, it’s really her… It’s almost like a cultural journey anthropology into this political Washington.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But, you know, if you knew her, here she was almost the embodiment of the Eastern establishment in certain ways with this very responsible job. At the same time, I didn’t know until I began reading this manuscript how much it was sort of a daily struggle for her to keep from becoming one of these Washington creatures. It was almost as if every morning she looked in the mirror and said, “have I become one of them yet?”

MARGARET WARNER: In trying to explain Washington, she seemed to come to the decision that political Washington works the way it does because of the kinds of people it attracts. Tell us a little bit about that.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She said it was not the kind of place that people would come here whose childhoods were the kind where you put the cat in the dryer. It was more sort of the school Presidents, the good children, she said, the head kids — you know, a city full of successful people all pitted against one another.

MARGARET WARNER: And then she said that the behavior of political Washington rewards, though, really extracts the price.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s right. What she worried about, both in herself and also about people here, was that you have to live such a controlled life, especially with a much more intrusive press that she was a part of that, that you get into a situation where people are no longer themselves, that the guy you once knew and liked suddenly when you talked to him in the grocery store he talks to you as if he’s orating at the United Nations. You know, she says, “there are people here who say I never say anything that I wouldn’t want to read in the newspaper.” And she says, “what a way to live.”

MARGARET WARNER: Yeah, she said that people come to Washington… She said, “It’s as if they’re put in a witness protection program, given a new identity, and then live most of the time in the disguise, and that the Washington public figure tends to forget who he is, and the reinvented person takes over the real person.”

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s right. And she felt that the city had an awful lot of fakery in it, and increasingly so. And she also thought that that was one reason why Americans in many ways hate Washington. It’s not the idea of the city, but the fact that they see it in many ways sort of phony.

MARGARET WARNER: Then, of course, journalists came in for some criticism from her, or some explication but criticism.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She worried about the fact that although journalism got a lot tougher on politicians, as it should, especially in something like Watergate, it in a way got a little bit too far. The journalists got a little bit estranged from their subjects to the point of being unwilling in some cases to have dinner with politicians because you think you might be compromised. What she would say is, “have dinner with the politician, but have a strong enough character so that if the politician does something wrong, you take him apart.”

MARGARET WARNER: She did… Her analogy was for Washington– politicians, journalists, lobbyists, everyone in this little world– that the best analogy was high school.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Everyone wanting to be popular and sort of, you know, everyone wanting to sort of get ahead of everyone else, and it’s not always a relaxing place. And one of the surprises to me was she was very candid about the fact that at the end of her life, she wondered if she should have done this a little differently. She worried about the fact that she had never married. She thought maybe professional life took too much for women particularly. And the other thing was she said, you know, “I began to admire Stanley Kowalski,” you know, that character in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And I thought, here’s this woman who is so known for being so official and controlled, reasoned, deliberate, saying maybe she thought that the guy who acted out of his passions had something after all.

MARGARET WARNER: There are some things missing in this book. If people are expecting a sort of tell-all or kiss-and-tell about a lot of these people that she covered and she mentions, don’t you think they’ll be disappointed? I mean, I found myself hungering for more anecdotes and more examples.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s not sort of, you know, a tell-all of “people I met and dinners I ate.” And she was very determined not do that, because especially when she was dying, she wanted to sort of leave this almost as a last testament. “This is what the city is like,” but even more than that, for someone who comes to Washington, “beware, make sure you don’t become one of these creatures.”

MARGARET WARNER: She also, even though you said she does talk a little bit about our regrets, I was struck by… I mean, here’s this woman with this fascinating story to tell, a woman… a young woman came here when women weren’t making it in journalism and all the struggles she had, all the people she knew. And yet you don’t… again, I hungered for more about her and her feelings.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I think to some extent that sort of reflects the fact that she wanted to be in some way detached from all of this because she thought she might be compromised, and that’s one of the regrets she had. But you know, she talks about the early years she spent here. She was not allowed to go into the press club to use the wire service machine because she was a woman. She was harassed.

MARGARET WARNER: How about the Senator she went to see who first reached into his desk drawer and said, “oh, little lady I have…” And he gave her French perfume?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And that was not very long ago. That’s the thing that a woman had to deal with really in the late 1960s.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, finally her ultimate resonance was, of course, not telling anyone– virtually anyone, even her best friends– about this book. How did you come to know about it, and why do you think she was so secretive about it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That was sort of a metaphor. She wanted chambers of her life that other people in Washington couldn’t touch and didn’t know about. She told me in the early ’90s she was writing this book, told very few other people. At the end, she made me her literary executor, but even then she didn’t give me the disks on which this book was written until about a week or two ago before she died. And she took me into her office in her wheelchair– she was very ill– and pulled these disks out from behind books and under pieces of paper and from behind drawers. And I read them. And I finally went back to see her, and I said, “I pledge to you this book will be published.” And she died the next day.

MARGARET WARNER: How much of…it was all on different disks and on different papers. How much editing did you have to do? How much is this book is Meg Greenfield and how much editor Michael Beschloss?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s 100% hers. The one thing I didn’t want to do as you see with some books is sort of write what I think she might have said, or what I might have heard in a conversation somewhere. What I did was I took what was on the disks and assembled them– because there wasn’t much sign of the structure she wanted– and sort of find places where she had said things in the best way so that, you know, between these two hard covers you hear what I think is very much that unforgettable voice that we all read for a very long time.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Beschloss, thanks very much.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Margaret.