MEG GREENFIELD'S LEGACY
May 31, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 35 • By MICHAEL BARONE
MEG GREENFIELD, the editorial-page editor of the Washington Post, who died May 13, was one of the great patrons of conservative ideas over the last 25 years. Not that she was a conservative herself: Her views were still recognizably rooted in 1950s liberalism, in the ideas that were in the air around Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry Jackson. But those views were never entirely fixed. As readers of her columns and editorials know, she was exquisitely sensitive to the weakness of the ideas of her own side as well as those of others. She had a visceral dislike of boilerplate, and the liberal ideas that seemed fresh, even daring, in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s had started to read like stale boilerplate in the Washington of the 1970s.
Which is when Meg Greenfield came to a position of power, as the proprietor not only of the editorial page but also of the op-ed page of the Washington Post. She came to Washington in 1961 to write long pieces of reporting and analysis for the Reporter, at a time when Washington was replacing New York as the news capital of the country. In 1968 the Reporter folded -- its owner Max Ascoli was a strong supporter of the Vietnam war, by then a verboten position on the left -- and Greenfield was hired as an editorial writer at the Post. In 1969 she became deputy editorial-page editor and in 1979 editor.
This was just after newspapers had started the full page of columns we have all called by the unbeautiful name of the op-ed page ever since. Before that, the Post ran perhaps two columns by regulars on the editorial page -- Walter Lippmann, Joseph Alsop, the zesty new Evans and Novak. Now there was much more space to fill. Most of the available columnists were liberals, just as most of the nation's editorial pages were conservative. But Meg was looking for columnists who made for interesting, not obligatory, reading. And interesting ideas, she was one of the first to recognize, were increasingly to be found on the right.
Interesting, and funny. Greenfield had a finely honed and sharp sense of humor, applied with scorn at boilerplate and with glee at work she admired. After the 1972 election, the New York Times and the Washington Post competed for the op-ed services of William Safire, the indubitably funny Nixon speech-writer. The Times won. Meg went out and got George Will. She met him, he writes, in May 1972 at a conference at Kenyon College, when he was a staffer for Senator Gordon Allott. "Who is that smartaleck at the end of the table?" she asked her seatmate. Soon she had him writing columns, and in 1973 he began appearing regularly in the Post.
Similarly, she discovered Charles Krauthammer, trained as a psychiatrist, when he was on his way from the liberal middle (where he remains on some issues) toward the rigorous right (where he now is on most). She perceived in him, as in Will, the originality and feistiness that have enabled them to thrive over what are now long careers. Her relationships with conservatives, as with liberals, have not always been smooth.
She ruled the op-ed page with an iron hand, editing columns down, placing them on the page, deciding which ones would get "art," even when she was traveling. Sometimes she cut Robert Novak's columns, despite his complaints. She fell in and out of love with many writers, like Bob Tyrrell. But over time the liveliest reading on the op-ed page has mostly been on the right. And she invented the Saturday page filled with political cartoons, very many of them conservative -- a wonderful idea in a golden age of political cartoons.
This patronage of the right came less out of a sense of obligation to present all sides -- I suspect she would have rejected that phrase as boilerplate -- but out of a desire to present ideas, arguments, and reporting that are interesting, original, smart. Qualities found more often, I would argue, in the conservatism of the 1980s and the liberalism of the 1950s than in the liberalism of the 1980s and the conservatism of the 1950s. But Meg Greenfield was not just responding to the signals of the intellectual marketplace, she was also transmitting them, in her writing and in the writers she put before the public. 1990s conservatives owe a lot to this 1950s liberal.
Michael Barone, senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, was a member of the Washington Post's editorial-page staff from 1982-1989.