A Petri Dish Called Washington


By Meg Greenfield

PublicAffairs -- 241pp -- $26

During most of the 1990s, Meg Greenfield, The Washington Post's editorial page editor and a Newsweek columnist, was secretly at work on a book that closely scrutinized lawmakers, bureaucrats, and journalists. The recently published result is called, simply enough, Washington. It offers a cultural dissection that would thrill anthropologist Margaret Mead, even though it probably won't find favor with those Washingtonians under her lens.

That's not to say that Washington is a tell-all. After 38 years spent close to the seat of power, Greenfield could have offered some humdingers. But in death--Greenfield died of cancer in 1999--as in life, she's discreet to a fault. She only occasionally names names, and you find yourself yearning for more.

Still, Greenfield offers a stimulating analysis of how the national political culture has evolved since 1961, the year she arrived from New York as a 27-year-old to serve as the temporary Washington editor for the now-defunct Reporter magazine. She had expected to stay just a few months--but never left. By the time of her death, Greenfield felt that the capital, formerly a town where everyone hewed rigidly to his place in the pecking order, had become a colony of lone-wolf operators who viewed policymaking and legislating as a means of marketing themselves rather than as a way to get things done. She found both 1960s Washington and the current scene equally distressing.

The author seems most bothered by the fact that Americans view government officials with a resentment bordering on loathing. This is a response, she believes, not to Democrat-vs.-Republican partisanship, but to the way in which most elected officials adopt fake personas that conceal their true personalities. The pols, she says, lose all the markings of the region from which they come, along with family, class, and individual characteristics. Oddly enough, the process is meant to make them more appealing to "the blob," her term for easily manipulated public opinion.

Public distrust is also, in part, the fault of Washington's self-absorbed, regimented "system." This Greenfield persuasively likens to high school, complete with term breaks and hazing rituals. Here, though, every pupil is an overachieving teacher's pet. Adjusting to the system's taboos and protocols is so time-consuming that most newcomers quickly become wrapped up in the peculiar life of the place and no longer care so much about the folks "out there," Greenfield's term for anything beyond the Washington enclave.

Finally, she says, the public disapproval is due to journalists' relentless pursuit of scandal stories mixed with one-dimensional personality pieces. The media, she believes, too often adhere to an unwritten rule: "Stick to covering the issues and your subjects' carefully crafted image, and avoid any confusing inconsistencies that would make them seem human."

As in pro wrestling, the roles that important Washingtonians play are increasingly scripted, right down to what Greenfield calls the "party skunks." These include curmudgeon journalists such as Charlie Peters of The Washington Monthly and liberal muckrakers like Ralph Nader. Her point is valid: One thing that upset loyal Democrats about Nader's Presidential bid last year was that he tossed aside his professional crank's script and tried to grab the leading man's part reserved for Vice-President Al Gore. As for Gore, Greenfield didn't live to comment on his campaign, but surely she would make him Exhibit A in her chapter on how fake most pols have become.

Whom did Greenfield admire among the many Washington VIPs she covered? Her list is short, but it includes Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had not yet run for President when Greenfield wrote, but whose refreshing candor and irreverent style were already attracting fans. She also names the late Michigan Democrat Philip A. Hart, who served in the Senate from 1958 to 1976, and Kansas Republican Nancy Landon Kassebaum, who retired from the Senate in 1996, as examples of folks who kept their true personalities intact.

It may seem that Greenfield despised Washington's political culture. In fact, she simply sought to understand it. She seems to have concluded what a lot of residents know in their hearts: This can be a brutal, hypercompetitive place where real friendship sometimes seems rare. The elite denizens of this company town spend a lot of time socializing. But even at dinner, there's little diversion, and discussion frequently focuses on that week's major political event.

One of the most touching parts of Greenfield's account is her chapter on politicians' wives. Here, she reveals an ambivalence toward the women's movement. When Greenfield first came to Washington, she was not allowed to enter the National Press Club, even to glance at the news ticker. During interviews, she was sometimes mistaken for a secretary or otherwise patronized by dim-witted lawmakers. But she never adopted the radical feminist perspective that looked down on wives who dutifully accepted the role of Washington hostess. Instead, she recognized the contributions many of them made as conscientious parents and contributors to their communities.

Greenfield helped blaze new trails as a woman journalist by tackling tough subjects, such as nuclear weapons policy, that only men were supposed to debate. In a way, she was the ultimate feminist: She used intellect rather than attitude to compete well in the man's world that is Washington.

By Paula Dwyer

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