Courage in Profiles

How Marjorie Williams rendered
the lives of Washington’s powerful.

By Margaret Talbot

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ReputationReputation:
Portraits in Power

by Marjorie Williams, ed. Timothy Noah
Public Affairs, 320 pp.

What would happen if we started getting all of our political news and commentary from the Internet? Lots of people already do, of course, and they get plenty of good stuff: pithy up-to-the-minute opinion, news nuggets delivered by bloggers who scorn sleep, groovy interactive graphics, smart statistical analyses of electoral trends from a new generation of info-nerds like the gifted Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com. What they don’t get—because the Internet is not a medium that generally favors length or pays enough to support writers through months of reporting on a single piece—is the revealing political profile. And, given the hegemony of the Internet in the news business, it’s reasonable to ask whether the very genre is doomed. Magazines like the New Yorker and Vanity Fair still run long profiles, but newspapers that once showcased them, as the Washington Post’s sparkling Style section did in the 1990s, are less willing to lavish column inches and reporters’ time on them. And with Internet-bred expectations of the reading experience whittling down our attention spans, perhaps fewer of us will have the patience to settle in with a leisurely piece of character analysis. I can’t imagine a better case for why this would be a real loss than Reputation, the second collection of pieces by Marjorie Williams.

For much of her career, Williams was a writer’s writer, admired by other journalists but less known to a wider reading public. Then in 2002, Williams, who was forty-four and the mother of two young children, was diagnosed with liver cancer. From her new perch as an opinion-page columnist for the Washington Post, she began to write the occasional essay about what it was like, as a mother, a wife, and a thinking person in her prime, to be blindsided by this singular bad luck. After she died in 2005, Williams’s husband, Slate writer Timothy Noah, published a posthumous selection of some of her best work from Vanity Fair and the Post, among other places, in the book The Woman at the Washington Zoo. It became a best seller, partly because its startlingly honest personal pieces reached people in ways that the political profiles alone might not have. At times, those personal essays were so heartbreaking that they overshadowed the comparatively breezy, but never simple, craft of her journalism. The new collection is nearly all political profiles, and it brings back the Marjorie Williams I knew slightly and used to run into around our small town of D.C.—wry, mischievous, a social observer on whom nothing in the passing scene was lost.

Most journalism goes stale faster than a day-old baguette. The kind that you’d actually want to savor ten years or more after it was produced generally falls into one of three categories: eyewitness accounts of events so important that just being there to describe them elevates the results (William Shirer on the Third Reich, the war reporting of Ernie Pyle); writing so quasi-literary that it might not even have been all that legit as journalism in the first place (Joseph Mitchell’s shaggy-dog stories about raffish New York characters, much of Hunter Thompson’s oeuvre, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London); and journalism that is really biography on the fly, profiles offering insights into the psychology of power or fame that transcend interest in the person under scrutiny (some of the best "new journalism" of the 1970s, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians). Williams’s profiles belong to this last category. Some of the pieces in Reputation are about people in whom there is still active, newsy interest. The piece about Colin Powell, for instance, is a reminder that he was once the man we thought would be the first black president, and for good reason. On the other hand, James Baker, the alpha corporate lawyer and fix-it-guy who served as secretary of state under Bush Senior, Lawrence Walsh, the austere special prosecutor in the Iran-Contra affair, or Patricia Duff, the Balzacian beauty who married and divorced her way to Page Six prominence during the Clinton years, are not people whose next career moves most of us are hotly anticipating.

But that doesn’t matter. Profiling these people allowed Williams to fashion a collective portrait of a distinctly Washingtonian type of striver, the workaholic power broker whose true vanity is to be above ideology, and, sometimes, above ideas. Maybe, like the bad-boy campaign operative Lee Atwater, they insist on seeing politics only as a pure and nasty game. Or maybe, like James Baker, they regard the appearance (if not the practice) of a career above politics and partisanship as the key to power. "Washington," Williams writes, "is not the only city that lauds and rewards a gifted manager. But only Washington, gazing on that package of skill, energy, calculation, and discipline that constitutes the successful ‘player,’ insists on calling it virtue." If there’s a theory that ties these pieces together it is that these players make Washington run, but they are not the people who make history. "For the final lesson of success in Washington is that it is, by its nature, evanescent. Washington loves the ones who grease its gears. But history only remembers the ones who shift them."

Read these profiles back to back, and you realize that Williams was enviably free of the tics and shticks that characterize many journalists who produce a lot of words. She didn’t have a typical trick for opening a story, or a handful of stock descriptions. There were, however, a few elements that all her profiles are built on, and in the interest of touting the genre—if younger journalists can’t imitate her, they can certainly be inspired by her—it’s worth naming them.

First of all, the Williams profile combines psychological, political, and anthropological observation in just the right, reader-satisfying measure. The Democratic fund-raising whiz Terry McAuliffe, we learn, is such an antsy and incorrigible schmoozer that he skips his wife’s labor in favor of a party for the gossip columnist at the Post. He does manage, however, to send dime-store valentines every year to "the secretaries who controlled access to the executives he wanted to dun." (Another detail I liked: as a teenage entrepreneur, making money from clearing snow off driveways, McAuliffe made a habit of ironing the bills he earned: "One by one, he ironed the bills, just so, even adding spray starch to get them crisp, until he had a nice, flatly satisfying pile.") But beyond these sharp little insights into a personality, we also get something about the nuts and bolts of political fund-raising in the Clinton era, and about "the strange kernel of sociability" at the heart of the campaign finance system. In a short piece she wrote about George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, Williams noticed his scowl—the "air of resentment" that was "by no means the dominant note in Bush’s public persona," but was there nonetheless, and "puzzling for its place in a life so touched by advantage." Williams was onto something early—a personality flaw that would dog Bush as president, making him peevish when it came to taking in new information or alternate views of the world. "Petty angers like this, strangely, may be more worrisome in a candidate than the booming temper of which McCain stands accused," she wrote in 2000. "At least those who give voice to their tantrums, LBJ-like, tend to reach tranquility on the other side. But in a president, sins of small-mindedness are rarely small flaws." This insight still reverberates: surely one of the reasons Barack Obama won the presidency was his ability to project an almost Zen-like lack of resentment.

Second of all, a Williams profile is sprinkled with delicious quotes. A colleague of the talk-show host and "Mayor of Celebrityville" Larry King describes the latter as at his most genuine "when he’s on the air. The rest of the time he could be kind of deflated, like a Macy’s balloon that is sort of put away between parades." (That "kind of" and "sort of" are the coup de grâce of the quote: they bring home the vagueness of King’s sense of self.) A New York Times employee, telling Williams about a new era of sensitivity training and diversity seminars at the paper, says, "There’s a lot of hugging at the New York Times now. I’ve been hugged by people I don’t even want to shake hands with." In his introduction, Noah praises his wife’s "great ear for dialogue." She must have also had a great gift for chatting up her subjects. The best quotes rarely come from a journalist’s dutifully posing questions on a list and sitting back to await the answers. A lot of memorable quotes are the fruits of memorable conversation—a journalist’s teasing, or piquing a slightly bored source’s interest with her own curiosity about the subject, or gamely throwing out theories of her own—and I suspect Williams was a natural at those arts.

A Williams profile used physical description in a way that actually told the reader something about the person, rather than merely plugging in the physical-description slot—the perfunctory "So and so, who is tall, and wore a brown coat" that does the job in some magazine writing. Williams earns that favorite compliment of nonfiction writers: her descriptive details are "novelistic." Patricia Duff speaks in a voice that "is soft and sandpapery—too deep to be kittenish, but with a definite help-me hush." Duff’s ex-husband, the immensely rich Revlon magnate Ronald Perelman, is a "dense bullet of a man, compactly contained in a tightly fitted shirt." James Baker’s smile is "what the dental hygienist asks you to emulate when she wants to get at your back molars. Teeth bared, cheeks pulled straight back towards the ears, it seems a function strictly of the facial muscles; the fellow-feeling sketched in the smile rarely spreads as far as the eyes."

And lastly, Williams wasn’t afraid to make a judgment. Lee Atwater, she proclaims, was "a scoundrel, one of the darkest figures to dominate our recent politics," and "something worse than a bigot; he was a man who pretended to be a bigot in hope that it would sell." The glossy, politically conservative career gals of the Independent Women’s Forum embraced "all the most advantageous gains of the women’s movement and then anathematize[d] the more controversial or inconvenient bits, exuding an I-got-mine contempt for anyone still mired in problems old-fashioned enough to call for some form of social redress." And here’s the thing: it’s hard to render these kinds of judgments about people who have allowed you, to varying degrees, into their lives, with whom you may have spent days or weeks or even months, and come to have seen, at the very least, as human. Sometimes, in fact, it’s easier and better for a writer taking on a public figure not to have spent time with him, but to look at his record from a distance. And yet, if you do what it is that Marjorie Williams did so well, you achieve a perspective more like the omniscient narrator in a novel. In Williams’s work, real people, like characters in good novels, got the clear-eyed treatment, but they were also granted a context for their flaws, and the grace of understanding.


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Margaret Talbot is a staff writer at the New Yorker and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

 
 
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