Commonplace Book: Meg Greenfield

Finally getting to Washington, the hybrid memoir and take down of Washington, DC, which Meg Greenfield, the late editor of the op-ed page of the Post, wrote in secret as she was battling cancer. Having read This Town a few months back, it’s clear that Greenfield was diagnosing many of the same ills as Leibovich is, with fewer wisecracks but a sharper scalpel.

Like him, she doesn’t excuse herself from playing a role in perpetuating aspects of a system she finds baleful in many ways. But she’s has an interesting view of the “two-track” language of Washington (which she acknowledges she learned to decode, even if not to speak, early in her career.)

Here’s a representative excerpt; Greenfield on politics and lying:

Reflecting on what had taken me by surprise at the outset, and on so much like it that I observed in Washington and politics generally over the years, I was eventually to conclude that there is a two-part truth that just about every one of us knows and has always known but that practically none of us will admit for fear of being seen as an accomplice. It is, first, that the basic linguistic unit of speech in politics–all politics, not just the Washington kind–is a statement that is already somewhere between one-eighth and one-fourth of the way to being a lie. (I will leave it to others to decide whether this is any different from the basic speech of either commerce or love and, if so, in what degree and with what moral difference.)

The other part of the proposition is that such deception appears to be built into the process, a function of what we demand and expect and what they feel is required to stay alive and get anything whatever to happen. Politics, in other words–and not just politics practiced by people you don’t like, but politics across the board–pretty much rests on a foundation of fractional lies, justified by some commonly shared if rarely acknowledged presumptions of necessity. The phenomena, after all, has long been copiously in evidence from the White House briefing room to the debate among candidates for city council and every other office to the solemn pronouncements of State Department spokesmen to the ocean of near parody gibbledy-gabble that engulfs the pages of the Congressional Record.

Our preferred way of dealing with this discomfiting truth seems to be to add one more smallish-to medium lie of our own. We grouse or look the other way or pretend to be shocked, even though at some level we have known all along that what is being asserted as truth really didn’t happen that way and never was going to.

We know that are our elected representatives were not acting out of the unalloyed high purpose they solemnly claimed. And we knew that likely as not when they promised tireless, strong, conclusive action on something we cared about deeply, the odds were that more than a few of them were already shopping around for a respectable looking cop-out in which to take shelter and pretend they had done their utmost but that the bad guys had stopped them or, even more contemptuous of our intelligence, that the cop-out was the great deal they had promised.

Yet whenever one of these implausible fictions that we never took seriously to begin with hits the news for some reason and is exposed for what it is, we manage to project heart-wrenching disillusion all over again. More reckless, in my opinion, we leap to endorse and thus encourage what must be the most tiresome strain of commentary running through the nation’s op-ed pages–and that is saying something–namely, that if the politicians don’t cut it out, we the people will become cynical. Yes, we say, you are making us cynical, awful you–ignoring the fact that America and Americans were born cynical, or at least profoundly skeptical, about politicians, which is perhaps why we have survived as long as we have.


Ground zero of 'gibbledy-gabble,'  aka the Government Printing Office.
Ground zero of ‘gibbledy-gabble,’ aka the Government Printing Office.

It’s still worth a read, for, among other things, a reminder that the political culture we so avidly deplore in Washington now is hardly new. The book also casts a sometimes hard to read shadow narrative about Greenfield’s personal life, including the price paid for breaking through barriers–although she’d probably cringe at that term–in the all boys world of newspapering in mid-century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: