Time passes quickly. One minute it’s the late ’90s and the economy is booming; the next it’s the late aughts and we’re in the worst financial panic since the Great Depression. The mere existence of one black man—Willie Horton—sinks the Democratic nominee in 1988. Wake up the next morning and the Democrats have put a different black man—a very different black man—in the Oval Office. History’s impatience makes Rip Van Winkles of us all.
Marjorie Williams got her first job at The Washington Post after writing that paper’s personnel chief: “I’ve been a news junkie since I was 12.” Yet I’m not sure that during her lifetime, which ended not quite four years ago, my dear wife could have placed the name “Barack Obama.” Our president-elect was still an Illinois state senator when Marjorie’s health entered its final period of decline, and she died 12 days after he entered the US Senate. Did I even bother to tell her when I met Obama at the 2004 Democratic convention, a day or two before his career-making keynote speech? Probably not. I was more excited to meet the film director Robert Altman.
History sneaks up on you. The final years of the 20th century now constitute a political epoch clearly distinct from the present: Before 9/11, before Iraq, before Guantanamo, before Obama.
The nearest instance I can recall to our discussing Obama was one morning in June 2004, when Marjorie put down her coffee and recited for my benefit some mortifying claims made by Jeri Ryan, a TV actress ( Star Trek: Voyager, Boston Public) who can plausibly claim she cleared Obama’s path to national office, albeit inadvertently. Jeri Ryan was the ex-wife of Jack Ryan, an investment banker who in 2004 was Obama’s GOP opponent for Senate. According to a deposition Jeri had filed five years earlier in a child-custody proceeding—unsealed by a judge at the request of the Chicago press over the objections of both parents—Jack, during their marriage, had pressured Jeri to patronize sex clubs. One club “had mattresses and cubicles.” Another had “cages, whips, and other apparatus hanging from the ceiling.” In a third, “People were having sex everywhere. I cried, I was physically ill. Respondent became very upset with me, and told me it was not a ‘turn-on’ for me to cry.” (Marjorie frowned while reading this last part aloud.) Jack would cop only to taking Jeri to “one avant-garde nightclub…which was more than either one of us felt comfortable with.”
After her recitation, Marjorie, a lifelong student of human nature, marveled at the extent to which Jack’s apparent desires blinded him to Jeri’s needs, and said it was a shame the divorced couple’s 9 year-old son had to hear about all this. She may also have noted what a break this was for Jack’s opponent, but that lucky fellow figured hardly at all in this lurid drama. Not long afterward, Jack Ryan withdrew from the race, to be replaced in August 2004 by Bill Kristol’s one-time Harvard roommate Alan Keyes, whose stated strategy was to make “inflammatory” statements “every day.” Obama won with 70 percent of the vote. Marjorie may have noticed that, but by then she was pretty sick.
My point is that history sneaks up on you. The final years of the 20 th century—subject of a just-published new anthology of Marjorie’s writing, Reputation: Portraits in Power—now constitute a political epoch clearly distinct from the present: Before 9/11, before Iraq, before Guantanamo, before Obama. The mere fact that we remember the 1990s doesn’t mean we understood them. Stepping back, we can see a few things more clearly:
- The cult of the Washington Wise Man, which ascribed magical powers to political fixers, would never recover from the banking scandal that ended the storied post-government career of Clark Clifford, White House counsel to Harry S. Truman. “ Re-pu-taaaaaa-shun,” Clifford moans to Marjorie in an office whose view of the Capitol is blocked by heavy curtains to accommodate Clifford’s sensitivity to bright light. “In the time it takes Clark Clifford to state his grief, you could run downstairs to buy a paper and back.”
- Difference feminism has its perils. Installing a woman who wrote like a woman—Anna Quindlen—on The New York Times op-ed page was at best a mixed success. On the plus side, Quindlen forced her male bosses to recognize that the work-family balance mattered as much as the Uruguay Round. But on the minus side, Quindlen was too much of a “good girl” to formulate any opinions those male bosses might possibly disagree with. “Beneath Quindlen’s breezy insistence that she brings a different lens to the great issues of the day,” Marjorie observes, “one can make out the presence of that A student working very, very hard to get it right.”
- The ability of presidents (and vice presidents!) to arrogate new powers to themselves exceeds the ability of Javert-like prosecutors like the Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh to bring them to heel. “The more Walsh investigated,” Marjorie writes, “the more people lied to him; the more people lied to him, the more he was duty bound to prosecute their obstructions. Yet even many Walsh sympathizers tend to feel that the length of his investigation has undermined the credibility of his work.”
I could go on. Marjorie brought a novelist’s eye and an essayist’s wit to a journalistic form that itself is fast becoming a relic of the last century: the 10,000-word magazine profile. Eleven of the 12 profiles published in Reputation first appeared in magazines. (The Clifford piece ran in two parts in The Washington Post’s Style section.) Is there any magazine that would publish at that length today? Even The New Yorker seldom ventures to challenge its readers’ ever-shortening attention spans. Blame TV, or the web, or the Wii. Perhaps the Kindle or some other electronic book will rescue the form. In the meantime, I hope Reputation will rescue for posterity some examples that elevated the form to art. Five minutes ago (or so it seems) they were magazine pieces. Today, they’re history.
Read an excerpt from Reputation: Portraits in Power.