“She Was Sly, Shrewd, Secretive, Insightful, and Unbelievably Funny”

From a Washingtonian interview with Stephen Rosenfeld, editor of the Washington Post editorial page, in June 2000:

Q. Who were the stars at the Post during your four decades?

A. Meg Greenfield was most special for me. As editorial page editor,  she had a quicksilver mind and greater penetration of issues than any other journalist I’d seen. She was sly, shrewd, secretive, insightful, and unbelievably funny. She had her moods, but she examined policies and programs deeply, as well as the human condition broadly.

I didn’t work closely with Ben Bradlee, as he was news and I was editorial, but I observed him. Ben’s a fabulous editor  with snap-finger alertness. He broke the big stories but kept his discretion. Above all, he sensed what interested people. And Ben had an edge to him. If journalism’s best aspect is irreverence, Bradlee set the standard.

Q. Yet irreverence leads to negativism and people consider the press too negative.

A. We are negative. We write about thing going wrong. Good news is not real news.

Television has celebritized journalists. They have to react in five seconds. They don’t balance information with probity and respect. They push toward quickness, irreverence, and sometimes nastiness.

Q. Who are the good columnists?  

A. David Broder is very conscientious and helps you understand. George Will brings a consistent philosophical premise, which makes his columns interesting. Bill Safire is often unfair and provocative. When he is, he’s most happy. Yet I always want to see what Safire says about an issue, since he’s so interesting and smart.

I like everything about Charles Krauthammer except his political views. Other than that, he’s a superb writer. He’s interested in unusual topics and comes from a different background than most journalists.

Q. What’s different about editorials in the Post versus those in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal?

A. The Journal proselytizes one philosophical outlook and is darn good at it. Its editorial page stands in a grand American tradition, but to me it’s too rigid. The New York Times is smart and nonideological but quite prescriptive. They tell you six things that must be done to make a particular omelet. We tend to leave that to the chef.

Q. What editorials are you least proud of?    

A. Those that helped elect DC mayor Marion Barry to a third term.

Q. The Washington Post tries to be nonpartisan and fair. So why, in your 40 years there, did it never endorse a Republican for president?

A. We have endorsed Republicans for governor and senator.

Q. Wasn’t it a mistake for the Post to endorse Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan in 1984? Can you really think Mondale would have made a better president?

A. We objected to Reagan’s domestic and economic policies. Mondale would have delivered those goods. But what Reagan did on the Cold War, Mondale could not have done. It was Nixon going to China quadrupled. Only a man of the right, and one with such overwhelming support of the American people, could have pulled that off.

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