Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Reputation: Portraits in Power
by Marjorie Williams
edited by Timothy Noah

Marjorie Williams was a political writer for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair magazine until her premature death in 2005 of liver cancer. She was well-known in this area, and to have her write one of her tough but fair biographical profiles was a sort of rite of passage for people who aspired to be among the real players on the national government scene. After her death, at the request of many of her friends and admirers, Williams' husband Timothy Noah published The Woman at the Washington Zoo, a collection of several of her best political profiles plus some much more personal essays having to do with marriage, parenting, and (especially moving), her own thoughts about cancer and the tragedy of her own life being cut way too short.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo made Williams posthumously famous on a much more national scale, and deservedly so. Her political profiles are detailed, insightful, and often gently funny without being mean. I love the first line of her profile of one of our former First Ladies: "Even her stepmother is afraid of Barbara Bush." Zing. However, it was her personal essays that stuck with me and that I find myself going back to in my mind. She dealt with her own circumstances with an uncommon dose of grace and humor. She never specifically said if she practiced any kind of religious faith or was part of a spiritual community, but I learned a lot from her about coping with the unexpected, enjoying life in the present, and preparing her children for life without her. She was clearly an amazing woman, a gifted writer, and a thoughtful parent.

Reputation is a follow up publication to Zoo. It is a compilation of about a dozen more of her political portraits, including James Baker, George H.W. Bush, Clark Clifford, Patricia Duff, James Carville and Mary Matalin, Terry McAuliffe, Laura Ingraham, and Lee Atwater. The essays are interesting, juicy without being salacious or sensationalist, and (overused as the word may be) balanced. She did her homework and knew her subjects well. She was able to synthesize and present a lot of material in a readable way. I especially liked her essay about Lee Atwater - frankly I have always thought of him as pretty much a dirt bag. I still think that, but she humanized him and reminded me that people are complicated. The same person who plays dirty political tricks often believes that his or her ends justify the means, that they are working toward a higher ideal. We may disagree with his methods, but there was a straightforwardness about Atwater that one cannot help but grudgingly respect. There also were times when Atwater felt genuine remorse about ugly remarks he made in the heat of the political moment. He was a scoundrel, but he was honest about it, if that makes sense. Williams wrote the piece shortly before he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that killed him - considering what happened to her the foreshadowing seems eerie.

Reputation is a fun read, especially for people who live in the Washington area and frequently see these people on the news. However, if you have not read any of Williams' work, I recommend starting with The Woman at the Washington Zoo. Her personal essays are semi-hidden treasures, made all the more special because there will be no more of them. Many thanks to her husband for sharing both of these volumes with us.

Reverent Reader


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