Marjorie Williams on politicians’ private lives

Vanity Fair and Washington Post writer Marjorie Williams garnered accolades in the final years of her life for her moving writings about her battle with liver cancer. But earlier in her career, Williamswho wrote frequently for the Washington Monthlywas best known for her penetrating profiles of Washingtons political elites. Writing in the Monthly in 1991, Williams made the case that digging into public figures private lives was not just a legitimate journalistic project, but a necessary one.

Iity the politician, beset by vultures, fanatical reformers, and a moralistic press. For at least a decade, its been open season on anyone foolish enough to run for office or serve in governmentan age of mindless cannibalism, in the words of former speaker of the House and onetime entree Jim Wright.

Or so says the chorus of analysts who have lately specialized in second thoughts about the cloud of scandal that enshrouded the Reagan administration and then drifted down Pennsylvania Avenue to engulf the House leadership and the Keating Five. They argue that the ethical, financial, political, and sexual scandals of recent years represent a kind of hysteria, and that Americans in general and journalists in particular need to reevaluate how far they are willing to go in judging the human creatures elected to govern us.

Standards really have changed in Washington, in a lot of different areas. Lest mine seem a knee-jerk reaction by one of the press corps jackals, I must grant some of the specifics. It is horrible to have a mob of journalists camped out in your begonias. Yes, journalists too often rely on group instinct to set their narrative direction during a scandal-in-progress. And critics quite rightly criticize the press when it prints or broadcasts unfounded rumors on the grounds that the existence of the rumor is itself news because everybodythat is, in the community of a thousand or so people who make up insider politicsis talking about it.

But my observation, in five years of Washington journalism, has been that the major media more often betray news consumers through excessive coziness, power lust, and the simple eagerness to be liked than through the will to drive their hatchets into the powerful men and women they cover. In Washington reporting it isnt true that all the laurels go to the writer who kills the king; success comes more easily to the one who befriends him.

From Is It Any of Your Business? September 1991. Marjorie Williams died in 2005. Her essays and profiles have been posthumously collected in The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate and Reputation: Portraits in Power.

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