FOR SEVERAL decades, the Washington Post has functioned not only as a chronicler of national politics, but also as a social arbiter of the capital’s elite. The two were fused in the paper’s trendsetting “Style” section, which was invented in 1969 by the legendary editor and scion of New England grandees Benjamin C. Bradlee. This fusion reached a kind of apotheosis with the paper’s reverent coverage of his funeral at the National Cathedral last October. “Style” referred, among other things, to the “A-list gathering of friends and family,” noting that eight hundred guests attended the “invitation-only party in the back yard of Ben Bradlee and [Sally] Quinn’s home.” It treated his funeral not as a moment for reflection about Bradlee’s tenure, but as a social occasion—a final gathering of the “royal court,” as Post gossip columnist Roxanne Roberts put it, that Bradlee and Quinn had presided over. In this regard, it was a worthy tribute to Quinn’s credo, “Good luck and good timing are great, but ultimately, a Washington party rises and falls with its power quotient.” And so Washington didn’t just celebrate Bradlee but also itself.
Still, for all the preening and social calibration, the event had a valedictory air to it, one that highlighted the distance the Post has traveled, from its glory days when it brought down the high and mighty, to its current difficulties in remaining a viable enterprise. This past summer, after all, marked the fortieth anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, which was partly prompted by the reporting of two Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Under Bradlee, the Post helped publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and then one Watergate story after another between 1972 and 1974. It was showered with acclaim and aspired to compete with the New York Times .
Two generations later, however, the Post is facing stiff competition for readers and attention in its own hometown from new rivals such as Politico, which was founded in 2007 by former Post staffers. Six years after that, the Post’s financial woes and sagging readership prompted the storied Graham dynasty to sell its stake to the Amazon entrepreneur Jeff Bezos. Meanwhile, Woodward, once the brightest star in Washington’s journalistic firmament, has published a series of books in which, as Joan Didion noted, “measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.” But perhaps the most intriguing shift at the Post has occurred at the editorial page under the direction of Fred Hiatt. For over a decade, Hiatt has steadily moved the page in a more aggressive direction, a development that prompted Fox News contributor James Pinkerton to observe in 2004:
Remember the days when the Washington Post was the enemy of the Republican administration in the White House? Those days are gone. Today, the neoconservative voice of the Post’s editorial page is one of President Bush’s most valuable allies. It’s possible, of course, to find more hawkish voices than that of the Post, but none have the same wide circulation or impact—and none have the Post’s liberal reputation. Which is a gift to the neocons, who can say, “Even the liberal Washington Post agrees with us!”
Pinkerton was not an isolated voice. After Hiatt sacked the liberal blogger Dan Froomkin in 2009, Andrew Sullivan said, “The way in which the WaPo has been coopted by the neocon right, especially in its editorial pages, is getting more and more disturbing.” His sentiments mirrored those of Glenn Greenwald, who dismissed Hiatt himself as one of a “bevy of typical, banal establishment spokespeople who are highly supportive of whatever the permanent Washington establishment favors.”
THROUGHOUT ITS history, the Post has been decisively shaped by different editorial-page editors. For several decades, its most influential figure was J. Russell Wiggins, a staunch Cold War liberal who joined the paper as managing editor in 1947 before rising, in 1960, to become editor and executive vice president. “He put it on the map,” recalled the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham. Wiggins, who was born in 1903, had opposed isolationism and appeasement policies toward Nazi Germany and saw Communist aggression in Vietnam as a fresh totalitarian challenge that had to be defeated. In numerous editorials, he never budged from his adamant support for the war and admiration for Lyndon B. Johnson’s conduct of it. In May 1965, for example, Wiggins published an editorial stating that a successful Communist attack on an air-force base at Pleiku showed
with dreadful clarity that South Vietnam is not an isolated battlefield but part of a long war which the communist world seems determined to continue until every vestige of Western power and influence has been driven from Asia. . . . It is now clear that withdrawal from South Vietnam would not gain peace, but only another war.
Still, the mood was palpably shifting in Washington as establishment worthies such as Walter Lippmann publicly opposed the war as a futile endeavor and pushed Graham to alter the Post’s editorial line. She did. After Johnson appointed Wiggins ambassador to the United Nations in 1968, Graham tapped his deputy Philip L. Geyelin to succeed him. Geyelin, who was skeptical about Vietnam and had joined the editorial board in 1967, went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his antiwar editorials. In 1979, he stepped down and became a foreign-affairs columnist.
The paper’s publisher, Donald E. Graham, replaced him with deputy editorial-page editor Meg Greenfield, who had begun her career at the Reporter magazine. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978. Greenfield described her fiefdom as possessing the rather unadventurous “sensibility of 1950s liberals.” While Greenfield’s tenure was marked by a kind of staid, even somnolent, conventionality, she seemed to recognize that the Post had a vital role to play in promoting genuine debate. Katharine Graham said that Greenfield was “independent and uninfluenced by trends or molds” and that her judgment was “dispassionate.” Greenfield also had a keen eye for fresh conservative talent, hiring George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer as columnists. But the overall tone was resolutely centrist, with contributors such as Geyelin, Edwin M. Yoder and David Broder. “To the degree that a newspaper can be said to have a soul,” wrote Eric Alterman in Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy , “that of the Washington Post can be found in the columns of its venerable political reporter and pundit, David Broder.”
Upon Greenfield’s death in 1999, the Post said that she “continued a tradition under which the Post editorials avoided hortatory calls to action in favor of making points by marshaling facts.” What’s more, her deputy and successor Stephen Rosenfeld, who opened the paper’s Moscow bureau in 1964, shared the same reputation. After he died in 2010, his Washington Post obituary stated: “He said, ‘Write the editorial as if you’re going to be sitting across the dinner table from the person in the evening,’ recalled Colbert King, a former editorial board member and columnist. ‘That was quintessential Steve, and that always had a leveling effect on me.’” But perhaps the most handsome appreciation came from another colleague:
A different kind of man than Stephen Rosenfeld might have bristled when a younger journalist signed on as a fellow editorial writer, claiming some of the same interests—Russia, East Asia, human rights. Steve instead welcomed me with the warmth and generosity that were his trademarks during all his decades at The Post. . . . His interest in conflicts and countries that others tended to ignore was no joke. Puerto Rican sovereignty, Cypriot division, ethnic hostility in Sri Lanka—Steve understood that even when official Washington wasn’t paying attention, these things mattered to millions of real people, and so they mattered to him.