Washington, Meg Greenfield's posthumously published memoir, offers a behind-the-scenes look at life inside the Beltway. Though styled as a memoir, Washington is organized thematically rather than chronologically and except for a brief discussion of Greenfield's childhood in Seattle (the other Washington) and her early 20s spent as a self-described "bohemian" in New York the book is almost entirely set in the nation's capital. Greenfield, a reporter in Washington from 1971 until her death in 1999 and editor of the Washington Post op-ed page from 1979 onward, managed to live and work in the insular world of politicians and pundits without loosing her sense of proportion or her notorious sense of humor. She was known inside and outside the Beltway for her unique ability to identify the absurdities of politics and to laugh at them a skill repeatedly on display in this book.

Washington opens with a quotation from the British poet William Blake: "Princes appear to me to be fools. Houses of Commons and Houses of Lords Appear to me to be fools; they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life." Greenfield's view of Washington insiders more often than not accords with Blake's view of English aristocrats. In fact, she begins her memoir by drawing a parallel between old England and contemporary Washington where "better-bred, country-house English remains the stylistic model, the affectation of choice." Greenfield directs her sharp-edged wit at the foibles, phoniness and hypocrisy of those around her with hilarious results. She describes her home city as overrun with men and women (mostly men) "who were extremely successful children . . . that whole range of smiling but empty-faced youth leaders who were universally admired, though no one could have told you for exactly what." The implication is that Washington insiders are somehow inhuman, too perfect to be real, or at least exceptionally skilled at feigning perfection. In his afterword, Green- field's literary executor Michael Beschloss writes that the author left behind notes for a final chapter that would have focused more on her life as a child and on her time spent at her summer home in Maine. While the completed manuscript would probably have painted a more well-rounded picture of Greenfield, the finely honed skewering of Beltway life that she did complete is in itself well worth the read.

Laura Beers is a publicity assistant at Oxford University Press.

 

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