January 17, 2005

HAVING CHEATED TIME TOO BRIEFLY:

Post Columnist Marjorie Williams Dies (David Von Drehle, January 17, 2005, Washington Post)

Marjorie Williams, 47, a Washington Post columnist known for her elegantly crafted essays on American society and fearless profiles of the political elite, died of cancer Jan. 16 at her home in Washington.

Ms. Williams produced definitive journalism across a range of forms, from short essays to in-depth magazine pieces. Ms. Williams was an editor of great promise in her twenties and became a piercing portraitist of Washington power in her thirties, writing profiles of government and media leaders for The Post and Vanity Fair magazine.

A portrait by Ms. Williams was seen as a ritual signifying that a person had reached the center of the political universe. First came the charm, then the withering scalp-to-toenails examination under her all-seeing eye. Her conclusions were published for millions to read in keen and crystal prose.

She profiled everyone from Bill Clinton to James A. Baker, Al Gore to Colin L. Powell, Larry King to George Stephanopoulos, from archetypal insider Clark Clifford to upstart moneyman Terry McAuliffe. Her portraits blended microscopic observations and universal conclusions as a sort of Plutarch's "Lives" for an end-of-millennium Washington.

In 2000, she began a weekly op-ed column that attracted an immediate and admiring audience, according to Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. "The quality of the response to her work was remarkable," Hiatt said. "While she was doing it, there's never been anything better on our page."

Liver cancer was diagnosed in July 2001. Ms. Williams turned a prognosis measured in months into a stoic and good-humored campaign for nearly four years, hard-won time that she lavished on her husband, journalist Timothy Noah, and their children, Will and Alice.

-REVIEW: of Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Work and Family (Marjorie Williams, November 1997, Washington Monthly)

It was a bad day for public discourse when Jim Pinkerton, an aide in George Bush's White House, announced his search for a "new paradigm" as a corrective (or cover-up, according to Bush's critics) for the domestic policy ennui that was one of that presidency's hallmarks. "Paradigm" has since become the favorite five-dollar word of every policy maven who hopes to persuade the reader that he or she has something bold to say. Betty Friedan's new book is, alas, another example of this phenomenon.

Beyond Gender is a rambling recap of a pair of seminars that Friedan chaired, in 1994 and 1995, at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. These gatherings, ominously billed as New Paradigm Seminars, aimed to define a progressive political movement--or ethos, at least--that would subordinate the identity politics that have dominated liberalism (and feminism) since the late '60s to some vision of the common good. Rounding up the usual suspects from labor, the women's and civil rights movements, academe, journalism, business, and the land of think tanks, Friedan led discussions about the economic instability, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the middle-class time squeeze that she sees as the proper business of progressive politics.

This is, of course, rich territory. But if this slim volume has any virtue, it is as proof that fame, influence, and the well-earned sense of respite that comes at the end of an illustrious career are the enemies of good writing. For it has almost every flaw a non-fiction book can have, including the maddening shallowness that inevitably characterizes even the most lively group conversation. In addition to being scattered and poorly organized, it's full of dizzyingly bad language--sentences that draw a deep breath, sprint to the end of the diving board, and ... never quite land anywhere. The new movement she envisions, Friedan writes, "has to be political to protect and translate our new empowerment with a new vision of community, with new structures of community that open the doors again to real quality of opportunity." These cul-de-sac sentences which don't actually say anything, abound.


-The Halloween Of My Dreams (Marjorie Williams, November 3, 2004, Washington Post)
I was the one who insisted on the body glitter. Normally, you understand, I am a mother who pulls her daughter's shirt down and tucks it into her waistband every morning to keep her from showing her navel to the whole third grade. I make her scrub the supposedly water-soluble unicorn tattoos off her cheeks before she goes to school. I court her wrath by refusing to buy the kids' fashions that seem designed to clothe tiny hookers.

But after all, this was Halloween, the holiday that celebrates license. (A fifth KitKat bar after 9 p.m.? Why not?) Alice was determined to be a rock star, and I was happy to help her. Simple enough. [...]

[H]ow could I explain the euphoria of the 45 minutes Alice and I spent in her bedroom, colluding over her hair, giggling at her faux-leather, deeply fringed bell-bottoms? The pleasure of watching her strap on those awful silver platform shoes, like something I wore in 1973?

Because Alice was getting picked up to join friends for trick-or-treating, I kept my eye on the clock, and shooed her into the bathroom just in time to add make-up: grown-up lipstick, a layer of shimmery lip gloss over that, and an overall, emphatic scribble, on her neck and face, with the body-glitter crayon. Every other day of the year, any mother knows that glitter is the work of Satan, but last Sunday it lit her skin with a dew of every color.

We could hear her friends pull up to the curb. As her momentum carried her to the top of the stairs, Alice looked back and tossed me a radiant smile. She had become my glimmering girl: She looked like a rock star. She looked like a teenager. She looked absolutely stunning. She thundered down the stairs in those shoes, and as the front door slammed behind her, it came to me -- what fantasy I had finally, easily entered this Halloween.

I'd just seen Alice leave for her prom, or her first real date. I'd cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I'd played was the 52-year-old mother I will probably never be.

It was effortless.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 17, 2005 7:19 PM
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