Obituary: Meg Greenfield

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MEG GREENFIELD was a modest woman, who unlike many of her less talented colleagues eschewed the "talking head" television circuit which largely passes for informed comment in the United States. Yet for the last 20 years, she held one of the most powerful positions in American journalism.

In a way British readers cannot conceive, the Washington Post and its mortal rival the New York Times set the news agenda and shape opinion for most of the rest of the American media. The Post may have lost some of the style and nerve of the Ben Bradlee era, but it remains house journal to the world's most important capital city. In the thick of the action is its editorial page editor, ruler of a carefully demarcated state within the state. It was the job held by Meg Greenfield from 1979 until her death.

She joined the paper in 1968, after 11 years on the comment and analysis journal The Reporter, the last three in charge of its Washington bureau. When it folded, she was practically the first person recruited by the Post's then editorial page editor, Phil Geyelin, whom she would later succeed. "One smart lady" was the judgement of Bradlee, then about to embark upon the transformation of the Post from a stodgy, curiously provincial publication into what for a while - thanks to Watergate -would be the most famous paper on earth.

Greenfield contributed much to the process. She was one of a group of women who would become synonymous with the Post: herself, Kathleen Graham, the paper's owner, and her great friend, the indomitable columnist Mary McCrory, and more recently the Post's late, hugely talented political reporter Anne Devroy.

Many were the Post columnists Greenfield helped along the road to stardom: among them Charles Krauthammer, Michael Kinsley and George Will. On what remained of the Georgetown dinner party circuit, where the ruling elite used to strike their deals, she was frequently to be seen - but invariably oddly detached from the fray. In 1978 she won the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing. The Greenfield style, shining through the columns she wrote for the Post and for 25 years for its stablemate, Newsweek magazine, was quizzical and understated, perceptive and original but never flashy. As an explainer of events, rather than an opinion-monger, she had few peers in contemporary American journalism. The Post's leader columns which she supervised bore the imprint of her approach, preferring dry (if occasionally tedious) analysis to the peddling of slapdash recommendations.

Her forte was gentle irony, stemming from her ability to see through the pretensions of would-be reformers. Though "liberal" herself in the American sense of the term (she worked on Adlai Stevenson's unsuccessful Presidential campaign against Dwight Eisenhower in 1956), Greenfield held no special candle for Democratic administrations, and, unlike some of her colleagues, refused to demonise Ronald Reagan. Despite a long illness, Meg Greenfield kept writing almost to the end. Her last column for the Post appeared on 15 March, less than two months before her death.

Mary Ellen "Meg" Greenfield, journalist: born Seattle, Washington 27 December 1930; died Washington DC 13 May 1999.