Press Box

Marjorie Williams (1958-2005)

Washington’s most dangerous profiler.

Marjorie Williams

Among the many lucky breaks George W. Bush can count in his charmed life add this one: Marjorie Williams fell sick with liver cancer in the summer of his first term, so he and the popinjays and courtiers of his administration never felt the full wicked wattage of her penetrating gaze.

Marjorie, who died yesterday at 47, possessed a scary and unerring talent. She could see character the way most of us see the visible spectrum. She could have been a detective or a psychotherapist, a novelist or a professional poker player, a businesswoman or a platoon leader. But after dropping out of college and working as a book editor, she chose journalism, much to the benefit of our profession and her readers.

As one who felt the Williams gaze in its friendly, playful form, I can only guess how it unsettled the Washington operators who absorbed its power full-beam. One minute Marjorie could be conversing like any normal person—listening, nodding, responding, and asking tame questions. Then without warning, her checkmate gaze might reach out and tap you, giving you a nanosecond’s warning of an incisive question that would cut to the essence—usually of a personal matter. Most of her subjects found that they couldn’t evade the question because 1) they’d never heard it before; and 2) they were as interested in learning the answer as she was.

It sounds like a psychological savant’s talent, but Marjorie took it beyond the parlor game realm in her journalism by placing her acquired insights inside an intellectual context. It was her view that you couldn’t fathom policy until the policymakers were made fathomable. Her shrewd fusing of the Washington personal to the Washington political advanced the art of the political profile as practiced at the Washington Post and Vanity Fair, where she primarily wrote.

In 1990 she captured the vanity and the grasping that would ultimately undo Bush the First’s budget director Richard Darman in a 10,000-word profile for the Washington Post Magazine. Apparently stunned into stupefaction by the Williams gaze, Darman takes Marjorie to his home overlooking the Potomac where it’s his idea to lead her on a narrated tour (the wife and kids aren’t there) at jog-speed. First the priceless view of the river, then quickly through the living room and up the stairs as he repels questions about the family photos and into his bedroom, outfitted with a pair of four-poster twin beds. Marjorie notes aloud that he’s reading T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” and he amends sharply, “Re-reading.” Then into the Darman kids’ bedroom, back downstairs to the kitchen, and finally over to the rec room. Marjorie writes:

Darman’s cooperation for this article will finally end over the question of control. After the house tour, which concludes with Ping-Pong, Darman is pressed over dinner to proceed with the formal interview he has promised—sitting down, with the tape recorder running. No, he says, he will only talk “on background,” meaning that anything he says may be quoted, but not attributed to him. He doesn’t want to do it for the tape recorder—oh, and also, he doesn’t really want to talk about his early life; that’s all just tedious detail.We are at an impasse, neither willing to abide by the other’s ground rules. For now, a tour of his house is as close as we may get to a tour of his mind. The enduring image of the evening will have to be this one: of Darman, unprompted, flinging open the door of a closet to illustrate something he is saying about his marriage—then quickly instructing me that the closet’s contents are off the record, not to be written about.

Look at me, he says. But do not see.

But it’s too late. Just one-third of the way into the piece, Marjorie has already cracked the nut, as few journalists ever can, but as she invariably did. Like Gay Talese’s classic profile of Joe DiMaggio, Marjorie’s Darman piece takes its time filleting its bagged quarry. Darman fancies himself both cynic and idealist, bureaucratic infighter and wise man. By profile’s end, Marjorie turns Darman’s sense of righteous duality inside out and hands it back to him.

Marjorie’s profile of Barbara Bush (“fake pearls and real family”) from the August 1992 Vanity Fair captures the political wife as a lonely, self-effacing but furious servant. Denied direct access to the first lady, Marjorie grinds her subject down from the periphery. The Barbara Bush of Marjorie’s profile is not America’s grandma, but a sad pol’s wife who masks her meanness with images from soup kitchen photo ops, literacy events, and AIDS awareness campaigns. Bush projects herself as the anti-Nancy Reagan, and the public buys it, but when time comes to write of life’s lessons, Mrs. Bush tellingly adopts the voice of the family’s springer spaniel, Millie.

In the May 1998 Vanity Fair, Marjorie—feminist and Democrat—plays against her comrades by turning the gaze upon President Clinton’s feminist supporters. Why had they refused to rebuke this sexual predator? She writes:

Only a decade ago, a single liaison with a woman to whom he had no professional connection squashed Gary Hart’s career like a bug. Yet today Clinton is accused of traducing every boundary we have uneasily set around sex in the workplace, and Americans—especially American women—reply with a yawn.

Political feminists, she discovers, are as easily corrupted as any special interest group. As long as the Clinton administration advanced their agenda, the personal need not equal the political for feminists, she finds to her disappointment.

Marjorie’s best Washington pieces analyze the social structure of the city and the values of its prominent citizens, values she didn’t accept. Breaking apart such machers as Vernon Jordan, Colin Powell, Al Gore, Terry McAuliffe, James Baker, and Strobe Talbott to see what made them tick was how she earned her living, but she never aspired to their world as do so many Washington “power” journalists. Marjorie and her husband, Slate’s Timothy Noah, preferred the shabby chic of D.C.’s Takoma Park neighborhood, devoting themselves to their son and daughter and lavishing their ample love on friends.

A decade ago when I was a bachelor, I visited their Whittier Street N.W. house one evening for a family-style holiday dinner party. I remember turning to Marjorie, and gesturing at her son, the obstacle course of ugly plastic toys underfoot, and the many noisy moms and dads, and saying, “You know, I wouldn’t mind living like this someday.” I got the gaze, of course, and the question: “Why thank you, Jack, but what’s keeping you?” A few years ago, I figured it out and—to Marjorie’s delight—that someday arrived.

Someday the great Washington novel of power and scheming, of campaign hacks and backroom deals will be written. But until that day comes, my key to that world will be the collected journalism of Marjorie Williams.