Mary Ellen Greenfield — Meg from her initials — was born on Dec. 27, 1930 in Seattle, where her father, Lewis Greenfield, ran an antiques business. She graduated summa cum laude from Smith College in 1952, with a major in English literature, then spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge University in England, specializing in William Blake’s works.
After considering an academic career, Miss Greenfield decided on journalism instead, joining The Reporter, a magazine of analysis and commentary, in 1957 as a researcher in its Washington bureau. She became the editor of The Washington Post’s editorial page, who brought a combination of sharp-eyed analysis and wry wit to bear on a generation of the nation’s policy makers and politicians.
In four decades as a reporter, editorialist and quietly influential opinion maker in the nation’s capital, Miss Greenfield provided a stream of informed commentary that had an impact on the public perception of six presidential administrations and scores of policy debates, ranging from affirmative action and abortion rights to the Panama Canal treaties and the Persian Gulf War. In 1978, when she was The Post’s deputy editorial page editor, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
In her role as the newspaper’s editorial-page editor for the last 20 years and as a columnist for Newsweek magazine for 25 years, Miss Greenfield pored over the details of policy with the passion of a political scientist and wrote of the complex architecture of democracy with reverence. She also perfected a tone of sly mockery and an eye for the absurd, both of which informed the best of her work. (adapted from NYT May 14, 1999)
“Everybody’s for democracy in principle. It’s only in practice that the thing gives rise to stiff objections.”
“Ninety percent of politics is deciding whom to blame.”
“In Washington it is an honor to be disgraced. you have to have been somebody to fall.”
“There is such a thing as tempting the gods. Talking too much, too soon and with too much self-satisfaction has always seemed to me a sure way to court disaster. The forces of retribution are always listening. They never sleep.”
“There’s nothing so dangerous for
manipulators as people who choose
to think for themselves.”
“Washington, under Democrats and Republicans, has a profoundly neurotic attitude toward ‘the people.’ It is built on equal parts of suspicion, loathing, fear, respect and dependence.”
“In government and out, there are vast realms of the bureaucracy dedicated to seeking more information, in perpetuity if need be, in order to avoid taking action.”
“Everyone seems to be running against a liar, but nobody seems to be one. Odd — I mean, the math doesn’t work out.”
“If you were starting from scratch to invent an instrument that could impose fiscal discipline, the last one on earth you would come up with is the United States government.”