“BARBARA’S BACKLASH,” MARJORIE WILLIAMS, VANITY FAIR, 1992.08.00
Nine months after she died, Marjorie Williams helped me get my first reporting job.
Bob Kaiser, the retired managing editor-turned-spiritual sherpa of The Washington Post, was interviewing prospective interns in my college newspaper’s embarrassingly grubby office during the fall of my senior year. When it was finally my turn, things didn’t start well. Bob’s first question was about why the previous candidate had arrived 10 minutes late wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. (As editor-in-chief, I had been instructed to choose four candidates for interviews, saving the fifth slot for myself.) A few minutes later, I earned a skeptical “Really?” after I inexplicably listed Max Frankel’s The Times of My Life and My Life at the Times as my favorite book about journalism. I was a goner.
But then Bob asked about my favorite journalists, and the first words out of my mouth were “Marjorie Williams.” His eyes lit up. “You are the first student who’s ever given me that answer,” he said, clearly pleased. “She was one of the best hires I ever made.”
Bob and I spent most of the rest of my allotted 20 minutes talking about Williams, whose profiles of powerful Washingtonians defined the genre over the course of two presidencies and who died of liver cancer in 2005 at age 47. I wasn’t clever enough to have known Bob had hired her. I just knew that her profiles of Anna Quindlen and Laura Ingraham and—first and most formatively—Barbara Bush showed me how to be a journalist who is a feminist long before I had any idea what that meant.
My parents weren’t the type to subscribe to narrative journalism magazines, but attending high school in Berkeley meant many of my classmates’ parents were. So it must have been at a friend’s house that I began flipping through a 10-year-old copy of Vanity Fair and found “Barbara’s Backlash,” Williams’ profile of Bush in the August 1992 issue. At the time, I was a high school senior who intended to be a newspaper reporter for the rest of my life. I had never heard of Williams, or Tom Junod, or Jane Mayer, or any other major magazine writer. But that day, I found myself riveted by Williams’ words.
“Even Barbara Bush’s stepmother is afraid of her,” the piece begins. Four sentences later, a devastating nut graf:
Indeed: Barbara Bush is America's grandmother, casual, capable, down-to-earth; she is fake pearls and real family. “I'm not a competitive person," she once said, "and I think women like me because they don't think I'm competitive, just nice." She bakes cookies, knits, needlepoints. She is funny, but mostly at her own expense. She is a woman so modest that she writes in the voice of a dog.
The whole piece is full of these tiny details that reveal so much they obviate the need for sweeping conclusions. Bush developed her life plan by reading McCall’s and Redbook. “You’re too fat,” she tells her brother. “She ground her teeth at night and smoked Newports by the pack.” (Williams “could see character the way most of us see the visible spectrum,” Jack Shafer once wrote.) After a few pages, I had what felt at the time like a great revelation: She got all of this detail without ever talking to Barbara Bush herself. I began devouring every Williams profile I could find. Many of them featured subjects she had very little in common with—whether in terms of lifestyle, politics, or both—and I admired how she refrained from snark. Her commitment to deeply understanding her characters has shaped every reporting assignment I’ve ever had.
As I continued to read the Williams canon, I found this trait particularly noticeable in her profiles of women. By the time I read “Barbara’s Backlash” again in The Woman at the Washington Zoo, the first of two collections of Williams’ work published posthumously by her widower Timothy Noah, I was more aware of sexism in media coverage, so her sensitive, sophisticated feminist examination of an “ultra-traditional” woman in a distinctly un-feminist job made even more of an impression. What struck me this second time was that Williams wasn’t just dissecting Bush because she was famous, but as part of a critique of a broader culture. “For the past three and a half years,” she wrote, “the First Lady had almost single-handedly symbolized her husband's good intentions in the realm of domestic affairs. … It is the old Victorian contract, in which life was divided into two spheres, male and female; while men ran the world, their women ran the soup kitchens.” In that one graf, Williams made Barbara Bush’s problem society’s problem.
Williams has been gone for more than eight years, and media coverage of official Washington hasn’t entirely filled the void. We’re all worse off for not having her to train that laser eye on 2013-era Hillary Clinton, whose career path since Williams wrote about her as first lady has been nearly unfathomable. What would she make of Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator who filibustered for 13 hours to stop an anti-abortion bill? Or Sarah Palin?
After Bob Kaiser hired me at the Post, I stayed for four years before finding myself bored by the rhythm of beat reporting and frustrated by the slow pace of 21st-century change at a 19th-century legacy newspaper. I never wanted to cover politics, anyway—Williams’ characters and their descendants had always enthralled me but also grossed me out. In my new life as a magazine editor, I look for writers who can make the political personal—and the personal political—half as well as Williams did. And every once in a while, when a particularly egregious work of sexist journalism inflames Twitter, I go back to “Barbara’s Backlash” for some motivation to do better.
- READ: "Barbara's Backlash"
Megan Greenwell is a senior editor for longform features at ESPN the Magazine. She is also a co-founder of Tomorrow Magazine, a one-shot publication funded on Kickstarter. Follow her on Twitter @megreenwell.