Marjorie Williams wrote about the creatures in today's government better than anyone. The Woman at the Washington Zoo proves it.
If there were not enough evidence that the post-9/11 media gazes at the White House through a glass darkly, excepting its short-lived spine growth post-Katrina, then the posthumously assembled work of Marjorie Williams would break the scales. Not because The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate ostensibly concerns journalism's counterintuitive self-censorship, snuggling with Draconian bedfellows, and circumscribed storylines. Rather, it stands in relief against these tendencies in our news, drawn from a body of work that held a mirror, at once fascinatingly psychological and personal, to the Reagan era through the early Bush the Younger administration.
After defying life-expectancy odds for four years, Williams succumbed to complications from liver cancer exactly a year ago, leaving behind a wealth of articles and essays composed largely for The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and Slate. Timothy Noah, her husband and Slate senior writer, compiled selected pieces into profiles, articles, and a "Time and Chance" section. Part one concerns personality portraiture; two, miscellany; and the final part, her discovery, struggle, and reconciliation with the disease that claimed her life at forty-seven.
Unlike the surfeit of contemporary press musings, the first pieces are not watered-down, bowdlerized exposés unfolding in vaguely titillating inverted triangles. Nor are they left wing, free-associative polemics bent on draw-and-quartering Washington's power players. Refreshingly, they are full-blooded portraits, inside and out, of elite power players and the ways they give rise to, and deviate from, their standard party lines. In Williams' words from "Flying to L.A.," "the mixture of that brittle, conservative set of social conventions and all the messy human stuff that goes on inside and among the people who try to climb to the top of the heap."
In "The Wife," written during George Bush, Sr.'s bid for reelection, Williams burrows into the ruthlessly domineering character of Barbara Bush, assembled through interviews with various chiefs of staff at the White House of George H. W. Bush, life-long friends, even the former First Lady's stepmother. Each provides biographical and anecdotal details that capture the woman behind the image of "America's grandmother, casual, capable, down-to-earth... fake pearls and real family" and her "iron manners": the death of her second child, Robin, from leukemia; a lifetime of moments dedicated to the "unrequited desire for [George H. W. Bush's] company"; and insecurity about her appearance, in light of her husband's more youthful features, that later gave way to self-parody—"jokes that lanced the wound before someone else could press on it."
Williams goes on to say that Barbara's public image as Bush's number one cheerleader, symbolizing "her husband's good intentions in the realm of domestic affairs," and her infamous private reputation as a coiffed Cerebus, can only be reconciled by understanding her "as a woman of her class: the American social stratum that has always raised its children to assume their own superiority—and also to mask that assumption at all times." On the one hand, she possessed an alpha-female personality and on the other, a traditional view of women as domestic artisans and little else. These character strains never came to blows, instead finding a mutual purpose in Bush. The former Bush's presidency can then be seen as Barbara's larger palette, where her domestic ideals could be writ large and where she herself would, ironically, remain more popular than the 41st Commander in Chief.
Thankfully, one can relax into The Woman at the Washington Zoo, assured that Williams never grinds a partisan axe, even indirectly, as she untangles the human from the political. She gives similar treatment, for example, to Bill Clinton and Al Gore in "Scenes from a Marriage," written after the wearying election of 2000. Plenty of staffers weigh in on the bizarre anti-dynamic between the president and vice-president throughout their 1992 campaign, eight years in office, and Gore's difficult race to keep the White House under Democratic control. They both come off as wholly engrossing figures (yes, even placid Gore, "controlled by an inner thermostat that held his manner at a constant room temperature"). Each is shown to be the other's foil in style and substance, doomed for schism far before Monica Lewinsky and the bitter mudslinging that followed Gore conceding the election to George W. Bush. It is hard not to resist the images of Clinton sitting back and reading this piece, laughing at Williams' humor, shaking his head, and Gore, somewhere far away, wincing at a sentence here and there and deciding not to read its entirety after all.
Noah's smart structuring of the book invisibly hones the reader's interest in Williams herself. Who was this woman whose cunning powers of perception were curiously ideal for chronicling the conflicted, and conflicting, personalities that traced wildly broad lines across the Washington seismograph? The second section sets out to answer some of these questions, such as in "In Conversation," where Williams admits loving Stephen King, especially Pet Sematary. The true fascinations of her life come into focus in "Entomophobia" and "Mommy at Her Desk"—her children, Alice and Will. The more burnished tidbits and observations that accumulate, the more one wonders how she faced her inevitable decline and the curtain going down. How did this woman and her infinitely engaging writing not go on?
Section three answers with the drive of a thriller and the emotion of being inside her head; far from turning into a depressing finale, it is the most emotionally bracing portion. "Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir" could stand alongside the best of those already put down. She writes near the end of it, "But I am now, after a long struggle, surprisingly happy in the crooked, sturdy little shelter I've built in the wastes of Cancerland. Here, my family has lovingly adapted to our awful tumble in fortune. And here, I nurture a garden of eleven or twelve different varieties of hope, including the cramped, faint, strangely apologetic hope that having already done the impossible, I will somehow attain the unattainable cure." The fact that she spent so many hours dedicated to plumbing the depths of her disease, when she could have been writing or doing so much else, renders her words all the more of a gift.
Ultimately, Williams is revealed from the inside out as meticulously as she considers others from the outside in. The book's title comes from a poem by Randall Jarrell, who Williams admired, and works very neatly, considering the zoo that is the political arena, and the ways Williams could honestly and sympathetically capture its rare creatures with unparalleled color and life.
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