This is a reveiew of Reputation: Portraits in Power, by Marjorie Williams, 2008, PublicAffairs. I wrote it for LibraryThing.com
Marjorie Williams wrote these for the Washington Post and for Vanity Fair during the 90’s. They are long enough to be substantial and short enough to be easily accessible. I love to find books like this, where you can get a frequently elegant introduction to a certain era or a certain place through the very real lives of very real people. It seems to me to be much more effective than the summary or analytical works that are so much more common.
A person must have a lot of depth and profound powers of observation to write so penetratingly and believably, and provide such illumination to the rest of us in the process.
She put a lot of interviewing and other research effort into each of these articles. And she quotes sources, both named and anonymous, frequently and effectively.
But let me give you a few of Williams’ own observations as a sampling of her ability to see into a person and to express what she sees.
It is sweet indeed to watch a woman [the New York Times’ Anna Quindlen] force a Fortune 500 company to accommodate her children’s mealtimes.
Of Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh:
In the utilitarian political universe of Washington, consistency like Walsh’s is distinctly suspect. It began to seem rigid of him to care so much.
People who try to describe what made Colin Powell so good as an insider cite the classic attributes of workaholism, clubbability, and guile. The one rarer quality they grope to define is Powell’s great and natural smoothness.
But [Larry] King has always had an active romantic life in the capital. There are women in Washington who can bring each other to weeping laughter by reciting their favorite Larry King pick-up lines.
But it’s not [George H. W.] Bush’s fault that we bought the con… And now that the lie is crumbling there is something dishonest about blaming the liar… We will either find a way to become infatuated with him again, or else we will apply the age-old remedy for disillusionment and throw the bum out… We always marry another one just like him.
As Secretary of Defense, accountable to history for his acts [Clark] Clifford traded away his most cherished resource – the confidence of the President – for what he perceived as the correct course. It was the kind of conflict Clifford’s Five Commandments were designed to avoid. It was the finest hour of his career.
It might have been a little frightening to find oneself the subject of an article Marjorie Williams was working on. But it was also regarded as an honor. She is very thorough and very observant. This is a book I will surely pick up again and again in years to come.