The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, And Fate by Marjorie Williams
Publisher: PublicAffairs Books
Date: Nov 2005
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Marjorie Williams knew Washington from top to bottom. Beloved for her sharp analysis, elegant prose and exceptional ability to intuit character, Williams wrote political profiles for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair that came to be considered the final word on the capital's most powerful figures. Her accounts of playing ping-pong with Richard Darman, of Barbara Bush's stepmother quaking with fear at the mere thought of angering the First Lady, and of Bill Clinton angrily telling Al Gore why he failed to win the presidency — to name just three treasures collected here — open a window on a seldom-glimpsed human reality behind Washington's determinedly blank façade.
Williams also penned a weekly column for the Post's op-ed page and epistolary book reviews for the online magazine Slate. Her essays for these and other publications tackled subjects ranging from politics to parenthood. During the last years of her life, she wrote about her own mortality as she battled liver cancer, using this harrowing experience to illuminate larger points about the nature of power and the randomness of life.
Marjorie Williams was a woman in a man's town, an outsider reporting on the political elite. She was, like the narrator in Randall Jarrell's classic poem, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," an observer of a strange and exotic culture. This splendid collection — at once insightful, funny and sad — digs into the psyche of the nation's capital, revealing not only the hidden selves of the people that run it, but the messy lives that the rest of us lead.
This is a collection of writings by Marjorie Williams, a former Washington Post staff writer and columnist and Vanity Fair contributor who died last year (exactly one year ago yesterday, actually) of liver cancer. I knew who she was, but I can't say I was very familiar with her work; I remembered having read only one of the pieces included in this volume. ("Scenes From a Marriage," her 2001 Vanity Fair profile of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, if you care.) She was a talented writer, and I found her profiles of political figures particularly interesting, even those of people who have long since vanished from the Washington poitical scene. I also especially liked her (previously unpublished, I believe) essay about her mother's death, which was very moving, and the one that closes the book (and the last she ever wrote), about helping her daughter dress up for Halloween.
The piece that hit me hardest, however, was "Struck By Lightning," a long essay about being diagnosed with cancer and how she coped with it. But my reaction was probably not the effect the author intended: it made me angry. Williams describes how, thanks to a generous health insurance plan and the contacts she and her husband (Slate columnist Tim Noah) made over the years as journalists in Washington, she was able to take advantage of a wide variety of outstanding medical care, from doctors at Sloan-Kettering, Johns Hopkins, Harvard Medical, and others. She estimates that her exceptional treatment extended her life by at least two years. And that's what pissed me off. Not that she survived as long as she did, of course, but that everyone else in her condition didn't. Even without the personal contacts she accumulated over her years as a journalist, Williams probably still would have survived longer than many other liver cancer sufferers because she worked for a company that provided their employees with a top-notch health insurance plan. Why should the level of medical care available to any given person be dependent on the generosity of his or her employers? And since most people are so dependent, why are employers allowed to provide anything but the best possible health care to their empoyees? Why isn't the American system of providing health care anything but a national scandal? It's infuriating.
Anyway. The Woman at the Washington Zoo was a fine book, but I think I might have liked it more if it had eliminated most of the opinion columns. The political profiles have a certain timelessness to them, as do the personal essays, like the one about her mother or the one about collecting bugs with her son. But the opinion columns, dealing as they do with the details of forgotten news stories, and as such they seem dated and, for me anyway, less compelling to read.