Probing profiles and essays from the late Washington Post journalist long recognized for her insights into government’s inner workings.
Williams’s pungent portraits of a panoply of Washington characters reveal raw power robed in an ornate, quaint, social fabric—almost as if the Rome of Tacitus were splashed across Jane Austen’s English countryside. Her favorite targets include hypocrisy, of which there is plenty to burn, and the varieties of low behavior that wind up being a sort of generic lack of grace under pressure. In a chapter entitled “The Hack,” for example, she skewers a California Democrat known for resigning from Congress under investigation and his tendency to backstab rivals with: “Listen to [Tony] Coelho, who pauses only to shoot his army’s wounded on his way off the field . . . it’s not Tony Coelho who will pay for his party’s mistakes.” In another instance, her predilection for psychological insight blooms forth in a comparison of the irrepressibly libidinous (her characterization) black lawyer and “message man,” Vernon Jordan, with his patron, Bill Clinton: “Like Jordan, Clinton is a product of a matriarchal home that propelled him up from the lower middle class. Like Jordan, he is a man skilled at, perhaps addicted to, the seduction of everyone he meets.” And in Ronald Reagan’s ultimately forced explanation of the Iran-Contra situation—“Mistakes were made”—Williams nails the situation as a Washington syndrome: “the self-rescinding apology, which may be the most useful of all.” Other notable chapters include Jeb and Barbara Bush as, respectively, The Sibling and The Wife. The second section comprises essays on life and fate, the most poignant of which is “Hit By Lightning: A Cancer Memoir,” an account of being diagnosed with the cancer that killed her in January 2005.
Somewhat dated but a nonetheless rich collection framing the kinds of people, fair and foul, destined to make Washington tick.