Sally Quinn wedding feud: Don’t fire Ms. Quinn — turn her ‘at large’

image My “Don’t fire” headline is for the benefit of out-of-towners.

As a close friend of the Grahams, the owning family of the Washington Post, she in fact comes wrapped in asbestos.

So why am I writing this generally pro-Quinn post (amid the “dueling weddings” controversy—over the common date of April 10, shared by her son’s wedding and the previously planned one for Ben Bradlee’s granddaughter)?

No, I don’t know Sally Quinn. And I’m baffled how the author of The Party could commit such a gaffe and spread the bad feelings in print. Even if her explanation might hold up—wedding planners are hardly beyond the reach of Murphy’s Law—I winced when I read there wasn’t a danger of an overlap in hoped-for attendees. Grandfathers don’t count when the bride-to-be is the firstborn of ten grandchildren? And when she clearly and dearly wants Ben Bradlee to come? Should the National Cathedral’s availability on X Day count more than a granddaughter? What a fine example of respectability as the enemy of decency.

But, and this is a big one, let’s remember the famous quote attributed to the late Phil Graham: journalism is “the first draft of history.” Furthermore, it can also be in a sense the first draft of literature. When F. Scott Fitzgerald created Jay Gatsby, he may have relied in part on newspaper clippings or at least a clip. As both a journalist and a novelist, I myself would be grumpy if the Post nudged Ms. Quinn into retirement before she absolutely had to go. Talk about institutional memories and promising “first drafts”!

Even her critics tend to concede that Ms. Quinn is the doyenne of the Georgetown party circuit. How often do you get the word—in your morning paper—directly from an authentic doyenne? If anything, the Post should give her an “at large” column, with a special mandate to do what she did at the start of her career. A little less etiquette advice, please, and more of the old Sally’s anthropological candor. Three decades have passed since I began The Solomon Scandals, originally titled The Cover-Up, but I can recall that along with the Ear, the gossip column in the late Washington Star, the much-younger Ms. Quinn’s output was one of many sources of insights into the thinking of the Washington elite. I’d welcome more of the same today. At 68 and with family obligations to worry about, she probably lacks the time and energy to be as prolific as her earlier self. But I can still imagine her going on to scores of stories—this time, with added decades of experience on the D.C. scene (and ideally some attentive editing). I don’t want the Post to tarry. Turn Ms. Quinn loose, and “at large,” before she taps out her final column. Maybe the Authors Guild and the National Writers Union should organize a petition.

Here’s something about which I’d worry more than lack of energy—that Ms. Quinn would be too inhibited in her doyenne incarnation. I want to see repeats of Quinn vs. Palin. Civility is fine, and in fact, I agree with Ms. Quinn’s complaint that it has waned among politicians in this era of jet travel and easier commutes back to congressional districts. Good cozy parties off-hours can lubricate the workings of government. But sometimes you just have to tell the truth and let the blood run in the streets.

Wimpiness, not merely the current miserliness toward the newsroom, is among the failings of the Washington Post Company today. The MBAs or at least kindred souls have taken over, creating a stark contrast between the Post and the more outspoken writers on the Internet. While I’ll do the obligatory tongue-clucking about those battling weddings, Ms. Quinn’s infamous column is actually relief in a sense. Do we really want Ms. Quinn to commit a worse sin—-boring her readers? “Room emptiers” was Ben Bradlee’s priceless term for such evils, and along with others I rejoiced when an elderly Pulitzer Prize winner punched another Post man, thereby proving that the MBAs and other meritocrats haven’t entirely wiped out the remnants of the old Post. Passion, please.

Hired by Bradlee in 1969 despite her complete lack of journalistic experience—“nobody’s perfect,” joked Phil Geyelin, editorial page editor—Sally Quinn was far from a consistent PR woman for the establishment and its want-to-bes. Long before Dana Milbank, the columnist and Skull and Bones alum, played anthropolgist toward the Washington elite, Ms. Quinn tended to have it it down pat, as the late Steven A. Martindale and many others could attest. Henry Kissinger joked that Maxine Cheshire, another Post staffer, made her subjects feel like committing murder. By contrast, Ms. Quinn’s profiles tempted her interviewees to commit suicide. She could err at times, as shown by the Brzezinski zipper flap, and looking back, I suspect that even Ms. Quinn would concede she was gratuitously cruel on a more than a few occasions. But if you wanted to track the foibles and worse of the D.C. elite, you read Ms. Quinn and in time the Ear.

Today the Post is far more buttoned-down. Even in Ms. Quinn’s heyday, the Post had blind spots in regard to powerful business people. But today I suspect it has many more. This just might be one reason—I don’t know—why the newspaper has not printed a word about The Solomon Scandals despite a recommendation in the Washington City Paper (“same dark zeal Hammett held for Frisco or Chandler had for Los Angeles”). Scandals isn’t about the actual Post but among other things delves into the perennial and troublesome issue of relations between the press and local advertisers. If nothing else, by my standards, L Street’s news judgment about the local business community and the rest of D.C. can be a little out of whack even though the Post in most ways is still a good newspaper. I’d be crazy not to consider this as a possible factor for the witting or unwitting blackout Scandals has encountered from the Post (the ultimate bypass information is here). Could it be that Ms. Quinn is a nice, symbolic target for some media critics to attack while overlooking a bigger story, the free ride that the Post has given certain business people at times?

When I asked Ombudsman Andrew Alexander to explain the Post’s surfeit of reverence toward a departed real estate magnate whose father helped inspired the Solomon character, he didn’t even acknowledge receipt of my note. The same man who earlier had scolded Post reporters for not answering their email? Ms. Quinn may have worshipped the dead Mr. Untouchable for all I know—I haven’t the slightest idea—but the point is, she evinced the passions of her era as a young writer, and I see less of the same in today’s Post. Maybe the Grahams should learn from the Bradlee-Quinn example and impose a quota to guarantee the hiring of more nonjournalists. Keep the pros in the majority. But don’t let the occupation be so damn ingrown; reporters and editors are worse than cops.

May I conclude with a little more tongue-clucking—not toward Ms. Quinn and the Post, but toward certain of their critics, whose jeers about her son may have been far, far meaner than any he encountered in the past about his learning disabilities. Some of the worst came from right-wingers, presumably anti-abortionists, who you’d think would respect Ms. Quinn’s sacrifices and never-ceasing efforts on behalf of her challenged boy. If you read A Different Life, Quinn Bradlee’s no-anecdote-barred memoirs written with help from his friend and tutor, Jeff Himmelman, you’ll see she is precisely the helicopter mother billed by her sympathizers—forever hovering over Quinn.

A health problem almost killed Ms. Quinn when she was young (she spent a year in a military hospital), just as polio beset Ben Bradlee. War isn’t the only definer and revealer of character; so is family illness, and in that context, this general’s daughter easily passed the test and went on to a Ph.D. Has she earned the right to tell off Sarah Palin for placing White House ambitions over a family with a disabled child? You betcha! I repeat: Read Quinn Bradlee’s book. Sally Quinn practiced, again and again, what she preached. Children first, please, especially those with special needs. This being D.C., of course, some say Ms. Quinn actually wrote the book. Huh? Including the story of young Quinn and a hooker?

Simply put, regardless of the “dueling weddings” and the rest, I  myself intend to cut Ms. Quinn plenty of slack. The old wisdom in journalism is that you’re supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. May I add to the last several words: “When they deserve it”?

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David Rothman

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