The Common Good Needed Someone to Protect It

The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt understood that basic values need to be defended.

Fred Hiatt
Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post / Getty

About the author: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The loudest, most prominent voices in public life are not always the most influential. Some of the people who leave the most profound impact—the ones who actually shape the thinking of a generation—do so quietly. Fred Hiatt, who died earlier this week, was one of those people.

Hiatt was not exactly silent. You may have read his columns in The Washington Post or, before that, his reporting. But he did not appear much on television; nor did he make other efforts to build anything resembling a “personal brand.” This, he once told me, was because he was conscious that, as the editor of the Post’s editorial page, he would always be seen as somehow speaking for the paper. Also, television destroys nuance. Among other things, he was responsible for producing the Post’s unsigned editorials for more than two decades—that’s about three a day, every day, 365 days a year—and he didn’t want some rash comment or badly worded answer to spoil them.

Those editorials were the end result of a unique process, one I was part of during the four years I worked on the Post’s editorial board in the early 2000s. Five days a week, that board—about five to 10 people on any given day, of various ages, backgrounds, and perspectives—gathered in a room and wrangled over everything from the politics of Montgomery County, Maryland, to wars in distant countries. Some present were experts in the subject under discussion, but even those who were not chimed in if they felt they had something to say. The point was to argue, and then to write something that reflected the nature of the argument. Well-founded objections usually made their way into the final editorial, even if they contradicted the overall line. The existence of different views was never denied.

But although every individual issue could be debated, the editorial board’s basic values—Hiatt’s basic values—were not up for grabs, because they were exactly the thing that made the existence of different viewpoints, side by side, in a single newspaper, possible. Hiatt simply believed in the ideals of the U.S. Constitution; the principle of rule of law; and the need for tolerance of the views of others, so long as those also conformed to law and the Constitution. Abroad, he argued in favor of human rights and democracy. As a former Moscow correspondent, he was particularly sensitive to the fate of the post-Soviet world. At the same time, he was also one of the first people in Washington to write consistently and frequently about China’s abuse of its own citizens. Eventually, he wrote a children’s book with a Chinese-dissident heroine. But he was also exercised by bad governance and corruption at home, by racism and poverty, by lies and propaganda.

These were mostly nonpartisan values, and that mostly nonpartisan sensibility was what made the Post editorial page different from its main competitors. If a Democrat was promoting those values, Hiatt defended that Democrat. If a Republican was promoting them, Hiatt defended that Republican. He also hired columnists across a broad spectrum, including, recently, some who supported Donald Trump. The evenhandedness that Hiatt favored got harder as the Republican Party slid further in the direction of autocratic and extremist rhetoric. But if the Democratic Party were sliding that way, Hiatt would have criticized that too.

None of which is to say that everything Hiatt ever wrote was always perfect, or that the Post editorial board was always a happy family, or that the values in theory were always manifest in practice. But the point was to try: to try to create a forum, located squarely in the center of public life, where civilized debate could take place among people of good faith who all recognized, more or less, their opponents’ right to speak and believed, more or less, that it was important to be decent and polite while that debate was unfolding. Hiatt made this effort because he knew that without these kinds of institutions, there is no public life to speak of. And that was what mattered to him the most.