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Collection puts late columnist's shrewd observations on display

The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate, By Marjorie Williams, Edited by Timothy Noah, PublicAffairs, 384 pp, $26.95

Marjorie Williams's profiles and columns penetrated the bluster and contradictions of political life in the nation's capital. Their piercing insights sometimes rose above the blather of 24-hour news to become the talk of the town.

Slate dubbed her ''Washington's most dangerous profiler." Vanity Fair magazine called her ''our own Jane Austen on the Potomac."

Williams, a Washington Post reporter and columnist who freelanced for Vanity Fair, died of liver cancer in January at age 47. Now her husband, Timothy Noah, a senior writer at Slate, has collected about 40 of her columns and profiles published between 1988 and 2004 in ''The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate."

Like the narrator in Randall Jarrell's poem ''The Woman at the Washington Zoo," Williams was an astute observer of a culture that was foreign to her. Whether she was investigating the contradictions in the life of power broker and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan or coming to terms with her own mortality, she did not flinch.

What Williams wrote about a typical column by her late colleague Mary McGrory applies as well to her own writing: ''a soufflé of surpassing grace packed with raisins of brutal insight."

Bored at Harvard, Williams dropped out to work in book publishing. In 1986, Williams moved to Washington, D.C., to try journalism. The Post hired her as an editor. Later she parlayed an offer to run the Book-of-the-Month Club into a reporting job for the Post's Style section. In the summer of 2001, as she started syndicating her column for the Post to other newspapers, she was given months to live. She survived another 3 1/2 years.

Through the accretion of details and shrewd analysis, Williams skewered icons of Washington politics. She reveled in what she called the ''revelatory details that are red meat to a journalist writing about personality." Most of the pieces collected here were written during the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It's a shame we don't have Williams to help us understand the current administration. A profile of Barbara Bush begins, ''Even Barbara Bush's stepmother is afraid of her."

In analyzing what went wrong with Al Gore's presidential campaign, she writes, ''For eight years, we watched the marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton, marveling at the glue that kept it together, wondering if Bill's misdeeds would finally blow it apart, certain that if the end came it would make for a spectacular explosion. And all that time, it turns out, we were watching the wrong marriage." Gore and Bill Clinton so disliked and mistrusted each other that Clinton did little to boost Gore's candidacy, and Gore rarely paid homage to Clinton in public.

Williams's feminism comes to a full boil in her columns. After Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, she took political feminists to task for looking the other way because the Clinton administration advanced their agenda.

Occasionally, she pokes fun at herself. In decrying Ms. magazine's beauty advertorials, she admits to a passion for ''politically incorrect shoes."

Chronicling her efforts to quit cigarettes, she winces as she recalls smoking in the Washington Post newsroom in the late '80s. ''The grand concession we two smokers made [to a co-worker who was allergic to smoke] was to move our overflowing ashtrays to the sides of our terminals farthest away from her."

Williams is at her best when her experiences as the mother of two young children are brought to bear on the issues she explores. Particularly moving is a column about a mother in Japan who strangled a neighbor's 2-year-old daughter because that little girl had been admitted to a school the mother wanted her own 2-year-old to attend. Reflecting on the nearly universal competition over whose child walks first, talks first, and scores highest on any number of measures, Williams admits that murder is less far-fetched than she wishes it were.

''We are hopelessly small," she writes, ''to be trusted with the raising of people even smaller."

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