Photo by Liz Lynch
It started with firewood.
When Ruth Marcus got to Yale in the fall of 1975 she felt “a little overwhelmed with the work” and was “searching for a place” to feel comfortable and connected. She had always liked writing so her mother suggested she join the Yale Daily News. “What she really said,” Ruth relates with a laugh, “is there will probably be a lot of nice Jewish boys there.”
Two hundred aspiring writers showed up at the paper’s first meeting of the semester “and 199 of them had been editors of their high school newspapers,” she recalls. “I’m the other one.”
But a friend from her hometown of Livingston, N.J., had introduced her to one of the Daily’s top editors, Andy Pincus. A few days later he called and offered an assignment. Many Yale dorm rooms have fireplaces, he explained. Find out everything you can about firewood.
“I can’t tell you how much I loved doing that story, but I was too shy to put my name on it,” Marcus says. The editors confused Ruth with another reporter, so her first story appeared under the byline “Roseanne Marcus.”
No one is confused about Ruth Marcus anymore. At 58, she writes a nationally syndicated column for The Washington Post and appears regularly on TV and radio. Andy Pincus, now a prominent Washington lawyer, is one of her best legal sources. And Ruth occasionally edits Post columns written by Andy’s father, Walter. “How perfect is that?” she asks.
We are sitting in the kitchen of Ruth’s home in Bannockburn, where she’s lived for 18 years with her husband, Jon Leibowitz, the former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. “Why,” I ask, “did that first story grab you so deeply?”
“It was the opportunity to learn about something that I completely didn’t know anything about,” she answers. “When you have a notebook in your hand, you’re so empowered to ask pretty much any question that you want to ask.”
A journalist was born. After graduation she worked briefly at the National Law Journal and then detoured through Harvard Law School before joining the Post in 1984. She was assigned to the Prince George’s County bureau and her first story required riding in a blimp to mark the 75th anniversary of the College Park Airport. “That was pretty cool. I haven’t been up in a blimp since,” she says.
Soon she was promoted to the paper’s national staff, where she covered legal issues, including the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Her future husband was working for the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Thomas hearings, and their romance blossomed after he became one of her sources. How perfect is that?
Marcus calls herself “a poster child for work-family balance,” and after her daughters, Emma and Julia, were born, she reduced her work schedule and even took a year off. One day when Emma was sick, the school nurse went to call Ruth and the child piped up: “Don’t try the office, she doesn’t go there anymore, she just shops and goes to the gym.”
While she was on her “sabbatical,” Ruth got a call and offer from Fred Hiatt, who runs the Post editorial page: Come write editorials. It’s family-friendly. No late nights or breaking news. “Who knew that mommy-tracking myself would turn out to be the best career move I ever made?” she says.
The move to editorial writing was not easy. “I’m not a natural partisan, I’m a natural reporter,” Marcus insists. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to pull the trigger” and make the “hard calls” that editorial writing demands. “I didn’t know that I was going to develop a voice as an opinion writer. It just kind of all happened.”
As her “voice” strengthened, she started writing occasional columns for the Post op-ed page and absorbed some hard lessons. One Mother’s Day effort disparaged her husband for leaving his boxer shorts on the bedroom floor. “It had some unattractive meanness to it,” she recalls. “You learn as you do this about what you should and shouldn’t say in public.”
Those columns eventually turned into a full-time job. She writes periodically about her private life because “readers want a sense of you as a whole person,” but she rations those pieces carefully. “If you have a column that is so self-indulgent and self-referential that it’s about your life every week, that’s too much.”
Still, gender remains an important part of her “whole” identity. When she’s tackling tax policy, say, or climate change, it’s irrelevant. But at other times, she writes clearly from a woman’s perspective, and one good example occurred during the presidential campaign, after Donald Trump was accused of sexual harassment. Ruth related an incident that happened during college, when a powerful older man reached down her dress and she didn’t object.
“Now, 38 years later, it feels more humiliating than it did back then,” she wrote. “I am embarrassed by the meek complicity of my younger self, shamed to the point of being wary of revealing it to my daughters, now college students themselves. I like to believe they would not sit still, literally, for such treatment.”
With her daughters away, Marcus has changed jobs again, cutting back to one column a week while editing the paper’s other opinion writers and adding a visual dimension—interviews, graphics, videos—to editorial page offerings online. That means less time writing at her kitchen table in Bethesda and more time commuting to the Post offices downtown. “I feel guilty about leaving the dog,” she admits, but she embraces the challenge of finding new ways to attract new readers who don’t want ink on their fingers at the breakfast table.
“A middle-aged mom might not be the smartest person to be figuring out this digital transformation, but it’s really interesting to think about,” says Ruth. Just like firewood.
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. His new book, Bethesda and Chevy Chase (Arcadia Publishing), is a history of the area. Send ideas for future columns to email@example.com.