Fred Hiatt, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor, Dies at 66

He used his powerful platform to champion human rights, caution against a Trump presidency and condemn the killing of a Saudi columnist for the paper.,

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Fred Hiatt, the longtime editorial page editor of The Washington Post, who used his position atop one of the nation’s most visible and influential opinion platforms to support justice and human rights, died on Monday at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 66.

He had been visiting his daughter in Brooklyn on Nov. 24 and was out shopping for the family’s Thanksgiving dinner when he went into sudden cardiac arrest, said his wife, Margaret Shapiro, who is known as Pooh. A bystander immediately called 911, she said, but Mr. Hiatt never regained consciousness. She said he had a history of heart ailments. He lived in Chevy Chase, Md.

Mr. Hiatt, a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing, led The Post’s opinion section for more than two decades. In that time, he expanded the staff from about a dozen people to more than 80, broadening its reach and its ranks to include not only seasoned journalists but also younger, up-and-coming writers, videographers, bloggers and designers. Karen Tumulty, a deputy editorial page editor, said the section is now “the house that Fred built.”

Mr. Hiatt was perhaps best known in recent years for leading the newspaper’s outraged response to the 2018 abduction and murder of one of its Saudi contributors, Jamal Khashoggi, a legal permanent resident of Virginia. On Oct. 5, 2018, when Mr. Khashoggi first disappeared, Mr. Hiatt ran an attention-grabbing empty white space on the opinion page where Mr. Khashoggi’s column would have appeared.

Mr. Hiatt orchestrated numerous editorials and essays by outside contributors demanding justice on Mr. Khashoggi’s behalf, established a fellowship in his name and gave a global platform to other dissident writers from the Arab world who had been banned from their domestic media.

An intelligence report released by the Biden administration in February said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia had approved the Khashoggi assassination.

Donald E. Graham, the publisher of The Post who named Mr. Hiatt as editorial page editor in 1999, said in an interview that he had chosen him for his independence, “which is a somewhat rare quality in Washington.”

As The Post’s editorial board noted in a tribute published online on Monday, Mr. Hiatt had championed Aung San Suu Kyi when she was an imprisoned freedom fighter in Myanmar, and she visited The Post to thank him personally for his support. But years later, when she defended a genocidal military campaign against the country’s Rohingya minority, he condemned her in an editorial.

“Few journalists have rivaled his idealism and complete dedication to the causes of democracy and human rights worldwide,” Frederick J. Ryan Jr., The Post’s current publisher and chief executive, said in a statement.

After the world had learned of Saddam Hussein’s mass murders and other depravities in Iraq, Mr. Hiatt and the editorial board supported the 2003 American invasion — a position that drew sharp criticism from many liberals and led conservative hawks to embrace him.

Mr. Hiatt resisted the label of neoconservative, however, and defended his stance by saying that The Post had always favored a strong defense and an America “that is prudently engaged in the world.”

Mr. Graham said he had also picked Mr. Hiatt for his “careful and measured” news judgment.

“He hired a wonderful staff, he was greatly admired by some pretty picky writers, and he was always willing to listen,” Mr. Graham said. Mr. Hiatt would assess both sides, he said, but “when he didn’t think there was another side, he could be fierce.”

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Mr. Hiatt, right foreground, leaving a meeting between the presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and The Post’s editorial board in March 2016 at the newspaper’s offices. Before the general election got underway, Mr. Hiatt wrote that Mr. Trump was unfit for office.Credit…Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This included his view that Donald J. Trump was unfit to be president. In 2016, before the general election was underway and long before Mr. Trump was twice impeached, Mr. Hiatt wrote that Mr. Trump’s “contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.” He was a Pulitzer finalist for his editorials about Mr. Trump.

But above all, in its tribute on Monday, the newspaper’s editorial board recalled Mr. Hiatt as being “gifted with seemingly effortless charm, good humor and emotional acumen that enabled him to lead a diverse and sometimes fractious staff through daunting challenges.”

When Katie Kingsley became acting editor of The New York Times editorial page in 2020, Mr. Hiatt reached out to her.

“He was generous not only to his staff, but also to me,” she said in an email. “From our conversation I was expecting wise counsel and serious mentorship, which did come, but not before he spent a half-hour trying to make me laugh with tales of ornery writers.”

Frederick Samuel Hiatt was born on April 30, 1955, in Washington. At the time, his father, Howard Haym Hiatt, was a medical researcher at the National Institutes of Health. When the elder Mr. Hiatt became dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, the family moved to Brookline, Mass., where Fred grew up. His mother, Doris (Bieringer) Hiatt, went to library school and co-founded a magazine that reviewed books for school libraries.

Mr. Hiatt went to Harvard, majoring in history and working for the campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, where he met Ms. Shapiro. They graduated in 1977 and traveled around the world together for a year and a half. He started his newspaper career at The Atlanta Journal, then moved to The Washington Star.

When The Star folded in 1981, Mr. Hiatt joined The Post, where Ms. Shapiro was already working as a reporter. His first assignment was covering suburban Fairfax County, Va.; he then took on Virginia politics and the Pentagon. He and Ms. Shapiro were married in 1984.

In addition to her, he is survived by his father; his three children, Alexandra, Joseph and Nathaniel Hiatt; his brother, Jonathan; his sister, Deborah Hiatt; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Hiatt and Ms. Shapiro were both sent to Tokyo in 1987 as co-bureau chiefs; it was the first time The Post sent a couple to share a job in a foreign posting. “We shared a desk,” Ms. Shapiro said in an interview. “He sat on one side, and I sat on the other. He would read my copy, and I would read his. It was seamless.”

It worked out so well that the newspaper moved them to a similar job-sharing beat in Moscow, where they covered the fall of the Soviet Union.

As much as he loved being a foreign correspondent, Ms. Shapiro said, the work that was most meaningful to him was building The Post’s opinion section.

“He brought in really talented people both to explain the world and write columns from all different perspectives,” she said. “Having been given the opportunity to do that and to continue to do it was hugely important to him. The people he worked with were family.”

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