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While Joe Kraft Humbles the Elevated in Print, Wife Polly Elevates the Humble on Canvas

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As one of Washington’s most carefully read pundits, Joe Kraft knows the corridors of power like the back of his hand, which is just what he often gives the bureaucrats and politicians he writes about. His widely syndicated, thrice-weekly column reflects not only a deep familiarity with national and world affairs but also a range of inside sources that few other journalists can match. Last October, for instance, he was the first to forecast Richard Allen’s departure from the National Security Council and his replacement by William P. Clark. Another example of the Kraft craft: his approach to the latest State of the Union message.

Usually, Kraft says, he goes to the House for the address, then drops in on “the Speaker or somebody” to gather grist for his column. But this year, after attending an Administration briefing, he decided to skip the Capitol Hill performance and pick the brains of “the best-informed sources on federal-state relations in this town.” Then Kraft returned home, watched the speech on TV with his wife, Polly, and began to write. The speech, he says now, was “one of the schmaltziest I ever heard—just a smokescreen to get people sucked into talking about federal-state relations instead of the hemorrhaging of the deficit, unemployment and the decline of American influence abroad. I don’t think it will work.”

Kraft’s self-assurance is legendary and rarely fails him except in one discipline: art. That is his wife’s preserve. At 50, Polly Kraft is an accomplished watercolorist whose works sell for as much as $1,600 and can be found in the Corcoran Gallery collection as well as in many of D.C.’s most elegant homes. While the columnist spends half of each year visiting world capitals, his painter spouse repairs every day to a rented studio. The critics have been positive; one said that her intimate renditions of everyday objects—plates, cups, pillows—”recall the watercolors of Cézanne.” But Polly has most of her shows out of Washington. She explains: “I didn’t want to make it by being Joe’s wife.”

The Krafts are comfortable with their divergent ambitions. Joe readily admits that he is “just not very visual,” and Polly’s not always current on current events. “Days go by when I don’t look at a newspaper,” she confesses. “If the subject interests me, okay, but I’m not going to read about gold flow.” Still, separate success does have its price. “I stand six or seven hours a day at an easel and get exhausted,” Polly says. “Nights I love to go to a movie or sit in a pub and yak, but Joe has been talking to people all day and just wants to sit. That’s difficult.”

The Krafts have been conscious of their differences since they first met at a party she threw in Manhattan in 1959. Joe, then a bachelor of 35, found her “everything I wasn’t—warm, loving, enthusiastic, sparkling.” Polly, separated from her first husband, was focusing her enthusiasm mainly on folk-singing and the guitar. She recalls of that evening: “Joe was awkward, intense and frightening to me, and he had a wildly funny New York sense of humor. I knew that here was a man who was totally unpredictable.”

Having grown up in Manhattan, where his father was a textile manufacturer, Kraft enlisted in World War II at 18, served as an Army cryptographer in Washington, then went through Columbia in three years, emerging Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in history. After postgraduate work at Princeton and the renowned Institute for Advanced Studies, he delved further into history at the Sorbonne. In 1951, at the age of 27, he went to the Washington Post as an editorial writer. By the time he met Polly, he was at the New York Times, having just covered the Algerian war for the Saturday Evening Post.

Polly was born Rhoda Winton in Minneapolis, where her family owned a prosperous lumber company. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and she moved with her mother and younger brother to San Marino, Calif. Unlike Joe, she was no scholar. At Mills College, she left before getting her degree, but did study “French, music and skiing. It was a well-rounded education,” she says with a laugh. In 1951 she met and married Whitney Stevens, a member of the J.P. Stevens textile family. They settled in Manhattan, had two boys, separated in 1957 and divorced two years later. Says she: “I was like most women of those times, alone all day trying to raise two tiny kids, sitting by the sandbox, kind of miserably desperate.”

After she and Kraft married in 1960, he joined John Kennedy’s campaign as a speech writer. Later they moved to Washington, where in 1963, after a tour as a Harper’s correspondent, Joe launched his column. Polly did not take to Camelot enthusiastically. The JFK era, she recalls, was “heady and glamorous, but the town was totally political, and I was not. I tried to do it all, but it is tough to entertain, cook and paint at the same time, and I was becoming more and more frustrated.” Finally Joe sensed the problem and told her, as she recalls it: “Look, I never got a story at a Georgetown dinner, and I tend to feel uncomfortable discussing politics at social gatherings. Let’s call a halt and just see our friends.” So they did. Their social circle still includes the high-powered likes of Averell Harriman and Katherine Graham, but the relief from wider obligations allowed Polly to plunge into art courses.

It took her quite a while “to find my own voice” in painting, Polly says. But some successful shows near the Krafts’ Long Island summer home convinced her she was a salable artist. Her eldest son, Mark Stevens, 30, who is Newsweek’s art critic, is not alone in calling her “one of the best” contemporary watercolorists. (Her other son, David, 27, is studying clinical psychology at the University of Colorado. The Krafts themselves are childless; she has had two miscarriages.)

At the Krafts’ 1840 Georgetown home, Joe rises first and makes breakfast for himself and Polly—fresh orange juice, coffee and English muffins. Then he burrows through the papers and watches exactly seven minutes of the morning TV news (“I learn more per minute from reading”). By 8 he is at his desk in his office over the garage, working on his column, reading mail, making phone calls, writing a magazine piece or pushing along his fifth book—a biography of Anwar Sadat. The relentless pace has given him two mild heart attacks (in 1964 and 1975). “I quit smoking, and now I cut the tension with chewing gum,” he says.

He was an early critic of the Vietnam War and made the Nixon Administration’s “enemies list,” but Kraft objects to being tagged as a liberal. “I was never that interested or involved with social policy,” he says. “I think I was a neoconservative before that concept developed.” He has also been labeled as arch; in a 1978 Washington]an magazine poll, fellow journalists voted Kraft their Most Pretentious colleague. That, he concedes, is an occupational hazard, “but you learn over and over again that you are not nearly as important as you think.” Protests Polly: “Some people tend to mistake knowledge for pomposity. He is open to new ideas and loves being intellectually rocked.”

Both of them are fascinated by the changes they’ve seen in their 20 years in the capital. Back in the ’60s, Polly recalls, “few men were even interested to ask me what I did, and if I told them their eyes would glaze over.” Happily, she says, “those moments will never come again.” Joe has a harsher assessment. “One, there is a great deal more selfishness on both the policy level and the personal level,” he says. “People want theirs and are less concerned with the impact on others. Two, there’s a visible vying. I was at a dinner the other night where you could almost feel Kissinger and Weinberger wanting Haig’s job, and Haig and Bush and Jack Kemp wanting Reagan’s job. I don’t think I ever felt that naked a sense of rivalry in the past.”