In my boyhood as a reporter, I nearly killed the matriarch of the liberal-media conspiracy. This was in 1988, and I had recently been assigned to the Washington Post’s bureau in Moscow. In an otherwise blissful spring of journalistic overload, a time when the merest cough in the Kremlin merited front-page attention, it came about that the Post and its sister publication, Newsweek, were being awarded a plum: an interview with the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Katharine Graham, the general secretary of the Washington Post Company, and a planeload of senior editors would soon arrive in town to conduct it.
This was not entirely to the good. Great risk was involved, or so one heard. Mrs. Graham—one always referred to her as Mrs. Graham, even in private and at great distances—did not travel in the style of the British Raj, but she was not arriving on a Eurailpass, either. Attention would have to be paid. The cost of failure was incalculable. The legends of correspondents and their varying abilities to cope with a royal visit were countless. There was the Latin-American correspondent for the Post, who wandered the continent for weeks in advance, arranging hotel suites, hairdressers, and interviews with heads of state from Caracas to Tierra del Fuego. He was quite a success. But there was also a certain Africa-based correspondent who carved his own career coffin by arranging for a balloon safari over the Masai Mara at dawn; just as the sun was glinting off the savanna and the balloon was rising above a herd of grazing giraffes, Mrs. Graham is said to have turned to the correspondent and announced, with a profane burr, “You know, I didn’t travel all the way here to be a fucking tourist.” It is said that the correspondent ended up as a recipe checker in the food section. Perhaps it was true. We in Moscow had neither the time nor the luxury that would allow us to confirm these legends. One did not want to spend the remainder of one’s career taste-testing lima beans.
As is true of any royal visit, there were many logistical problems to be worked out. As the junior man in the bureau, I was given the task of finding the hairdresser. I would not insist that Moscow was short on luxury in those days except to note that I did not so much find a hairdresser as create one. At one of the embassies, I found a young woman who was said to own a blow-dryer and a brush. I rang her up and explained the situation. Gravely, as if we were negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, I gave her an annotated copy of Vogue, a mug shot of Mrs. Graham, and a hundred dollars.
“You’re on,” she said.
This was my most important contribution to the interview with the General Secretary of the Communist Party. On the appointed day, I put on my good blue suit, fired up the office Volvo, and proudly drove the hairdresser to Mrs. Graham’s suite at the National Hotel. Apparently, the interview went well. It was featured, with a photograph, in the next day’s edition of Pravda. Mrs. Graham looked quite handsome, I thought. A nice full head of hair, and well combed. I felt close to history.
A few days later, I was assigned to show her and her close friend Meg Greenfield, the Post’s editorial-page editor, around the city that was then known as Leningrad. Following the lead of my successful colleague the Latin-American correspondent, I tried to schedule every minute of the two days allotted me. The first night’s entertainment was an easy choice: the Kirov Ballet. For the second, I went with the upbeat, down-market option: the circus. Mrs. Graham seemed not to mind the nasty benches or the almost very funny clowns. She was in a good mood. The interview had been heady stuff. The General Secretary had “revealed” his plans for a joint United States–Soviet space mission to Mars, and we led the paper with that world beat. At one point, Mrs. Graham asked for ice cream. I got it for her. But then, at intermission, she seemed to tire. As enormous cages and nets were being assembled in the circus ring, she declared, “I think it’s time to go.”
I panicked. My limousine driver had been given strict instructions—and a sizable bribe—to wait outside in case of emergency. This being Russia, however, I could not bet with any confidence against the possibility that he was at this very moment converting his cash into a refreshing liquidity at some local boîte. “Sure, we can go,” I ventured, “but the second act has some really great animals.” I began to describe Misha the Bear, who wore skates on his hind paws and played ice hockey.
Mrs. Graham blinked and said, “I think it’s time to go.”
As I began to lead the way down the steps, a bus-size babushka—the usher—fixed me with a hard look and said, “Nel’zya.” Impossible. You can’t go.
It is not usually advisable, or possible, to argue with a Soviet bus, but my priorities were clear. I had visions of that fellow in the balloon, high above the plain, floating into journalistic obscurity, so I did what one cannot ordinarily do with a babushka. I insisted. Then I lied. I told her that this woman, this very important woman, was gravely ill and in need of immediate medical attention. The babushka melted.
“But hurry,” she said. All around was the loud mewing of big cats and small children.
With me in the lead, the three of us walked down a ramp and past what appeared to be a coffin-size box with open slats. I passed the box without incident. So did Meg Greenfield. Then Mrs. Graham started past it. Suddenly, an enormous claw lunged out of the box and toward the innocent calf of the chairman of the Washington Post Company.
To this day, I cannot say what the beast was—a leopard, a cougar, a jaguar—but I can still see its talons not an inch from the hose and flesh of my proprietor. She, too, saw it, felt its heat, and began running for the exit. The car, at least, was waiting and its driver was sober. But what of it? I would be recalled to the home office. I would be lucky to cover high-school softball in Prince William County.
But then Mrs. Graham was laughing. She was flushed, delighted. “My God!” she said, covering her pearls with the tips of her fingers. “That was some circus! I almost rather died!”
Needless to say, for years I regaled all who would listen with my Katharine Graham story. The story, of course, revealed nothing of Mrs. Graham. During that Leningrad trip, the only moment that hinted at something mysterious and human came when we were in a map room at the Hermitage Museum. Mrs. Graham spotted a map of the Aegean and Black Seas and began to talk about a cruise she had taken in the summer of 1963, not long after her husband died. The subject of the cruise seemed to cause her, so many years later, intense pain—pain beyond the loss of her husband. “I never should have gone,” she said. And then nothing more. It was a fleeting, mystifying moment, but a very real one. There was, of course, no way to press the point.
For nearly all Post reporters and editors, even those few who ventured to call her Kay, she was the woman who signed our checks, the Queen Mother, a cartoon figure with a lockjaw voice that sounded, to us, like money. But those who worked in the Post’s newsroom knew one infinitely reassuring fact about Mrs. Graham: that at the most important moments of her professional life she did the right thing. She went ahead with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and she backed her reporters and editors during Watergate, when the Post Company’s survival was under threat and the paper was all alone in pursuing the story. In doing so, she and her editor, Ben Bradlee, dragged the Post out of the sea of the ordinary and made it great, made it a rival of the New York Times. But even this was hard to understand. How could a woman reared in such exquisite privilege—one whose circle of friends, among them Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, Lyndon Johnson and Nancy Reagan, rarely widened beyond the most powerful élites of Washington and New York—take such risks?
Her story was not easy to figure out. When a young woman named Deborah Davis published a biography in 1979 called “Katharine the Great,” Mrs. Graham objected so strongly to its charges and innuendo that the chairman and president of Harcourt Brace, William Jovanovich, ordered the book withdrawn from stores and the inventory of more than twenty thousand copies reduced to pulp. “I cannot tell you how pained I am by the circumstances which have caused you, quite unnecessarily, distress and concern,” Jovanovich wrote in a cowering letter to Mrs. Graham. “If we should ever meet again, I would like to tell you some of my thoughts on what I have come to recognize as a kind of ‘editorial blackmail,’ in which persons say that if you reject a work . . . you are repressing free expression and limiting the truth.”
Few suggested that “Katharine the Great” was a first-rate book, or even a solid one—it was flatly written and salted with highly suspect, even paranoid, material—but one had to wonder if Mr. Jovanovich would have done the same for anyone else. There are plenty of lousy biographies in this world, and they languish on musty shelves, ignored—but whole. Jovanovich caved, then pulped. Mrs. Graham, for her part, wrote back to him, “I was full of admiration anyway for what you did and the way you did it.” In the end, Davis sued her publisher for libel and breach of contract in 1982 and received a hundred-thousand-dollar settlement. The book has been republished twice by small presses.
Until now, Katharine Graham, considering her influence, has been almost invisible. She hardly exists in Woodward and Bernstein’s books, and she is portrayed in cardboard terms almost everywhere else. An exception is David Halberstam’s 1979 book, “The Powers That Be,” which provides a vivid group portrait of the men and women behind the Post, CBS, Time, and the Los Angeles Times.
All that has changed now, with the publication of Katharine Graham’s own “Personal History” (Knopf; $30). This is a surprising piece of work on every level. As far as I know, Katharine Graham had not written much since her early days on the Post, when she wrote a magazine column and was the anonymous author of such editorials as “On Being a Horse,” “Mixed Drinks,” and “Spotted Fever.” And yet I don’t know of a more complex autobiography by an American business figure, certainly not one that allows itself such moments of weakness, embarrassment, and pain. There is plenty of material in “Personal History” to satisfy the most obvious expectations—all the familiar episodes of the Post’s history are replayed, and famous faces bob into sight as if in a capital version of “Grand Hotel”—but more interesting is the degree to which this memoir is a description of the muggy intimacy of the world of Washington and the way one powerful woman learned to live her life there.
For all its glamour and great personages, “Personal History” is a litany of humiliations, incidents in which the memoirist faults herself for lack of judgment, of independence, or of strength. For example, what I could not have known at the Hermitage is that after the suicide of her husband, on August 3, 1963, and the funeral, Mrs. Graham sent her eldest son, Donald, back to his internship at the Times, sent her two younger sons, Bill and Steve, back to summer camp, and promptly flew off to Europe to meet her eldest child—her daughter, Lally—and a group of very O.K. friends for the Aegean cruise.
“That decision may have been right for me,” she writes, “but it was so wrong for Bill and Steve and even for Don—so wrong that I wonder how I could have made it. . . .This is, for me, the most painful thing to look back on. It’s hard to remake decisions and even harder to rethink nondecisions. Sometimes you don’t really decide, you just move forward, and that is what I did—moved forward blindly and mindlessly into a new and unknown life. . . .In effect [Bill and Steve] lost both parents at once. Up to that time I had been a fairly present mother, attending school functions, driving teams to sports events, trying to be back in the afternoons when the kids got back from school. All that was mostly over now, though I tried to be with them as much as possible.” This is not the sort of moment one could hope to find in the self-examination of Andrew Carnegie or Colonel McCormick, much less of Bill Gates or Rupert Murdoch.
Graham’s insecurity as a woman, as a publisher, and as a parent has clear and painful origins. So does her imperious carriage. Her beginnings were at once privileged and starved. Even considering the style of rich American families in the early part of the century, her parents, Eugene and Agnes Meyer, seem to have exceeded the norm for emotional reticence. Eugene Meyer was a Jew who might have preferred not to be. “Money, my father’s being Jewish, and sex” were taboo subjects at home. Katharine, born in New York in 1917, was baptized when she was ten to satisfy the Lutheran side of the family; to satisfy the demands of class, the Meyers had their own pew at St. John’s Episcopal Church, on Lafayette Square—“the president’s church” (Katharine did not seem to realize she was part Jewish until she was at Vassar.) Meyer began his financial career by investing six hundred dollars his father had given him for not smoking until he was twenty-one. By 1906, Meyer had made several million dollars by investing in securities; by 1915, he was worth between forty and sixty million. He was intent, however, on making his mark in public life as well as on the stock exchange. He came to Washington in 1917 as a dollar-a-year man for the Wilson Administration; and, while he was holding a variety of positions on the War Industries Board, the Farm Loan Board, and the Federal Reserve Board, the Meyers became friendly with Bernard Baruch, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Evans Hughes. It was not long before he began looking around town to buy a newspaper.
Katharine’s mother, Agnes Meyer, was descended from Lutheran ministers. She was a woman of inchoate ambition—an ambition that took the shape mainly of ambitious friendships and painfully comic intellectual pretensions. She pursued hard the company of the well known. When she travelled to Paris, she quite naturally took up with Brancusi and Rodin and Stein and Satie; she took fencing lessons with Mme. Curie. Later, she developed an infatuation with the work of Thomas Mann and seems to have made endless demands on the author’s time and patience. Mann was once asked if Agnes was German. He replied, “Oh, yes, very. She is a Valkyrian type with something else—a mixture of Valkyrie and Juno.”
Agnes’s ambitions were fuelled by resentment of her station as a wife and mother. (The Meyers had five children, of whom Katharine was the fourth.) “She had not thought about what marriage entailed in the way of relationships to spouse and children,” Graham writes. “I’m not sure she was ever really able to. Insofar as she was capable of love, I think she loved my father and us, but she was highly complex, and at times deeply unhappy.” In her own memoir, Agnes wrote of rebelling against the responsibilities of marriage; she behaved, she said, “as if the whole world were in a conspiracy to flatten out my personality and cast me into a universal mold called ‘woman.’ ”
Katharine saw her parents only sparingly. Agnes was perennially engaged in writing books-in-progress. When she spoke to her daughter, it was often in the barbed rhythm of insult. Eugene served Agnes breakfast in bed every morning; he ate at the bedside table. Sometimes Katharine glimpsed her parents as they were dressing to go out, or as Agnes was being massaged and manicured in preparation for the evening’s entertainment. Even when Katharine was the publisher of the Post, David Halberstam writes in “The Powers That Be,” she felt as if she were in her mother’s shadow. She once took the time to introduce her friend the architect I. M. Pei to Agnes.
Pei was talking, and Katharine said, “I didn’t know that.”
“What’s surprising about that?” Agnes said. “You’ve never known anything.”
“I can’t say I think Mother genuinely loved us,” she writes. “Toward the end of her life, I was a success in her eyes, and perhaps that is what she loved. Yet, with all her complexity, I felt closer throughout my early childhood to my mother than to the very distant and rather difficult figure of my father.” It was a loyal nanny, Powelly, who “supplied the hugs, the comforting, the feeling of human contact, even the love that my mother did not.”
Katharine, by her own account and in the accounts of others, was a tall and awkward girl with a “manly stride,” but she was also intelligent, and she absorbed the lessons of her social class well. She attended the Madeira School, in McLean, Virginia, one of the few girls’ schools intent on training young women for a career. The founder, Lucy Madeira Wing, believed that God was a woman and tried to mold the girls into “Shavian Fabians,” an army wielding its noblesse oblige.
At Vassar and at the University of Chicago, Katherine took an interest in left-wing politics, which were very much in the air, but always her sense and her sense of breeding prevented her from taking what seemed like extreme steps. She rebuffed Norman O. Brown’s invitation to join the Communist Party. In England, she lunched with Harold Laski, but then went off to Salzburg to meet her mother, who “treated us to the Hotel Bristol and tickets to the music festival there.” While a friend went on to visit the socialist experiment in Moscow, Katharine, on the stern advice of her father, did not. She supported Roosevelt, but her political values were essentially conservative and well within the boundaries of the American upper classes.
Despite Katharine’s fear of living out her life alone and unaccomplished, she soon met one of the brightest young men in her Washington circle—Philip Graham, a protégé and clerk of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Graham was from a Florida family whose financial prospects, while far from dire, were a matter of occasional drama. Graham’s father had had trouble coming up with the funds to send him to Harvard Law, but managed to do so. Phil stunned Katharine by proposing marriage to her almost instantly, and he followed up the proposal with an insistence that they set out for Florida and a life without family money. His anxiety as a son-in-law was in place before the wedding vows.
From the start, Katharine was dazzled by her husband’s intelligence and wit, his ability to light up a room: “He began to liberate me from my family and from the myths they had propagated.” But she was resentful as well. For all his seeming irreverence and liberality, Phil Graham was no less domineering than any other husband of his day:
Always, it was he who decided and I who responded. From the earliest days of our relationship, for instance, I thought that we had friends because of him and were invited because of him. It wasn’t until years later that I looked at the downside of all this and realized that, perversely, I had seemed to enjoy the role of doormat wife. For whatever reason, I liked to be dominated and to be the implementer. But although I was thoroughly fascinated and charmed by Phil, I was also slightly resentful, when I thought about it, at feeling such complete dependence on another person . . . .
I didn’t think much about it at the time, but this was the beginning of a pattern that I can see now was quite unhealthy. I was expected to perform all the pulling and hauling; Phil gave directions and put the fun in my life and the children’s. Gradually, I became the drudge and, what’s more, accepted my role as a kind of second-class citizen. I think this definition of roles deepened as time went on and I became increasingly unsure of myself.
Despite Phil’ s constant self-flagellation about being the son-in-law of a rich and powerful clan, he did not shy from the advantages for long. Eugene Meyer had bought the Washington Post at auction for eight hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars in 1933, and in 1946 he made Phil its publisher. The Grahams ran their rather expensive household out of Katharine’s trust fund; meanwhile, Meyer gave Phil nearly three times as many shares of Post stock as he gave his daughter. “Phil received the larger share of the stock because, as Dad explained to me, no man should be in the position of working for his wife. Curiously, I not only concurred but was in complete accord with this idea.”
To get a sense of how momentous were Katharine Graham’s two decisions in the nineteen-seventies—on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate—it is crucial to understand just how poorly she had been prepared for such decisions by her family, her legendary husband, and the atmosphere in which she had always lived. These days, the Post is usually thought of as the second-best paper in the country, after the Times—or, if not the second-best, then at least tied for that honor with the Wall Street Journal and, stretching some, the Los Angeles Times. Under Phil Graham, the Post had a well-respected editorial page and mediocrity nearly everywhere else; it was not even the best paper in the city. Phil’s greatest successes were in business: buying and absorbing the Times-Herald in 1954, purchasing Newsweek (for a song) in 1961, and making inroads against the dominant paper in town, the Evening Star (which folded in 1981).
It is hard to remember now just how far in front the Times was after the Second World War. Even before Adolph Ochs bought the paper, in 1896, the Times had earned its record for rigor when it went after Boss Tweed. Under Ochs, the Times institutionalized the notion of nonpartisan, objective reporting. As a way to solidify this code, Ochs developed the idea of a “paper of record.”
Under Philip Graham, the Post had no prayer of even pretending to match the standards of the country’s best paper. He was simply not interested in the Times ideal so much as he was in making the Post a player in Washington and, perhaps more, in being a player himself. The Post was his instrument, his means of being listened to. In the summer of 1949, there were race riots in Washington over the integration of a city swimming pool. The paper sent out a young reporter named Ben Bradlee to cover what was happening, but Bradlee could barely find his story in the paper: it was buried deep inside, and nearly all mention of race and violence had been excised. Bradlee was incensed, and said so in terms both loud and profane. Graham heard him. “That’s enough, Buster,” he said, and he dragged Bradlee into a meeting with two officials from the Department of the Interior and with Clark Clifford, from the Truman White House. Graham instructed Bradlee to recount what he had seen and heard, and after he had done so the publisher and the three officials worked out a deal: as long as all the city pools were shut down for the time being and would be integrated the following year, the paper would print nothing more of what had happened.
Which is precisely the wrong way to conduct business as the publisher of a newspaper. But that is the way Phil Graham wanted it. And he wanted many things. He wanted Estes Kefauver to head an anticrime commission and told him so, repeatedly, until Kefauver did it. In later years, he wanted to mold the career of his friend Senator Lyndon Johnson. While publisher of the Post, he grew so close to L.B.J. that he wrote speeches for him and advised him on civil rights and key appointments; he even had power of attorney for Johnson and went out and found him a house to buy. At dinner at Joseph Alsop’s one night early in 1961, Graham continually offered political advice to the new President, John Kennedy. “Phil,” Kennedy said, “when you get elected dogcatcher I will listen to you on politics.” But in fact Kennedy had listened to him. Without Graham working as a go-between at the 1960 Democratic Convention, Kennedy might never have picked Johnson as his running mate. When Johnson had announced he was running for President that year, Phil Graham helped write the speech; he even “ended up on his hands and knees, crawling around at the last minute to retrieve one of Lyndon’s contact lenses, which had popped out.” This is a posture unbecoming to a publisher of newspapers. James Reston, who was then a friend of the Grahams and was the most eminent figure at the Times, repeatedly declined offers to go to the Post. Phil Graham, he said, was “too hot for me, too involved in politics, felt too deeply about people, even his own people on the paper.”
Nor did Phil Graham always have the mettle to stand by his best people. During the McCarthy era, the Post acquitted itself well, especially in the reports of Murrey Marder, but when everyone from the Chicago Tribune to a two-bit conservative publication entitled Plain Talk attacked the Post as Washington’s Pravda, Graham showed dangerous signs of capitulation. At one point, he wanted to fire the highly respected editorial writer Alan Barth, who had dared to defend the right of Earl Browder, the former secretary-general of the Communist Party in America, not to name names before a Senate subcommittee. Graham’s mentor, Felix Frankfurter, talked him out of firing Barth, but Graham did print an apologetic note in the paper undermining the original editorial. Graham supported Eisenhower in 1952 and, in the service of that support, censored the work of his greatest star, the cartoonist Herblock, in the last two weeks of the campaign.
In the late nineteen-fifties, Phil Graham’s health and behavior also presented increasingly difficult problems—problems that might have been solved with medication, if he had not refused it. He was a manic-depressive. For years, Katharine witnessed her husband’s violent mood swings—his periods of heavy drinking, his bizarre behavior, his prolonged depressions. And yet his periods of lucidity and humor, of lively intelligence, were frequent enough to confuse her and delay any sense of reckoning. With time, Katharine was becoming more and more troubled, less and less secure. The two most powerful presences in her life—her mother and her husband—were both clearly suffering from psychological problems, yet Katharine still felt inferior to them. “My mother seemed to undermine so much of what I did, subtly belittling my choices and my activities in light of her greater, more important ones,” she writes. “As for Phil, at the same time that he was building me up, he was tearing me down. As he emerged more on the journalistic and political scenes, I increasingly saw my role as the tail to his kite—and the more I felt overshadowed, the more it became a reality.” Phil Graham began referring to his wife, who by 1952 had given birth to four children, as Porky; to heighten the joke, he gave her as a present a French butcher-shop head of a pig. “Another habit of his that emerged during those years was that, when we were with friends and I was talking, he would look at me in such a way that I felt I was going on too long and boring people. Gradually, I ceased talking much at all when we were out together.” She “felt like Trilby to his Svengali”; she felt as if he had “created” her, that she was totally dependent.
“Even now I can’t sort out my feelings about this; it’s hard to separate what was a function of Phil’s terrible affliction, which manifested itself only later, and what was more basic. The truth is that I adored him and saw only the positive side of what he was doing for me. I simply didn’t connect my lack of self-confidence with his behavior to me.”
The end of this increasingly painful marriage was prolonged and extremely public. In 1962, Phil Graham met Robin Webb, a young Australian woman who had been working in Newsweek’s Paris bureau, and he began appearing with her at Newsweek bureaus all over the world. Katharine soon learned of their affair, when she picked up the phone and “heard Phil and Robin talking to each other in words that made the situation plain.”
Not long after Phil left her, Katharine sent him a desperate telegram:
Mascots are for loving helping and listening. You are stuck with me as a mascot repeat mascot. The moment of happiness you gave me is more help than most people are given in a lifetime, Thank you for it. I’m here If you need me and I love you.
Phil wrote a letter in return that Katharine rightly describes as “pretty strange”:
One morning when you were despairing I tried to help you by words. I told you how lonely it had been when I had visited my Far Country and how I could not get near enough to help you in your Far Country. And by the words you came near enough for help and I touched you and we went for a walk and were again in life.
I have now gone. Gone not to my Far Country but to my Destiny. It happens to be a beautiful Destiny and I shall be there while it is beautiful and while it is not.
I did not go to help you. I did not go because I did not want to help you. I went because it was my Destiny. And by now “helping” you I believe and I pray I shall help you.
Soon Phil began telling his friends that he was going to divorce his wife and marry Robin Webb. He also began making public scenes—once launching into an obscene tirade during a speech, and, on another occasion, punching out a detective at an airport. At one point, President Kennedy dispatched a Presidential plane to get him from Phoenix to Washington.
What made the situation even more complicated was the status of the Post. Not only did Phil own the majority of the stock but he also believed that his efforts as publisher entitled him to ownership. To win the paper, Phil employed the most feared lawyer in Washington, Edward Bennett Williams. Katharine knew that her husband and her old way of life were lost to her, but, fearful though she was of confrontation and of Williams, she was determined to fight for the paper.
She did not have to. In the summer of 1963, Phil seemed to be getting better—he was undergoing treatment at a psychiatric center in Maryland—and there was even hope of resuming a normal life at home. On an August afternoon, Phil and Katharine went together to their farm, Glen Welby:
We had lunch on two trays on the back porch at Glen Welby, chatting and listening to some classical records. After lunch, we went upstairs to our bedroom for a nap. After a short while, Phil got up, saying he wanted to lie down in a separate bedroom he sometimes used. Only a few minutes later, there was the ear-splitting noise of a gun going off indoors. I bolted out of the room and ran around in a frenzy looking for him. When I opened the door to a downstairs bathroom, I found him.
Phil Graham was forty-eight when he died. His widow was left to confront all the myths and all the insulations that her marriage, her class, and her sex had imposed on her. In middle age and in a state of grief, she suddenly found herself in charge of a newspaper that had yet to show any signs of greatness, and of a group of men who regarded her with, at best, considerable suspicion. In meeting after meeting, in Washington and New York, she was the only woman in the room, and not a self-confident one at that. She had not yet developed the steely mask that would later trouble the sleep of her adjutants. Before making speeches, she shook with terror; in the face of unsettling news, she had the unfortunate habit of breaking down in tears. The pressures were enormous and her preparations for them slight. She had to learn to be a publisher and, what was more, to be a far better publisher than her husband had been. (“One area that, surprisingly, started to shift under my feet was the Post’s editorial quality. I hadn’t realized that the Post wasn’t perfectly okay.”)
Surrounded by her male editors and executives, Graham could recognize in herself the same reflexes of deference she had learned as a daughter and as a wife. When she suggested to the Newsweek editors that it might be a good idea to hire Aline Saarinen, of the Times, to edit the back of the book, they brushed the suggestion off, saying that the closings were too late, that “the physical demands” of the job would be too much. Graham found herself agreeing: Saarinen would not get an offer.
I adopted the assumption of many of my generation that women were intellectually inferior to men, that we were not capable of governing, leading, managing anything but our homes and our children. Once married, we were confined to running houses, providing a smooth atmosphere, dealing with children, supporting our husbands. Pretty soon this kind of thinking—indeed, this kind of life—took its toll: most of us became somehow inferior. We grew less able to keep up with what was happening in the world. In a group we remained largely silent, unable to participate in conversations and discussions. Unfortunately, this incapacity often produced in women—as it did in me—a diffuse way of talking, an inability to be concise, a tendency to ramble, to start at the end and work backwards, to overexplain, to go on for too long, to apologize.
Women traditionally also have suffered—and many still do—from an exaggerated desire to please, a syndrome so instilled in women of my generation that it inhibited my behavior for many years, and in ways still does. Although at the time I didn’t realize what was happening, I was unable to make a decision that might displease those around me. For years, whatever directive I may have issued ended with the phrase “if it’s all right with you.” If I thought I’d done anything to make someone unhappy, I’d agonize. The end result of all this was that many of us, by middle age, arrived at the state we were trying most to avoid: we bored our husbands, who had done their fair share in helping reduce us to this condition, and they wandered off to younger, greener pastures.
Circumstances seemed to conspire in challenging Graham. Some companies thought the Post such a potentially profitable property, and Graham such an unlikely figure to run it, that they came to her with offers to buy it. To the surprise of some, she easily warded off the blandishments of Samuel I. Newhouse (once with a somewhat duplicitous Theodore Sorensen as her agent) and the Times-Mirror Company. From the start, she was intent on keeping the paper within the family and eventually passing it on to her children.
But that did not mean she was strong in all things. Phil Graham’s world had been the world of the powerful, and his widow did not want to offend its leading members. At one meeting with L.B.J. in 1964, in his bedroom, she sat in an armchair while the President lay down on the bed. “I then talked in terms I had inherited from Phil and in a way I would never have done later—and that embarrasses me now,” she writes. “I told him I had the feeling that he thought my point of view was different from Phil’s, but that in general Phil and I had agreed. I said that, much as I admired and loved President Kennedy, Phil personally had got along with him much better than I had. I also said that I admired the legislation he himself had got passed and was for him and wanted to make sure he knew it.”
On the first great story of her era as publisher—the war in Vietnam—the Post’s performance was nearly an embarrassment. While the Times and the two wire services, A.P. and U.P.I., were infuriating the White House with reporting that showed the contrast between the official statements of the generals and the dire situation in the field, the Post could not keep pace.
In 1967, Katharine wrote a letter to Johnson (not quoted in the book) expressing enormous empathy: “These times are so difficult that my heart bleeds for you. . . . The only thanks you ever seem to receive is a deafening chorus of carping criticism. Unlike Phil, I find it hard to express emotion. I can’t write in the eloquent words he used. But I want you to know I am among the many people in this country who believe in you and are behind you with trust and devotion.”
Her obeisance was institutional and political, not merely personal. In the beginning, even Richard Nixon got the same treatment. On the eve of the first Moratorium against the war, the Post published a nasty editorial (also not quoted in “Personal History”) that tried to set the paper apart from the antiwar movement. “If there are any smart literary agents around these days, one of them will copyright the title ‘The Breaking of the President,’ ” the piece said, “for it is becoming more obvious with every passing day that the men and the movement that broke Lyndon B. Johnson’s authority in 1968 are out to break Richard M. Nixon in 1969. . . . There is still a vital distinction . . . between the constitutionally protected expression of dissent . . . and mass movements aimed at breaking the President.” Eventually, the debate over the war led to a shift in the editorial page—the conservative Russell Wiggins was replaced by the more liberal Philip Geyelin—but the Post never completely distinguished itself on Vietnam.
Katharine Graham’s establishment position on the war did not go unnoticed. In 1966, Truman Capote, her neighbor at the U.N. Plaza, where she kept a New York apartment, threw his famous Black-and-White costume ball for her. (“I had a French dress—a Balmain design, copied at Bergdorf Goodman,” she writes. “It was plain white crêpe with slate-colored beads around the neck and the sleeves. The mask was made to match, also at Bergdorf’s, by Halston, who was then still making hats.”) Graham considered the ball a kind of coming out for a “middle-aged debutante.” But in Pete Hamill’s column in the New York Post she was suddenly Marie Antoinette. Hamill interspersed a faux-sprightly account of the party (“And Truman was just marvelous!”) with “The helicopter landed in a scrubby open field six miles north of Bong Son.” It wasn’t subtle, but it hit home.
In 1965, Graham helped herself and the paper immeasurably by hiring Ben Bradlee, Newsweek’s charismatic bureau chief in Washington and a friend of the Kennedys’. Bradlee had been Phil’s friend, not hers, but he pushed for the job of managing editor, pushed with his customary blend of charm and vulgarity (“I’d give my left one” for the job, he told her at lunch one day), and she melted. Over the years, she would fire an endless line of Newsweek editors and Post executives, but in Bradlee she had found someone who from the start satisfied her in every respect: élan, strength, social class, and talent. And, under Bradlee’s urging, she began spending the money necessary to create, among other things, a first-rate foreign staff. With Graham’s support, Bradlee was soon firing the lazy and the mediocre, the racist and the dull, and he then set about raiding topflight papers around the country for their best talent. The talent level in the newsroom began to shift, and so did the culture of the place. By 1968, reporting and editorials on Vietnam by Ward Just and a few others helped change the atmosphere of reverence on the pages of the Post, and that change had its effect on the thinking of the publisher—so strong an effect that when the Times, thanks to Neil Sheehan and his source, Daniel Ellsberg, began printing the Pentagon Papers, on June 13, 1971, Bradlee felt wounded, and, with Graham’s encouragement, pushed his staff to find its own copy of the documents. By June 17th, thanks to his national editor, Ben Bagdikian, he had his own set of papers.
Graham had every reason to refuse or defer publication of the Pentagon Papers. The Times was immediately in trouble with the White House and the courts. The Post Company had gone public just two days before getting the papers, and publication could easily have affected its stock prices for the worse. Moreover, Graham was acutely sensitive about the image of the Post as a liberal newspaper and, as a result, had chosen a law firm with close connections to the Republican Party; not surprisingly, Graham’s lawyers urged her to delay publishing or not to publish at all.
To a reporter, and especially a reporter in 1996, there doesn’t seem to be a need to make any decision at all. If you have the goods, you say, “Screw it,” and publish. But in the spring of 1971 the Supreme Court had not yet declared its strong support of press freedoms to the degree that it would in the Pentagon Papers case; moreover, the Post itself did not yet have the financial standing or the self-identity to go forward simply and with confidence. Graham was gambling every sort of inheritance that was important to her: the paper, her fortune, and, perhaps most important, the judgment of the ghosts who crowded around her. If there was one journalist she admired more than any other, it was her friend James Reston, and it was Reston who, despite his many virtues, had famously said, “I will not have the New York Times muckraking the President of the United States.” But in the end she made her decision. “All right,” she told Bradlee on the telephone, in the midst of a reception at her house, with the Post’s lawyer counselling caution in her free ear. “Let’s go, let’s publish.” And by doing that she opened the way to Watergate and to the Post’s position as a rival of the Times.
Week after week, the leading figures of the Nixon Administration lambasted Graham and the Post for the Watergate stories. Charles Colson, for one, tried to dismiss the conspiracy as fiction—a charge that, if true, would probably have ruined the paper forever. “The charge of subverting a whole political process, that is a fantasy, a work of fiction rivalling only ‘Gone with the Wind’ in circulation and ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ for indecency,” Colson said. “Mr. Bradlee now sees himself as the self-appointed leader of . . . the tiny fringe of arrogant élitists who infect the healthy mainstream of American journalism with their own peculiar view of the world.” The fact is, though, that two days after making that statement Colson talked to Howard Hunt about the need to supply more financial help to the defendants in the Watergate trial.
John Ehrlichman, Ronald Ziegler, H. R. Haldeman, and Nixon himself all charged the Post with disloyalty. Nixon told his men to “treat the Post absolutely coldly” and spoon-feed “scoops” to its local rival, the Star. He also vowed to “do a number” on the Post, and to go after the Graham family’s broadcasting licenses. The reporters and editors might have got a nervous thrill from the Administration’s hysteria, but Mrs. Graham did not. In the midst of the crisis, she wrote to Ehrlichman, saying, “What appears in the Post is not a reflection of my personal feelings. And by the same token, I would add that my continuing and genuine pride in the paper’s performance over the past few months—the period that seems to be at issue—does not proceed from some sense that it has gratified my personal whim. It proceeds from my belief that the editors and reporters have fulfilled the highest standards of professional duty and responsibility.”
At about the same time, she was on a cross-country flight and ran into Senator Bob Dole, who was then working as chairman and chief hatchet man for the Republican National Committee. In speeches, Dole had accused her paper of waging an ideological vendetta against the President. “By the way, Senator, I didn’t say I hated Nixon,” she told Dole.
“Oh, you know,” he said, “during a campaign they put these things in your hands and you just read them.” (Dole admitted the same to a Times reporter after the 1996 campaign. He never really meant it when he spent weeks vilifying the Times for bias, he told Katharine Q. Seelye.)
Graham had undeniably, historically, made the right decision, and in the years to come she supported the investigative efforts of the Post; but the signs of her ambivalence about her social and political role never ceased. As she grew older and more self-confident, she could be imperious, even frightening to her editors and executives, but her desire to please, or at least to get along with, those in power, never entirely faded. In the early days of Watergate, she tried, in rather submissive terms, to build a personal bridge to the one man who exceeded even Nixon in his public hatred of the Post—Spiro Agnew. Her gesture “in retrospect seems to me undignified, considering the awful slamming we were taking from him,” she writes. “I think my behavior was a combination of a rational idea—that it was better to be talking to people who hated us or disapproved of us than not—and that good old-fashioned encumbrance of mine, the desire to please.”
Not long after Watergate, she worried about “over-involvement” and a newspaper’s need to guard against “the romantic tendency to picture itself in the role of a heroic and beleaguered champion, defending virtues against overwhelming odds.” Watergate, she writes, “had been an aberration, and I felt we couldn’t look everywhere for conspiracies and cover-ups.”
Mrs. Graham’s personal relations with the powerful and the once powerful became, if anything, even more visible after Watergate. Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, George Shultz, Paul Nitze, Douglas Dillon, McGeorge Bundy, Jack Valenti, Joe Califano: her list of establishment friends is long and decidedly nonpartisan. If she has been cool to any Presidents since Watergate, they have been the two Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, not least because they came to town with the greatest suspicion of old-line Washington—Katharine Graham’s Washington.
Ronald Reagan made sure to accept invitations to Mrs. Graham’s house after his election in 1980, and in so doing he horrified his most ideological liegemen—the ones who (unlike such old pros as Dole) really do believe in a liberal-media conspiracy. At a meeting of the Religious Roundtable, Howard Phillips, the head of the Conservative Caucus, warned darkly, “You cannot always have Kay Graham going to your cocktail parties and smiling at you. If by June the Washington establishment is happy with Ronald Reagan, then you should be unhappy with Ronald Reagan.” In the coming years, Mrs. Graham formed an especially close friendship with Nancy Reagan. During the 1988 visit to Moscow, I remember, Mrs. Graham said that perhaps she ought to telephone Nancy and tell her about the lengths that the Kremlin was going to in preparing for an imminent summit. The editors around her grumbled almost inaudibly, but just enough, it seemed to me, to nudge her out of such a call.
“I see nothing wrong with the fact that people in power often deal with others on more than one level,” she writes. “Sometimes you become friends with people with whom you work because of some common interest or just because you have to work together. But there are also relationships that start out that way yet cross over to become real friendships that last forever. Some of my deepest friendships began with an administration person whom I got to know because of my association with the paper.”
To read “Personal History” is to understand how ridiculous is the right-wing image of Graham as the matriarch of the liberal-media conspiracy. Her allegiance to democratic capitalism is no less firm than that of William F. Buckley, Jr., and her inherent faith that the establishment élites will do the right thing is nearly absolute. She really does seem to believe that Watergate was an aberration.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of reporters at papers like the Post are themselves more liberal than the general population: a recent poll showed that eighty-nine per cent of Washington-based correspondents voted for Clinton in 1992. But that statistic has to be balanced by the conservatism of nearly all publishers. The Post pursued Watergate as a news story, not as an ideological crusade. It similarly (if with less success) pursued Iran-Contra and Bill Clinton’s ethical droppings. By contrast, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page ignored Watergate and Iran-Contra as ideologically inconvenient and has pursued Whitewater with the foam visible on its lips. If one compares the approach of the liberal media (the Post, the Times, etc.) with that of the increasingly powerful conservative media (the Journal editorial page, the Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, etc.), it is preposterous to say that the rules of the game are the same.
Katharine Graham is now seventy-nine, and the Post is in the hands of her son Donald, who is fifty-one. His temperament, his interests, and his style are quite different from his mother’s. He does not travel the globe to interview foreign leaders. He does not live in Georgetown. His friends are, for the most part, not especially famous. His most passionate political interests are local. Probably the greatest debate the paper must face, both in the newsroom and as a story, is the divide between black and white. As a publisher, Don Graham may never face a pair of crises as critical as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. But, if he does, the decisions should not be as hard for him as they were for Katharine Graham. He does not have to invent himself, nor does he have to invent a set of principles. He has an example to follow. ♦
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