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The High Life of Katharine Graham
Joe Pulitzer famously said, “A newspaper has no friends.” Looking at the massed ranks of America’s elites attending Katharine Graham’s funeral in Washington last Monday, it’s maybe churlish to recall that phrase, but it’s true. At least in political terms Mrs Graham had way too many friends. Her newspaper had its hour when she had real enemies, when Nixon’s attorney general was screaming his famous threat and when Nixon was threatening to pull her company’s Florida tv licenses.
The twin decisions, concerning the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, that made Mrs Graham’s name as a courageous publisher, came at precisely the moment when, in biographical terms, she was best equipped to handle pressure. She’d had eight years to overcome the initial timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham’s suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. But the amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that had the notables of each incoming administrations palavering happily in her dining room hadn’t yet numbed the spinal nerve of the Post as any sort of spirited journalistic enterprise.
Mrs Graham sustained her fatal fall during an annual confab of the nation’s biggest media and e-billionaires, organized by the investment banker Herb Allen and held in Sun Valley, Idaho. In truth it was a richly symbolic setting for Mrs Graham’s exit. Sun Valley was developed as a resort by the Harrimans, starting with that ruthless nineteenthc c ntury railroad king, E.H. Harriman. That quintessential insider, Averell Harriman, was often to be seen at Mrs Graham’s house in Georgetown, and it was Averell who once furnished a reminder of the journalistic facts of life so trenchant that every reporter and editor should have it tacked to their walls.
Writing in 1943 to his friend James Lovett at the War Department, Harriman rasped his fury that Newsweek had dared question the efficiency of daylight bombing of Germany, a tactic devised by Lovett: “Tell Roland [Averell's brother, then a director of Newsweek, owned by Vincent Astor, who later sold it to Phil Graham] that I am in dead earnest and will brook no compromise. I have not supported Newsweek for ten years through its grave difficulties to allow our hired men to use the magazine to express their narrow, uninformed or insidious ideas Roland has my full authority to use any strong-arm measures he considers necessary the other directors can be asked to resign if they do not go along.”
Did Mrs Graham privately strong-arm her staff in this fashion? We doubt it. But editors and reporters are not slow to pick up clues as to the disposition of the person who pays the wages, and Mrs Graham sent out plenty of those.
In late 1974, after Nixon had been tumbled, Mrs Graham addressed the Magazine Publishers’ Association and issued a warning: “The press these days should be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist.” She called for a return to basics. Journalists should “stop trying to be sleuths.” In other words: The party’s over, boys and girls! It’s not our business to rock the boat.
She repeated the message in 1988 in a speech to CIA recruits titled “Secrecy and the Press”: “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”
Mrs Graham had plenty of reasons, material and spiritual, to find excessive boat-rocking distasteful. The family fortune, and the capital that bought and nourished the Post, was founded in part on Allied Chemical, the company run by her father Eugene Meyer. Perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as “Kepone Kate” after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River, we remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored “those fucking environmentalists.” Yes, privately her language was agreeably salty.
By the early 1980s the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s who would amiably associate as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader, Harry Bridges, on the Oakland docks was very long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen’s strike in 1975, and the ultimately successful lockout. Rhetorically at least Mrs Graham would not later make the gaffe of equating the sabotage of her plant by the Pressmen’s Union with the overall disposition of the AFL-CIO, but she never forgave labor and that strike helped set Mrs Graham and her newspaper on its sedately conservative course.
In the early 1980s she associated increasingly with Warren Buffett, the Nebraska investor who bought 13 per cent of the Post’s B stock and who was then riding high as America’s most venerated stock player, and imperishably hailed in the mid-1980s by an ad man (to the New York Times) thus: “Long ago Warren identified communications companies as the bridge between the manufacturer and the consumer.” Graham became a big-picture mogul, pickling herself in the sonorous platitudes of the Brandt Commission, on which she served. Probably the most tedious (and useless) interview ever published by the Post, or any newspaper for that matter, was Mrs Graham’s interview in Moscow about the minutiae of arm-control with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Another press mogul, Lord Northcliffe, founder of Britain’s popular press, once famously advised his reporters, “Never lose your sense of the superficial”, by which he meant, “Be sprightly, make our readers sit up.” What would Northcliffe have said about the Post’s nadir, symbolic of what Mrs Graham had allowed, maybe even had urged to happen: the 7-part, multi-thousand word series published in January, 1992. The series launching this election year was by two of the Post’s most prominent reporters, David Broder and Bob Woodward, who “for six months followed the Vice President everywhere”and “spent an unprecedented amount of time interviewing Mr Quayle”, discovering after these labors that the derided veeplet was a much undertestimated statesman of wise and discriminating stature.
In the early 1990s we used to get copies of letters sent to the Post’s editors and ombudsman by Julian Holmes, a Maryland resident with a career in the Navy Weapons Lab, who read the Post diligently every day, firing off often acute and pithy criticisms. In all, Holmes told us the other day from his Maine home, he sent some 130 such letters to the Post and achieved a perfect record of zero published.
Deploring the Quayle series in a letter sent ombudsman Richard Harwood on January 22, 1992, Holmes pointed out that nowhere in the “in-depth” exam of Quayle could be found the words crime, public land, population, health care, oil, capital punishment, United Nations, Nicaragua, unemployment, homeless or AIDS. “Perhaps,” Holmes wrote, “the explanation for these obviously shallow interviews lies in the institutional philosophy of the Washington Post Company and in the kinds of writers the Post hires.” (You can see why Holmes didn’t get published in the Post.)
No need to labor the point. The basic mistake is to call the Washington Post a liberal paper, or its late proprietor a liberal in any active sense, unless you want to disfigure the word by applying it to such of her friends as Robert McNamara. When it came to war criminals she was an equal opportunity hostess. In her salons you could meet Kissinger, an old criminal on the way down, or Richard Holbrooke, a young ‘un on the way up. The Post’s basic instincts have almost always been bad.
Former mayor Marion Barry had some pro-forma kindly words for Katharine Graham after her death but we’ve always thought that one decisive verdict on the Post’s performance in a city with a major black population came with that jury verdict acquitting Berry on the cocaine bust. Those jurors knew that the Post, along with the other Powers That Be, was on the other side from Barry, and we’ve no doubt that firmed up their assessment of the evidence. In that quarter, for sure, neither the Post nor Mrs Graham had an excessive amount of friends. CP