I had a suspicion that Monday’s funeral for Katharine Graham, longtime Washington Post publisher, chair, and chief executive officer of The Washington Post Co., at the Washington National Cathedral was going to be the social event of the District’s summer.
As I stood in the blazing sun near the cathedral’s South Transept, where the press and various VIPs would be ushered in, it didn’t take long for that suspicion to be confirmed.
Walkie-talkies crackled with questions, such as whether longtime CNN anchor Bernard Shaw and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were “red-list” guests.
“Schlesinger is a participant,” barked a female voice. “Check the list.”
Talk editor Tina Brown and her husband, Harry Evans, turned up unfashionably early—by more than an hour, in fact.
Inside the cathedral, hubbub gradually filled the vast interior under the gray arches. As the men who would carry Graham’s coffin practiced their steps, celebrity ushers mingled with other celebrities, Post employees, politicians, and, yes, the hoi polloi.
Seated near the front, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani exchanged pleasantries, as former President Bill Clinton leaned back and gabbed with Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, sitting in the row behind him. An unlikely pairing of eulogists—Henry Kissinger and Ben Bradlee—hobnobbed together as the place filled up.
If there is, as Kissinger put it in his eulogy, a “permanent Washington” and a “permanent establishment,” it was out in full force on Monday, dressed in stylish black, its power on parade.
Yet the cathedral was suffused with a palpable nostalgia, too, and the mourning within it seemed to be not only for a great American woman and publisher, but also for a Beltway universe that seems less “permanent” with her passing.
The one truly nasty note in the national media’s otherwise laudatory coverage of Graham’s life and death was struck by the Richard Mellon Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. That paper’s editorial page featured a snide July 18 “obituary” that offered—as its lowlight—a vicious Scaifean conspiracy theory about the death by suicide of Graham’s husband and Post publisher Phil Graham.
As bad as that cheap shot was, what branded the Tribune-Review’s editorial as the work of a first-rate ignoramus was its portrait of Graham as a full-fledged Wobbly with “leftist tendencies.”
In truth, the Post’s publisher helped write the playbook on how to crush a newspaper union. The pages of Graham’s memoir, Personal History, that deal with the pressmen’s strike against the Post in 1975 are among the most compelling in that riveting Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir.
In writing about that strike, Graham insisted over and over again that she never intended to smash the striking unions. But the actions taken by Post management—training staffers to run the presses during the strike and eventually hiring replacement workers—bore down relentlessly on achieving that aim. At times, Graham’s account reads much like Moby Dick might if Herman Melville had rewritten the book with Ahab dismissing any intention of killing the White Whale as he drives the Pequod relentlessly toward that goal. As psychology, and as American journalism history, Graham’s account is simply fascinating.
The story of the strike is a layered and complicated tale, and the Post’s public image—though damaged—was aided by the fact that the strike began with a violent eruption of union vandalism and continued with a savage, scorched-earth intransigence directed at the paper (and manipulated by its competitor, the Washington Star), until its bitter end.
Yet Graham’s victory set the tone for the next 25 years of labor relations at U.S. newspapers— and the template used by the Post to achieve its victory is still employed today. It’s surprising that even the most bitter swipe at Graham and her legacy—especially from an allegedly conservative paper—could miss that fact.
Not surprisingly, much of the Post’s avalanche of Graham coverage focused on the nobler and less equivocal triumphs of her career. Other than the paper’s formal obituary on July 18, the only stories in the Post’s weeklong deluge of features that dealt in any meaningful way with the pressmen’s strike were a two-paragraph excerpt from a speech Graham gave about the strike in the July 22 Outlook, and Robert Kaiser’s excellent piece on Graham’s legacy in the July 18 Style section. Much of the coverage, particularly in Style and on the op-ed page, was weighted toward earnest reminiscence.
Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says that he didn’t lay down specific guidelines for covering Graham’s death. “We reacted instinctively,” he says, noting that Graham’s death made headlines worldwide. “As is always the case in a story about the Washington Post or the Washington Post Co., we want to cover it like it wasn’t us…but we don’t want to shy away just because it is us.”
Kaiser’s piece came the closest to that goal, with its wry assessment of Graham’s foibles, and its heartfelt tribute to her memoirs and the instinctive knowledge of the newspaper business that led her to the pinnacle of publishing success.
The Post’s columnist corps—Richard Cohen, Charles Krauthammer, Colbert I. King—mined heavily in the nostalgic vein, however. (E.J. Dionne did confine his observations to a paragraph in his July 20 column.) Metro columnist Marc Fisher wrung two columns from Graham’s passing. Sally Jenkins got a sports column out of it. And then there were Bob Woodward, Sally Quinn, Ombudsman Michael Getler, and KidsPost, too. At times, the glut of reminiscence took on the air of jockeying for position, rather than presenting new insights into the character of the Post’s iconic figure.
The paper’s news coverage of Graham’s funeral shared even more powerfully in the palpable nostalgia that permeated the cathedral, garnishing the accounts of the eulogies and descriptions of the service with portraits of “women from pink-collar ghettos” and profiles of those who stood in line to attend the service.
Downie observes that there is a “true mourning” going on at the paper that will “take a long time to work through.” Yet he also believes that, against a backdrop of increasingly draconian profit margins at many American newspapers and cuts induced by drops in ad revenue, the marriage of profitability and editorial quality that Graham insisted on “shines through more brightly than ever right now.
“I said to the staff,” Downie notes, “in words last Tuesday…and in a subsequent memo, that we are working in her memory now. We will be inspired by her.” CP