We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
So Katharine Graham, at 79, has finally made her statement. Personal History has been widely praised for honestly describing how she overcame crippling shyness and insecurity to become one of the most powerful women in the world through her control of the Washington Post, Newsweek, and a number of other print and electronic organs of influence in cities all over this country. In television interviews about the book, she talks about her shyness, which seems to be the hook for promoting Personal History. In that context, her story seems touchingly human, whereas her vast economic and opinion-making power aren’t featured. And her legendary capacity for truly destructive anger never appears behind the gentle interview smile.
She has taken to the book-promotion circuit with an odd mixture of (forced) openness and reticence, but the lasting impression is one of crushing timorousness. In these interviews, she sits with a stiff back and speaks in her haughty upper-class voice (a mask for her shyness?), an affect that Sanford Ungar, a former Post reporter and now dean of the school of communication at American University, once described to me as sounding as if she had “potatoes in her mouth.” Graham seems so uncomfortable trying to be open to people with whom she would otherwise probably never associate that one almost feels sorry for her. This cold image is in such contrast to the relentlessly cheerful and confessional tone of her book that it makes her willingness to share her life with several million strangers seem all the more remarkable.
Personal History is, in many ways, a remarkable bookstartlingly honest in some places and profoundly dishonest in others. Some of the things she reveals had made her so furious when I first wrote about them, in Katharine the Great (1979), that she actually talked the publisher into shredding the entire print run (I sued and won an out-of-court settlement in 1982). But now some of Graham’s long-held secrets are right there in her book for everyone to contemplate. This must represent some kind of healing for her, as often happens in the process of writing about one’s own life from the perspective of advancing age.
There is, for example, the open acknowledgment that Graham’s father, the financier and philanthropist Eugene Meyer, was Jewish (although “he was not a Zionist,” she feels the need to say, on Page 6; “he was an American citizen first and foremost”). This subject was once nearly unmentionable, but now she peppers the book with references to “my being Jewish,” particularly in relation to anti-Semitism in Washington in the 1930s and 1940sa club she was not allowed to join, a house she could not buy, anti-Semitic remarks people were thoughtless enough to make in her presence. What she does not fully explain is why she and her mother buried her father with a Unitarian service, saying only that it was “hard to hit on an appropriate spot for a nonreligious Jew.”
She also lets the public know for the first time not only that she had two miscarriagesnot the kind of information a woman easily sharesbut that another baby was born with the cord around its neck and choked to death because the doctor could not get there fast enough.
That made a total of seven pregnancies during what had been a reasonably happy marriage to Philip Graham, whom Graham’s father made publisher of the Post in 1948. But mental illness eventually intruded; Phil became increasingly unstable and left her for another woman, Robin Webb (“poor Robin …she must be a very decent person,” Katharine notes forgivingly), in 1962. She doesn’t mention that Phil denounced Katharine’s family as “a bunch of kikes” after his long-undiagnosed manic-depression became uncontrollable.
Her discussion of Phil’s illness and suicide, which must have been a very difficult thing for her to relive while she worked on the book, is quite thorough in some ways, and takes up a good hundred pages. She even describes in some detail the time Phil went crazy in Phoenix, taking the microphone at a newspaper convention and rambling on about the sexual escapades of President Kennedy (which Katharine describes only as “spinning out ideas”), whereupon Kennedy sent Air Force 2 (she calls it a “government plane”) to retrieve him, although she goes out of her way to say that she “has never been sure” who arranged it. In fact, the man who asked Kennedy to send the presidential jet was Jim Truitt, a longtime intimate of the Grahams who ceased to exist for Katharine in 1969 after being hospitalized for exhaustion from working around the clock on the new Style section. Graham suggested to Truitt’s doctors that the problem might be “mental,” and then fired him the day he came back to work. When I interviewed Truitt for my book in 1978, he was living in Mexico, still depressed over the way he had been treated; he later committed suicide.
She also writesthe idea is apparently more tolerable to her now than when I first published itthat the treatment Phil received at the hands of his psychiatrists was inadequate, bordering on malpractice. In fact, she suggests that the doctors should have tried electroshock, although it was a “rough therapy” that often caused “convulsions…cracked ribs, and broken backs.” She also says, incredibly, that she thought nothing of all the hunting rifles in her country house when she brought him there from the hospital in the summer of 1963, although he had been talking for months about suicide. He committed suicide that weekend.
The reason people want to read about Katharine Graham’s life is that she is known as the woman who brought down a president. She defied Nixon and published the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, risking the value of Post stock and the renewal of some of the company’s television licenses (although she knew that if she hadn’t published, her top editors would have quit). And then she dealt Nixon what ultimately proved to be a lethal blow by publishing the Watergate stories over a two-year period in 1972 and 1973, which detailed a morass of illegal activities directed by the White House and led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. Her reputation was made at that historical moment, and yet in some ways her account of that period, while full of I-was-there-type anecdotes, reveals less (or shows that she understood less) about what really went on than one might reasonably expect from her.
For example, she writes that after the New York Times beat the Post to the Pentagon Papers, one of her editors, Ben Bagdikian, suspected that the source might be Daniel Ellsberg and began “frantically calling” Ellsberg in Boston to get a set of the papers for the Post. What she does not say, as both Ellsberg and Bagdikian later told me with some anger, is that Ellsberg had been coming to the Post since 1969 trying to get the editors to change their pro-war stance but had been treated dismissivelyin no small part because Henry Kissinger had told Graham that Ellsberg was “unstable.” In fact, when Ellsberg once suggested to Phil Geyelin, the editorial page editor, that perhaps he could not change the paper’s stand on the war because of Graham’s friendship with Kissinger, Geyelin heatedly replied, “That’s not true. We ran a critical editorial the other day and now Kissinger won’t see her or return her calls and things are very tense around here.”
Graham also suggests that the Post began to turn against the war in 1968. That is simply not the case. She supported Nixon over Humphrey throughout the 1968 election (not with a formal endorsement, which was never done at the Post, but with even more valuable editorials) precisely because Nixon was planning to continue the war (“he recognized that…the new president had to hold out for some kind of honorable settlement”). In 1969, the Post ran an editorial about the impending Moratorium demonstrations, a piece that is now famous for making the Post one of the last major newspapers to support the Vietnam war. “[I]t is becoming more obvious with every passing day,” the editorial said, “that the men and the movement that broke Lyndon Johnson’s authority in 1968 are out to break Richard Nixon in 1969…and what a wonderful chapter it would make for Volume 2 of ‘The Breaking of the President.’”
Incredibly, Graham had still not turned completely against Nixon by the time of the 1972 election, after publishing the Pentagon Papers and after the Watergate stories had started to come in, because she preferred his stand on the war to that of George McGovern, the peace candidate.
For example, on the same day the Post ran a story revealing that a secret fund controlled by Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman was being used to finance political espionage, it also ran an editorial that essentially ignored what these stories meant in terms of whether Nixon should be re-elected. The Post was under attack from Sen. Robert Dole, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, who had charged that the Post supported McGovern’s “radical” policies. The Post denied this, arguing that Dole was “ignor[ing] our affinity [for Nixon], which is to say, our support for his Chinese and Soviet initiatives; for his welfare program…and for some considerable part of his Vietnam War policy…” Even as he was being vilified on the front page of the Post, Nixon won re-election in 1972ironically enough, assisted in part by Post editorials in support of his foreign policy.
As for how Graham treats the subject of Watergate, the crusade that made her world famous, there is a surprising lack of insight or analysis. Countless books have been written, mine included, discussing why sources close to Nixon would have leaked damaging stories to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They have noted with interest Woodward’s well-known background in naval intelligence, during which time he spent many hours in the Nixon White House (he has never said what he did there). In spite of all that is known, Graham stubbornly recounts the story just as it appeared in All the President’s Mentwo young reporters following leads, while she never once questions why the information is coming to them, and does not want to be told the identity of Woodward’s main source, Deep Throat. (I say he was Richard Ober, the CIA’s deputy chief of counterintelligence.) It’s still a surprising assertion: Every publisher I have ever worked for has wanted to know the identity of all my sources if a story was the slightest bit controversial.
The Watergate stories were, as I discussed in my book, the culmination of a relationship between the Post and the intelligence community that had been developing since Phil Graham ran the paper in the early 1950s. To cite only one example, Phil helped to place Ben Bradlee, a young Post court reporter, at the American embassy in Paris in 1952, where he worked as a propagandist for the CIA, planting negative stories in foreign newspapers about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Graham may be forgiven for not being more politically astute in the early 1970s, but by the late ’70s the routine cooperation of the news media and the intelligence community had already been fully examined by the Church Committee in 1976 (Senate Report No. 94-755), and by Bernstein in a long article for Rolling Stone in 1977. It is now 20 years later, and she still shows very little understanding of what Watergate was really all about. “Sometimes,” she says toward the end of the book, “it is better not to know.”
In the years after Watergate, Graham has concentrated on business, wanting to be “taken seriously” by Wall Street, wanting to “grow the company” and achieve a 15-percent profit margin, all of which became the justification for her legendary post-Watergate labor battles. She spends the last part of the book explaining that she was pro-union (having once been a labor reporter) but that these unions were making things difficult for her, and she portrays her need to break the pressmen’s union in 1975 as if the very survival of the paper depended on it, when in fact the conflict represented a few percentage points of profits.
Despite her claims to have been terribly torn by the animosity of the union workers (and their wives, who picketed her home every Sunday), she seems to have thrived on the battle. She describes late nights when the executives ran the presses themselves (having been trained in a facility the Post set up in Virginia for just such an occasion) and all gathered around for a drink afterward, cementing friendships that, she says fondly, endure to this day. The people who did not support her, on the other hand, are not remembered so well. Bagdikian, for example, criticized her for the strike in the Washington Monthly, and therefore became in Graham’s mind an “ignorant biased fool” who she couldn’t believe had once been the Post’s national editor.
During this pro-business period she has found that her Watergate legacydespite its being the raison d’être for her highly publicized autobiographywas something of a burden. In the late 1980s, for example, she told Studs Terkel, “If another president were to do what Nixon did, we would be much more understanding.” When Terkel expressed astonishment at her remark, Graham turned her back and snubbed him for the rest of the evening.
More to the point, her interest in profits and respectability in the eyes of Wall Street and the political establishment caused the Post to almost completely move away from meaningful investigative reporting after Watergate, particularly during the Reagan years, when the Post’s coverage of the Iran-contra scandal was late and reluctant. (The only mention in her entire book about Iran-contra comes when she says that it seemed to be bothering George Schultz, her tennis partner.) Her new position is best exemplified by a speech she gave before CIA officials at Langley on Nov. 16, 1988. “Government has a right to keep certain information secret,” she told them. “Democracy flourishes when it can keep its secrets.”CP
Katharine the Great
can be ordered in paperback
for $14.95 from National
Book Network by calling