Remembering Katharine Graham
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
MARGARET WARNER: Katharine Graham was born in 1917 into a life of privilege, as the daughter of a wealthy New York banker, Eugene Meyer. She remembered her upbringing as a lonely one of governesses and boarding schools. When she was 16, her father bought a bankrupt newspaper at auction, the Washington Post.
Six years later, Katharine Meyer was working at that paper on the editorial page. That stint ended early, though, when in 1940 she married a brilliant young lawyer and Supreme Court clerk, Philip Graham. She became a housewife and mother. Her husband was brought into her family’s business as associate publisher, and then, at 31, as publisher of the Post.
Philip Graham was trying to build up the troubled newspaper, but he also suffered from manic depression. One August weekend in 1963, he shot himself to death at their Virginia farm. At the age of 46, Katharine Graham became the new president of the Washington Post, and its sister magazine, Newsweek.
By her own account, she felt inadequate, and struggled to become comfortable in the job. Two years after taking over, she hired Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, Ben Bradlee, to be the Post’s executive editor. The paper began taking a dynamic new direction. In a 1997 interview with the NewsHour’s David Gergen, Graham described those early years at the helm.
DAVID GERGEN, 1997: How did you transform yourself then from a woman who did not have a lot of self-confidence, who had been in a secondary role, and to the leader of a paper that was transformed itself under your leadership with Ben Bradlee?
KATHARINE GRAHAM, 1997: I didn’t really transform myself. Working transformed me, and I went to work not thinking that my role would develop as it did. I went to work because I found that I owned the controlling shares of the company, and I thought, “well, if this is so, I need to learn what it is that’s at stake here, and what the issues are, because maybe someday I will have to make some sort of decision that I have to be intelligent about, so I’d better know.”
MARGARET WARNER: A key decision came in 1971, just as the Post company was going public. Graham sided with her editors against the advice of the paper’s lawyers and business executives and published the Pentagon Papers, top secret documents about U.S. decision-making in the Vietnam War.
KATHARINE GRAHAM, 1997: We had to decide at the very last minute, and I had no idea that this argument would arise as it had during the day with the lawyers, and the business people, very understandably, because we were in the act of going public, and we had told Wall Street that we were going to do this and had placed the stock in the hands of investment bankers. But it hadn’t been sold, so we were terribly vulnerable, and I can understand their hesitation. But the editors said we have to maintain the momentum. The issue here was the government’s ability to prior restrain a print newspaper, and they felt so strongly about it that I came down on the side of the editors. I thought that the whole editorial floor was at risk here.
MARGARET WARNER: A year later, two Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, began investigating a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters. Their stories linked the break- in to senior officials in Richard Nixon’s White House. Despite pressure from the Nixon administration not to pursue the story, Graham stood by her reporters and editors. The scandal ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
By now, Katharine Graham was considered one of the most powerful figures in journalism, and the preeminent woman in her field. And she was a preeminent Washington hostess as well. In 1991, at the age of 74, she handed over control of the paper to her son, Donald Graham. She turned her attention to writing her memoirs. The surprisingly frank autobiography she produced, titled Personal History, was a bestseller, and in 1998, at the age of 80, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. She spoke about the book and its impact on the NewsHour.
JIM LEHRER, 1998: But in addition to the book being successful as a piece of…in terms of the critics and in terms of sales, it was also successful– was it not– in terms of the response it received from individuals, from people that nowhere…did not live lives anywhere closely resembling the kind of life you lived. Explain that.
KATHARINE GRAHAM, 1998: Well, you know, in a way it’s still hard for me to understand. It rang bells of certain kinds with various people, but especially with women in the workforce, who wrote me that it helped them because I describe all the feminine baggage I brought to work and how it got in my way. And they say that they still have some of this, although obviously less, and that it helped them to know that I went through this and eventually got over these things.
And some people just said, “this changed my life and you really helped me so much.” And, you know, that has to be really wonderfully satisfying, and I’m still incredibly getting those letters; of course, not in the amount that I got them at first. But to feel that you are of help to people with something just by writing what happened to you is surprising and wonderful.
(Graham photos courtesy The Washington Post.)
MARGARET WARNER: To help us assess the life and impact of Katharine Graham, we’re joined by three people who have known her well: Walter Pincus, national security reporter for the Washington Post for the last 30 years; historian and NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss; and Ann McDaniel, until recently the Washington managing editor for Newsweek magazine, now senior director of human resources at the Washington Post. Welcome to you all.
Walter, starting with you. What was it about Katharine Graham, the person, the inner person, that allowed her or helped her transform herself in this way from, as she described herself, a doormat wife to this incredibly powerful, influential figure?
WALTER PINCUS: Well, there was something terribly strong inside her that really got her through this time. And she was a quick learner. She really… Up until the time of the book, she seemed to step back from everybody, seemed to sort of lay in wait. But she made very good decisions. She had some very good people around her. But in the end she made the key decisions, and then the book came along and there was not just a change in her life; there was a change in the way she looked at everybody around her because she became a person in her own right. The book was really a transforming event for her life.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I agree with Walter. You know, I just think as he’s talking about two little glimpses. One is just after she won that Pulitzer Prize that Jim Lehrer was asking her about a couple of years ago, her great friend, Meg Greenfield, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post had a little cocktail party and raised a glass to her and said “now do you finally understand you’ve written a wonderful book?”
And even then she always had this sense that she couldn’t quite understand why people loved that book and why people approved of her life, because I think before that book she felt that to be admired that she had to be sort of a towering public figure. Here in a way she had bared it all, all the horrible things that she had been through and her climb to become the kind of leader that she was. And I just remember a couple of years ago I was in Chicago and ran into a young woman, couldn’t have been more different from Katharine Graham. She came up to me and said you’re from Washington. I said yes. She said do you know Katharine Graham? I said yes. She looked at me as if she had seen a relic of the true cross. It was unbelievable.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Ann, go back to when she took command at age 46. That was really, really tough for her.
ANN McDANIEL: It was amazingly tough. She was surrounded by men who weren’t used to having a woman running the show and particularly a woman who, by her own admission, was rather insecure at least on the surface and didn’t know what she was doing. She really didn’t know very much about business. But she did have an inner strength and an inner confidence.
She became… As she watched and stood back– you’re right. She sort of held back to hear what others would say but she was intensely curious. She always wanted to understand things, to know what was going on and she had a great sense of humor. She could see how the men were sort of deferring to her but not really respecting her.
She used to joke at Newsweek that she was afraid to sneeze when they were discussing covers because they might put the common cold on the cover after that. I think she appeared at times and I think she really was nervous but she appeared at times a little less confident than she really was. I mean she came to understand business very, very quickly. And to really feel like she knew what was best.
MARGARET WARNER: There was a real steeliness to her both in her editorial decisions and in her business decisions, wasn’t there?
WALTER PINCUS: Well, she was tough in that sense. But again, there’s a gambling instinct. You heard on the tape about that decision about the time of Watergate about whether to go ahead with the stock transfer. Her instincts were right and she did go ahead with it even though her business managers were telling her to hold back. She had… She was a gambler in some ways. She had an instinct for honesty and what’s right and the book is the first time that became public.
MARGARET WARNER: Obvious to people who didn’t know her. Yes.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And she always spoke truth to power even from the very beginning. When she became the head of the Post in 1963 after her husband’s death, shortly after that Lyndon Johnson became president who had been a very close friend of Philip Graham, her husband’s, by later standards probably too close. Philip Graham advised Johnson on politics. That was an example that Katharine Graham wanted to differ from. The next year she went down to the LBJ Ranch at Johnson’s invitation.
They were ride inning a golf cart, she said, and Johnson started complaining about her wife Lady Bird. She had gotten him into a barbecue in Stone Wall, Texas and started ranting against his wife and Katharine Graham said “Shut up, Mr. President she got you where you are today.” She was the only one who would have dared tell LBJ about it.
MARGARET WARNER: Ann, you were talking about how she was aware of what the men thought of her but I was struck, I was reading some material about it this afternoon a back in ’61 she told an interviewer that she thought men were better at running a business. She said “a man would be better in this job than I was.” I mean, that was quite a transformation for her to move from that to where she ended up.
ANN McDANIEL: That’s right. I think she felt in the early years that she needed to defer because she didn’t know about. But, as Walter said, she had this steely instinct and confidence that she at some level trusted. In many ways I think she was a feminist though she would never describe herself in that way. I remember probably in the early ’80s or so a conversation she had a group of women who were working for the Post company to lunch. And the issue of day care in the workplace came up. And she was adamantly opposed to it.
And yet after the book when so many women, as she said in the tape, wrote to her and talked to her about how her sort of neuroses — I mean, she told these stories of how she went around practicing saying Merry Christmas to people and Happy Holidays because she had never been quite on the public stage or felt so like that. Admitting that and coming to grips with it and facing it and barging through it gave women a lot of confidence that they could do it too. I think as she began to realize that — early on when I had a conversation with her when I was very nervous and struggling with what to say 15 years ago or so I said she was a great model to me. She said “Oh, I hate being called a role model.” But she remembered that and she later in her life after the book said, “well, I don’t like being a role model but I now understand that’s what I have become; that’s what I am.” And so I think she really in a lot of ways epitomized the struggle for women throughout the 20th century.
WALTER PINCUS: In her own society, she is one of the leaders who broke the old pattern of men and women breaking up after dinner so the men could talk about serious things and women go upstairs. Her great friend, Joe Alsa, who was as pompous as they came and ran very important dinners, she told him that she was not going to go, and that began or– leave. You got Joe going by saying you got up and leave. That was so bad for manners that he allowed it to happen. It began to break down the system. But she wasn’t… She also wasn’t afraid to talk about her weaknesses. I’ll tell my one story, which I hardly tell stories.
We used to go to concerts with a great friend named Polly and her husband. And her husband Clayton the columnist couldn’t go one night and so Kay came along. We were in the concert hall, the Kennedy Center. In the midst of intermission after the opening overture, she turned to me and said, “I’ve never been here before.” This is about ten years ago. And then, being the person she was, she began to get interested. We developed this whole system of going once or twice a month to the Kennedy Center and then she got to be interested in musicians, Yo Yo Ma is one of her great friends, Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the symphony is now a great friend. And then she took a box at the opera and she was deeply involved in things that she didn’t know about….
MARGARET WARNER: And probably didn’t have time for. Her social life was really… I mean people say she was a great hostess but it was deeper than that. Wasn’t it, Michael? I mean, she had really a wide circle of interesting friends of all different types. She was always acquiring new ones.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s right. Of all ages and in all sorts of different fields. She did not like to be alone. She really did like to get out. I think that’s one reason… That’s one way she really kept on learning because this was not someone who, you know, I keep on hearing she died at 84, she was just 84 last month. I didn’t remotely think of her as an 84-year-old woman. This was someone who was open, always learning new things, always meeting new people — very much changing all the time. The conversation was not that of someone who is ossified. And, in a way, you have to figure that that was transferred to the journalistic organization she ran and they really benefited from it.
MARGARET WARNER: She had a great sense of fun, a great sense of humor.
ANN McDANIEL: She loved those trips and she and her close friend, Meg Greenfield, who passed away last year, were — they would go all over the world together interviewing heads of states. The stories are legendary. The very serious and intellectual interviews that they would conduct while they were with the heads of states – and then as they rode through the city they would go shopping and they would pull pranks on the journalists who had been sent to escort them around and things. They thought it was so funny that they were being treated with such reverence.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: During that period they used to go out a lot to movies in the middle of the afternoon and Katharine Graham felt nervous about this and Meg used to say “no one will ever find out. We’ll just slip out.” During this period Mrs. Graham called up Meg. The French president was going to be in town. Said “Meg, do you want to see the French president?” Meg said, “where is it playing?”
MARGARET WARNER: Walter, she loved good gossip. She loved to….
WALTER PINCUS: She not only gave it, having made everybody pledge never to say anything, but she… (Laughing) … But she was desperate to hear who went out with whom and why they did it and what was going to happen next.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: All this with a becoming look of astonishment on her face.
WALTER PINCUS: “I don’t believe that’s going on.”
MARGARET WARNER: But tell me more.
ANN McDANIEL: The only time when I was managing editor at Newsweek, the only time she called to sort of express displeasure with something the magazine had done was when there was gossip about an employee that I to share with her. I had seen her a few days earlier. And then she heard it and called up and just berated me: How could you not have told me, but with a big chuckle. The next time I called to tell her something and I said I remembered that. I didn’t want to get in trouble with you again. I told her the bit of news I’ve heard and she said, “oh, Ann, I’ve known that for weeks.”
MARGARET WARNER: So, Walter briefly, her lasting impact?
WALTER PINCUS: Well, I think everybody today has talked about what the Post became as a newspaper under her. And I think journalistically people will always remember that. But I think the book in the end… I can’t go out or can’t remember going out with her to the Kennedy Center, to dinner one night where she got an award and as she said, people coming up to her — particularly women — thanking her for what she did. But she also brought an honesty back to publications at a time when we as a country needed it. I think today and in the aftermath people will remember not just the paper but also her as somebody who wanted people to be honest and talk honestly.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s like the Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” What if she hadn’t been there? Richard Nixon might have gotten away with Watergate. The Washington Post would not be what it is and I think Washington would be a less civilized place because since this woman at the center was a person of such character and values people wanted to emulate that.
ANN McDANIEL: She set a new level for biography writing. You think of the number of people now when they talk about writing their books — Hillary Clinton most recently — they want to model it after Kay Graham. I one time mentioned to her how candid I thought she was in the book and she said, “oh, Ann, I left out all the really good parts.”
MARGARET WARNER: Ann McDaniel, Walter Pincus, and Michael Beschloss, thanks so much.