February 6, 1997
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee at the Washington Post company about her newly-published memoirs, Personal History.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally tonight, a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee at the Washington Post Company about her newly-published memoirs, Personal History. In the book she writes of her husband, Phillip Graham, who considered suicide in 1963, and whom she succeeded as publisher of the Post.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Mrs. Graham, I remember a couple of years ago, you were in the midst of writing this book, and I asked you how it was coming, and you said, well, you were in the middle of chapter 11, the bankruptcy chapter. Youíve come a long way since then.
KATHARINE GRAHAM, Author, Personal History: Yes, it ended, and I didnít think it was going to. I thought I was going to go on doing it forever, like Penelope, when Ulysses was gone, sort of undoing it at night, the tapestry.
|A revealing glimpse|
DAVID GERGEN: I can appreciate that. But tell me this. This book is very revealing not only about your triumphs but about a lot of pain youíve suffered in your life. Why did you decide to write the book?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: A couple of reasons. I had a natural desire I think that people have when they retire or are less active to look back and put things in perspective. And I also wanted to write about three people I thought hadnít been written about enough and hadnít been described enough, both my parents and Phil. I thought they were very, very large important people, and I didnít think people remembered them enough. And then, of course, I wanted to write about my own two careers and about the growth of the paper through my parents and Phil and me.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. Did you have a message you wanted to leave behind in the book?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I didnít honestly, David. I simply wanted to describe what happened.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, what I find in talking to people all around Washington and elsewhere, so many women are interested in your transformation as a person to go and you talked about your earlier years when you were brought up in a rather protected childhood and at 20, your marriage, when your husband, you said, was the fizz of your life, but you were also treated in that time in a very--you were both a housewife and a mother, but you also lost your self-confidence you were put down so often.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I didnít realize it at the time, I truly didnít. I thought everything was wonderful, and he was wonderful, and I loved my life, and because he was also--I was terribly dependent on him and adored him, and he helped me. He supported me. He helped me grow, and I was so pleased by this, and I liked this so much that I simply didnít see that there were sides to him that made me insecure, thatís true.
DAVID GERGEN: How did you come to see it?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I really didnít see it until the bad months just before he died when some of my friends said, donít you realize what heís done to you, and I didnít. And I guess it was very subtle, like if I was talking and went on too long, he would sort of look at me as if I was being too long and boring, and it really wasnít overt, except that some of them said, well, you were the butt of the family jokes. And I thought they were funny, you know, so I was laughing along with everybody else .But I didnít realize that I was getting, I was retreating more and more.
DAVID GERGEN: In 1963, heíd been ill for six years, manic depression--
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: --committed suicide, your world was shattered.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: And then you came, decided to not sell the Washington Post.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: It never occurred to me.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. But to come in, and thatís when the transformation begins. 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: I didnít 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 thatís 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 Iíd better know.
DAVID GERGEN: Where did you find the inner resources, though, to do those things? I mean, you were suddenly thrust into the spotlight and a very powerful position at a very influential newspaper. How did you--where did you find the inner resources?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Well, you see, as Iíve said, I didnít really see myself as running that. I saw myself as learning while all those men whoíd been running it would go on running it. And, of course, once you got to work, you realized that decisions came up and you had to make them and you had to participate, and you couldnít just sit there and learn.
DAVID GERGEN: I found the most interesting decision you made at the Post was over the Pentagon Papers when--the question was whether to publish the Pentagon Papers, and the people on the editorial side said, youíve got to publish for the integrity of the paper, and your lawyers and your business people were saying, you canít publish, youíre going to threaten the financial integrity of the paper, and you said--
KATHARINE GRAHAM: 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 hadnít been sold, so we were terribly vulnerable, and I can understand their hesitation.
And I myself, when I got on the phone with the editors and the business people at a reception--I was called away--it was a reception for an executive who was leaving--and both sides came at me, and I said, why canít we wait a day, the New York Times has discussed this for three months before they published, and then they were enjoined. But the editors said we have to maintain the momentum. The issue here was the governmentís 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.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. It helped to transform the paperís reputation.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: It did. It made it into something that people said the New York Times and the Washington Post and they never had.
|Challenging social conventions|
DAVID GERGEN: I see. You also challenged social conventions in Washington in this new role. I was very amused by your story about the Joe Alsop dinner.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: Tell us about that.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Joe Alsop was a wonderful long-time friend of mine and had been of both of ours, and he was a great entertainer. And he loved dinner parties. He gave them, and they were always really interesting. But he did what everybody did in Washington in that circle in those days. The men and the women separated after dinner, and the women went into somebodyís bedroom and discussed households and food and I donít know what, but the men sat at the table smoking cigars and brandy and discussing issues. And I didnít do this with some great goal. I suddenly--something snapped, and I thought why am I doing this when Iíve worked all day and Iíve been to an editorial lunch with somebody that was interesting and Iíve been in these issues, and now Iím supposed to go into this bedroom and discuss other things.
I had good women friends. I donít mean that I didnít like them, but I thought it was not a way I wanted to spend an hour, and so I said, Joe, I hope youíll forgive me. I just am going to go home and read the paper. It comes early, and I have some work I can do. And he said, you canít do that. And weíre only gone for a minute. You know, I mean, it really isnít long to Joe. Itís about an hour, and I really donít want to do this anymore. And so he said, I simply canít let you do this, and he stopped doing it, and after that, it sort of took--it happened all through Washington. It broke it up.
DAVID GERGEN: It broke it up.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: It wasnít a very enormous blow for freedom. I suppose it was symbolic.
DAVID GERGEN: One step in front of the next.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: In reading your book I was very struck, and I hope youíll forgive me for asking this question, but if one looks back on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, she led a sheltered life, became a mother, was a housewife, was in the shadow of her husband, and in 1919, she discovered love letters between Lucy Mercer and Franklin Roosevelt. And it shattered her world. She felt very lost for a while. But historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin have looked back and said that that event really liberated her as well. That traumatic event, that adversity allowed her then to go out into the outer world, and she began a very, you know, a woman out on the front lines in a lot of different ways. And Im wondering if the events that you went through, traumatic as they were, with your husbandís illness and all the other things, in some ways liberated you?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I donít know whether it liberated me. I think it strengthened me because I had to do things Iíd never done before. I had to be Philís support. When he was depressed, I sometimes talked to him for eight hours in a row to try to get him out of it. And I suppose since I really hadnít been very articulate, obviously you had to be, and you had to endure it in health and try to keep going. And Iím sure it strengthened me, and I think that liberated--Iím not sure, but I suppose maybe.
DAVID GERGEN: Iíd like to close with this note. You said you didnít like to be called the most powerful woman in America because that sort of reminded you of weightlifting. But how would you like to be remembered?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I donít think you think of yourself in that sense. I just thought the most powerful woman was a distortion of the influence you hold in that position. You have the power to try to make the paper better and try to make--choose good people to run it, but after that, itís very autonomous. And I donít think you--I think people calling you the most powerful when they donít realize that you donít go down there and say letís do this or that to the editorial floor.
DAVID GERGEN: How would you like your grandchildren to remember you if they come one day to write their personal histories?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Iíd like--I adore my grandchildren, and I would like them to remember me as their friend.
DAVID GERGEN: Katharine Graham, thank you very much.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Thank you, David.