Joe Pulitzer famously said, “A newspaper should have no friends.” Looking at the massed ranks of America’s elites attending Katharine Graham’s funeral in Washington on July 23, it’s maybe churlish to recall that phrase, but it’s true. At least in political terms, Mrs. Graham had way too many friends.
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 timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham’s suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. The amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that had the notables of each incoming administration (Carter-time excepted) palavering happily in her dining room hadn’t yet numbed the Post‘s spinal nerve.
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. It was a proper setting for her passing. Sun Valley was developed as a resort by the Harrimans, starting with the nineteenth-century railroad bandit E.H. Harriman. That quintessential insider, Averell Harriman was often to be seen at Mrs. Graham’s house in Georgetown.
Mrs. Graham didn’t strong-arm her editors and reporters, they say. But editors and reporters aren’t slow to pick up hints as to the disposition of the person who pays their wages, and she sent out plenty such clues.
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 overinvolvement 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 your business to rock the boat.
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. I remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored “those fucking environmentalists”–perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as “Kepone Kate” after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River. Yes, privately her language was agreeably salty.
By the early 1980s the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s, who would associate as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader Harry Bridges on the Oakland docks, was long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen’s strike in 1975, and the successful lockout. Rhetorically, at least, Mrs. Graham did not later make the gaffe of equating the sabotage of her plant by the Pressmen’s Union with the disposition of the AFL-CIO, but I don’t think she ever 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 percent of the Post‘s B stock and who was then riding high as America’s most venerated stock player. Mrs. Graham simultaneously became a big-picture mogul, pickling herself in the sonorous platitudes of the Brandt Commission, on which she served.
The best evidence of the Post‘s decline, symbolic of what Mrs. Graham had overseen, was a seven-part, multi-thousand-word series published in January 1992. The series launching that election year was by two prominent Post 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 underestimated statesman of discriminating stature.
In the early 1990s I 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 me 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 to 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, healthcare, oil, capital punishment, United Nations, Nicaragua, unemployment, homeless or AIDS.
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 younger ‘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 I always think that one decisive verdict on the Post‘s performance in a city with a major black population came with the jury verdict acquitting Barry 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 I’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 number of friends.