The Friday and Thursday editions of The Washington Post are seen in Washington, Friday, August 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
When the news broke that The Washington Post had been sold to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Linda and I were lost in melancholy for awhile. It felt like a death in the family, the fond uncle we hadn’t seen in years. Or maybe we were simply mourning our own lost youth and those golden memories of fast times at the Post.
It was exhilarating to be part of the Post crowd in those scrappy days of the late 1960s and ’70s. I was on the national staff and Linda contributed articles, reviews and essays on food, family life, gardening and design. We felt in the midst of national tumult and tragedy, the dreadful war in Vietnam, racial upheavals and triumphs. In DC, these felt like local stories, and the Post was always in the middle of events.
On rare occasions, some of us were invited to attend a sit-down dinner party with the power elite at the Georgetown mansion of Katharine Graham, the Post’s patrician publisher. I remember one of these where reporters and wives (not many female reporters in those days) were huddled in one drawing room while the “war criminals” (her friends Kissinger and McNamara) were in another. Mrs. Graham tried without much success to get the two sides to mingle. She thought we should talk.
It was thirty years ago when I left the Post. Yet the news of its fate still feels personal to us. The newsroom was intense in those days, because executive editor Ben Bradlee inspired an edgy, competitive attitude among the reporters. Get it first, get it right. Go for impact. Tell the story with style and drama. And keep your elbows up, lest “bigfoot” reporters try to horn in on your story. The place often resembled a locker room at halftime, loose and profane, very masculine.
A French sociologist hung out with us in the newsroom for several months in order to compare The Washington Post with Le Monde. His study concluded that Bradlee had created an “entrepreneurial” spirit among reporters and editors (though Bradlee would never have said anything that stuffy). Bradlee was a Boston Brahmin who majored in classics at Harvard, but he talked like a street-smart sailor. I remember columnist Mark Shields once teased him for being one of those high-born characters with a three-syllable middle name—Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee. Bradlee smiled and may have responded with an obscene hand gesture.
This is part of where the Post’s greatness came from. The paper in those days was utterly outmatched by The New York Times and its thorough, sober coverage. But we played off the Times’s stuffiness. We had fun puncturing conventional wisdom and telling the informal truth about the powerful (sometimes including the publisher’s best friends). We were encouraged to take chances. If you fell on your butt, nobody helped you up.
Into this volatile stew in the early ’70s came two very young reporters from the metro staff, which only covered local news. They picked up on a third-rate police story and stayed with it until they eventually brought down the president. What is the chance of that ever happening again? It is still breathtaking to recall that Woodward and Bernstein were only in their late 20s at the time. Imagine the risks. Older heads from the national staff urged Bradlee to put more experienced reporters on the case before these two kids got the Post into deep trouble. He listened and worried, but he stuck with them. Their lack of cynicism is what got the story.
Katharine Graham, the gutsy publisher, was the other part of the greatness. She was stuck with the epic risk—a live possibility that her family’s newspaper could be destroyed if Woodward and Bernstein were wrong. Given her status among Washington’s governing elite, her fortitude was especially impressive. Graham and Bradlee, working together, were like an electrical charge—a self-sustaining mix of audacity and courage.
Notwithstanding her boarding-school good manners, Mrs. Graham had a bluntness that, if anything, was more sharp-pointed than Bradlee’s. I experienced this several times in the newsroom when she stopped by my desk to express her strong feelings about something I had written. On one occasion, I had disparaged some of her best friends as the “junior varsity” of the Best and Brightest who got us into the Vietnam War. She didn’t like this at all, but conceded that my view was probably shared by many readers. On another occasion, her tone was considerably harsher. I had written about the Post’s labor troubles and expressed some sympathy for the union printers being displaced by new technology. As she talked to me, almost nose to nose, other reporters backed away as if the publisher had dropped a grenade at my feet.
The point, however, is that nothing happened afterward. My career did not go up in flames. She expressed herself and walked away and that was it. She became my model of the ideal publisher—candid in her strong views but not vindictive. After all, it was her newspaper.
Don Graham, her son, inherited very different challenges—technological changes that basically destroyed the business model for profitable newspapers. Until digital came along, he focused on building a broader base of localized support for the Post and largely succeeded when other newspapers were withering. He wanted a newspaper that would feel close to an extraordinary diversity of people, rich and poor, white and black and Asian and Latino, city and suburbs and small towns. For many years, he succeeded while other big-city newspapers were shrinking, though he probably didn’t get the credit he deserved. The digital revolution changed all that.
In the end, Don Graham’s singular act of courage in selling the paper was in recognizing that the Post probably has a more promising future with Jeff Bezos as the innovative owner instead of the Graham family. We do not yet know if Bezos will be up to maintaining the same public values. This requires more than money.
The more Linda and I talked over our warm memories, we came out at the same place: feeling good about the past. Feeling very lucky to have been there. For fifteen years or so we got to experience what was maybe the very best time and place ever to be a reporter and writer at the most dynamic newspaper in the country. Because we know something about how and why that came about, we do not expect the same combination of people and events to come again anytime soon, or maybe ever again. The past was rare, but it is also past. We feel grateful we were there.
What does Jeff Bezos have to do with neoliberal education reforms and charter schools?