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Katharine Graham Needed Fewer Friends

by Alexander Cockburn

When it came to war criminals, she was an equal opportunity hostess
Joe Pulitzer famously said, "A newspaper has no friends." Looking at the massed ranks of America's elite attending Katharine Graham's funeral in Washington last Monday, it may be 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, which 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 initial timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham's suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. But in the early 1970s, the amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that later had the notables of each incoming administration palavering happily in her dining room hadn't yet numbed the spinal nerve of the Post as any sort of spirited journalistic enterprise.

Mrs. Graham has been hailed for declining to strong-arm her staff into promoting her views. Maybe she didn't send out peremptory memos in the manner of William Randolph Hearst, but in any newspaper, editors and reporters are not slow to pick up clues as to the disposition of the person who pays the wages, and Mrs. Graham sent out plenty of those.

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 over-involvement 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 our 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, and perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as "Kepone Kate" after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River. I remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored "those fucking environmentalists." Yes, privately her language was quite salty.

By the early 1980s, the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s who amiably associated as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader Harry Bridges on the Oakland docks was very long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen's strike in 1975 and Mrs. Graham's ultimately successful lockout. Rhetorically, at least, she would not later make the gaffe of equating the sabotage of her plant by the Pressmen's Union with the overall 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 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. Graham became a big-picture mogul, pickling herself in the sonorous platitudes of the Brandt Commission, on which she served. Probably the most tedious (and useless) interview ever published by the Post, or any newspaper for that matter, was Mrs. Graham's interview in Moscow about the minutiae of arm control with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Post's nadir, symbolic of what Mrs. Graham had allowed -- maybe urged to happen -- was surely the seven-part, multi-thousand word series published in January 1992. The series, launching an election year, was by two of the Post's most prominent reporters, David Broder and Bob Woodward, who (Post promotional material proclaimed) "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 wise and discriminating stature.

Nowhere in the "in-depth" exam of Quayle could be found the words crime, public land, population, health care, oil, capital punishment, United Nations, Nicaragua, unemployment, homelessness or AIDS. No need to labor the point. The basic mistake has always been to call the Washington Post a liberal paper, or its late proprietor a liberal, 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 young '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 that 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 amount of friends.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor July 25, 2001 (

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