@Gene Weingarten: A tribute to Don Graham and his homely sweaters


(Eric Shansby)
Gene Weingarten
Columnist October 10, 2013

This month The Washington Post staff said a melancholy farewell to its beloved longtime owner and publisher, Donald Graham. Graham sold The Post to billionaire Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos in what many saw as a selfless and courageous act to save the newspaper, and all of us, from the agony of a slow, undignified decline and death. Bezos has pledged his resources to a long game of innovation and recovery.

When newspapers say goodbye to high-profile staffers, they sometimes prepare a mock-up of Page One, with stories about the departed. These things are not always entirely reverent. When I left the Miami Herald to join The Post in 1990, the Herald made a page for me, emphasizing my penchant for risky, provocative “stunt” journalism. I still keep this page on the wall of my home office. The main headline reads: WEINGARTEN SHOCKS WASHINGTON — editor’s grand entrance to nation’s capital marred by Nazi gaffe. The doctored photo shows me entering a stupefied Post newsroom dressed as Hitler and sieg heiling.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

That sort of parting shot was an easy call, in my case; I’m a sleazeball. But what’s the right way to irreverently send off Don Graham, whom everyone adores? I have no idea. I can tell you only what I wrote.

We all know about Don Graham’s famously self-effacing personality — his ritual washings of Post reporters’ feet; the time he donated a lobe of his liver to save the life of a copy editor’s terminally ill schnauzer; his insistence that his take-home pay never be higher than that of the guy at the Springfield plant who re-stocks the vending machine, etc.

Similarly, everyone knows about Don’s charmingly homely and unpretentious sweaters (though few are aware that, in an act of monastic self-abasement, he knits them from his own nose hairs). And of course we’ve all admired the unusual way he atones for hubris every time his newspaper wins a Pulitzer: by eating a live cockroach.

So I think all of us need to forgive Don for what sometimes happens in private, after hours. We need to understand the intense stress that the burden of maintaining an extraordinary public humility brings to a man born into the upper crust of Washington society, expected to behave like an avaricious, conscienceless plutocrat.

So let us not judge Don for his infamous nighttime solitary orgies, writhing naked on piles of his family’s cash, cackling, “Mine, all mine!” Or that he sometimes buys yachts and then throws them away after using them once. Or that every year, on his birthday, he hires the New England Patriots to play the Green Bay Packers in his back yard.

None of that makes any difference to us. To us, Don will always be the quiet guy on the edge of the crowd at every newsroom Pulitzer ceremony, smiling shyly, taking no credit, content to bask in the light of reflected glory, because he knows, in his heart, that anytime he wanted, with a single phone call and a signature on a check, he could have any one of us mur

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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