The Storied Mrs. Graham
Wednesday, July 18, 2001
Katharine Graham was all the things the tributes and obituaries say she was: a pioneer, courageous, gifted as a business executive and as a writer, a woman who left a large mark on the history of her country. But those of us who worked for her would begin this way: Katharine Graham was the ideal boss.
The ideal boss -- and she earned that status in a business where the qualities of the boss are critical. Katharine Graham gave her employees at The Washington Post the ultimate journalistic gift: absolute independence.
Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one, quipped A.J. Liebling, the wise if cynical press critic who wrote in the old New Yorker. But he was wrong. Katharine Graham guaranteed freedom of the press to The Post's journalists as though it were their birthright, not just hers. The Washington Post belonged to her, but she turned over the job of shaping it to us, unreservedly.
In all the years she ran The Washington Post Co., she never told us what to cover or what to write, whom to praise or whom to investigate. In the splendid organization she helped create, the people in the news department are totally insulated from the proprietor's opinions. Only the ideal boss could have created this situation.
Ideal is not the same as perfect -- the purpose here is not hagiography. Mrs. Graham was a complicated person, riddled with insecurities, awkward in many unfamiliar situations, too easily impressed by people with big titles. She didn't have many pals in the newsroom, and didn't often invite the hired help into her personal life, though she was always accessible to talk shop. She could scare the bejesus out of staff members who didn't normally deal with her, and who couldn't help thinking that the glaring look of disapproval she had just given them threatened their livelihood.
But those looks were usually provoked by what Mrs. Graham considered violations of proper decorum, and they had no enduring consequences. One of the many ironies of Katharine Graham's persona was her chronic discomfort with confrontation. When a reporter aggressively questioned a public official at her lunch table in a way she considered impolite, the look on her face was transparent: What bad manners! I wish I were somewhere else! On other occasions, she asked the tough questions herself.
It's also true that she could be a pretty dreadful snob about some people. But then she could turn around and embrace her humblest employee like a long-lost grandchild. She understood that a big organization putting out a daily newspaper depended on everyone, not just the big names, and made a point of showing her appreciation when she could. Many was the time she would turn to her neighbor at a Post lunch and ask in too loud a whisper, "Who is that?" of a new reporter who just asked a question. The reporter would be mortified, of course, but later he might discover that Mrs. Graham knew his name and had read his story.
An almost paternalistic interest in the staff was something Mrs. Graham had learned from her father, Eugene Meyer. He and Philip Graham, her husband who ran the paper for 16 years before he committed suicide, both had good relations with the workforce, including the blue-collar union members who worked in the small factory that produced The Post each night. This was important history at the time of the biggest crisis of Mrs. Graham's career.
This was not, as popular mythology might have it, the Pentagon Papers or Watergate. It was the strike against The Post by its pressmen, which began before dawn on Oct. 1, 1975, when members of the union vandalized the pressroom, tried to set it on fire and beat up a night foreman, sending him to the hospital for a dozen stitches above one eye. That was the beginning of a strike that lasted 4 1/2 months and changed the course of history -- for The Post, and for the American newspaper business.
It's hard to remember now that before the pressmen's strike, trade unions held positions of enormous power in most of America's big newspapers. At The Post the unions effectively managed the factory, deciding who would work what shifts, and negotiating extravagant manning arrangements. For example, Post printers routinely set "bogus" type that would never appear in the paper, and got paid for it. Long newspaper strikes hit many big cities, decimating local commerce for weeks and sometimes months.
Katharine Graham had been publisher of The Post for a dozen years when the strike erupted. She and her managers had already begun trying to rationalize the labor contracts. Composing room employees agreed to a deal, but the pressmen went on strike, violently.
During Watergate Mrs. Graham's job was simply to support her troops. In the Pentagon Papers case she made a huge decision, but it came and went in a flash. In the strike she alone was the responsible executive, and for nearly five months she anxiously second-guessed herself and agonized about the outcome. The agony was visible to those who saw her regularly during the strike. She thought, and talked, and worried about it constantly. Many of her best friends -- including lawyer Edward Bennett Williams -- told her to back down and make a deal. She refused.