THE WASHINGTON POST is a very personal newspaper and The Pillars of the Post is a very personal book. Essentially, Howard Bray has written not history but biography -- the story of publisher Katharine Graham's metamorphosis for heiress and dutiful wife to commander in chief, in fact as well as in law, of what is one of the world's most influential journalistic enterprises.

It is obvious that Bray stands in considerable awe of Graham. Frequently, he pulls out adjectives and adverbs normally reserved for coronations or deifications. Hereditary monarchy, in his view, never had it so good.

"Queen Victoria commanded the most awesome fleet in the world and an army that held India and much of Africa in rein," Bray writes. "Katharine Graham commanded the means to influence people's hearts and minds. In this age, that is a greater power than Victoria's."

Anyone who has been buffeted by the swirling currents of political Washington will understand Bray's reactions. It is a city in which Graham is a power center extraordinary and where it is impossible to be indifferent to her presence. Her enemies call her stubborn, and her friends call her determined. But there is no group with any awareness of power realities that regards her as inconsequential.

There is more than awe involved, however, in Bray's concentration on Graham. Although he set out to write a book about a newspaper, rather than a person, he discovered very quickly that it was possible to view the institution only in terms of its publisher. To say this is not to comment on the merits or demerits of the journalists and executives who have streamed through the corridors of The Post over the years. It is merely recognition of the fact that Graham pulled them together, called the shots, and made the ultimate decisions. She conducted herself in the style which Harry Truman described as appropriate for presidents: The Buck Stops Here!

Of course, The Washington Post was an influential newspaper before Graham took over the helm. It had achieved that status under the leadership of her husband, Philip, an erratically brilliant man who was never quite certain whether his true vocation was publishing or king-making. He blended both into a way of life which was somehow adopted institutionally by The Post and is the basis for the paper's unique status in American journalism.

Nevertheless, it was Mrs. Graham, who, after her husband's tragic suicide, presided during the crucial "make or break" years. It was she who had the final word on the Watergate case, the battles with President Nixon, and the printing of the Pentagon papers and who ordered the hard line on the pressmen's and the Guild strikes and the showdown with the printers. The latter events, of course, made her a strikebreaker in the eyes of many workers and liberals, but to others it was hailed as the emanicipation of the newspaper from a union control heading toward economic disaster.

It is stylistically fortunate that Mrs. Graham was there to give unity to Bray's book, because the dramatis personnae can become somewhat confusing. Benjamin Bradlee is sufficiently vivid to be followed without strain through the often tangled narrative. But otherwise, it is essential to maintain a chart when reading the book in order to keep the cast of characters straight. To Washingtonians in the political and social circles that surround The Post, the intricacies of characterization will be fascinating. To others, they may be merely tedious.

There will also be a tendency for the outsider to stray mentally from Bray's course while threading through the complex brushes with the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, the black civil rights and women's liberation movements, and the involvements with presidential maneuvering. As for the internal politics of The Washington Post, only those personally involved could possibly care. Unlike strong publishers, journalists and journalistic executives are interesting only to other journalists and journalistic executives.

Just the same, the detailed exposition holds forth some valuable clues to The Post's real source of power. It may not lie in Howard Bray's somewhat flamboyant concept of control over the means of communication. More probably it rests in the fact that the newspaper and its people are recognized participants in the Washington dialogue. What Kay Graham thinks -- even when it does not appear in the journal -- will be considered by Washington officialdom. And what her journalists think is likely to be an influence -- positive or negative -- in government deliberations.

A vignette probably paints a truer picture of The Post's position than all of the detailed history -- the tale of a dinner in 1967 at columnist Joseph Alsop's Georgetown home. Among the guests were CIA Director Richard Helms, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, National Security adviser to two presidents, and Katharine Graham and her son, Donald. Donald Graham had been drafted and was on orders for Vietnam. Bray comments:

"The dinner company that night would have awed a general, let alone a lowly GI. But Don was at ease; they were his mother's friends and, therefore, his."

Perhaps Bray's book is best summarized in a closing peroration in which he describes the transfer of the publisher's office from Katharine Graham to Donald Graham.

"Katharine Graham had won all the big battles: against a president of the United States, against tough unions, against family ghosts," Bray writes. "Most of all she had, step by step, won her own independence and strengthened that of her newspaper. Over the nearly 16 years that she guided the fortunes of The Post she made it powerful, rich, envied, emulated and, by some, feared."

Bray's estimate may be overdrawn, but few will disagree with its substance.