KATHARINE GRAHAM'S WASHINGTON

Knopf. 813 pp. $30

In my neighborhood there is an old Italian eatery from whose vast menu it would be possible to select a fabulous four-star, a solid three-star, a mediocre two-star and a crummy one-star meal. The same could be said of this feast of writings about Washington, which ranges from the exquisitely delicious to the insipid, with much that is serviceable and tasty in between.

The project's genesis tells much about its slant. After the triumph of her affecting autobiography, Personal History, Katharine Graham (the late publisher of this newspaper) toyed with the idea of writing a book about her beloved city. She quickly realized, says the introduction, that at 80-plus years she lacked the stamina to complete a tome on the subject, so she hit on the idea of editing an anthology about it. With a head-start from decades of gobbling up every journalist's account or political memoir about Washington, she set about filling in her reading gaps, making selections and writing introductory notes. Although she did not live to see the book through the press, the contents and their perimeters remain very much hers: She chose to include only writings from 1917 (the year she was born) to 2001 (the year she died), only nonfiction prose and, by and large, only accounts that would jibe with her experience of the place, and for whose perspective she could personally vouch: hence the title, Katharine Graham's Washington.

The result is very much Mrs. Graham's world, as reflected back to her by other writers. One could view such an approach as narcissistic, or modest, or both. In any event, it helps explain why there is so little here about the black city of Washington (two excellent pieces, one about the riots and another about the economic divide in the African-American community) or about public schools, the ordinary working class, the city's different neighborhoods (including bohemia and academia) and its urban planning; and why there seem to be so many accounts about society, political women, April blossoms and the changing of the presidential guard. What we have here is essentially a view of court life. Indeed, you would have to consult the Duc de Saint-Simon's memoirs of Versailles to encounter a similar preoccupation with the protocol of calling cards, seating assignments and battles between grand dames.

Some of the White House insider accounts are priceless: For instance, Secret Service man Edmund W. Starling's portrait of Calvin Coolidge is intelligent and shrewd, as is the shaded account by presidential kennel keeper Traphes Bryant about LBJ's fondness for beagles. Samuel Hopkins Adams's summation of the hapless, bumbling Harding years could not be funnier. But seamstress Lillian Rogers Parks tells me more than I need about her exasperation with Mamie Eisenhower's preference for pink, while several authors quite exhaust the subject of Jackie Kennedy's interior decoration. Since Mrs. Graham appears to have been most galvanized by the administrations of FDR and JFK, these years are covered in great depth; other presidents who did not excite her imagination, such as Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and George Bush, get short shrift.

Among the many Washington women who observe what has essentially been a man's town, the diarist Ellen Maury Slayden is a great discovery, possessing a malicious eye, an honest tongue and an engaging writing style. Barbara Howar is hilarious, partly because she is unafraid to turn herself into a vivid character and dramatize her flaws. More typical, perhaps, is Marvella Bayh, who starts out mousy and cringingly grateful, as a new senator's wife unsure how to entertain, and gradually sounds more honest by excerpt's end, popping pills and confronting her rarely present husband. Other memoir selections, seemingly included because the editor was generously touched by the narrator's plight, fall flat on the page.

The anthology's division, from my perspective, is between the real writers and the amateurs. It is a pleasure, for instance, to happen upon the atmospheric, poetically charged style of John Dos Passos, the wit of Russell Baker and P.J. O'Rourke, the grave, shapely sentences of Joseph W. Alsop, or the acerbic analysis of Simone de Beauvoir (one of only two foreign visitors called upon to give testimony). Some politicians are graceful writers, others will never be: Among secretaries of state, Dean Acheson demonstrates here a humane, mature literary style that is a joy to read; Henry Kissinger comes off as pompously Olympian.

Putting aside its ostensible theme, one way to view this book is as making a brave case for certain "minor" writing genres: political journalism, the travel/soul-of-place piece, the talk-of-the-town or Letter from Paris/Washington/Buenos Aires summing-up, the celebrity profile, and the valet-to- or married-to-a-big shot memoir. Mrs. Graham, given her career, was understandably fascinated with journalism, and especially proud of the stars of The Post. The problem is that the shorthand, perky brightness of the newspaper or magazine article can wear thin after 800 pages. Also, the more dignified, self-important journalists (such as Marquis Childs) show a Sevareidian tendency toward rhetorical overreaching and civics-lesson pontificating. And there is much defensive "I love Washington" horn-tooting, which should no longer be necessary. On the other hand, one of the sharpest pieces in the book is an expose{acute} by the late Post editor Meg Greenfield called "Mavericks and Image Makers," which gets to the heart of ruthless role-playing and false self-making in the capital.

Were this to have been a collection of the finest literary efforts about Washington, it might have included, among others, Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, Anthony Trollope, Christina Stead, Allen Drury, Gore Vidal, Ward Just, Elizabeth Bishop and James Schuyler (whose "Hymn to Life" may be the best poem ever written about D.C.), along with a half-dozen of our presidents who could truly write. But then it would not have been Katharine Graham's Washington. It is in the nature of all anthologies to be uneven -- just as it is in the nature of all reviewers of anthologies to nitpick omissions. The big question is: Does it work, regardless? The final response to this magnificent, unwieldy, peculiarly skewed and warmly personable anthology should be gratitude. It exists, with its treasures, rarities and surprises, and there is nothing else like it. That should be enough. *

Phillip Lopate is an essayist and the editor of "Writing New York."

Katharine Graham in 1995