Employees of The Washington Post celebrated their newspaper's 100th birthday yesterday, and I found Eugene Meyer very much in my thoughts. He was the man who gave The Post new life when it was bankrupt and at the point of extinction.
When Meyer took over the paper in June of 1933, he published this statement on the front page:
"It will be my aim and purpose steadily to improve The Post and make it an even better paper than it has been in the past. It will be conducted as an independent paper devoted to the best interests of the people of Washington and vicinity, and hopes to have their interest and support."
Today, 44 years later, The Post remains faithful to Meyer's credo. The legend under its editorial page logotype still says, "An Independent Newspaper."
Time magazine once characterized The Post under Meyer as being "as full of fight as a wildcat." The description would be just as apt today.
It was my good fortune to work under Eugene Meyer. When he first offered me a job, I checked him out with newspaper friends before I made my decision. From one after another, the word came back that Meyer was a man of integrity. One reporter settled the issue for me quickly by passing along a story that was then circulating in Washington.
The Post had published an editorial about a bill that was pending in Congress. The next day, a delegation from the affected industry descended on Meyer to tell him how wrongheaded the editorial had been. Meyer listened politely, then told his visitors that he had taken pains to hire the wisest editorial writers he could find, and it was his policy to avoid interfering with them.
"Mr. Meyer," was the irate response, "must we remind you that we're the people who have been buying all those full-page advertisements advocating the other side of this issue?"
"No need for that," was the response. "I'm aware of your patronage, and grateful for the business. And the place where you cancel your advertising is one flight up, first door on the right. Good day, gentlemen."
During my first year at The Post Meyer was interviewed by the Voice of America and asked why he had bought The Post.He said he thought that as publisher of a newspaper in the nation's capital, he could perform a public service. The interviewer asked whether the hope of profit had been a motive. Meyer's reply was memorable.
If a man sets out with the goal of providing a useful public service, Meyer said, there is a good chance he will accomplish that goal - and perhaps make some money as well. But if he starts out with nothing in mind except making a profit, in the long run he may neither perform a public service nor make money.
Money years later, Meyer and I sat on the veranda of his Crescent Place home on a summer evening awaiting the arrival of two other Post employees who were joining us for an evening of bridge. As we chatted, I recalled to him the statement he had made to VOA, and told him how much it had impressed me.
Don't misunderstand, Meyer cautioned. Making money has its importance. It shouldn't be dominant, but neither should it be deemed unimportant by a rich owner, because owners come and go. Life is finite. New people take over management, and the old owner's money is no longer behind them. For an institution to maintain its independence and feel free to do what is right rather than what is expedient, he said, it needs to earn enough public support to become financially independent, too.
The institution Eugene Meyer built has become a monument to his integrity and foresight. I wish he could have been with us at the 100th birthday celebration to counsel us on the problems that the next hundred years will bring, and to strengthen our resolve to deal with them honorably.