Peter Perl was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post from 1981 to 2013.
When you announced the unthinkable this past week — that you were selling The Washington Post after eight decades of ownership by the Meyer and Graham family — I realized that it was the third time you’ve surprised me in the 32 years I’ve been privileged to know you.
The first was in 1981. I was a nervous rookie Post reporter and had just written a story about turmoil within the D.C. police union. You sent me a handwritten note, telling me how much you admired the story. And then you followed up by coming down to my desk, introducing yourself and talking to me about the challenges of covering the city, which you knew well because you’d been a Post local reporter yourself.
A personal note — and a visit — from the publisher? To talk to some young reporter about a story that didn’t even make the front page? Are you kidding me? I later discovered that your “Donny-grams” were rare and valued currency in the newsroom. You sent me other notes over the years, but I’ll never forget that first one.
The second surprise came two years ago, near the end of my career with The Post, in the course of reporting my last story — your obituary. Yes, among the stranger customs of American journalism is the “advance obit,” which we prepare for notable people, and even though you’re still healthy and in your 60s, the editors decided they wanted your “advancer” written. They chose me to do it, the most dreaded assignment in my 40 years in journalism.
When I told you of my task, you grimaced. “Well, okay,” you said. “You probably know me as well as anybody.” Yes, we’d talked many times over the years, in my roles as reporter, Newspaper Guild union officer, editor and, finally, senior newsroom manager. But the truth is, I didn’t know you well at all. You are such a private man, particularly for someone whom fate and family have made into such a public figure. Over a lifetime at The Post, you have remained something of a mystery to me and to thousands of Post people, past and present. We’ve admired you, even loved you, but not many of us could say we really knew you.
With the sale of The Washington Post to Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, the retrospectives and profiles on your career are in full swing; everyone is assessing your impact on American journalism. I know this sort of praise makes you cringe — that you are self-effacing and somewhat shy about all that comes with being Donald E. Graham. So I don’t feel the need to delve into what made you the best newspaper publisher in America. But I can share, as only a Post veteran can, what made you one of the most remarkable people I’ve encountered in my 60-plus years.
I must admit, Don, that I’m glad I had retired before Monday, when you called everyone into The Post’s first-floor auditorium, where the great printing presses once roared, to share your life-altering news. My friends who were there have remarked how your voice cracked, how they’d never seen you show so much emotion. The tears you witnessed on staffers’ faces were not just for themselves, but for you and the pain you were so clearly feeling. I hope you appreciate how deeply we all care about you. When I interviewed him for your obituary, our former colleague Dave Kindred, who wrote a book about The Post called “Morning Miracle,” expressed it better than anyone:
“Everyone at The Post, and I mean everyone, believed that Don cared more about The Washington Post than anything in his life. . . . Everyone looked at him as the personification of the great newspaper that they dreamed of working for. . . . He knew everybody and had this magical quality of remembering everyone’s name and something about them.”
For us at The Post — and for the millions of Post readers across the region, the country and the world — understanding how you could sell this institution has to begin with understanding that you were never in it for the money or prestige. You owned The Post because it was the family legacy, and as the talented eldest son, you inherited the honor and the burden. It cannot have been easy trying to live up to them: your grandfather Eugene Meyer, who in addition to buying The Post in 1933 was also a former chairman of the Federal Reserve and the first president of the World Bank; your father, Philip L. Graham, the charismatic lawyer and Kennedy confidant who built the modern Post and harbored ambitions for high public office until bipolar disorder caused him to take his own life while you were a teenager; and your mother, the legendary Katharine Graham.
In this cynical age, few people will understand or believe that you ran The Post not for fame, fortune or power but as a public trust for which you have felt responsibility your entire life. But those who worked for you knew it.
It was that same sense of public service that motivated your choices at other key moments. Like when you passed up a draft deferment in 1966 to serve in Vietnam because, as you explained to your horrified mother: “The rich are staying in school and the poor are being drafted. I can’t live with that.” And when you returned from Vietnam, you drove your mother crazy again by becoming a D.C. cop, a patrolman working in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. You were the crown prince destined to own The Post, but you insisted on being a police officer first so you could learn about Washington and its people.
When you reluctantly sat down with me in your office two years ago for the first interview for your obituary, I asked you what you would most like to be remembered for. And here is where you surprised me for the second time. Concerning The Post, you said you would want to be credited with keeping Ben Bradlee as the executive editor for many years and then choosing Leonard Downie Jr. to replace him. (Typical that you would make your legacy less about yourself than about your trusted colleagues.) You left out how you valiantly defended quality journalism at great risk, facing down generals and presidents — not to mention a few angry advertisers — to assert the freedom of the press. You also made little mention that you had outlasted so many other newspaper family dynasties by becoming a smart businessman who diversified The Washington Post Co. enough to protect a money-losing newspaper that ultimately generated only about 15 percent of the company’s revenue.
But the surprise in our talk was when you told me what you hoped your true legacy would be, the kind of thing you wanted on your tombstone or, well, in your obituary. It was not about journalism or The Post at all. It was how you had done everything you could to help poor and minority families in the District educate their children.
You will always be known as the Don Graham who was the chief executive of The Post, but you also will be remembered by many as the man who co-founded and chaired the D.C. College Access Program, which has assisted more than 10,000 students and distributed roughly $20 million in tuition grants. You also lobbied Congress to pass a law in 1999 enabling every high school student in the District to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges in adjoining states, or to receive a subsidy if they went elsewhere. And you have given a huge amount of your money to many other causes, much of it done in classic Don Graham fashion — quietly, even anonymously.
And now, this third and biggest surprise: You sold the family’s jewel. How could you?
After your family bought the newspaper, it lost a lot of money in the first two decades. “We all had a deep fear” of losing The Post, your mother wrote in her Pulitzer-winning 1997 autobiography. She explained that this “fear permeates our family, down to Don Graham, who was very much aware of all these events as a child.”
And when I interviewed Downie for your obituary, he told me that your greatest worry in life was that you did not want to “fritter away” what your grandfather, mother and father had built.
Ultimately, you faced down your greatest fear. You knew some people would see the sale as a failure; you knew you would have to struggle with that hurt. But giving up the very thing you loved most in order to help it thrive does not reflect failure — it reveals courage. And you didn’t just sell out to the highest bidder. You carefully found the right kind of buyer. Once again, you did the right thing. Once again, you made us all proud.
Farewell, Don. Thanks for everything.
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