Don Graham’s decision to sell The Washington Post was his reverse Sophie’s Choice moment.
She had to decide which cherished child to save and which to send to the gas chamber. Don and the Graham family weren’t forced to make an anguishing choice but did so anyway. They relinquished the newspaper they love in order to protect it.
If the comparison sounds hyperbolic, you don’t know the Grahams.
Their identity is so inextricably bound up with that of the newspaper, and the newspaper with that of the Graham family, it is — or at least it was until Monday afternoon — unimaginable to consider the two as separate entities.
Through good times and bad, and it has mattered most in the bad times, the Graham family has understood itself as having been entrusted with the care of a special institution. The Grahams served as buffer, insulating the paper from malevolent outside forces.
First, from powerful politicians: Think of Katharine Graham’s bravery in letting the paper pursue the Watergate story, at a delicate time when the Post needed to renew the licenses of its valuable television stations and in the face of a counter-assault by the Nixon administration.
It was a welcome sign that the new owner, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, in a letter to his future employees recalled Attorney General John Mitchell’sfamously crude threat of what would happen to the owner should she allow an article on his connection to the break-in to run: “While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.”
Second, from the travails of the newspaper industry itself, culminating in the brave and painful decision to sell. The easier course for Don Graham and his niece, publisher Katharine Weymouth, would have been to hold on to the paper and find themselves endlessly buffeted between their duty to shareholders and their custody of the institution. The Post would have limped along; Don and Katharine would not be remembered as the Grahams who sold it.
Intellectually, I and my colleagues get it. Emotionally, we are reeling. To us, as to the city, the Grahams are the paper. Monday afternoon was the day our earth stood still.
My e-mail has been buzzing, my phone ringing, with family, friends, government officials, asking the same question: Are you okay? They don’t mean economically. They mean emotionally.
The answer: Not really. Because, at least for me, after three decades here, this is a moment at once hopeful and ineffably sad.
A few stories to explain the personal bond many of us feel. It is November 1997, my book group is reading Mrs. Graham’s autobiography, and they have asked me to invite her. I send a note upstairs, preemptively apologetic. I’m sure you’re too busy. Please do not feel obliged.
Perhaps 15 minutes later, a call from her assistant. That date doesn’t work, would it be possible to do it the following week? Mrs. Graham came, and she stayed for hours. I think she enjoyed herself, but I also know that she did feel, in the best possible way, a sense of noblesse oblige.
Mrs. Graham was the grand personage; Don is more the self-effacing foot soldier. His knowledge comes not only from the salons of Georgetown but from the trenches: in Vietnam, as a cop on the beat in the District, as a reporter. He not only knows the names of everyone in the building, he is apt to know their children’s names as well.
Many years ago, when I was a young and obscure reporter on the Metro staff, my father was in town and we found ourselves crossing 15th Street alongside Don. I summoned the courage to introduce them, and Don, who could have been perfunctory, was wonderful, lavishing praise that only a parent could swallow. From that moment, he had my complete devotion.
In the old days, when you would write an especially good story, Don would send a lovely note. These days, it is likely to be an e-mail, at an intimidatingly early hour, coupled with a “like” on Facebook. It is small gestures like this — combined with the fundamental conviction that the Grahams have our back, journalistically — that breed loyalty and affection.
Bezos’s letter to employees began with the right note, about the inevitable “apprehension” greeting the sale. But it ended, from my point of view, on an even better one: about Don.
“I do not know a finer man,” Bezos wrote. With that assessment, he has the makings of a worthy successor.