Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Katherine Graham

By Barbara Strickland

July 8, 1997:  History books are like portraits. They present the outside surface, all objectively researched, studied, and posed. For the inside view, one turns to more subjective genres: to literature, to journalism (yes!), and to the memoir. I lump those three together because they, like fossils which are in themselves unanalyzed and immediate, exist embedded in their respective times. The long-awaited memoir, Personal History by Katharine Graham (Knopf, $29.95 hard), is the story of a remarkable trajectory to an unprecedented position of power -- a woman assuming the publishership of a major national newspaper, The Washington Post, and control of a Fortune 500 company, the Washington Post Company. It is the story of her personal struggle with her husband, Philip Graham, whose mental illness blighted a meteoric career, and her personal battles to master the business left to her after his suicide. And it is the story of the roles, both good and bad, that Graham and her paper eventually played at various points in history -- the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the pressmen's strikes of 1974 and 1975.

As someone intimately connected with a powerful newspaper in the nation's capital, Graham has written a book possessed of a vast sweep and a cast that reads like a series of program listings for Biography. Adlai Stevenson, Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Brancusi, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and (of course) Richard Nixon, among many others, make appearances in the 80-year course of Personal History. Graham provides an insider's view of American history from the Great Depression to the Great Society, as well as a snapshot view of life pre-feminist movement. Much of what she describes sheds an occasionally disturbing light on the awkward relationship among politics, economics, and the media -- Philip Graham burying a race riot story and then holding it over D.C. city council leaders' heads to ensure desegregation of city pools; Katharine Graham going to the movies with Henry Kissinger.

Personal History is marked by an uncommon grace as well as honesty. Katharine Graham describes with compassion and calm the insanity that swallowed her life and took her husband's. Of Robin Webb, the Newsweek reporter with whom Philip Graham had a prolonged, tempestuous affair, she writes, "She must be a very decent person... I hope that she, too, eventually recovered." Graham has her obsessions, one of which seems to be the eccentricities and fixations of her admittedly egocentric mother Agnes Meyer -- repeatedly she comments upon or highlights Agnes' tendencies toward self-glorification. And a little research reveals that Graham has been by no means as circumspect or gracious as she appears in Personal History. However, the memoir being the ideal place to get the last word in, Graham notably manages to avoid temptation for the most part.

Katharine Graham with Richard Nixon

After her husband's death, Graham writes, "What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge," by taking control of The Washington Post and the Washington Post Company. Even though historians such as Carol Felsenthal and the Post's own Chalmers Roberts claim that Katharine Graham, not Philip, was groomed to be the heir apparent, she asserts that she in fact was not Eugene Meyer's anointed choice. If true, this assertion makes her achievements as publisher all the more impressive -- and certainly serves to deflect criticism. For Katharine Graham, though intelligent and quick, was by no means a natural. She describes herself as encumbered by a powerful sense of inferiority, all too aware of her ignorance in even the most basic features of the working world. Her initial tenure at the Post Company was marked by tumult and unrest, especially at Newsweek, where she would replace the editor-in-chief no less than six times over a ten-year period. Nevertheless, from watching history happen Graham leapt almost instantly into the role of one who makes history happen, and landed more or less on her feet.

Now, I have a problem with Personal History -- a couple of problems, really. For one thing, I feel that it is almost too personal to be history; that is, while no one with any sense expects a memoir to be heavily weighted with objectivity, Graham exhibits a dismaying penchant for self-justification and self-explanation that is ultimately negative. This makes it necessary to turn to the works of others to obtain a clearer picture of her achievements. Felsenthal, Roberts, David Halberstam, and even Deborah Davis all agree that while Graham is known to have been notoriously difficult to please, she was also during her tenure as publisher a conservative business leader who kept the Post Company financially stable. But you wouldn't necessarily think that after reading Personal History.

At several junctures, I found myself frustrated with the Katharine Graham whom I met in the pages of Personal History. Reading Graham's account of her attempt to girlishly wheedle press credentials for Tricia Nixon's wedding from H. R. Haldeman, I ground my teeth; noting Graham's repeated passivity in the face of crisis, I drummed my nails; turning a page and glimpsing a photo of Katharine Graham toying with her fingers as she coyly looks up at Lyndon Baines Johnson, I groaned. For a woman who has lived her life in the nation's capital, I thought to myself, you'd think she'd know better about what power looks like and sounds like. But of course, for women then, that was power. Bat your eyes and watch a thousand ships go sailing into the night. Don't walk with too much assurance, don't look a man in the eye, don't brag. Don't take risks.

What Graham provides us with, mostly artlessly, is a living, written photograph of what a woman's life was like before 1970 -- how women thought, what they believed -- and in some respects how it still is. Graham's passivity, her insecurity, her need to feel approved of, her initial inability to recognize how far she'd allowed herself to be pushed down, first by the sexism of the era, then by the demands of her husband's illness and his often vicious verbal cruelty, are all emblematic of women of Graham's generation and the generation after. Not to mention my generation. Perhaps most telling were the number of times that I paused during Personal History to think, " Oh, I've done that," or " Oh, I've felt that."

Graham's memoirs point indirectly to the fact that the process of revamping feminine attributes (if you agree with the "difference feminists" ) and overcoming socialized insecurities (if you agree with the "social feminists" ) is an ongoing one. It is worth noting that, before there was Katharine Graham and Oveta Culp Hobby (publisher of the Houston Post), both of whom came to their positions after the death of their respective husbands, there was Eleanor Medill "Cissy" Patterson, publisher of the Washington Times in the Thirties and Forties, who actually worked her way up to the position. Since these three women, however, I know of no other woman who has come close to the power that any one of them had.

I pause, snagged on the burr of my own ambivalence. Truth be told, Personal History is not an easy book to like. Carol Felsenthal's Power, Privilege, and the Post is both a more straightforward and more vivid portrait of Graham, (made all the more notable by the fact that at no time did Felsenthal have direct access to her subject). Personal History softpedals when it should be damn-it-to-hell prickly, apologizes when it could well make a case for itself. It is clearly afflicted by an agenda of self-explanation. It, like Katharine Graham, wants too much to be liked.

There are very few points at which one feels that Graham and the reader are alone, where Graham, rather than offering justification to some unseen person reading over one's shoulder, is simply telling the reader what happened. One of these points -- and it is brief but memorable -- comes when Katharine Meyer, fresh out of college at the University of Chicago, takes a job as a city reporter on the San Francisco News. Considering that she had come out of a newspaper family, Graham had very little journalism experience at that time. She didn't even know how to type. We see her overcoming her crippling fears and self-doubt; we see her mastering the job of labor reporter; we experience her pride and pleasure in her own competence as she, quite contrary to her description of herself as hopelessly awkward, shy, and helpless, works and kibitzes with the other labor reporters on the San Francisco waterfront. And then, two months later, she goes back to Washington, where she almost immediately meets and marries Philip Graham.

Katharine Graham is far from the first woman to have been frightened by freedom. She mentions those two months almost in passing, as just one episode and not one of very much import. And certainly that time seems to become rather insignificant when held up to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. But to me it is of vast importance. Those two months were the two months of Graham's innocence, before sickness and suicide and familial demands and the demands of the Washington Post Company came to bear, when Graham had choices. Had she stayed longer, who knows what her life might have been like? It might have been a very different life indeed. And Personal History would have been a very different book.

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