The Grahams in Washington: Don Joined the Post the Year Kay Was Becoming a Real Publisher

Don and Kay Graham in the 1980s.

Don Graham went to work as a reporter for the family newspaper, the Washington Post, in 1971—the year of the Pentagon Papers. His mother, Katharine, known as Kay, had taken over the Washington Post Company in 1963 after the death of her husband, Philip Graham, but everyone knew Don eventually would run the paper. Back in 1954, when Don was nine, the Post bought and closed the Times-Herald, its morning competition, and Kay’s father, Eugene Meyer, famously said, “This will make the paper safe for Donny.”

Don became general manager of the Post in 1976 and publisher in 1979, but Kay ruled over the family and much of social Washington from her home in Georgetown until she died in 2001. She had made the Post Company a remarkable success: Hiring Ben Bradlee in 1965, helping guide the Post through the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, breaking the pressmen’s union, buying Kaplan, an educational firm that became a cash cow, bringing Warren Buffett onto the Post Company board.

I joined The Washingtonian in 1969, and we did many stories about the Graham family and the Post over the years. Washington was and is a very fragmented city. For most of my time at The Washingtonian, fewer than 20 percent of our readers lived in DC, with most readers in suburban Maryland and Virginia. Two states plus the District and lots of local governments. And Washington is both a national city and a local city.

How can a magazine find stories that will appeal across all those interests? The answer: Find what unifies the metro area and put a lot of focus there. That meant the Washington Redskins (the easiest cover sell was stories about Redskin quarterbacks Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, and Joe Theismann); the four network television stations (we did three cover stories on TV anchor Jim Vance) and the dominant daily newspaper, the Washington Post. The Redskins, local TV, and the Post—they cut across all parts of Washington.

That meant not only cover stories and big pieces about the Grahams and the Post but also lots of the inside stuff. We relentlessly collected gossip about what was going on inside the paper, becoming Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn’s least favorite publication. It wasn’t that hard—journalists like to gossip and complain and Post editors and reporters were no different.

But there never was much gossip about the Grahams. Kay was admired and respected; Don was approachable, liked, and also respected.

Like most journalists, my relationship with Kay was distant—I met her probably a dozen times but never beyond a hello and nice to see you. At one party, I watched her sitting on a sofa most of the evening talking with Rupert Murdoch and no one interrupted them.

Don was out more at civic events. Back in 1979, Don was behind the Post Company’s effort to start a monthly magazine, Inside Sports, that was to compete with the weekly Sports Illustrated.

Inside Sports was part of the Graham family empire that included Newsweek, while SI was a sister publication to Time. For many magazine people, taking on SI with a monthly didn’t make much sense and when I was talking with Don in 1979, I bet him a lunch that Inside Sports wouldn’t last five years.

It lasted three and Don was nice enough to call and say he’d buy lunch. We sat in a booth at a downtown DC restaurant and had a very pleasant time. When I got back to the office, everyone wanted to know what Don was like close up. I told the other editors how nice he was and how enjoyable it was. But as I tried to remember what we’d talked about that would interest other journalists, I realized that Don was a master at being friendly without saying anything that could be quoted.

That, as it became clear over the years, was his m.o. With his mother reigning over the Post Company, Don was a good publisher and a great civic leader, but never said anything that would make Kay ask, “Why did you say something like that?”

Maybe that extraordinary caution is why Don finally decided in 2013 that a smart, aggressive entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos might be better at navigating the Post through the next 25 years of the digital age.


  1. Carlson says:

    I seem to remember that Don served a couple years as a DC cop. Great apprenticeship for a nusp with a metro readership. Am I right?

  2. Right. Harvard graduate, then two years in the Army in Vietnam and 18 months as a DC cop before going to the Washington Post. He started out in sports.

  3. A Don Graham story: Once at an evening reception Don was talking with Phil Merrill, the owner and publisher of the Washingtonian, and I was mostly listening. I did notice they were both wearing almost exactly the same gray pin-striped suits and in a break in the conversation I pointed it out.

    Phil opened his jacket, pointed to the label, and said he had paid $150 for the suit at Joseph A. Bank, a low-price retailer. Don opened his jacket and said he’d paid even less at another store. Two very rich guys bragging about how little they spent on their suits.

    In those days, and it’s still somewhat true, men in Washington dressed to not be noticed, to blend in. You became successful in business and politics by looking like a serious person.

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