In Washington With the Grahams

By Jack Limpert

Don Graham went to work as a reporter for the family newspaper, the Washington Post, in 1971 after graduating from Harvard and then serving two years in the U.S. Army, mostly in Vietnam, and two years as a patrolman with the D.C. police department. While he had grown up in a wealthy and powerful family, he wanted to know something about real life.

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 the Post bought and closed the Times-Herald, its morning competition, 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 until she died in 2001. She had made the Post Company a remarkable success: Hiring Ben Bradlee in 1965, helping guide the Post through 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. Editing a magazine about Washington had one big challenge: Washington was and is a very fragmented city. Starting in the 1960s the District of Columbia steadily lost population as the metro area grew. For most of my time at The Washingtonian, fewer than 20 percent of our readers lived in DC, with almost half in Northern Virginia and a third in Maryland’s Montgomery County. 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 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. 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?”

It would take a psychiatrist to explain it. But maybe that extraordinary caution is why Don finally decided that a smart, aggressive entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos might be better at navigating the Post through the next 25 years of the digital age.

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