Part Two: Kay Graham Before the Pentagon Papers—She Had a Feeling for First-Rateness in People

A March 4 post, “Kay Graham Before the Pentagon Papers—She Was Learning Not to Be Invisible,” was excerpted from the first part of a September 1967  profile of Mrs. Graham by author Judith Viorst. This post, from the same Washingtonian story, is drawn from the last part of the profile. The story was published four years after the death of Mrs. Graham’s husband Phil and four years before the Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, subject of the movie, “The Post,” which stars Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham and earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Under Phil Graham as publisher, the men most directly responsible for the state of the Post were editor J.R. Wiggins, managing editor Alfred Friendly, and city editor Ben Gilbert. It was assumed that Mrs. Graham would allow this power structure to remain intact. But within two years she had wrought something of a revolution by replacing Friendly, an old and very dear family friend, with the cocky, sometimes abrasive, but tremendously effective Ben Bradlee, then the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek. This was a major policy decision; it was Kay Graham’s decision; and it has significantly transformed the Washington Post.

Since Ben Bradlee’s coming  there has been a lavish infusion of talent at the Post—Dick Harwood, David Broder, Stanley Karnow, Andy Glass, Phil Geyelin—among many others. Bradlee also has promoted some of the excellent but not fully appreciated old-timers on the paper, notably Larry Stern, a superb newsman who is now national affairs editor. There no longer exists the demoralizing lack of communications between reporters and editors, which, before Bradlee, had generated an atmosphere one ex-Post man described as “cold, impersonal; no one cared whether you lived or died.” Bradlee does care.

Kay Graham has presided wholeheartedly over the expansion and improvement of the staff, and she’s been willing to pay the money to send them wherever in the world there is news. She respects and encourages gifted but unstandardized reporters on the P0st—the Nicholas von Hoffmans—in contrast to earlier, grimmer days when brilliant oddballs like Tom Wolfe were invariably relegated to sewers and night police. And she doesn’t meddle. “Remember,” a reporter points out, “she only has to sit on one of us once to let it get out that you can’t write anything nasty about Mrs. Graham’s friends. But she never does.” It is generally agreed that the paper’s news coverage on all front has improved measurably. . . .

Many of the changes in the Washington Post reflect the difference between Kay Graham’s conception of the role of publisher and Phil’s. For Phil, it has been said, the Post was an instrument of power, and his interest in the paper centered on how it could best make him an influence in politics and American life. In the days when Lyndon Johnson was Senate Majority Leader, Phil spent hour upon hour on Capitol Hill, watching the Texas pro operate. Lyndon was the kind of supreme manipulator Philip Graham instinctively admired and often emulated. Sometimes, people have observed, it was at the expense of his journalistic obligations.

“Phil was trained as a lawyer and he always remained a lawyer,” says a longtime friend of the Grahams. “He would rather suppress a story and operate behind the scenes than put the story in the paper. He would rather connive with Lyndon Johnson than have a great scoop. He thought it was more important to get things done than to run the paper.”

Kay does not, she insists, want to use her personal position to pick vice presidents or to exercise influence within the inner circles of government. “She knows what it is to be a President’s friend,” says Bill Walton. “And she knows how tough it is to be both publisher and a President’s friend. She’d rather be a publisher.”

Mrs. Graham firmly opposes suppressing or manipulating news, as her husband was sometimes known to do, in the interests of what may appear to be the greater social good. “We must try to tell the news straight,” she says, “as straight as we can tell it. When we want to deliver a message we’ll put it in the editorial pages.” All responsible newspapers share her noble sentiments and the Post, like all newspapers, still slips its opinions into the news. But perhaps this tendency will lessen in coming years, for Kay Graham, as one of her friends says, seems to believe in straight news coverage the way other people believe in God.

That is, anyway, the impression she conveys as she sits upstairs on the Post’s seventh floor, boss of the most powerful paper in the most powerful city in the world. If you ask her what she is bringing to her job, she will laugh and talks about her durability—”I have the constitution of an ox.” If pressed, she will admit earnestly, hoping it won’t come out sounding awful, “I think I have a feeling for first-rateness in people.”

There are people who see first-rateness in Katharine Graham. Certainly she is no earth-shaker but rather a modest, self-mocking, distinctly feminine woman, intelligent but not a virtuoso, strong but without the deep-down toughness she admires in others. Although she has only started to emerge—as a publisher and as a fully realized person—she has already become something more than the Meyers’ daughter and Phil Graham’s wife.

But if Katharine Graham seems to have it all now—the money and the power and the freedom—she still insists she never wanted it that way. Sitting on her couch, her eyes often settle on a photo she once took of two vital young men, her husband Phil and John F. Kennedy, talking on a sunny Cape Cod beach. “I enjoy my work,” she softly says. “But I liked my life better the way it was before.”


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    In his autobiography Bradlee credits his predecessors with keeping the paper with difficulty going at at least some medium level during P. Graham’s erratic last years.

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