Death of a Sacred Cow
July 19, 2001
I thought I
knew what a fawning courtier was, until I read the posthumous tributes to
Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, who died
this week at age 84. When an old lady dies of a head injury, you dont expect
the long knives to come out; but the praise Mrs. Graham is receiving would
embarrass a Byzantine emperor.
In the two days after her death we were told
that Mrs. Graham was a giant of journalism, a publishing
legend, a great publisher, and a great lady,
endowed with courage, intelligence, a sense
of humor, and a sharp wit (though few examples of her wit
were cited in the acreage of praise and reminiscence). She was also, inevitably, a
pioneering woman in what had always been a mans business.
She had, we were informed, no sacred
cows. But judging from the obituaries, she herself was a sacred cow.
Former secretary of state George Shultz recalls in awe: Once, at her place
on Marthas Vineyard, we did not rise from the breakfast table until nearly
noon, because the talk was so good we lost track of the time.
In truth, it would be stretching a point to call
Mrs. Graham a journalist, unless inheriting a newspaper makes you a journalist.
She inherited the Post (which her father had bought) when its
previous publisher, her husband Philip Graham, committed suicide in 1963. At first
she planned to hold on to it until her sons were ready to run it. (Her New
York Times obituary notes that her daughter was not a candidate in
her plan. Did someone say pioneering woman?)
Meanwhile, she turned its operation over to
people who knew how to run it, though one gets the impression that they also knew
how to grab the reins. Chief among these was her long-time editor, the brilliant,
brassy, aggressive Ben Bradlee, a former Newsweek reporter who
had persuaded her husband to buy the magazine. Bradlee, a Bostonian, was also a
pal of Jack Kennedy, and soon Mrs. Graham was tight with the Kennedys too.
Thus began her real career, as the
capitals greatest hostess, at the pinnacle, as the
Times puts it, of Washingtons social and political
establishment. A summons to her glamour-laden table was coveted only
slightly less than an invitation to a White House dinner. People became so used to
sucking up to her that they couldnt stop even when she died.
competitive Bradlee turned the Post into a great paper, with her
support. By her own admission, backed up by all who knew her, she had been shy
and uncertain when she assumed ownership; she apparently couldnt say no
to Bradlee, which may have been, on the whole, fortunate for the paper. He knew
what he was doing, and he stamped his own will, not hers, on the
To her credit, Mrs. Graham stood up to bullying
from the Nixon White House during the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal. The
Post really arrived when she made the gutsy decision to publish the
Pentagon Papers in 1971, though she may have received more pressure from
Bradlee than from Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and John Mitchell. After that,
the world [would] refer to the Post and New York
Times in the same breath, as Bradlee would proudly recall.
The papers pursuit of the Watergate
story, also driven by Bradlee, helped turn a caper into a national
sensation that forced Nixon to resign the presidency. Furthermore, Bradlee created
the Posts Style section, the most imaginative addition to
American journalism in our time.
Katharine Grahams real achievement,
one gathers, was to stay out of Bradlees way. But the Post
also became a predictable organ, unable to conceive alternatives to liberal and
feminist orthodoxy. Even its news coverage was (and is) infected with
unwarranted progressive assumptions.
Another publisher, Conrad Black, once
expressed the note of skepticism missing from the obituaries: I like
Katharine Graham personally. But the amount of sloppy, ill-considered, and
certainly unmerited veneration for that newspaper, that sacred cow of hers, is
frankly incredible. The way people adulate Kay Graham, you would think she was
St. Francis of Assisi, or Margaret Thatcher.
When journalists praise Mrs. Graham, they are
really praising themselves. They revere her as the ideal publisher: one who let her
employees have their way.