Kay Graham's Story As Told by Herself

The woman who owned, then ran the Washington Post

Personal History

By Katharine Graham

Alfred A. Knopf

642 pp., $29.95

Katharine Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post, has given us easily some of the best reading of the year in her memoir, "Personal History." The use of power and fame by many of Washington's elite forms its backdrop.

Born of a Jewish investor father, Eugene Meyer, who made an early fortune on Wall Street, and a Lutheran intellectual mother, Agnes Ernst, whose absorption in art and travel left little space in her affections for "Katie," Graham grew up in Washington oddly unattuned to her family's wealth and influence. Money, sex, and "her father's" Jewishness were not discussed.

Eugene Meyer bought the Post at auction for $825,000 in 1934, five years after failing to buy it for $5 million. Meyer had had a second successful career as a Republican government official and, now in his late 50s, wanted to extend his influence in national governance through ownership of a newspaper.

He struggled to nourish the impoverished paper with infusions of high ideals and cash, before turning its management over to Phil Graham, Kay's young husband.

Phil Graham had been a top scholar at Harvard Law School and a clerk for Felix Frankfurter at the Supreme Court. Clever, with a prodigious memory, chum of the bright young stars in Washington circles, Phil took the Post through some early acquisitions - in broadcasting and of Newsweek magazine.

The son-in-law ably accomplished the transition from the Meyer generation to the Kennedy generation, before tragically spinning out of control and taking his life. Graham treats this section of her story with courage, candor, and fairness.

The Kay Graham who emerges from this devastation is the one widely remarked as "the most powerful woman in the world." With the help of numerous men, whom she for the most part does not directly challenge, she learns the ropes of management of the Post and its holdings, publisher of the town newspaper of the most powerful capital in the world.

For the reader of newspapers, Graham's accounts of, say, the Post's running of the Pentagon papers and investigation into Watergate, are required reading. Her often fumbling relationships with reporters and editors are instructive too.

Encounters with Lyndon Johnson, for whom Phil had written speeches and served as go-between in getting Johnson onto JFK's ticket, are told in earthy detail. Kay got to know everybody, it appears, as the Post became the love of her life, a filigree of safety in a world of great personal success and failure.

Graham writes conversationally and invites close attention for her humor and understatement.

If the father had a plan for life achievement, which he had and accomplished, the daughter was a survivor who showed she could hold on. Less by precept than by circumstance, Graham became an achieving woman.

Aptly called a "personal history," the book tells how Graham saw things - and she saw much of the past half century's political history up close. It is not a conceptual volume. It does not deal in programmatic themes of governance. It does reflect how one of Washington's institutional players, the Post, worked its web of influence.

The tension between objective, independent reporting and participating as a "player" was not always resolved uniformly - a challenge taken up by today's Post publisher, son Don Graham.

* Richard J. Cattani is former editor of the Monitor.

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