The courage of Katharine Graham

Katharine Graham was a great journalist, because she liked people so much.

"I devour people," she once told me. More often the reverse was true.

I came to know her when I was a starting reporter on The Washington Post in the late 1940s. She was the self-described "doormat wife" of the late Philip Graham, then the paper's publisher. We remained warm friends, largely through mutual friends and a mutual devotion to newspapers.

The great moments of her life are, of course, legend: her instant conversion to a big-time publisher on the sudden death of her husband; the raw courage demonstrated in the dramas over the Pentagon Papers and Watergate; and the grand success of her best-selling autobiography. The book's honesty struck a strong note, especially among working women. To win a Pulitzer Prize for her work was a defining moment for her.

But the early triumphs came hard to the fledgling publisher because, bright as she was, she had little self-confidence in those days. I remember sitting with her back in the '60s in a TV studio when she was about to go on the air. Her hands were shaking.

She quickly outgrew such signs of timidity, and soon became the dominant private citizen, the tone setter of Washington. A president, Republican or Democrat, had not "arrived" in the capital until toasted at the Graham table. The last, performed in her usual style and enthusiasm, was George W. Bush this spring. For 30-plus years, Mrs. Graham carried the flag for the Post, an institution that usually led the city better than Congress did.

From early-morning chatty phone calls with friends and on through a full day at the paper and into the night, she was in the thick of the public action and discussions of the time. She always worked hard and expected the same of others. She once fired a top executive partly because he did not think it necessary to work on Saturday mornings.

Her close friends - and sources - were legion and of all political stripes. A small sampling is Nancy Reagan, ex-Sens. Patrick Moynihan and William Cohen, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Kennedys all, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, historian Michael Beschloss, and business giants Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who were recent favorite bridge partners. (A bridge enthusiast in recent years, she'd tell friends: "Bridge, it's a great game for the last lap.")

Also, most of Washington's 4,000 or so reporters knew or wanted to know her. All admired her greatly. The number of Kay Graham friends grew steadily through the years. Little wonder; she cared. Seriously ill friends would receive not one but several phone calls of cheer and encouragement. It was her nature.

Her longtime former editor, Benjamin Bradlee, reminisced sadly to me on Monday: "Katharine made my life such fun at the Post. It was exciting. It was a golden age." He called her "Mums."

Mrs. Graham, indeed a great woman of the world, was most happy in Washington living in her large rambling Georgetown house close to Dumbarton Oaks, where she talked with her beloved housekeepers only in French, and where she could read her favorite newspaper within seconds after it came off the press. Oh, how this great lady will be missed by all who care about news and the truth!

Thomas Winship is former editor of The Boston Globe. He is now chairman of the International Center for Journalists.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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