Backbone of The Post

Backbone of The Post

David S. Broder
Wednesday, July 18, 2001

The world knew Katharine Graham as the poised and powerful publisher who led The Washington Post through a period of turmoil and shaped it in to one of the nation's most influential newspapers. The courage it took forher to do all that, when her father's death and her husband's suicidecatapulted her into that unexpected leadership role, is somethingreaders learned from her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, 'PersonalHistory.'

But for those of us fortunate enough to work at The Post during theyears when she was publisher and Ben Bradlee was executive editor, therewas another, more human side to her story. We were allowed to watch hertake her first hesitant, awkward steps into her new public role, thenwarm to it and master it.

When I learned that Mrs. Graham had died from injuries suffered ina fall at Sun Valley, Idaho, my thoughts turned back to another SunValley trip she had made almost 35 years ago. I was a newly hiredpolitical reporter when my phone rang in the newsroom, summoning me toher eighth-floor office. 'I have this letter,' Mrs. G said, handing mean invitation for her to speak to a Republican Governors' Associationmeeting in Sun Valley. 'I really don't want to do this. I can't makespeeches. But I think I probably ought to. What do you think?'

The Republicans had just scored big gains in the midterm electionsof 1966. The Post was viewed by many of them as incorrigibly liberal. Isaid, 'I think if they ask you to speak to them, you should.'

'Will you be there?' she asked. I said I was planning to cover themeeting. She said she would tell them she would come.

She did, and got through her speech without any bobbles. But thehighlight of the visit -- as she recounted it at breakfast on the secondday -- was what happened on the opening night, when she was invited tojoin the governors at a private dinner. Afterward, she told me, her oldfriend Nelson Rockefeller offered to walk her back to her condo. Theygot lost on the snowy, winding paths and several times found themselvescircling back past the patio where the convivial Gov. WinthropRockefeller of Arkansas was enjoying a nightcap and loudly urging themto come join him.

Declining that invitation, they eventually found her condo, and thegovernor of New York gallantly took her key to unlock the door. But thelock had frozen and when he tried to force it, the key broke.

Nothing to do but return to the front desk, where, at 2 a.m., theblushing Rockefeller explained to a desk clerk that, 'Um, I was justwalking Mrs. Graham home, and, um, the key broke in the lock, and, um,we -- I mean she -- needs someone to open the door for her.'

When Mrs. G. told me the story, it was with the unfeigned joy of ateenager. But this same uncertain, almost debutante-like woman soonshowed the backbone to stand up and protect her paper in battles withthe pressmen's union and, famously, the Nixon administration. Inhundreds of smaller ways, she encouraged those who worked for her to digout stories -- and let her worry about the consequences. She, more thananyone else, made it clear there were no sacred cows, no subjects toavoid or people who were off-limits, even if they happened to be herfriends.

There have been many days in my 35 years at The Post when I feltprivileged just to be part of the paper. But the best, bar none, was theday Kay Graham received her Pulitzer. She had earned many honors for thework of the paper, but this was for the book she had written herself, astory only she could have told. The news of her Pulitzer had leakedinside the building. But custom decrees there be no celebration untilthe official word crosses the Associated Press wire. She had come downto the newsroom that afternoon and was waiting in Executive Editor LenDownie's office. The newsroom staff gathered at the desks closest tothat office.

When she came out, the applause began -- and just did not stop.Without a word being said, all of us realized in the same instant thatthis was the time we could express our thanks to the woman who hadprovided us such unstinting support and such unlimited freedom to do ourjobs -- the greatest gift any publisher could give. As the applause wenton, she began to weep, and so did we.

Now we will weep again, for her but not with her. And bless hermemory.