The True Story Of How Katharine Graham Revolutionized The Washington Post

The Post, out in wide release on January 12, is the true story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in direct defiance of the Nixon Administration's wishes. It’s a story that reaffirms the importance of the free press in a political era in which a free press has never been more necessary. And its triumphant protagonist is the first-ever female publisher of an American newspaper, Katharine Graham, played with startling accuracy by Meryl Streep in the movie. If Graham isn’t already on your list of inspiring women role models, she will be soon.
Katharine “Kay” Graham’s life orbited around The Washington Post. In 1933, her father, financier Eugene Meyer, bought the Post. Though Graham never intended to inherit control of the newspaper, she was always interested in journalism. After graduating from the University of Chicago, Graham worked as a reporter in San Francisco for a year, and then later at the Post.
Katharine's fate drew sharply into focus when she met Phil Graham, a charming and underpaid clerk at the Supreme Court. Graham proposed marriage on their second date. A year later, in 1940, he and Katharine married. They had four children – a daughter and three sons — in the ensuing years.
Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in The Post
In 1946, when Eugene Meyer was ready to step down from newspaper leadership, he decided to pass the baton not to Katharine, but to her husband, who had little to no experience in journalism. As for his reasoning, Meyer explained to Katharine that “no man should be in the position of working for his wife,” she recalled in her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Personal History.
So until 1963, Katharine was a "doormat wife ... tail to [Graham’s] kite." That changed when her husband tragically took his own life in 1963, and leadership of the newspaper fell into her hands. At first, she was reluctant to take over.
"I didn't want to run it because I didn't think I could," Graham told CNN's Larry King. "I really knew that I owned the controlling shares, and that therefore responsibly, I should try to learn about it." So, she did. She pushed past her discomfort, learned the newspaper business, and became a capable leader.
Graham’s first order of business was to ask Ben Bradlee, who was then the bureau chief of Newsweek in Washington, to lunch. Unlike herself, Bradlee knew how to run a newspaper, and he had a vision for the Washington Post. From their conversations, she hired him as Managing Editor — creating the team that would put the Post on the map and change journalism forever. Under his leadership, he “forged a staff of reporters and editors and put out a breezy, gutsy paper that investigated government with gusto,” wrote the New York Times.
In 1971, eight years after taking over as publisher, Graham was faced with her first major decision: To publish, or not to publish, the Pentagon Papers, a 47-volume history that explained the United States’ clandestine interventions in French Indochina, and gave context to the war in Vietnam.
The New York Times had published a portion of the Papers, but the Nixon Administration forced the Times to halt printing. Now, it was the Post’s chance to gain a competitive advantage on the Times — if Graham was courageous enough to seize the opportunity. The decision came entirely down to Graham. Bradlee was urging her to publish. Her lawyers, on the other hand, were saying to hold off; angering the government was dangerous, and would lead to turmoil.
Bradlee and the editors called Graham while she was at dinner. She had a minute to decide. “I can do this. And so I said let's go. Let's publish. And I hung up because I was so freaked out by having had to make that decision so fast,” she recalled to Terry Gross on NPR.
The choice to publish the Pentagon Papers had enormous repercussions for the Post. Not only did it make the paper more well-respected — it also paved the way for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation into the Watergate Scandal, which would come in 1972. Unfortunately, Graham hardly figured into Robert Redford’s acclaimed 1976 movie All the President’s Men, which depicted Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting. In The Post, Graham’s enormously important role in guiding the newspaper’s direction is finally given its pop culture due.
Graham was a singular individual, whose presence outside of the Post was as memorable as her tenure as publisher. She hosted weekend-long parties on her estate in Martha’s Vineyard with the likes of Jackie Onassis, Princess Diana, and the King of Jordan. She only swam in Oscar de la Renta bathing suits. She and her two best friends, Polly Fritchey and Polly Kraft, known as the Pollies, would spend hours gossiping on the phone. Reporter Sally Quinn said that in a word, Graham was “fun.”
She was also a champion for women in the workplace. Gloria Steinem wrote in the Times that once, Graham was so infuriated with a Post executive for doubting that women could deliver the newspaper (essentially have papergirls, as well as paperboys) that she threw a paperweight at his head. She also encouraged women reporters to keep going. She knew intimately how hard it was to break into a boy’s club.
Graham stepped down from her position as publisher in 1970, and died in 2001. Thanks to her and Bradlee, the Post is what it is today.
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