Kay Graham: The Best of the Best Part of Washington

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The public Katharine Graham was born, at the age of 46, out of a catastrophe — the suicide in 1963 of her brilliant and unstable husband Philip, a manic depressive who was publisher of the Washington Post.

That sudden, involuntary propulsion into history gave to Kay Graham's story a mythological quality. She was a privileged nonentity — a mother and housewife, with all the meanings, and demeanings, that that ruffly serfdom suggested in 1963. She rose to the occasion. She became an exemplary woman in power in a way that was all the more persuasive because she was without feminist ideology. Her life was the story itself, the action, not the commentary.

Harry Truman came blinking onstage in somewhat the same way in April, 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. The obscure vice president from Missouri was called to the White House from his bourbon-and-water in Sam Rayburn's hideaway in the Capitol, just as Kay Graham was called from her children and domestic routine. Truman said he felt as if the sun, the moon and all the planets had fallen on him. Kay Graham did not exactly enjoy the moment, either.

Truman became the common man as unexpected force, a marvel of feisty and principled adequacies, and much tougher than the smug suits thought. Substitute "woman" for "common man," and you have Kay Graham. Low expectations at the start lead on to a handsome kind of vindication.

I don't mean to compare Truman and Graham otherwise. Of course the personalities were different (Truman crisply combative, Graham rather shy, for example). And Kay Graham did not become president of the United States. She just took over a newspaper, and, at that time, not a great one either. She (with Ben Bradlee and others) made it great. She presided, at crucial moments, over a radical transformation of American journalism and its relationship to government and power. The publication of the Pentagon papers in 1971 and the Woodward-Bernstein investigation of Watergate starting a year later were acts of gambler's courage and historic significance.

Katharine Graham represented the virtues of the best Washington, a certain homeliness — sophisticated, but likeably homely all the same, as Washington once was: an atmosphere that implied power allied to decency and intelligence and real guts. She was part of the best of the permanent government, the part that stays in town as administrations come and go.

The worst part of that permanent Washington is mere slick K Street venality — unelected money catering a hog's buffet. The best of the tenured Washingtonians, represented by Kay Graham at the top of her game, joined good human instincts with intelligent principle, and a certain thoughtful unfoolability about people (Richard Nixon, for example...)

What I liked about Kay Graham was the continuity she carried with her, and the honest human touch evident in her autobiography. She was born the same year as my father, who was for many years a Washington reporter and editor, and I always felt in Kay Graham a reassuring connection to his generation, to an older Washington, to people who had some of the seasoning of big history (depression, World War II). Of course the old Washington could be vividly brainless and fraudulent and god-awful, too. Kay Graham seemed to me a very good judge of men in power. She brought a large sense of occasion to problems like the Pentagon papers and Watergate, which were her most dangerous and finest moments.

A first-class American life.