Those Genes!

Charles Wheeler

  • Personal History by Katharine Graham
    Weidenfeld, 642 pp, £25.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 297 81964 X

They became, successively, the most influential publishers in the world: Philip Graham, who inherited the Washington Post from his father-in-law, Eugene Meyer, and his shy, self-effacing wife, Katharine, who took over the company when her husband shot himself in 1963. It was Philip Graham who induced John Kennedy to choose Lyndon Johnson as his running-mate in 1960. This was wise and far-reaching advice, for without Johnson on the ticket Kennedy would not have been elected. Consequently, without Graham’s intervention there might never have been a Johnson Presidency, the most eventful in modern times.

Unlike her husband, Katharine Graham had no ambition to be a prime mover in the ante-chambers of Presidential power. Events, in the shape of Watergate, forced themselves on her. Although it doesn’t seem to have been her purpose, no single person – politician, judge, prosecutor, witness or journalist – did more to bring about Nixon’s downfall than she did as publisher of the Post. Perhaps it could only happen in America: on the fringes of politics an unelected dilettante makes a President; his wife destroys his successor.

Arthur Schlesinger has described Philip Graham as one of the more brilliant and tragic figures of his generation, a man of extraordinary vitality, audacity and charm, who was fascinated by power and men who possessed it. Graham was close to Lyndon Johnson, was captivated by Kennedy and was friendly with Adlai Stevenson. At the Democratic Party’s 1960 Convention in Los Angeles he was friends with all the key players and, uniquely, had all their private telephone numbers.

By the opening day, Monday, it was clear that the tide was running strongly for Kennedy. Calling on him to press the case for Johnson, Graham found him surprisingly receptive. But when Tuesday’s Washington Post reported that Johnson was in the picture angry black delegates and labour leaders rushed to protest to Robert Kennedy, who flatly denied the story. John Kennedy waited until the nomination was safely behind him before he approached Johnson directly. LBJ, whose advisers were telling him to turn down the offer and stick to his job as majority leader in the Senate, asked for time to think it over. But Kennedy, too, was having doubts. Wondering whether he could work with such a proud and prickly deputy, and whether he could risk a revolt on the Party’s left wing, he sent his brother, Robert, to ask Johnson whether he might not prefer to be party chairman. Johnson, deeply offended, retreated to a bedroom and sent back the message that he wouldn’t accept the Vice-Presidency unless John Kennedy personally begged him to take it. At this point Philip Graham wandered into Johnson’s hotel suite. Realising that both principals were surrounded by men urging them to break off negotiations and that the deal was about to collapse, Graham spent the next two hours nursing Johnson’s wounded feelings, warding off Robert and bombarding the nominee with phone calls. Eventually Graham managed to broker the marriage; but although JFK and LBJ developed a cordial if unequal relationship, nothing could shake Johnson’s conviction that the younger Kennedy had tried to do him out of the Vice-Presidency. Three years later, when the job was in Johnson’s gift, he sent for Robert Kennedy and told him he had been ruled out.

Did Kennedy make his initial offer in the hope that Johnson would reject it? To this day nobody knows. As for Johnson, friends and colleagues couldn’t imagine why he would exchange the tangible power of a Senate leader for the ceremony of the Vice-Presidency. So, did he really want the job, and if so, why? Clare Boothe Luce, wife of the publisher of Time magazine, later claimed that she had tackled Johnson at the ball following Kennedy’s inauguration. LBJ first told her that Lady Bird was worried about his health and that a quiet spell would suit them both. Mrs Luce (as she told the story) snorted in disbelief: ‘Lyndon, come clean.’ Lyndon leaned closer: ‘Clare darling, I looked it up. One out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gambling man and this is the only chance I’ve got.’

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