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.’

It sounds credible enough. Although Johnson had acquired considerable power as master of the Senate, his towering ambition and energy had always been constricted by his identification with Texas and the South. In his view the Presidency was the only institution in America capable of bringing about real change. It was up to a President to identify problems, bring them to public attention, and to draft bills designed to solve them. As for the Congress, it was never equipped to initiate, only to respond. As indeed he forced it to do when Johnson – a national leader at last – launched his social revolution after Kennedy’s death in 1963.

Meanwhile, back in 1960, the irrepressible Philip Graham had been helping Kennedy to choose his Cabinet. For the key post of Treasury Secretary Graham favoured Douglas Dillon, a close friend and a liberal Republican. When Kennedy expressed interest, Graham telephoned Dillon, who was giving a dinner party, entered Dillon’s house by crawling through a dressing-room window left open by prior arrangement with the butler, secured an assurance of loyalty from Dillon, and rushed back to Kennedy, who gave Dillon the job. Graham also recommended his friend David Bruce for Secretary of State, advice the President-elect didn’t take, choosing Dean Rusk instead. At Graham’s suggestion, Bruce became Ambassador in London, and before very long Graham was badgering Kennedy to sack Rusk and give the job to Bruce.

Philip Graham was hyperactive. Kennedy made him chairman of the ground-breaking satellite company, Comsat. He wrote speeches for both the Kennedy brothers and for Vice President Johnson. He launched the Washington Post-Los Angeles Times News Service, bought Newsweek, an arts magazine, a paper mill, two farms and an aeroplane. He had always been a heavy drinker. In 1962 his behaviour became increasingly erratic and occasionally outrageous; following a violent outburst at a publishers’ convention in Phoenix, Arizona, President Kennedy was persuaded to send an aircraft to bring him back to Washington, where he was confined to a mental hospital and treated for manic depression.

Graham had by now left Katharine for a younger woman and had instructed his lawyears to arrange a divorce. As majority shareholder of the Washington Post he concocted a plan to buy Katharine’s smaller share of stock with Post money. She decided, however, that she was not about to lose both her husband and the paper. The problem was soon to resolve itself. On weekend leave from hospital in the summer of 1963, and after lunch with his wife, Philip Graham went to a bedroom and shot-himself. President Kennedy attended the funeral.

In the second half of this immensely readable, if unduly long, book Katharine Graham describes how she set about remaking her life. She had had a luxurious childhood, had worked as a reporter on a San Francisco tabloid, had married at 22 and had given up work to have children, of whom there were four. She had been brought up to defer to men, a habit her husband had encouraged, often putting her down in public. She had not objected when her father gave the Post to Philip, leaving her as a minority shareholder. Now 46, and feeling thoroughly inadequate, Katharine inherited the company. She repelled all would-be buyers, seeing herself as a trustee until her children could take it over: that she would take an active part in its management did not occur to her. It was a friend, Luvie Pearson, who gave her the confidence she lacked by insisting that she was perfectly capable of running the whole company herself. ‘Of course you can do it,’ Pearson said. ‘You’ve got all those genes. You’ve been pushed down so far you don’t recognise what you can do.’

At the Post there were strains. The new owner made mistakes, and worried about them too much. Not all senior staffers, especially on the business side of the paper, liked working for a woman. On policy issues she was inclined to defer to her editors. During the Presidential campaign of 1964, for instance, Mrs Graham was tempted to reverse her paper’s traditional policy of apparent neutrality and give its formal endorsement to Lyndon Johnson. The editors objected. But when she denied him an endorsement at a meeting Johnson was so visibly hurt that she hastened to assure him that her paper was 100 per cent on his side – a remark that Post editors present took as confirming their belief that the boss had much to learn.

Katharine Graham’s relationship with Johnson was affectionate and occasionally stormy, depending on events and the mercurial President’s mood. Tape recordings of phone calls kept in the Lyndon Johnson Library archives show that during his first week in office, feeling that Kennedy’s former aides were treating him as an interloper, Johnson turned to his old friend Kay for comfort and reassurance. Within a year his calls dried up. The cause of the break was the war in Vietnam. Under Philip Graham the paper had backed America’s intervention and its editor, Russ Wiggins, was determined that its support should continue. Post reporters were filing increasingly critical despatches from the front, however, and the publisher’s son, Don Graham, serving in Vietnam with the First Cavalry division, was arguing perceptively in his letters home that Johnson and McNamara were clinging to policies they knew to be bad because it was impossible to reverse them without admitting to major errors of judgment. Friends such as Senator Fulbright and Walter Lippmann, as well as a growing number of readers, were urging Mrs Graham to change her paper’s policy, while the President was using his principal aide, Jack Valenti, to bombard her with protests against the Post’s coverage of Vietnam. (Years later, in his memoirs, Valenti wrote that Katharine Graham, ‘a thorough-going professional who does her homework and knows her business’, endured his calls ‘wearily and dutifully’, adding that Johnson often used to mutter that ‘if Phil Graham were living it would have been a different kind of Presidency for me’). Gradually, after many months of high tension at editorial meetings, the Post did catch up with American liberal opinion and detach itself from its position on Vietnam. But throughout the Johnson years the paper lagged well behind its chief competitor, the New York Times, the newspaper both Philip and Katharine Graham most wanted to emulate.

In the 1968 election the Post supported Hubert Humphrey. When Nixon won, the paper declared that the new President ‘had fully earned encouragement, good wishes and an open mind’, and that indeed was the mood of most media people in Washington during the first months of his Administration. There was much talk of a ‘new Nixon’. This reporter remembers him giving a reception for members of the White House press a fortnight after he came to power; almost without exception a couple of hundred reporters, many of whom had poured scorn on his character and appearance for years, gazed on the new leader with spaniel eyes, hoping for a handshake or, better still, to be addressed by name.

Nixon’s honeymoon lasted surprisingly long. It was a year at least before most Americans noticed that, far from ending the war in Vietnam, as he had promised he would do if elected, he was trying to win it. But the anti-war movement was growing, and press criticism became harsher. Nixon’s response was to unleash his Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, who launched an attack against the ‘Eastern Establishment élitist press’ and the Washington Post in particular. Katharine Graham began to miss Johnson: at least he stopped short of threats of executive action. Agnew showed no such finer feelings, calling her company – which included Newsweek and three local television stations in Florida – an example of ‘monopolisation in which several powerful voices harken to the same master’. It was the opening salvo in an offensive that lasted until Agnew was indicted on charges of corruption.

There was a minor skirmish when the Post assigned Judith Martin, a writer from its Style section, to cover the White House wedding of Tricia Nixon. Announcing a ban on Ms Martin, who had marked Tricia’s engagement by comparing her with a vanilla icecream cone, a White House spokesman explained: ‘The First Family does not feel comfortable with this reporter.’ The embargo backfired when other reporters, in an unusual act of solidarity, gave Ms Martin their notes, enabling the Post to print a detailed, front-page account of the ceremony.

Of vastly greater significance was a story that broke on the following day, and in which the Washington Post played a supporting role to the New York Times. The Times had obtained a secret study of the origins of America’s involvement in Vietnam, commissioned by Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and known as the Pentagon Papers. Against the advice of its own lawyers, the Times had defied the Government’s attempt to block publication. When the Times was temporarily enjoined by a court from printing the fourth instalment of its series the action moved to the Washington Post. There a heated argument broke out between its editors – who had gone to unusual lengths to obtain their own copies of the study – and the lawyers and business chiefs, who insisted that publication might be seen as defiance of the courts and could destroy the paper, which was at a delicate stage of placing its shares on the market The dilemma was one only the owner could resolve and, though she was fearful of the consequences, Graham sided with the editors, a decision that was vindicated when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of both newspapers and denied the Government’s plea to prohibit publication. Her decision immensely strengthened Graham’s position as publisher; it was also useful preparation for the infinitely more dramatic confrontation ahead – Watergate.

By an intriguing coincidence it was Joe Califano, one of the Johnson aides who had badgered Mrs Graham on President Johnson’s behalf (he was now a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee), who alerted the Post to a police report that five men wearing surgical gloves had been caught breaking into the Party’s headquarters. Nobody, of course, had the remotest idea how far the story would lead. But the Post, with its strong local section, promptly put three reporters to work on the story, including two youngsters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose position on the paper had been, at best, precarious.

From the day the story surfaced until Nixon’s resignation the Post led the way, leaving the New York Times, hampered by slim resources in its relatively small Washington bureau, far behind. Very few American newspapers have reason to look back with pride at their Watergate coverage; until the Senate’s inquiry led to the discovery of the Nixon tapes – long after he had been re-elected in a landslide – many papers were as apathetic as the general public. Among the most reluctant to risk the Government’s wrath were the television networks, the principal source of news for most Americans. CBS waited more than three months before making a serious stab at the story, giving equal time to the Post’s allegations and to White House denials, and then making drastic, last-minute cuts when a Nixon heavy, Chuck Colson, telephoned the CBS president, William Paley.

Colson was having a busy year, simultaneously arranging the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars and orchestrating a campaign, as he put it, to ‘screw’ the Post. White House officials were forbidden to speak to Post employees. Millionaire friends of the President challenged operating licences held by the company’s TV stations in Florida which were shortly due for renewal, a move that caused the price of its shares to fall from $38 to $17. For Katharine Graham, these were nerve-wracking months; her paper was out on a limb and in the aftermath of the President’s re-election the trail had gone cold. But the Post was gathering allies. When John Sirica, a little known federal judge, threatened the burglars with lengthy sentences unless they broke their silence, one agreed to tell what he knew in exchange for leniency.

That first break was a huge relief to the Post, which was suddenly no longer alone. A Senate Committee, with powers of subpoena, took up the baton; after many more months a committee of the House of Representatives voted for impeachment and the President was compelled to resign. In the end, after much whirring and creaking, the system proved itself. Without the persistence of one newspaper, however, such an outcome would have been unlikely – which is why, in this bystander’s view, the honours must go to the Washington Post, to Katharine Graham, who found she was made of steel, and to the dozen men and women journalists who served her by never giving up on the story.