Katharine Graham, who died today at 84, was, for many years, arguably the most powerful woman in America. She was the first woman to be a true media mogul, running The Washington Post Company (which owns NEWSWEEK) for more than three decades. For several generations of public officials and journalists, she embodied the Washington establishment.
SHE FIRST GAINED true fame during the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, when the Post's reporting helped bring down President Nixon. In 1998, her memoir, "Personal History," was a No. 1 best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize. Born to wealth, she grew much richer. The powerful, including presidents and heads of state, sought her company, approval and advice. She was the guest of honor for the most celebrated society event in history, the 1966 Black and White Ball thrown by Truman Capote. She was endlessly honored and feted, and she will be eulogized as a giant figure, a kind of American royalty.
Yet what made her interesting-and truly great-was her ability to overcome her own fear. In her memoir, she writes of being almost paralyzed with insecurity. Dominated by a brilliant but self-dramatizing mother, she grew up doubting her own intelligence, looks and character. When she married Philip Graham, a brilliant Harvard Law grad and Supreme Court clerk, just before World War II, she was "charmed and dazzled," she wrote-and "incredulous" that someone so attractive could want her. Phil, who took over The Washington Post from Katharine's father, Eugene Meyer, and began the paper's climb to greatness, brought "laughter, gaiety, irreverence for rules, and originality" into her life. But Phil Graham was a manic-depressive, and his flights of greatness were accompanied by terrible lows. He began to subtly undermine Katharine's already shaky ego. When Graham shot himself in 1963, his widow had virtually no confidence in her ability to guide her family company or continue her husband's role as Washington power broker.
She was operating in a world that was still essentially male-dominated. Slowly, hesitantly, not always aware of what she was doing, Mrs. Graham begin to challenge the social order. The custom at fancy dinner parties for many years in Washington and elsewhere was for the "ladies" to retire after dinner so the men could talk about important matters. At one dinner party given by columnist Joseph Alsop in the 1960s, Mrs. Graham finally, and at first meekly, rebelled. She was irritated at being banished, she later wrote, because she realized she knew more about the subjects the men were discussing than they did. She told her host that she would rather go home and read than join the ladies in the drawing room. Alsop got the message-and an old and condescending custom was cast away. It was not long before cabinet officials were begging to join the conversation at her table.
The Washington Post had just begun to come into its own in the early 1970s when a pair of young Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, began to uncover serious wrongdoing in the Nixon White House. When the paper began reporting on the scandal that became known as Watergate, Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, crudely threatened Katharine Graham, warning Bernstein that "Katy Graham's tit is going to get caught in a wringer" if the paper persisted in investigating the president. Though the Post was at considerable financial risk-the Post Company had just gone public and the Nixon administration was threatening the Post's television licenses-Graham stood up against the pressure from the White House. (Months later, after Nixon had resigned in disgrace, humor columnist Art Buchwald jokingly give Graham a small bronze wringer. Mrs. Graham later went along when someone suggested enlarging the quote from the paper and putting it on a wall in the Washington Post building.)
A couple of years earlier, Graham had taken an equally principled and courageous stand in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government's secret history of the Vietnam War, despite threats of criminal prosecution by the Justice Department. Widely honored for her courage as a paragon of the First Amendment, she also became an immensely successful businesswoman. Acquiring TV stations, cable companies and other media outlets, she made the Post a well-established Fortune 500 company. Other media leaders turned to her as an example and an inspiration. (When she died, she was attending a very selective conference of media tycoons at which, for many years, she was the only woman.) But though she was a model for the advancement of women for some 40 years, she never modeled herself as a feminist protagonist. She was, to the end, a gentlewoman of the old school, gracious and mannerly. She could also be witheringly funny, able to spoof herself and others.
In spite of-or perhaps because of-her early travails and low sense of self-worth, she was able to laugh at human foibles, including her own. She scoffed when people described her as the most powerful woman in America. But she was happy, and in a way perhaps finally contented, when her memoir won praise not just for its writing and its description of life at the top, but for its great and moving honesty.