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Death Notice Guestbook

An Appreciation: Katharine Graham a tough media doyenne who was personally reserved and insecure

Wednesday, July 18, 2001

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- One day long after Watergate, long after The Washington Post had stood up to a president and brought him down, publisher Katharine Graham and her editor, Ben Bradlee, were riding in an elevator after yet another speech.

One of the world's most powerful women, she was nevertheless nervous and ill at ease.

"You did fine, Katharine," Bradlee said soothingly.

She smiled and relaxed as he patted her on the arm. "It never seems to get any easier," she murmured.

Few people have had as much impact on the country as Katherine Graham, who died yesterday at the age of 84, yet she was always shy, uncertain that she deserved her power or fame. Even when her best-selling, 625-page autobiography, "Personal History," won a Pulitzer Prize, she tried to shrug it off as something inexplicable.

While her impact on journalism and history is unassailable, her effect on the standing of women is more clouded. She accrued a legion of "firsts" -- the first woman to lead the Associated Press board, for instance. But although she was a mother and nine times a grandmother, she was for years ambivalent about mothers as power brokers.

"I grew up in the world where women were second-class citizens and, I hate to say, accepted it," she said recently, admitting that for a long time she refused to let Gloria Steinem convince her that she should be involved in the struggle for women's equality. "That's not for me," she said.

Even earlier, she had remarked, "If you want to be a chief executive officer, I don't think you can probably do justice to your home life or your children." But then two years ago, she amended that: "I think women with families are certainly able to do as competent and able a job as women without families. I am sure at least half the women who work and who attain high positions have families."

Katharine Graham became publisher of The Washington Post at the age of 46, stepping up to the task of heading a major media company after her husband, Philip, consumed by mental illness, committed suicide. At one point, he had threatened to divorce her, marry another woman and buy out her share of the newspaper. It was her father, Eugene Meyer, a highly successful investment banker, who had bought the paper in 1933 and who taught her to love the business and craft of journalism.

When Philip Graham took his own life, his widow's colleagues and even her closest friends never expected her to stay long as publisher. But she surprised them all, leading the Post for decades until she thought her son, Donald, was ready for the job, and turning the Post into one of the best and most financially successful newspapers in the world.

To women in Washington, she became an icon but also somewhat of a puzzle -- powerful, well-connected, wealthy and talented but always surrounded by men, in need of their affirmation and instincts and pats on the arm.

She was a tough media doyenne when she stood up to the unions or to former President Richard Nixon. She was a privileged, glamorously dressed, regal socialite, reigning as a hostess over parties that were elegant and envied. But to those who knew her and, finally, to those who read her book, she was revealed as thoroughly reserved and insecure.

In recent years, as she promoted her book and opened herself up to media attention, the woman who started out to prove herself in her father's eyes as a young reporter in San Francisco became more comfortable with public introspection. Along her painful, amazing journey, she had turned into an excellent writer. In chronicling her own life, she helped tell the story of a half-century of American life.

Perhaps Katherine Graham's most significant legacy will be her display of courage in the summer of 1972. While much of the media ignored the Post's burgeoning story about a break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington's massive Watergate complex, she had the courage to let two young, untested reporters -- Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward -- go forward with the story to find a pattern of deceit, abuse of power and chicanery in the top echelons of the Nixon administration. The scandal brought down the president.

But at the same time, the reporting also drove down the stock price of her newly public company from $38 to $16. It could have ruined her beloved newspaper. But the final decisions to move ahead with the stories were hers, and she made them.

Another legacy will be her tenacity. She once said her life as publisher was a series of difficult, overwhelming challenges that she had to face in rooms full of men, and only men.

"And I never got used to it, and they never got used to it," she said. "What I finally learned was that they were as scared of having me in the room as I was of being in the room."

Hard as it was, she stayed in the room.

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