days, the Washington Post was sprawling with eulogies honoring
their longtime chief executive Katharine Graham. Clearly Mrs. Graham
would delight in the outpouring of affection from her many friends
and employees, and perhaps cringe at the excesses, like suggesting
she was like America's Queen. Eulogies are wonderful, unless they
lapse into histories. The thumbnail sketch of Mrs. Graham's Post
life and times serves her very well, but it isn't the whole truth.
Someone looking back at Mrs. Graham and her newspaper's role in
the American political system would want to take a step back from
the legend and seek a broader view. Starting with the Post's
powerful heyday in the 1970s, she was rarely criticized in political
circles, and the praise became intense when her autobiography Personal
History became all the rage and won the Pulitzer. Mrs. Graham
has been almost universally hailed as a paragon of press freedom,
a heroine publisher who allow her editors and reporters to "speak
the truth to power" and survived their enemies' petty attempts to
devalue her media properties. In 1971, she allowed the Post
to join the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon
Papers, a secret government history of the Vietnam War. A year
later, she allowed her staff to expose the Watergate scandal, which
ultimately led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Encouraged by
Mrs. Graham, the Post struck blows for media power
but how was that power used? And for what?
The truth about the Post is different than the myth built
out of Watergate through Woodward and Bernstein books, and the Redford
and Hoffman movie that followed. It was heroic for journalists to
take government off that cornpone pedestal that it always had our
best interests at heart. "Speaking truth to power" meant demystifying
politicians and their high rhetoric and finding the seamy underbelly
underneath. How odd it was, then, that the demystifiers would create
a cult all their own, a balloon of myth no one in Washington would
Despite Posties like David Broder claiming with a straight
face that "there is not enough ideology in most reporters to fill
a teaspoon or a thimble," the truth behind the myth is the Post
was a liberal newspaper with a natural tendency to offer its assets
to Democrats. Before his suicide in 1963, Mrs. Graham's husband
Philip used the newspaper to boost John F. Kennedy, and he even
wrote speeches for Vice President Johnson. That affinity led to
one standard of behavior for Democrats, and another for Republicans.
As Maureen Dowd just remembered in her eulogizing column, Mrs. Graham
delighted in recent C-SPAN airings of Johnson's tape recordings
where she and Johnson flirted over the phone.
Many of the Internet sites offering Katharine Graham quotes include
a 1973 sentence on Watergate: "If we had failed to pursue the facts
as far as they led, we would have denied the public any knowledge
of an unprecedented scheme of political surveillance and sabotage."
But much of what Nixon did, he felt was quite common before him.
"Unprecedented" ignored that Nixon making tapes in the White House
was doing exactly what Johnson did. Nixon was menacing with his
tape recorder, while Lyndon was charming. "Unprecedented" ignored
the bugging of Martin Luther King. It could be argued that "unprecedented"
ignored open political sabotage like LBJ's "Daisy" ad sliming Barry
Goldwater. "Unprecedented" was wrong, and self-promoting, making
the Post "unprecedented" heroes of democracy.
By contrast to all the backstage chumminess with Lyndon, to borrow
from 1990s Post argot, Posties were "unusually passionate
haters" of Nixon. One Post eulogy remembered how much Mrs.
Graham reveled in Attorney General John Mitchell crudely charging
she'd have her "tit in a big fat wringer" if she ran an unfavorable
story. Her colleagues gave her a wringer she kept in her office.
They loved bringing Nixon down. As her longtime executive editor,
Ben Bradlee, said during the eruption of Iran-Contra, "we haven't
had this much fun since Watergate."
Nixon was no conservative's ideal, but all the current remythologizing
of the 1970s begs for a rereading of conservative writing of that
period, like Victor Lasky's It Didn't Start with Watergate.
Reporting was riddled with liberal bias, as documented by Bruce
Herschensohn in his fascinating little book The Gods of Antenna<.
They're hard to find now, but they are an antidote to history as
presented in the self-serving tributes of the Washington Post.
What's missing from that heroic picture is that there were no bold
adventures of bringing down presidents after this. Except for a
few games of dodgeball in Bradlee's Iran-Contra playground, there
were no more courageous battles against wicked White House corruption.
If the early 1970s were the Post's golden era, it vanished
as quickly as it arrived. Mrs. Graham's obituaries sounded like
they were stuck there, much like Green Bay Packer fans spent the
1970s and 1980s remembering the Lombardi years.
Generous eulogies exclude little Post embarrassments of the
1980s, like Janet Cooke's phony "Jimmy's World" series, or Bob Woodward's
improbable deathbed interview with Bill Casey. The Post's
role in endorsing and promoting feckless Washington mayors Marion
Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly didn't make the cut, either. Bill Clinton,
a man who would give Democrats their own Richard Nixon, a man impeached
while proclaiming his victimhood, was rushed into office in 1992
with glowing Post reports with less-than-objective Clinton-Gore
headlines like "Heart Throbs of the Heartland."
Katharine Graham will be missed by many Washingtonians, and many
historians have already found in her a ready-made heroine. But anyone
who's assessing the Post's legacy in American politics ought
to judge the newspaper's history by its contents, not its heroine.