The Grahams Buy Newsweek
by Milan Kubic
My memory of the Washington Bureau is inextricably tied with a lunch in the Washington Post executive dining room one pleasant day in 1961, shortly after the Post bought Newsweek from the Astor Foundation.
That event made most of us in the bureau uneasy. For one thing, Ken Crawford, our beloved bureau chief, retired to become a Newsweek columnist. He was replaced by Ken’s highly respected Ben Bradlee (who later won prominence as the Post’s gutsy editor during the Watergate scandal), and that was a great consolation. Still, after years of being nurtured by an affluent foundation, the transfer to a profit-making company triggered some tremors.
It was during this period that one morning Ben announced that we’re all having lunch with Phil Graham, a man whose signature was on a framed, $1,000,000 cancelled check that hung on the wall in Ben’s office. The check was Graham’s down payment on the magazine, and Ben got it as a souvenir because he’d helped to negotiate the Post/Astor deal.
Bureau Lunch: The group that assembled at noon in the wood-paneled room next to Graham’s office was small -- the bureau had only eight reporters -- but it included real heavyweights. For example Teddy Weintal, our Oxford-educated diplomatic correspondent, was a former Polish diplomat, a first-rate newsman and a major social figure in Georgetown: A typical Weintal dinner in his house in Georgetown included Christian Herter, Eisenhower's Secretary of State, the very same day he had returned from an official visit to Moscow, which was a major cold war news event.
Sam Shaffer, the bureau's chief congressional correspondent, had covered the Hill longer than anybody else in town, and was one of the Senate's most popular figures. When Hubert Humphrey announced his bid for the presidential nomination, he only half-jokingly added that if elected, he would let Sam use the White House swimming pool.
And Hank Simmons, the bureau’s science reporter, was widely admired for correcting a figures given out during a nationally televised press conference about the first U.S. space shot. Hank checked the data on his necktie clip, which was a miniature slide rule.
But that noon, even my illustrious, and usually highly self-confident colleagues, were, like me, uneasy. Would Graham announce that he’s folding the bureau into the Post? Tell us to feed scoops to the (ugh) WTOP news room? Those were the fears. The hope was that our new boss would say something reassuring. And Graham did, in a way that was typical of his generous nature.
Graham was notorious for his great charm unless he suffered one of his nervous episodes, and on the day of our lunch we were lucky -- he was at his congenial best. Ever astute, Ben Bradlee used the occasion to raise a serious matter: the situation of Tom Streithorst, who was languishing in a jail in Turkey.
Streithorst, Bradlee told Graham, had been very recently hired by the magazine for the Beirut bureau and, to celebrate, bought himself a new Jaguar in London. While driving back to Lebanon, he had a head-on collision with a Volkswagen bus in Turkey in which Streithorst's Lebanese wife was killed. Under the Turkish laws, the sentence for a fatal car accident was nine years in one of the country's abysmally primitive jails. According to Newsweek’s lawyers, it was almost certain that Streithorst would have to pay the penalty.
Spooks: "Now," Ben told Graham who was listening with obvious interest, "there seems to be only one thing we can do for Streithorst, and that's to hire a couple of former CIA spooks in Istanbul. They say they can get him out of jail and put him across the border to Greece."
Ben paused, crunched a potato chip and resumed eye contact with Graham.
"How much?" Graham laconically asked.
"At first, they were talking about $20,000." Bradlee left the figure hanging in the air while he scrutinized Graham's unperturbed countenance. "But after they checked things out
they say they need more." Ben's voice dropped, and there was a moment of silence.
"Thirty?" Graham asked, sounding as if they were discussing the menu.
By the time the back-and-forth ended, Graham had as good as promised to spend $50,000 in valuable 1961 currency to help a brand new staffer he had never met and who had barely started working for a magazine that Graham just bought.
That deeply reassuring generosity turned out to be Graham’s only message at that lunch. It was also the last I heard about Streithorst until two years later, when Fritz Beebe, the Post’s chairman of the board, visited Rio where I was based, and told me the rest of the story.
Graham, he told me, was going to retain as the head of Streithorst's defense team Dean Acheson, the former Secretary of State and author of the Truman Doctrine, who in those years was the planet’s most admired diplomat. But before taking that step, Fritz wanted to see if our ambassador, and some Turkish officials he knew, would know how to solve Streithorst’s predicament.
The fix: Fritz flew to Ankara and, while having these high-powered meetings, he ran into a lowly embassy employee, a Turkish lawyer, who said he knew how to get Tom out of the slammer. Fritz was at first unimpressed, but when the rest of the consultation led nowhere, he told the Turk to go ahead. Whereupon, within a couple of weeks, Streithorst was out of the jail and safely in Greece. He was a lifetime persona non grata in Turkey, but otherwise a free man -- all, Fritz believed, thanks to a few hundred dollars judiciously distributed by the embassy employee.
Incidentally, Tom did not work long for the magazine. He looked me up when I was on my first home leave from Rio and picked my brains about working in South America. He then launched his long career as an NBC television reporter.
Milan Kubic worked for Newsweek from 1958 through 1989.