Graham as Boss, from Below
By Rich Thomas
Katharine Graham’s life is best documented in her own book, Personal History, and in Power, Privilege and The Post by Carol Felsenthal. But views of Graham from her underlings are rare. As a business writer in New York and reporter in Washington, and as a speaker or panelist in scores of events promoting Newsweek to advertisers and the influential, I had a privileged, if sporadic, association with Mrs. Graham.
Here’s how she looked from below.
Graham began attending Newsweek story conferences in New York shortly after becoming head of the Post Company in the 1963. I sat in on many of these through the 60s. I never called her Kay. She owned the place and never asked to be first-named. Graham was learning the ropes then. She was incredibly deferential to the all-male top editors. She rarely spoke. When she did, her idea or story suggestion was usually slapped down, often in open derision. They all called her Kay. Wow, I thought at the time. They could never really stop patronizing, even after she made her bones taking down President Nixon in Watergate. They were all eventually fired.
I think Katharine Graham was incredibly smart, actually more intelligent than most people credited. Their error stemmed in part from the lingering bias of sexism and in part from the tense unease in her manner. Her mother’s relentless dismissal of Graham as dumb, untalented and ugly is documented, by Graham herself and especially by Felsenthal. Her insecurities ran deep. To compensate, Graham gradually developed her famous teeth-clenched, jaw-jutting manner of speaking. This may have impressed outsiders but it frightened most of her employees. I envisioned her looking into the mirror every morning and telling herself, "You are Katharine Graham, the most powerful woman in America. Act like it!" Then would she sally forth, chin first. Imperious.
Contact: I connected with Graham on a human level at a luncheon in her office in the Post building in 1970, just months after transferring to Washington. (Mel Elfin, the bureau chief, often sent me to attend in his place if the guest was a businessman.)
About a dozen of us—all men except Mrs. Graham—had just sat down in her office when she popped up and asked what we’d like to drink. I looked around at the ten Post writers and editors sprawling in lounge chairs.
Nobody budged. Mrs. Graham, president of both Newsweek and The Post, took orders and started pouring. This was a year after the celebrated women’s rebellion at Newsweek had exposed the blatant sexism in hiring not only at Newsweek but everywhere else in the press.
I jumped up and offered to help. “Oh, thank you, Rich,” she said. Graham bartended, I passed round the glasses and napkins. My longevity at the magazine traces, I think, as much to that luncheon as to my talents.
Small Talk: Everyone at Newsweek had their own strategy. Graham was hard at small talk. At social events, most editors and reporters seemed to dodge, hugging the walls of the room, hoping they wouldn’t be noticed. I met her a lot and she knew me. So I decided I’d march up to her when she was not occupied with guests, say hello, and try to think of something pleasant. Very soon, in any case, Graham would abruptly turn on her heels, without a word, and walk away. When first experienced, this graceless exit was stunning; like most men, I automatically checked my fly. "Jeez," one thought, "what did I say? Should I get my resume out?" But it happened to everyone. I saw Treasury Secretary Bill Miller and Education Secretary William Bennett at different parties also check their flies after a Graham departure.
My nerves sometimes stuck my foot in my mouth during these cocktail encounters. At one big party for national advertisers at the famous Homestead in Virginia, I asked if her family had not come down here for a week or two every year when she was growing up. This had been standard drill for the Washington rich.
The Cure: “Oh yes,” she said, “we’d come down for a week in the spring and another in the fall,” she said. “It was heavenly. Got me out from under my mother and I had the run of the place. Horseback riding, hiking, tennis, even the Scotch Douch.
“As a matter of fact,” continued Graham, “I came down here for a week only last spring. To dry out. I found myself at 11:30 looking forward to my glass of wine at lunch, and
sometimes even having a second. Out of control. Meg (Meg Greenfield, a Post editorial writer and personal friend) was kind enough to come down and hold my hand. The first days were a bit rough.”
This was information about this particular boss that I really didn’t need. But I tried to engage. “Well Mrs. Graham, I know what you mean. I found myself becoming something of a lush a year ago and had to quit drinking entirely.”
“Oh!” Graham exclaimed, “Oh no! I wasn’t a lush!”
OMIGOD. “No no, of course not, of course not, Mrs. Graham,” I floundered, “I’d never suggest such a thing.”
Graham turned on her heels and walked away.
Party Girl: Giving grand parties for the famous was one way the insecure Graham had of validating in her own high status. No event was more important to her than the Washington Post/Newsweek cocktail party that she personally hosted before the White House Correspondents Dinner each spring. Beat reporters were expected to produce all of the cabinet secretaries and Congressional leaders that they covered. Or else. The 1992 dinner occurred soon after the triumphant end of the first Gulf War. I found Mrs. Graham momentarily alone .
“Good evening, Mrs. Graham, nice party.”
“Rich,” Graham said immediately, “do you know what pisses me off?”
“Uh, no, I guess I don’t,” I said.
“Zuckerman’s got Schwartzkopf,” she said. (Norman Schwartzkopf, of course, was the victorious U.S. commander of the recent war. Zuckerman, publisher of U.S. News and World Report, was throwing a rival party.)
I looked around the huge room, filled with scores of celebrities. “Well,” I said, “There’s the chief of staff, General Powell. There’s Cheney, the secretary of Defense. There’s the vice president. There’s Secretary of State Baker. There’s Bob Dole. There’s Fed Chairman Greenspan. There’s the treasury secretary. They’re not exactly chopped liver, Mrs. Graham.”
“I don’t care,” said Graham. “Zuckerman’s got Schwartzkopf, and it pisses me off.”
Copyright: Rich Thomas, 2012
Rich Thomas served as business writer in New York and chief economics correspondent in Washington from 1962 until 2002.